Etymology Usage

Did the Costa Concordia capsize or ground?

Q: With this recent cruise-ship accident off Italy, a friend and I are almost arguing over the word “capsize.” My friend insists the ship capsized, but I would say it tipped on its side. Can “capsize” refer to tipping over as well as turning upside down?

A: The Italian cruise liner Costa Concordia rolled on its side Jan. 13 after it ran aground off the rocky coast of Tuscany. But the ship didn’t turn upside down and it was only partially submerged.

Almost across the board, news organizations (including our old boss, the New York Times) said the ship had capsized. Were they right?

Not according to the maritime dictionaries we’ve consulted. To capsize, the dictionaries say, a ship must flip upside down. So while the reporting was thorough, the language wasn’t quite seaworthy.

In this case, it would have been more correct to say the ship grounded or ran aground on a reef and rolled on its side.

The Dictionary of Naval Terms (2005), by Deborah W. Cutler and Thomas J. Cutler, defines “capsize” this way: “To turn over; to upset; as when a boat ‘turns turtle’ (goes keel up).”

The same dictionary, published by the Naval Institute Press, defines “ground” this way: “To run a ship ashore; to strike the bottom. Usually a result of ignorance, violence, or accident.”

(Standard dictionaries says the verb “ground” in its nautical sense has the same meaning as the verbal phrase “run aground.”)

Another source, the Marine Affairs Dictionary (2004), by Niels West, says capsizing is “the complete overturning of a vessel by rolling as it lies parallel to the wavetrains.”

A book designed for litigation lawyers, Successful Personal Injury Investigation (2000), by Francis D. Ritter, has this in a section devoted to nautical terms:

“CAPSIZE: To overturn a vessel. Synonymous with the term to ‘keel over.’ A vessel that has capsized is known to be ‘keel up in the water.’ Capsizing is most often caused by storms.”

Finally, this definition of “capsize” is from The Sailor’s Illustrated Dictionary (2001), by Thompson Lenfestey with Capt.Thompson Lenfestey, Jr.:

“To turn over. Most commonly it means the inadvertent turning over of a boat. To capsize an oil drum is to turn it over, usually to gain access to the bung. To capsize a lifeboat would be to turn it over with the bottom up to prevent rain from getting in it.”

So much for the technical meaning of “capsize.” But what about ordinary usage?

Standard dictionaries, it turns out, are in the same boat as the more technical authorities.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, defines “capsize” as “to overturn or cause to overturn.”

And Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says it means “to cause to overturn … to become upset or overturned … turn over.”

(Both dictionaries, by the way, say “overturn” means “turn over.”)

In short, it’s pretty clear that the Italian cruise liner didn’t “capsize.”

We know that “capsize” was first recorded in the late 18th century but, unfortunately, its etymology is hidden in the past.

Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say about the word’s history: “Origin unknown; apparently originally a sailor’s expression. … The first element may possibly be cap [the noun].”

The OED does mention, without additional comment, a theory proposed by the philologist Walter W. Skeat:

“Prof. Skeat suggests corruption of Spanish cabezar ‘to nod, pitch as a ship,’ or of capuzar in ‘capuzar un baxel, to sink a ship by the head,’ [from] cabeza, cabo head.”

Without a heads up from the OED, we won’t let Professor Skeat have the last word here.

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Etymology Pronunciation Usage

Point counter point

Q: How did “peaked,” an adjective describing a high point, come to be an adjective describing a sickly person at a low point?

A: The sickly sense of the word “peaked” refers to the sharp, thin, pinched features (that is, the peak-like appearance) of someone who’s ill or poorly fed.

This sense of the word first showed up in print in the early 19th century, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest citation comes from an 1809 issue of the publication Transactions of the American Philosophical Society: “We say (in the United-States) of a person whose face is contracted by sickness, he looks peaked.”

The usage was preceded by several similar terms: “peakingly” (1611), “peaking” (1699), and “peakingness” (1727), but these are now considered either obsolete or regional.

However, the colloquial term “peaky” (1823) is still seen quite a bit, though “peakyish” (1853) shows up rarely these days.

“Peaked,” the adjective describing an actual peak, entered English in the mid-1300s. An etymology note in the OED says the adjective apparently comes from the noun “peak,” though the noun didn’t show up in print until the mid-1400s.

By the way, the sickly adjective is usually pronounced PEE-kid and the geographic one PEEKT, though some dictionaries give both pronunciations for both words.

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Pronunciation Usage

Rock the mic … or the mike?

Q: Is there a technical name for when a word is not pronounced as written because it’s a shortening of another word? For example, “mic” would normally be pronounced MICK, but it’s actually pronounced MIKE since it’s short for “microphone.”

A: If there’s a word for this, we don’t know what it is. (But never underestimate the English language. There may be a word lurking out there for just this purpose!)

The phenomenon you’re talking about is common when we abbreviate spoken words. For example, the first syllable of “microphone” is pronounced MIKE, so that’s how we say it when we abbreviate the spoken word.

The actual spellings of these abbreviated words are irrelevant when we say them. But when we write them, those spellings may look odd, so some people respell them to reflect the way they sound.

That’s why we sometimes see the short form of “microphone” spelled “mike” instead of “mic.”

Both spellings—“mic” and “mike”—are given in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

In 2010, the linguist Ben Zimmer wrote columns in the New York Times magazine on July 11 and Aug. 1 about “mic” versus “mike.”

In the first column,  Zimmer wrote that “microphone” is “abbreviated in rap circles as mic, not mike,” but some readers took issue with him, prompting another column on the subject.

The respondents “fell evenly into two camps,” Zimmer wrote in the second column. Some “were unfamiliar with the shortening of microphone as mic,” while others “noted that mic is the prevailing form not just in rap circles but also among recording professionals more generally.”

But the “mike” spellers aren’t unreasonable. As Zimmer pointed out, the short form of “bicycle” is both pronounced and spelled “bike,” not “bic.”

We’ll let him have the microphone for the last word on the subject.

“We do occasionally allow a mismatch between the spelling of an abbreviation and how it looks like it ought to be pronounced,” he wrote. “Vegetable is shortened to veg, and Reginald to Reg, but the final g is not a ‘hard’ one as in peg or leg. So let the musicians and broadcasters have their mic, but as for me, I still like mike.”

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Etymology Usage

Why does “croak” mean to die?

Q: How did “croaking” come to mean dying? Does it have anything to do with the sound a frog makes?

A: People who die are said to “croak” because of the croaking sounds they make on their deathbeds. Here’s the story.

When the verb “croak” entered English in the 15th century, it meant to “utter a deep, hoarse, dismal cry, as a frog or a raven,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The sound could be made by a human as well as an animal.

Although it may possibly be related to an Old English word for a raven’s sound, the OED says, the Middle English versions of “croak” (the ancestors of our word) are probably “later formations imitating or suggesting varieties of animal and other sounds.”

In the early 19th century, the verb took on the slang sense of dying, according to the dictionary. Here’s a citation from an 1873 slang dictionary: “Croak, to die—from the gurgling sound a person makes when the breath of life is departing.”

The noun “croak” entered English in the second half of the 16th century, according to OED citations. Here’s an example of a human croak from Anthony Trollope’s 1861 novel Barchester Towers:

“ ‘I told you so, I told you so!’ is the croak of a true Job’s comforter.”

If you’re in the mood for more, we wrote blog items in 2008 and 2011 about euphemisms for death and dying.

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Etymology Usage

Hyphenated Americans

Q: Does “African American” or “Asian American” require a hyphen, especially when used as an adjective?

A: In writing Origins of the Specious, our book about  English myths and misconceptions, we asked ourselves the same question.

In the end, we (along with the editors at Random House) decided to hyphenate African-American ONLY as a compound adjective preceding a noun (as in “an African-American idiom”).

We decided not to hyphenate it as a noun phrase (as in “African Americans” or “he is an African American”).

This decision, we felt, treats these terms in the ordinary way. A compound adjective is normally hyphenated before a noun (as in “a piece of early-American furniture”) while a single adjective needs no hyphen (“a piece of early Americana”).

We would do the same with “Asian Americans”—omitting the hyphen in the noun phrase, but hyphenating the compound adjective (“Asian-American cuisine”).

But what you decide to do is up to you. Style guides differ on this question. Some do as we do, but some recommend omitting the hyphen in all cases, even in the compound adjective.

This isn’t a matter of correct or incorrect usage. It’s an issue of style and, in the view of some, avoiding offense because of negative associations with the term “hyphenated American.”

Here, for example, is the advice given in The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.):

“Whether terms such as African American, Italian American, Chinese American, and the like should be spelled open or hyphenated has been the subject of considerable controversy, the hyphen being regarded by some as suggestive of bias. Chicago doubts that hyphenation represents bias, but since the hyphen does not aid comprehension in such terms as those mentioned above, it may be omitted unless a particular publisher requires it.”

Elsewhere, in a table giving the Chicago Manual’s hyphenation rules for proper nouns and adjectives relating to geography or nationality, the same advice is given. Examples include “African Americans” and “African American president.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), in its entry for “hyphenated,”  has a usage note that takes a strong position against using the term “hyphenated Americans” for US citizens of foreign origin and their descendants:

“Naturalized immigrants to the United States and their descendants have sometimes been called hyphenated Americans in reference to the tendency to hyphenate such ethnic compounds as Irish-American and Polish-American. This term has come under strong criticism as suggesting that those so designated and not as fully American as ‘unhyphenated’ citizens. It is best avoided in all but historical contexts.”

The Oxford English Dictionary agrees that the expression “hyphenated American” suggests “a person whose patriotic allegiance is assumed to be divided.”

The OED says the phrase originated in the United States in the late 19th century, but the dictionary’s earliest citations are from British sources.

The first published reference, from an 1893 dictionary of slang, has a neutral definition: “Hyphenated American, a naturalised citizen, as German-Americans, Irish-Americans, and the like.”

But the next citation, from the Aug. 15, 1900, issue of the Daily News in London, hints at bias: “My opponents were of the hyphenated variety—Dutch-Americans and Irish-Americans predominating.”

And the next citation, from the Jan. 3, 1904, issue of the Westminster Gazette, is clear about it: “American politics, where men who call themselves Irish-Americans, German-Americans, Dutch-Americans, and so on, are contemptuously referred to as ‘hyphenated Americans.’ ”

In case you’re interested, we wrote a posting a couple of years ago about the terms “African American” and “Black American.”

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Etymology Usage

Cameo appearance

Q: Can you refer to the appearance of an individual in a movie or on TV as a “cameo” if he is listed in the credits under his own name or has a speaking part as himself?

A: Most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked define “cameo” (short for “cameo appearance” or “cameo role”) as a minor part played by a well-known performer in a single scene of a film, play, TV series, or similar work.

But that definition may be a bit too restrictive. The term “cameo” is commonly used for such an appearance by any prominent person, whether a performer or not.

Can the celebrity in a cameo role be listed in the credits? We don’t see why not. Donald Trump, for example, is credited for his brief appearance in the film Zoolander.

And can the celebrity have a speaking role? Again, we don’t see why not, as long as the celeb doesn’t speak a lot. Michelle Obama had a speaking—and dancing—cameo role on the Nickelodeon sitcom iCarly earlier this month.

When English borrowed the term “cameo” from Italian in the 13th century, it referred to a precious stone with two layers of different colors, and a figure carved in the upper layer.

In the mid-19th century, according the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of the word expanded to include “a short literary sketch or portrait.”

And in the early 20th century, OED citations show, this sense was extended to include “a small character part that stands out from the other minor parts.”

Interestingly, none of the OED examples of the usage mention a celebrity appearing in a minor role. But here’s an example from the Jan. 21, 1993, obituary of Audrey Hepburn in the New York Times:

“Her last screen role, in 1989, was a cameo as an angel easing the hero toward death in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Always,’ a role in which the character’s grace and serenity echoed the image Miss Hepburn had maintained throughout a 40-year career.”

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The pedigree isn’t copacetic

Q: I came across the word “copacetic” in the newspaper the other day. My dictionary says the origin is unknown, but it sounds to me as if the word should have more of a pedigree than that. I thought you might be able to add a little.

A: As it turns out, “copacetic” (also spelled “copasetic” or “copesetic”) has a pedigree that isn’t quite copacetic. It’s a word with a fuzzy etymology about which a lot has been written but not much is known for sure.

The adjective “copacetic,” as your dictionary undoubtedly told you, means very satisfactory, fine, or OK. Some dictionaries list it as slang and others as standard English.

The Oxford English Dictionary and the standard dictionaries we’ve checked agree with yours that the origin of “copacetic” is unknown. But that hasn’t stopped people from offering theories about it.

The earliest published example of the word in the OED is from Man for the Ages, a 1919 biography of Abraham Lincoln by Irving Bacheller:

“ ‘As to looks I’d call him, as ye might say, real copasetic.’ Mrs. Lukins expressed this opinion solemnly and with a slight cough. Its last word stood for nothing more than an indefinite depth of meaning.”

The rather vague definition in the final sentence suggests that the word may have been relatively new at the time. We suspect (with no evidence whatsoever) that Bacheller made it up.

Now, let’s look at some of those theories about the origin of “copacetic.”

One suggestion is that it evolved as slang among African-American entertainers in the early 20th century, according to the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins.

The tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878-1949) often used the term and helped popularize it. He even claimed to have coined it when he was a shoeshine boy in Richmond, Va.

However, Mrs. Lukins (the woman quoted in the earliest OED citation) doesn’t seem to be black or an entertainer. She’s described as “a very lean, red haired woman” at a quilting party in New Salem, Illinois, where Lincoln lived as a young man.

Here are a few other theories about the origin of “copacetic,” from Green’s Dictionary of Slang, Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, and other references:

● The source is a Chinook Indian term, copasenee, meaning “everything is satisfactory.”

● It’s hoodlum slang contrived from the phrase “the cop is on the settee” (that is, he’s not paying attention).

● It comes from a Creole French word coupersetique, meaning “that which can be coped with.”

● The source is a supposed Italian word spelled something like “copacetti” (this is from John O’Hara, who used “copacetic” in his 1934 novel Appointment in Samarra).

● It comes from one of two Hebrew phrases, hakol b’seder (all is in order) or kol b’tzedek (all with justice).

What do we think of these theories? We’ll let Jonathan Lighter, in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, have the last, abbreviated word: “orig. unkn.; not, as sometimes claimed, fr. Heb, It, or Louisiana F.”

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Etymology Usage

What do you call a monthly anniversary?

[Note: This post was updated on Oct. 11, 2020.]

Q: Is there a word like “anniversary” for a monthly event? Say, the second monthly whatever of the day I was hired.

A: As a matter of fact, there is. The monthly equivalent of the word “anniversary” is “mensiversary,” a word you can find in at least one standard dictionary.

The British dictionary Macmillan defines “mensiversary” as “a monthly recurring date of a past event, especially one of historical, national, or personal importance; a celebration commemorating such a date.”

So far, Macmillan is the only standard dictionary to recognize the word, though for at least 200 years people have been suggesting “mensiversary” to fill the gap.

Macmillan doesn’t give an etymology for the word. But it was probably formed by analogy with “anniversary,” using “mens-” (from the Latin mensis, for month) in place of “ann-” (from annus, for year).

“Anniversary,” comes from the Latin anniversarius, which means returning yearly. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the Latin word is composed of annus (year) plus versus (turned, or a turning) plus the suffix arius (connected with, pertaining to).

In English, the noun “anniversary” refers to the yearly occurrence of the date of a past event—say a wedding or 9/11 or the Apollo 11 landing on the moon.

As for “mensiversary,” it does indeed exist, but not many people would recognize it as the monthly version of “anniversary.” Now that Macmillan has accepted the noun, perhaps other standard dictionaries will too.

“Mensiversary” also shows up in some Internet dictionaries—that is, in collections of words proposed and defined by Internet users. But it doesn’t appear yet in the OED, which is an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence of use.

The earliest reference we’ve found is from a letter written in 1805 by Sir James Mackintosh: “I always observe its mensiversary in my fancy.”

And we found other passing references to the word in books and journals from nearly every decade since then. So evidence of the word is available if the OED wants to make it “official.”

It appears that some adventurous writers in the past thought that they were making the word up.

In his book Prisoner of War: Or, Five Months Among the Yankees (1865), a Confederate rifleman named Anthony M. Keiley recorded this journal entry for July 9, 1864:

“Today is the first mensiversary of my imprisonment. Any super-fastidious reader who objects to my word-coinage, is hereby informed, that he is at perfect liberty to draw his pencil through the obnoxious polysyllable and substitute therefor any word, or form of words, that will better please him, but I hold it, nevertheless, to be a perfectly defensible creation.”

We think it’s defensible too. There are a a few adjectives that mean monthly, but they’re now obsolete and have been dropped from dictionaries.

One such word is “monthish,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as meaning “of or relating to a month; monthly.”

Two more are “mensal” and “mensual,” but they’re no longer used to mean monthly, either, probably because “monthly” does the job much better. Besides, most people would probably associate them, and perhaps “mensiversary” too, with “menses” (menstruation), and “menstrual” cycles.

[Note: Since this post was originally published, a few of our readers obliged with their own coinages for a monthly equivalent of an anniversary:  “luniversary,” “monthiversary,” and  “monthaversary.”

Here’s one comment: “For what it’s worth, we very commonly used the term ‘monthiversary’ at the life insurance company where I worked for many years.  In the administration of a policy, many transactions occur on the policy anniversary, and many occur monthly (for example, crediting interest, deducting charges).  Formally, you can refer to ‘the same date each month’ or words to that effect, but internally the common expression in the industry is ‘monthiversary.’ It really serves a need.”]

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Etymology Usage

A tad bit picky?

Q: I just heard the phrase “a tad bit” on the radio. I know I’ve heard it before, but it struck me now as a tad bit odd, since “tad” means a very small amount, and a “bit” is also a very small amount. The result is a redundancy that’s parallel to “the most teeny-weenie-est.” What do you think?

A: Aren’t you being just a tad bit picky here? Yes, it’s true that a “tad” means a “bit,” but why not regard “tad bit” as reinforcement rather than a repetition?

The phrase is not formal English, after all, but a folksy and semi-humorous usage. People use “little bit” too, and nobody seems to mind.

As we’ve said before, there’s a fine line between an emphatic use and a redundancy. And we think “tad bit” is the kind of expression in which that extra emphasis can be defended.

Besides, there’s a kind of expression (the writer Ben Yagoda calls it “the salutarily emphatic redundancy”) that is memorable chiefly because of its apparent repetition. A good example is “Raid kills bugs dead.”

We’ve written about this subject several times before on our blog, in discussions of phrases like “first time ever,” “fourteen different countries,” “meet up with,” “face up to,” “try out,” “divide up,” “hurry up,” “lose out on,” and many more that some people find redundant. Here’s a link to one post.

But let’s look more closely at “tad,” an interesting noun. It’s originally and chiefly North American, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and may be derived from “tadpole.”

By the way, “tadpole” is interesting too. It combines the Middle English word tade or tadde (toad) and, apparently, the noun “poll” (head or roundhead.) It was first recorded in the 1400s, the OED says, as “taddepol.”

“Tad” first cropped up in 1845 with a different, unrelated meaning: someone who can’t or won’t pay. But the modern sense of something small was first recorded in the 1870s, when a “tad” or a “little tad” meant “a young or small child, esp. a boy,” the OED says.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that “a tad” came to mean a small amount or, used as a modifier, a little, slightly, or somewhat.

The OED’s first citation is from a 1940 issue of the journal American Speech, in an article about Tennessee expressions. The article said “tad” meant “a very small amount,” as in the sentence “I want to borrow a tad of salt.”

But the expression was obviously around for some time before it caught the attention of language scholars. At any rate, “tad” soon entered the mainstream.

Here’s a 1977 example from the Toronto Globe and Mail: “Things are a tad hectic.”

And here’s a 1980 usage from the New York Times: “The Mayor’s pitch is a tad exaggerated both on the law’s certainty and on the roominess of New York’s prisons.”

While “tad” does appear in some slang dictionaries, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) labels it “informal” and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) treats it as standard.

As we said, “tad” is a noun, but it’s used attributively—that is, as a modifier—in the noun phrase “tad bit.” The noun phrase itself is often used adverbially, as in “Aren’t you being a tad bit picky?”

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Etymology Grammar Usage

Young Lochinvar is come, or is he?

Q: How does the phrase “is come” differ in meaning from “is here”?

A: As we’ll explain later, the verbal phrase “is come” is simply another, and rather antiquated, way of saying “has come.”

And there’s a difference between “he has come” and “he is here.” The verbal phrase “has come” describes movement, while the adjectival phrase “is here” merely describes a person’s whereabouts.

But let’s get back to “is come.” As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the perfect tenses of “come” (that is, those requiring an auxiliary verb) originally had some form of “be” as the auxiliary.

So it was once customary for people to say things like “He is come” and “Why are you come?” and “I am come.” Today we would use forms of “have instead: “He has come” … “Why have you come?” … “I have come.”

Here are some examples of this older usage, from citations in the OED:

“The deuell [devil] is come downe vnto you,” from the Coverdale translation of the Bible (1535).

“I am come to sea, / And left my heart ashore,” from Thomas Heywood’s long poem The Fair Maid of the West (1631).

“The Actors are come hither, my lord,” from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1603).

“O, young Lochinvar is come out of the west,” from Sir Walter Scott’s poem Marmion (1808).

“The curse is come upon me,” from Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott (1832).

And, of course, there’s the opening line of “Joy to the World,” the 1719 Christmas carol: “Joy to the world! the Lord is come.”

Similarly, forms of “be” were used as auxiliaries with verbs like “rise” (as in “he is risen”), “fall” (“the city is fallen to the enemy”), “depart” (“they are departed for London”), “arrive” (“the Emperor is arrived”), and a few other verbs expressing motion.

In modern English, forms of “have” are now used as auxiliaries with those verbs, and the old “be” usages are found only in poetic, biblical, or literary writings.

But we still use “be” as an auxiliary with some verbs of motion, like “go” and “grown.” So today we can say either “he is gone” or “he has gone,” “they are grown” or “they have grown.”

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Etymology Grammar Usage

Would craft

Q: I’ve always been somewhat intrigued by the mildly antiquated, mildly high-brow, somewhat poetic use of “would” in this sentence: “Jeane Kirkpatrick famously condemned the ‘Blame America First’ Democrats; would that she had lived long enough to condemn the ‘Blame America First’ libertarians.” Can you tell me more about it?

A: What you’re describing is a subjunctive usage involving the phrase “would that.” We’ve often written about the subjunctive on our blog, including a posting last September, but we haven’t explained this specific “would” usage.

Your example—from a column by Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review—reminds us of John Kerry’s appearance on The Daily Show when he was running for president in 2004.

Jon Stewart, alluding to Kerry’s wife, an heir to the Heinz food fortune, asked him: “Is it true that every time I use ketchup, your wife gets a nickel?”

Kerry replied, “Would that it were, would that it were.”

Kerry was using the phrase “would that” to express a wish or a desire, which requires an accompanying verb in the subjunctive mood: “were,” here.

Predictably, this rather elevated usage drew some sneers from the other side. If Kerry had wanted to appeal to the populist vote, a simple “I wish!” might have been more effective. But his English was grammatically (if not politically) correct.

The use of “would” in subjunctive constructions is less common these days than the similar use of “wish.” In fact, Kerry could have substituted “I wish” for “would that” (“I wish it were, I wish it were”).

Similarly, you could use either “would that” or “I wish” in examples like these: “Would that [I wish] she were here” … “Would that [I wish] it were over” … “Would that [I wish] I were rich” … “Would that [I wish] Rover were young again.”

In the subjunctive mood, “was” becomes “were,” so it’s easy to identify the examples above as subjunctive usages.

But when the accompanying verb is not a form of “be,” as in that sentence about Jeane Kirkpatrick, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, the use of the subjunctive is harder to recognize.

There, too, the writer could have used “I wish” instead of “would that” (“I wish she had lived long enough…”).

The use of “would” in subjunctive constructions is very old, dating back to Old English. You’ve probably seen in it the phrase “would rather,” as in “My father would rather I be killed than dishonored.”

In older literary usage, “would” was sometimes used alone in subjunctive constructions: “Would she were yet alive!” … “Would I were able to help you.”

And sometimes “that” was used alone: “O that I were with you still!” … “O that she were mine!” In these cases, the “that” clause is the object of an unexpressed wish, so the subjunctive “were” is used instead of “was.”

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Etymology Usage

Let it be

Q: Which is correct: “I have no idea of the year, leave alone [let alone] the day”? I once came across an authoritative position on this, but I can’t remember the authority or, more importantly, what was authorized. I sure hope you can help.

A: The common idiomatic usage in both the US and the UK is “let alone,” not “leave alone,” so the sentence should read: “I have no idea of the year, let alone the day.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, however,  that “leave alone” is occasionally seen in British English, where it “seems to be only a rather rare variant.”

Merriam-Webster’s says the phrase “let alone” is being used in this case “as a conjunction to introduce a contrasting example for purposes of emphasis.”

In sentences with “a negative construction or negative overtones,” the usage guide adds, the phrase means something like “much less.” In positive contexts, the meaning is close to “not to mention” or “as well as.”

(We briefly discussed “let alone” and similar constructions in a posting several years ago about the expression “not to mention.”)

The Oxford English Dictionary, which has examples of the usage dating from the early 19th century, says “let alone” is being used here colloquially in the sense of “not to mention.”

The earliest citation in the OED is from an 1812 short story by the Anglo-Irish writer Maria Edgeworth: “I didn’t hide, nor wouldn’t from any man living, let alone any woman.”

We’ll end this with an example from an 1816 letter by Jane Austen to her sister, Cassandra, that apparently refers to two of their six brothers:

“He does not include a maid in the list to be accommodated, but if they bring one, as I suppose they will, we shall have no bed in the house even then for Charles himself—let alone Henry. But what can we do?”

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Etymology Usage

The nouning of “remit”

Q: I recently read an English-language report from Israel about the creation of a government team whose “remit” was to recommend ways to deal with ultra-Orthodox extremism. This use of “remit” as a noun is new to me.

A: The Oxford English Dictionary describes this use of “remit” as chiefly British. If you’re an American, that may explain why it’s unfamiliar to you. A bit of googling suggests, however, that it’s not uncommon among English speakers in Israel.

The OED defines the meaning of the noun that caught your eye as “a set of instructions, a brief; an area of authority or responsibility.”

Although this sense of the word is relatively new (it first showed up in the 19th century), the noun “remit” has been around in one form or another since the 15th century.

In Scottish English, according to the OED, it used to refer to a pardon or remission, but that meaning is now considered obsolete.

It’s still used, though, in Scotland for the referral of a matter to another person or authority for settlement. It’s also still used for the transfer of a case from one court or judge to another. And in New Zealand, a “remit” is an item submitted for consideration at a meeting, conference, and so on.

The word “remit” entered English in the 14th century as a verb meaning to give up a right or claim. The source is the Latin remittere (it means, among other things, to send back a person or a reply).

The English verb has had many meanings over the years, including to forgive a sin, to pardon, to abandon, to send back to prison, to transfer someone from one court to another for trial, and of course to send or transfer money.

We suspect that the sense of “remit” you asked about (the noun meaning an area of authority) reflects the Scottish noun for referring a matter to someone or some authority for settlement.

The Scottish usage first showed up in 1650, according to OED citations, but the use of the noun in the sense that caught our eye didn’t appear until more than 300 years later.

The earliest citation in the dictionary for the newer usage is from an 1877 book by William Alexander, a Scottish writer, about rural life in the 18th century: “Mr. Wight does not appear to have considered it within his remit to offer remarks in detail upon the state of the roads.”

Although this usage isn’t seen often in the United States, it does show up from time to time.

In fact, the latest OED citation for this sense of the noun is from the June 22, 2006, issue of the New York Review of Books: “Even their generous remit wouldn’t allow them to include the dictionary entire.”

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Grammar Usage

A fish story

Q: I always thought that “fishes” was not a word. But a couple of weeks ago I read that either “fish” or “fishes” can be used in the plural form. Is this correct and which do you prefer?

A: That’s true. Both “fish” and “fishes” are legitimate plurals, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.)

These two standard dictionaries don’t differentiate between the two plurals, but we’ve noticed that in modern usage “fishes” is less common and used mostly to refer to more than one species of fish.

For example, the Oxford English Dictionary quotes this passage from the Encyclopedia Britannica (1957): “Most of these [temperate-water] fishes … are not good candidates for domestic fish tanks.”

Here’s another example we found on a scientific website: “Sturgeons and paddlefish are of the order Acipenseriformes, an ancient order of fishes.”

But unless you’re a marine biologist or a tropical-fish hobbyist, you probably use the plural “fish” in all cases, whether speaking of two brown trout or a brown trout and a striped bass.

Speaking of aquatic vertebrates, we recently posted an entry to our blog about the origin of the expression “sleeps with the fishes.”

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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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Thundering in the index

Q: By any chance do you know the context in which the phrase “thundering in the index” is, or was, used? And just what does it mean?

A: The verbal phrase “thunder in the index” means to give something a big build-up, and it apparently has its origins in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, written in the late 1500s or early 1600s.

In Act III, scene 4, Hamlet rages at his mother, and Queen Gertrude asks him what she’s done that warrants such heated language: “Ay me, what act, / That roars so loud, and thunders in the index?”

The word “index” once had the meaning, now obsolete, of a preface or prologue. So the Queen is asking what act of hers was so horrible as to deserve such a scathing introduction.

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t discuss the expressions “thunder in the index” or “thundering in the index,” and it doesn’t have any published references for them.

But since the 1300s, the OED says, the verb “thunder” has meant “to speak in the way of vehement threatening or reproof; to utter terrible menace or denunciation.”

Similarly, the noun “thunder” had been used figuratively to mean “threatening, terrifying, or strongly impressive utterance; awful denunciation, menace, censure, or invective.” In other words, a royal harangue.

So these uses of “thunder” would have been familiar to Shakespeare.

In most of the examples we’ve found of “thunder in the index” or “thundering in the index,” the thundering is more public relations than anything else.

When used today, to “thunder in the index” means to make a lot of noise about something—either pro or con—in advance of its appearance.

Unlike many Shakespearean expressions, this one isn’t that familiar now, though it wasn’t unusual in the literary writings of a hundred years ago.

Here’s how it was used in an 1897 issue of The Nation: “The first number of Literature, bearing in this country the imprint of the Harpers, does not offend by thundering in the index—unless the clatter of the hoofs of the steeds in Mr. Kipling’s poem, ‘White Horses,’ be taken for thunder. Apart from this poem, and Mr. Birrell’s not very striking paper on criticism, this initial number has no showy bid to make for public favor.”

Here’s another example, from a 1911 issue of the journal Iron Age: “In matter and manner the Government’s petition reads more like a political campaign document than a pleading in a case involving momentous issues. Its recklessness of statement, its ‘thundering in the index’ lead one to doubt at times whether it is intended to be taken at par.”

Finally, an Oct. 3, 1915, review in the New York Times of the book Walks About Washington says the author, Francis E. Leupp, “does not thunder in the index, for as you read on you get the impression of a ramble through some quiet Southern city.”

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Etymology Usage

Intensive care

Q: When I told a friend that a test I took was very “intensive,” she insisted I should have said “intense.” What’s the difference and which one is appropriate?

A: Either word might have been appropriate, depending on how you found the test.

If you found it “intense,” then it was stressful, demanding, and perhaps nerve-wracking.

If you found it “intensive,” then it was highly concentrated and covered a lot of territory in a short period.

Of course an “intensive” exam might also be “intense.”

The adjectives “intense” and “intensive” are ultimately related to the Latin verb intendere, meaning to stretch or strain. Although they overlap quite a bit, they’re not always interchangeable.

“Intense,” which came into English around 1400, still retains that etymological sense of stretching or straining, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

So we might describe a high-strung meeting (one that’s a strain) or a meeting that requires a lot of mental effort (one that makes us stretch) as “intense.”

Although “intensive” entered the language 125 years later with some of the same senses as “intense,” we generally use it now to describe something that’s highly concentrated or forceful.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has a good explanation of how these adjectives can differ. We’ll quote the dictionary’s usage note below, adding paragraph breaks for readability:

“The meanings of intense and intensive overlap considerably, but the two adjectives often have distinct meanings.

“Intense often suggests a strength or concentration that arises from an inner disposition and is particularly appropriate for describing emotional states: ‘He wondered vaguely why all this intense feeling went running because of a few burnt potatoes’ (D.H. Lawrence).

Intensive is more appropriate when the strength or concentration of an activity is imposed from without: ‘They worked out a system of intensive agriculture surpassing anything I ever heard of, with the very forests all reset with fruit- or nut-bearing trees’ (Charlotte Perkins Gilman).

“Thus a reference to Mark’s intense study of German suggests that Mark engaged in concentrated activity, while Mark’s intensive study of German suggests the course Mark took was designed to cover a lot of material in a brief period.”

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Linguistics Pronunciation

Our word for the day

Q: I grew up in rural Indiana and I’m accustomed to hearing “our” sound like “are” instead of “hour” (the way I say it). But I now hear the “are” pronunciation from many celebrities, even Hillary Clinton. Is this getting more common or am I overly sensitive?

A: We think you’re being overly sensitive to something you’ve only recently noticed.

The word “our” can properly be pronounced either way, according to both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and the Oxford English Dictionary.

In standard American pronunciation, these dictionaries say, the vowel in “our” can sound like the one in “mop,” or it can be a diphthong like the one in “out.” (A diphthong is a gliding pronunciation in which two sounds merge.)

But the lexicographers at The American Heritage of the English Language (5th ed.) take a narrower view. Their pronunciation key gives only one pronunciation, the one like “out.”

In our opinion, Merriam-Webster’s and the OED are right, and both pronunciations are legitimate. In Iowa, where Pat was born, and in other parts of the Midwest, particularly in rural areas, one is much more likely to hear “our” pronounced like “are” than like “hour.”

So the “are” pronunciation is not new or unusual, and it’s no surprise to us that you’re hearing it in the mouths of well-known speakers.

It’s our guess that you only recently became aware of this pronunciation, and now you seem to hear it everywhere.

There’s a name for this phenomenon: the “recency illusion.” The linguist Arnold Zwicky came up with the term, which he has defined as “the belief that things YOU have noticed only recently are in fact recent.”

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Orientation day

Q: I’m a college administrator who deals with student orientation, which brings me to my question: Doesn’t “orientate” mean to face the east?

A: Etymologically, you’re right, but words have a way of straying from their original orientation.

The verb “orientate” first showed up in the mid-19th century with the meaning to “turn or face towards a specified direction; spec. to turn to the east,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Later in the 19th century, it came to be used figuratively in the sense of to put oneself “in the right position, esp. in relation to unfamiliar surroundings; to give direction to, guide; to tailor or adapt to specified circumstances.”

Still later in the century, the OED says, it took on the sense of to “align or position something relative to the point of a compass or some other specified position.”

The OED suggests that “orientate” may “perhaps” be a back formation from the noun “orientation.” (A back formation is a word formed by dropping a real or imagined part from another word.)

The noun “orientation,” in turn, was derived from the 18th-century verb “orient.”

The foundation for all these words is the noun “orient,” first recorded in the works of Chaucer in the late 14th century. It originally meant a region situated to the east.

Thus, the verb “orient” (first recorded in 1728) originally meant “to place or arrange (a thing or a person) so as to face the east,” according to the OED.

The more general senses of the verb “orient”— including “to position or align (a structure, etc.) with, or in a particular way relative to, the points of the compass, or other specified points,” or “to turn towards a specified point or direction”—developed from the middle to the late 19th century.

The OED notes that “orientate” is “more commonly used in British English than orient, while the latter is the more frequent of the two in American English.”

The dictionary adds that “orientate is commonly regarded as an incorrect usage in American English.” We wouldn’t go that far, but the older and more straightforward “orient” is generally preferred in the United States.

In case you’d like to read a bit more, we wrote a brief posting quite some time ago about “orient” and “orientate.”

[Note: We had a post on Jan. 20, 2020, about “disoriented”and “disorientated.”]

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Etymology Usage

A rhetorical question

Q: Like any teenager, my 15-year-old daughter has a ravenous appetite and will invariably have a hot dog as a snack after school. When she got home the other day, I asked her if she wanted one and she replied in the emphatic affirmative. “Does this surprise me?” I said to her. “No, why should it?” she replied. “It was purely a rhetorical question,” I said. Now comes the crux. She said a proper rhetorical question would have been phrased with “should” rather than “does.” What is your take on this?

A: The form of the question doesn’t really matter. A rhetorical question, no matter how you phrase it, is one “to which no answer is expected, often used for rhetorical effect.”

That definition is from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), and it’s pretty much the same in other dictionaries.

The adjective “rhetorical” in the phrase is defined this way in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Designating a question asked only to produce an effect or make a statement, rather than to elicit an answer or information.”

In other words, when you ask a rhetorical question—like “How was I supposed to know it was loaded?” or “Am I supposed to eat this?”—you’re not asking for information. You’re using what sounds like a question in order to make a point.

Published references in the OED indicate that the phrase “rhetorical question” first showed up in English more than 300 years ago.

The dictionary’s earliest example, dating from sometime before 1686, is in a political pamphlet written by the First Earl of Anglesey: “To this Rhetorical Question the Commons pray they may Answer by another Question.”

A 1721 religious tract written by Robert Manning offers an illustration of the phrase as well as the question used for rhetorical effect:

“But, to turn your fine Rhetorical Question upon yourself, cannot you enjoy the Advantages you have over impenitent Sinners, and the Devils without Damning them all to the Pit of Hell for ever?”

Rhetorical questions themselves have been around a lot longer than the English phrase “rhetorical question,” since they were familiar to orators in ancient Athens and Rome. The Greek term for a rhetorical question was erotema, and the Latin term was interrogatio.

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Grammar Usage

Whom dunnit

Q: I think Pat should reconsider the reasoning behind her reply last month on the Leonard Lopate Show to a question from a caller about “who” versus “whom.”

A: The WNYC caller, identifying herself as Meg from Larchmont, asked Pat about the wording of a holiday greeting that summed up a year of travels and visits: “Joy is where we have been … and love is who we have seen.”

The question: Should the second part read, “love is who we have seen” or “love is whom we have seen”?

Pat’s initial response was that the object pronoun “whom” would be grammatically correct, but that “who” was more idiomatic, and perhaps preferable in a casual format like a greeting to family and friends.

The caller then reminded Pat of the verb here—“is.” Traditional grammar calls for the nominative case (a subject pronoun, like “who”) after a form of the verb “be.”

So it seemed after all that the choice of “who” was correct, not just idiomatically but formally as well.

Pat agreed with her, but she spoke too fast (one of the perils of live radio). The question required more than a split-second response.

To make a long story short, “whom” is technically correct. You’re right and Pat was wrong. But we think “whom” is a bit fussy for an informal greeting to family and friends. We see nothing wrong with using the technically incorrect “who” here.

This kind of construction confuses people—even language mavens—because it places the pronoun between two clauses: (1) “love is …” and (2) “… we have seen.”

Which clause should determine the case of the pronoun? Should we choose the nominative “who” (prescribed by the verb “to be”), or the accusative “whom” (as the object of the verb “have seen”)?

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says that in sentences like these the “pronoun is often drawn toward both the nominative and objective forms by reason of its different relationships to the preceding and following parts of the sentence.”

To be technically correct, however, the pronoun must be used correctly within its own clause. If it’s the subject of a clause, it should be “who”; if it’s the object of a clause, it should be “whom.”

In this case, “whom” is the object of the clause “whom we have seen.”

If “whom” seems too stuffy, though, one should feel free to use “who” or rewrite the clause: “the people we have seen” or “the friends we have seen” or “those we have seen.”

Thanks for keeping us on our toes.

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Etymology Usage

In search of powting

Q: I recently noticed the term “powting” in a news story that suggested it means doing something illegal while pretending to do something legal. The context was landlords who were engaged in powting to avoid tenants they didn’t want.

A: We could find nothing about this specific use of “powting” or “powt,” either in the scholarly literature, slang dictionaries, or on the Internet.

Most of the Google hits were mistaken spellings of “pouting” and “pout,” as in sullen or seductive lips. So we’ll assume that this is a spontaneous slang usage that will either catch on or die out.

But verbs written as “powt” and “powter” have had other meanings, probably unrelated to the one you’ve noticed.

For example, Green’s Dictionary of Slang (Vol. 3) has an entry for a verb spelled variously as “powter,” “polter,” or “poulter.” It has two meanings—“to work carelessly” and “to potter about.” The word is Scottish but originated in Ulster, according to Green’s.

We found similar words in several 18th- and 19th-century dictionaries, some of them devoted to archaic and provincial words. The verb “powt” has been defined as meaning to poke, to stir a fire, or to feel around in the dark.

And in an apparent extension of those meanings, some dialect dictionaries say, the verb has also meant to malinger on the job. (We can understand the connection here, from poking in a literal sense to aimlessly poking around.)

Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary (1896-1905) says “powt” meant “to move the hand uncertainly as a person working in the dark,” as well as “to set to work aimlessly, slowly or unwillingly.” And Wright defines the participial adjective “powting” as “unskilful and slow at work; harassed by poverty and hard labour.”

John Jamieson’s Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1825) says the verb “powt” meant “to make short and as it were convulsive motions with the hands or feet.” Similarly, Jamieson says, the noun “powt” was “a short and kind of convulsive motion. … Perhaps from Fr. pat, paute, the paw or foot.”

Jamieson defines the verb “powter” as meaning both “to rummage in the dark” and “to do little easy jobs.” That latter meaning, he says, “seems merely a secondary sense of Pouter, to poke.”

But rather than rummage in the dark we’ll leave it at that. We’ll just add that there’s probably little or no connection between the “powt” that meant to work slowly and the one you came across that apparently means to do something illegal. But that last one could easily land someone in the pokey.

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Pronunciation Usage

Dog daze

Q: Help! My wife thinks “dog” and “log” rhyme. Our astute children agree with me that they do not. I have a neutral American accent and say “dog” with more of an “awe” sound. I look forward to your input.

A: Most standard dictionaries give only two pronunciations for “dog”—the same ones, more or less, that you AND your wife use.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, say the vowel in “dog” sounds either like the one in “paw” or like the one in “pot.”

But, as with a great many words, the actual pronunciation of “dog” varies much more widely in different regions of the US.

A cursory look at some of the research shows that linguists have identified at least four different vowel sounds in “dog,” and that pronunciations can vary even within a state or part of a state. We’ve noticed this within our own experience too.

Pat, who’s from Iowa, pronounces “dog” much the way your wife does, with an open “o” that more or less rhymes with the one in “log.”

Stewart was born in New York City, and his pronunciation of the vowel is closer to “awe,” with a distinct diphthong or gliding sound.

A neighbor of ours is from Louisiana, and in her pronunciation of “dog” we can almost hear a long “o,” similar to the one in “toad.”

And finally, some friends in Chicago pronounce the word almost as if it were spelled “daag.”

The analogies we’ve given here aren’t exact, but are rough approximations. Don’t think that any of these are mispronunciations. They’re just local accents. It’s a big country, and regional variations help keep things interesting!

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Etymology Slang

By cracky!

Q: Thanks for all the info on “by George!” and those other “g” words that stand in for “God.” It still doesn’t cover “by cracky,” and you can only push God so far. I ought to know!

A: Guess what? The exclamation “By cracky!” is also a euphemistic oath, a milder version of “By Christ!”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang (Vol. 1) says there are many versions of this expression, spelled “crackey,” “crackie,” “crikey,” “crikes,” “criminy,” and so on (often without the preposition “by”).

The earliest published reference for the usage in Green’s is from the June 15, 1830, issue of the Painesville (Ohio) Telegraph: “Oh! Crackee what luck!”

The first example of “cracky” spelled with a “y” is from a fictional sketch in the Nov. 10, 1849, issue of Spirit of the Times, a now-defunct weekly in New York City: “Cracky! Didn’t he travel!”

And the first citation for the exact phrase you asked about is from Harold Frederic’s 1887 novel Seth’s Brother’s Wife: “By Cracky!” cried Zeke Tallman himself, “don’t it beat natur’!” (We’ve gone to the original to expand on the quotation.

From the examples in Green’s as well as those in the Dictionary of American Regional English, the expression seems to have originated in the US.

DARE, whose most recent citations are from the Northeast in the late 1960s, adds: “Not extremely common. Probably rarely used now.”

Green’s also has an entry for a different sense of “cracky”: eccentric or mentally unstable (that is, cracked). The slang dictionary says this usage originated in Australia.

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Etymology Grammar Usage

A sin in syntax?

Q: You say there’s no grammatical rule against putting “me” first in a phrase like “between me and you,” but a Grammar Girl guest writer says otherwise. Who’s right? Just looking for the facts (on the Internet of all places).

A: Let us reiterate this. There is no grammatical foundation for the belief that “I” (in a compound subject) or “me” (in a compound object) must be mentioned last. The order in which the pronouns appear is irrelevant from a grammatical standpoint.

As we’ve said in blog postings in 2011 and 2008, this may be a matter of politeness but it has nothing to do with any formal rule of English syntax (that is, word order).

Certain constructions come more naturally than others. A sentence like “You and I ought to meet more often” seems more natural than “I and you ought to meet more often.” Some linguists argue that putting “I” first here is phonologically awkward.

That’s because we customarily mention first the person we’re addressing: “You and I …” or “You and he….”

But we also say things like “I and my entire family owe the school a debt of gratitude.” And we might say, “I or my associate will get back to you,” to stress that the first option is the more likely.

It’s often the case that the speaker wishes to emphasize himself or herself, and this is perfectly legitimate.

Historically, English writers have used first-person pronouns in the first position for centuries. Here are a only few of the hundreds of citations in the Oxford English Dictionary for compound objects beginning with “I and….”

before 1300: “I and mi wijf” [my wife]

1382: “I and the fadir [father] that sent me”

1385 “bothe I and ye”

1386: “I and thou and sche [she]”

1387: “I and thow [thou] be here allone”

1439: “I and myne airis” [my heirs]

1440: “I and al my kin”

The examples go on and on, right up to the present time. And there are hundreds more for compound objects beginning with “me and….”

So much for the historical record. How about the grammatical record?

As the linguist Katie Wales writes in her book Personal Pronouns in Present-Day English (1996), there’s “not a grammatical rule, but a politeness rule, which stipulates that the 1PP [first person pronoun] should occur at the end of the co-ordinated NP [noun phrase], out of modesty.”

The “politeness rule” she mentions was set out in 1985 in A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Randolph Quirk et al.), which refers to “the rule of politeness which stipulates that 1st person pronouns should occur at the end of the coordinate construction.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language refers to this “ordering tendency” as “a convention of politeness.”

There’s nothing wrong with politeness and modesty in English usage. (A little tact comes in handy, too.) But let’s not confuse good etiquette with good grammar.

Emily Post might have rapped your knuckles for putting “me” first, but Henry Fowler probably wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow.

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Pronunciation Usage

Historic article

Q: I cringe when a politician or news anchor uses “an” in front of “historic.” I was taught to use “an” before an “h” word when the “h” is silent. Am I right? I think I am, but I’m just a guy who drives the A train in NYC.

A: Yes, you are right. There’s no reason to use “an” before “historic,” unless you pronounce it without the “h” (an ’istoric). After all, we don’t say “an hippie” or “an hysterectomy” or “an hot dog.”

Here’s an example from a usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.): “a historic house.  And here’s one from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.): “a historic occasion.”

The article “an” before a sounded “h” is unnatural in English and in fact is discouraged even by the British. (We regard it as an affectation.)

If you’d like a British authority, here’s an example from the Cambridge Dictionaries Online: “In a historic vote, the Church of England decided to allow women to become priests.”

Of course, it all depends on whether you actually pronounce the “h” in “historic.” Though all the dictionaries we’ve checked recommend pronouncing it, a lot of people don’t. And that’s why “an historic” shows up so much in speech and writing.

For any “h”-droppers out there, the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has this bit of advice: “A number of commentators prescribe a here, but you should feel free to use an if it sounds more natural to you.”

We had a blog entry on the subject a few years ago. And we touched on it sometime later in a posting about British vs. American English.

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Etymology Grammar Usage

Sign language

Q: Why is the OPEN sign in shop windows in the present tense, while the CLOSED sign is in the past? Why not OPENED and CLOSED?

A: The word “open” in this sense is an adjective, not a verb, and the word “closed” here is a participial adjective. So, technically, neither one is being used as a verb in the past or present tense.

In fact, the adjective “open” entered English before the verb, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, which describes the verb as “a derivative of the adjective.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the Old English version of “open” first appeared around 725 in the epic poem Beowulf, but Ayto notes that its roots are even more ancient.

Ayto says the adjective ultimately comes from a prehistoric Germanic word, upanaz, which he describes as “an adjective based on the ancestor of up, and therefore presumably denoted originally the raising of a lid or cover.”

The verb “close” (source of the past participle “closed”) is a relative newbie. We got it in the 13th century from Old French, where close was the present subjunctive of the verb clore (to shut), according to Chambers.

In modern French, the Oxford English Dictionary points out, the verb “clore is of little importance, having been almost superseded by fermer.”

“In English, on the other hand,” the OED notes, “close and its accompanying adj. and nouns have become great and important words, developing whole groups of senses unknown to French.”

Speaking of that accompanying adjective, can we say that a closed store is close? Only if it’s nearby (a sense of the word that developed around 1500).

One last point before we close: our verb “close” is a distant relative of the Latin clavis (key), which has given us “clavichord,” and the Latin clavus (nail), which has given us “clove,” the spice.

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By George!

Q: Who’s George in the expression “By George!”?

A: The phrase is a mild oath or exclamation that had its beginnings in the late 1500s. The word “George” here is a substitute for “God,” as are words like “golly,” “ginger,” “gosh,” “gum,” and so on in other similar euphemistic oaths.

The expression began life as “fore (or for) George” and “before George,” according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary. These were milder versions of “before God,” “fore God,” and so on.

The OED’s earliest example is from Ben Jonson’s 1598 play Every Man in His Humor: “I, Well! he knowes what to trust to, for George.”

The next citation in the dictionary is from John Dryden’s 1680 comedy The Kind Keeper: “Before George, ’tis so!”

The OED’s first “by George” quotation is from a 1694 translation of Rudens, a comedy by Plautus: “By George, you shan’t be a Sowce the better for what’s in it.”

Sometimes, according to the dictionary, “George!” is used by itself, minus all the prepositions. Here’s an example from Archibald Clavering Gunter’s 1888 novel Mr. Potter of Texas: “George! isn’t it horribly lonely?”

In case you’d like to read more, we’ve had several items on the blog about such euphemisms, including a posting a few years back about “gol dang it,” “gosh darn it,” “dag nab it,” and others. (And, as we’ve written on the blog, you can add “For Pete’s sake!” to the list.)

You didn’t ask, but some readers may wonder who the Scott is in “Great Scott!” This interjection, too, is a believed to be  euphemistic, the OED says, a mild form of “Great God!” that originated in mid-19th-century America.

But in this case, the “Scott” was probably real. Evidence suggests, the OED says, that the name inserted into the oath was that of a revered American general, Winfield Scott. As Oxford explains:

“Winfield Scott, Commanding General of the United States Army (1841-61) and Whig party presidential candidate (1852), was a popular national figure in the United States in the mid 19th cent., celebrated as a hero for his role in the Mexican-American War (1846-8).”

The first example of “Great Scott!” cited in the OED dates from an American journal published in 1856. But this 1871 example, from John William de Forest’s novel  Overland, clearly shows the connection with General Scott:

“ ‘Great—Scott!’ he gasped in his stupefaction, using the name of the then commander-in-chief for an oath, as officers sometimes did in those days.”

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 18, 2015.]

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Punctuation Usage

Compound fractures

Q: You recently quoted a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary that uses the word “overtasking.” I initially read this as “overt-asking.” You’ve written before about how a compound often evolves from two separate words, to hyphenated words, to one word. But what about confusing compounds? Do they keep their hyphens to avoid misunderstanding?

A: Yes, some potentially confusing compounds do retain their hyphens to avoid misunderstanding, though “overtasking” isn’t generally considered one of them. Most of these puzzlers begin, or appear to begin, with prefixes.

The prefix “re-” is probably the biggest culprit here. For example, a hyphen can help a reader differentiate “re-creation” (making anew) from “recreation” (an enjoyable activity), and “re-sign” (sign again) from “resign” (quit).

Here are some other examples: “re-cover” (cover again) from “recover” (regain); “re-collect” (collect again) from “recollect” (remember); “re-form” (form again) from “reform” (change); “re-treat” (treat again) from “retreat” (go back).

Other prefixes can be confusing too. A hyphen in the adjective “multi-ply” (having several layers) distinguishes it from the verb “multiply.“ And before cooperative apartments became more common, hyphens were always used in “co-op” so it wasn’t mistaken for the “coop” that chickens live in.

We once wrote a blog entry that touches on confusion over the pronunciation of a word that could perhaps use a hyphen: “biopic” (a film biography).

No, the prefix “bi-“ isn’t there, but the eye might think it is. Maybe “biopic” should have a hyphen after “bio” so it’s not interpreted as “bi-opic,” which sounds like a word for double vision.

Familiar phrases can mislead us too. At a glance, the eye might read the phrase “a fine toothbrush” as “a fine-tooth brush.”

And a writer might want to distinguish between a “small businessman” and a “small-business man,” though we’d probably avoid the confusion by referring to the little guy as a short businessman.

We could give you more examples, but you get the idea. The presence or absence of a hyphen can make a difference, so both writer and reader need to pay attention.

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To hob or hob nob

Q: What is the origin of the word “hobnob” and was it ever spelled “hobknob”? By the way, my maiden name is “O’Connor.”

A: It’s nice to hear from another O’Connor. Actually, Pat’s last name (“O’Conner”) was misspelled somewhere along the way and should be “O’Connor” too.

Etymologically, the verb “hobnob” is believed to have its origins in early versions of “to have or have not,” which seems a far cry from what it now means (to hang out with). How did this develop?

The story begins in the 16th century, with “hab nab” and “hab or nab.”

Etymologists have suggested these phrases represent some archaic forms of the verb “have,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

These are presumably a subjunctive form of the Old English hæbbe and Middle English habbe, along with their corresponding negatives, næbbe and nabbe.

In the 1500s the figurative meaning of “hab nab” and “hab or nab,” the OED says, was “get or lose, hit or miss, succeed or fail; however it may turn out, anyhow; at a venture, at random.”

The dictionary has examples of “hab nab” being used this way into the 19th century.

In the OED’s earliest written example, recorded in 1530, the phrase appeared as “by habbe or by nabbe.”

In 1542, it appeared in a translation from the Apothegms of Erasmus: “habbe or nhabbe to wynne all, or to lese all.”

Published references in the OED indicate that an “o” spelling of the phrase first showed up in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (circa 1601-2): “Hob, nob, is his word: giu’t or take’t.”

The OED says the phrase with the “o” spelling had all the same meanings of “hab nab,” plus “have or have not.”

By the 1700s, various “hobnob” usages had become drinking phrases. As the OED says, these phrases (probably in the sense of “give and take”) were “used by two persons drinking to each other.”

The phrases “to drink hob or nob” and “to drink hob a nob,” according to the dictionary, meant “to drink to each other alternately, to take wine with each other with clinking of glasses.”

Here’s the OED’s earliest citation for a drinking sense, from Samuel Foote’s The Englishman Return’d From Paris: A Farce (1756): “Then … they proceed to demolish the Substantials, with, perhaps, an occasional Interruption, of, Here’s to you, friends, Hob or Nob, Your Love and mine.”

Oliver Goldsmith used the expression this way in his novel The Citizen of the World (1762): “Hob nob, Doctor, which do you chuse, white or red?”

In 1761, “hobnob” was used as a noun for a sentiment or phrase (like a “toast”) used in drinking. And in 1763, the OED says, it was first recorded as a verb, meaning “to drink to each other, drink together.”

In its earliest appearances as a verb meaning to drink, “hobnob” was two separate words (“to hob or nob” or “to hob and nob”). And the verbal phrase persisted in that form through much of the 19th century.

But in the 1820s, people also began using a combined form, “hob-nob” or “hobnob.” And that’s also when “hobnob” acquired the meaning it has today—to associate familiarly, to be on familiar terms, and so on.

As for “hobknob,” the spelling you asked about, we can’t find any authoritative example of it, though not surprisingly it’s alive and well on Google (along with “hob-knob” and “hob knob”).

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Etymology Pronunciation Spelling

Why is “t” often silent?

Q: I teach English at a high school in Wyoming. I was looking to justify my abhorrence of the word “oftentimes,” and I came across your piece about pronouncing the “t” in “often.” I usually point out to my students that we don’t pronounce it in “soften,” “hasten,” and “fasten,” so why do it in “often”? Do you have a good explanation?

A: The short answer is that the “t” in many words is silent because it’s too difficult or awkward to pronounce and has become assimilated into the surrounding consonants.

Let’s start with a little etymology. Some verbs with silent “t”—like “soften” and “moisten”—were created when the suffix “-en” was added to an earlier adjective ending in “st” or “ft.”

In the case of “fasten,” the ending was added even before the verb came into English from old Germanic languages. But the root is still the adjective “fast,” meaning stable or fixed.

A couple of similar verbs are special cases. “Listen” originally had no “t” (it was spelled lysna in Old English), but it acquired a “t” by association with the archaic synonym “list.” And “hasten” is merely an extended form of the old verb “haste,” formed by analogy with the other “-en” verbs.

As we said in our blog posting about “often,” the word can be properly pronounced either with or without a “t” sound. The “t” had long been silent but it came back to life in the 19th century with the rise of literacy, when people seemed to feel that each letter in a word should be sounded.

For some reason this didn’t happen with “soften,” whose “t” is always silent. And in the other verbs we mentioned—“moisten,” “fasten,” “listen,” “hasten” —the “t” is invariably silent, never pronounced. Similarly, the “t” disappears when we pronounce words like “castle,” “christen,” “epistle,” “glisten,” “nestle,” “pestle,” and others.

It’s a good bet that if a word ends in “-sten,” “-ften,” or “-stle,” the “t” will be silent. Why? We found an answer in a paper published more than a century ago.

The article, “On ‘Silent T’ in English,” by James W. Bright, appeared in the journal Modern Language Notes in January 1886.

As Bright explains, the “t” in these words is an acoustically “explosive” one, and to sound it after an “s” or an “f”—both of which expend “considerable breath”—is “especially difficult and obscure.” Consequently the “t” sound is assimilated into its surroundings and becomes silent.

However, the “t” sound persists in some other words spelled with “-stl” and “-ftl,” like “lastly,” “justly,” “mostly,” “shiftless,” “boastless,” and others.

Bright explains that such words “are, with most persons familiar with their use, conscious compounds; as they become popular words, and therefore subject to unstudied pronunciation, they conform to the regular rule. It is only after administered caution that we learn to make t audible in wristband.”

We’ve written before on our blog about silent letters: The thing to remember is that English words have varied in their pronunciations over the centuries. So letters that live on in our spellings may have fallen out of our pronunciations.

And if you’re still bugged by “oftentimes,” you might check out our posting about its history and legitimacy.

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Etymology Usage

Headline news: to err is human

Q: The Wall Street Journal recently had a rather odd word usage in a headline: “L.A. Police Make Arrests, Begin Disbursing Occupy Camp.” Were the police paying the Occupy protesters?

A: Goof indeed! Any copy editor worth the paycheck should know the difference between “disburse” and “disperse.”

To “disperse” is to scatter, strew about, or distribute widely. To “disburse” is to pay out or expend. Big difference!

But to err is human, especially when the human is writing a headline on deadline. Eventually somebody at the Wall Street Journal caught the mistake.

When the story about the Occupy Los Angeles encampment was updated, the headline was changed to “L.A. Police Disperse Protesters’ Camp.” (Of course, we might quibble even here. It was the protesters that were dispersed, not the camp.)

On a related subject, we wrote a blog item recently about the verb “reimburse,” noting that in the 1500s the defunct term “burse” was another word for “purse.”

Not surprisingly, we can also find a purse in “disburse,” which English adapted from the French desbourser in the 16th century. Both “disburse” and “reimburse” ultimately share the same Greek root, byrsa (leather, hide).

Interestingly, the 1623 first folio version of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors uses the verb “dis-pursed,” though the word is “disbursed” in the 1685 fourth folio.

There’s a “perse” in “disperse” too, but it’s no relation, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

English adopted “disperse” in the 16th century from the French disperser (to scatter or break up). The French word was derived in turn from the Latin dispersus, past participle of the verb dispergere (to scatter).

The Latin dispergere, by the way, is made up of the prefix dis- (in different directions) and the verb spargere (to sprinkle or strew), whose past participle sparsus is the source of the English word “sparse.”

We’ll stop now. We don’t want you to think we’re scatterbrained.

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