Etymology Usage


[Note: This post was edited on May 20, 2023, to update information from dictionaries and reference books.]

Q: My colleague and I work in the apparel industry and are designing packaging for socks. I think the packaging should read “6 Pair,” but he prefers “6 Pairs.” Who is right? Or are we both right?

A: This isn’t a black-and-white issue, but our advice is to go with “6 Pairs,” the usual choice and one that no usage expert would quibble with.

That doesn’t mean you’re wrong, though. The plural “pair” can be defended on historical and etymological grounds. And while “pairs” is the only standard choice in Britain, both plurals are standard in American English (though “pairs” is usually the preferred variant).

There are yet other complications with “pair,” since even the singular form, “a pair,” can be the subject of a plural verb.

Since Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I (4th ed.) addresses both questions at once, we’ll go there first:

“If you’re talking about two separate things (a pair of pumpkins, for example), treat pair as plural: A pair of pumpkins are in the window.

“If you’re talking about one thing that just happens to have two parts (like a pair of shoes), treat pair as singular: One pair of shoes is black. But add another pair and you have multiple pair or pairs; either plural is fine: Two pair [or pairs] are brown.”

And here’s a British reference, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.):  “The pl. form pairs is desirable after a numeral (e.g. seven pairs of jeans). The type seven pair of jeans is non-standard in BrE but standard in AmE.”

British dictionaries agree: the standard plural is “pairs” in the UK, period. But nearly all dictionaries, in both the UK and the US, say that both plurals are standard in American English, with “pairs” preferred.

Merriam-Webster Online gives the plural as “pairs also pair,” meaning that “pair” is the less common variant, though both are standard.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, also lists both plural forms, adding this in a usage note: “After a number other than one, pair itself can be either singular or plural, but the plural is now more common: I bought six pairs (or pair) of shoes.”

Similarly,, based on the old Random House Unabridged, gives both plural forms and adds in a usage note that “pairs” is “more common” after a number.

So our advice is to take the path of least resistance and use “pairs” in a situation like yours: “Each package contains six pairs of socks.”

As for its etymology, the word “pair” first appeared in English writing around 1300, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. It comes from Old French via Anglo-Norman.

The OED has Middle English citations dating from the early 1400s of “pair” used after numbers greater than one.

In fact, the dictionary says this usage “was until recently frequently used.”

But Oxford labels the “unmarked plural” (that is, “pair”) as “Now regional and nonstandard.”

This may or may not settle the argument. But no one will question the use of “pairs,” so it’s certainly the safer choice.

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Staff memo

Q: I notice that you use the musical term “staff” in your recent post about the word “clef.” Why is it sometimes written “staff” and sometimes “stave”? Is the pronunciation different as well as the spelling? I always use “stave,” but I have no idea why.

A: The nouns “staff” and “stave” have several different meanings in modern English, besides the musical one that they share.

A “staff,” for example, may be a flag pole, the aides to a military commander, the employees of a private or public enterprise, a set of horizontal lines on which music is written, and so on.

A “stave” may be one of the curved pieces of wood used to make a barrel, a stanza of a poem, an alliterative letter in Old English verse, a set of horizontal lines on which music is written, etc.

In music, “staff” (it rhymes with “laugh”) and “stave” (it rhymes with “grave”) mean the same thing, though the term “staff” is much more popular: “musical staff,” 674,000 hits on Google; “musical stave,” 69,700 hits.

The word “staff” is also much, much older, dating back to the early days of Old English. In fact, “stave” originated hundreds of years later as a back-formation from “staves,” the original plural of “staff.” (A back-formation is a word formed by subtracting an element from an older one.)

When the Old English version of “staff” entered the language around 750, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it meant a “stick carried in the hand as an aid in walking or climbing.”

This sense of the word, according to the OED, is now “chiefly literary” (used, for example, in referring to a walking stick carried by a pilgrim).

The musical sense of the word, which developed in the mid-17th century, is defined in the OED as a “set of horizontal lines (now five in number) on which, and in the spaces between, notes are placed so as to indicate pitch.”

In “harmonic or concerted music,” the dictionary adds, “two or more staffs are used together, connected by a brace.”

The earliest written example of this usage (with “staves” used as the plural of “staff”) is from John Playford’s A Breefe Introduction to the Skill of Musick for Song & Violl (1654):

“But for Lessons for the Organ, Virginalls, or Harp two staves of six lines together are required.”

When the word “stave” first showed up in the late 14th century, the OED says, it referred to a curved piece of wood used to make a cask or barrel.

As we’ve said, “staves” was the original plural of “staff,” but the singular “stave” didn’t take on its musical sense until the late 18th century.

The first citation in the OED for the musical term is from a 1786 music dictionary that says the Benedictine monk Guido d’Arezzo (991-1033) “is said by some to have first used the stave.”

The OED lists both “staves” and “staffs” as plural forms of “staff,” but it adds that “staves is now somewhat archaic, exc. in certain senses in which a singular form stave has been developed from it.” We assume the exceptions include the musical usage.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list “staff” as the principal entry for the musical term, and include both “staffs” and “staves” as plural forms of “staff.”

We generally use “staff” for the set of musical lines, but you should feel free to continue using “stave.” They’re both fine.

As for some of the other meanings of “staff,” here’s when they first showed up in print: a flag pole (sometime before 1613); the officers assisting a military commander (1700); the employees of a public or private enterprise (1837).

And here’s when a couple of other meanings of “stave” first appeared in writing: a stanza of a poem (1659); an alliterative letter in Old English verse (1894).

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Punctuation Usage

Just because

Q: I’m in the editing phase of a book and notice that the copyeditor has added a comma before many (perhaps most) occurrences of the word “because.” This seems to halt the flow of the sentences, but I wonder if a rule exists that I’m not aware of.

A: Generally, according to the few usage guides that comment on this issue, a comma is not used before “because.”

The comma is appropriate only when needed to guide the reader through an unusually long or complex sentence.

The conjunction “because” generally introduces a dependent clause, one that adds information to the main clause. The “because” clause provides a reason, cause, or motive—the “why” of the sentence.

Normally, the “because” part flows smoothly from the main clause and no break is needed between them: “He ran because he was a coward” … “They moved because they’re expecting a third child” … “She’s upset because you left.”

However, according to some usage guides, you do need a preceding comma if the clause starts with “perhaps because” or “possibly because” or “but not because” (“He ran, perhaps because he was a coward”).

And you need a following comma, according to these usage authorities, if the “because clause” comes first (“Because he was a coward, he ran”).

You’ll find advice along these lines in Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) and The New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage.

Note that a sentence with a negative verb followed by “because” can easily be misread: “He wasn’t fired because he was late.” Was he fired or wasn’t he?

Do the reader a favor and clarify the situation: “He wasn’t fired because he was late. He was fired because he embezzled money.”

That kind of negative sentence, by the way, can be changed completely if a comma is thoughtlessly added.

For example, these two sentences have opposite meanings: “She didn’t marry him because he was dying” … “She didn’t marry him, because he was dying.”

In the first sentence, she married him—but not because he was dying. In the second sentence, she didn’t marry him—because he was dying.

If the first sentence is what you mean to say, it’s better to rewrite it and avoid the ambiguity: “She married him, but not because he was dying.”

It’s always worth taking one more look at those commas!

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Don’t choke on the pastrami!

Q: I’m shocked, shocked. How could Pat say on the radio that a nice Yiddish word like “pastrami” comes from Turkish? I nearly choked on a hot pastrami sandwich from the 2nd Ave Deli while listening to her on my iPod.

A: It’s true that the word “pastrami” was imported into English by Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants who settled in New York in the late 19th century. So English did indeed get the word from Yiddish.

But how did Yiddish get it? As Pat was saying on the Leonard Lopate Show, the word actually originated in the Ottoman Empire hundreds of years ago. Here’s the story.

The Turks preserved beef by pressing it, curing it with salt and spices, then hanging it up to dry for a month or more. The word for this in Ottoman Turkish was basdirma.

This word basdirma, recorded as long ago as 1602, literally meant “something pressed, forced down,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED says the word in modern Turkish is pastırma or bastırma.

As we know, the Ottoman Empire was far-flung. It extended into Asia Minor, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe. And along with the empire came Turkish foods and the words for them.

Words that sound similar to the Turkish basdirma are known in Arabic, Russian, Armenian, Greek, and other languages.

People in Turkish-occupied regions adopted this meat-curing process and began using it much more widely than the Turks did. In the Balkans, they adapted it not just for beef but for poultry, fish, lamb, goat, and other meats, even camel.

Now we’re getting warmer! The Jews in Turkish-occupied Romania used this curing method to preserve goose and duck breast. Later they used it to cure beef brisket.

What did they call it? They adapted the Romanian word for this dried beef—pastrama—which became pastrami in Yiddish.

Thus the word was passed from Turkish to Romanian to the Yiddish spoken by Eastern European Jews. Eventually, Yiddish-speaking immigrants brought pastrami to America, where it was first sold in Jewish delicatessens in the 1880s.

Still, even into the 20th century, the word was sometimes spelled “pastroma” or “pastrama,” the OED says.

But there’s one way in which modern pastrami differs from the basdirma of the Ottoman Turks—the Ottoman meat was tough like jerky while pastrami is steamed to soften it and make a nice sandwich.

Katz’s Delicatessen, which opened on the Lower East Side of New York in 1888, has claimed to be the first deli to sell a product called “pastrami” in the US. As former neighbors and patrons, we’d like to believe it, but there’s some controversy here.

Romanian Jews were known to be in the city for more than a decade before Katz’s opened, and at least one other deli has also claimed the honors.

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House of wax

Q: I’ve heard a fascinating (or perhaps too fascinating?) origin story about the word “sincere.” In 17th-century France, the story goes, some sculptors used wax to adulterate the metals in which they worked. A sculpture made of unadulterated metal was said to be “without wax”—sans cire in French. Hence the English “sincere.”

A: This is another of those linguistic legends that make etymologists’ hair stand on end. The word “sincere” has no such origin, but the myth, in one form or another, has been causing bad-hair days for hundreds of years.

“Sincere,” first recorded in English in the 1530s, is from the Latin word sincerus, meaning “clean, pure, sound, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first syllable of the Latin sincerus does not mean “without.” As the OED says, it may be equivalent to the first syllable in simplus, in which sim means “one.”

But that old “without wax” myth has lived on—and on and on. We’ve found versions of it dating back to the early 1600s. One of the more recent incarnations comes from Dan Brown’s thriller Digital Fortress (2008):

“During the Renaissance, Spanish sculptors who made mistakes while carving expensive marble often patched their flaws with cera—‘wax.’ A statue that had no flaws and required no patching was hailed as a ‘sculpture sin cera’ or a ‘sculpture without wax.’ The phrase eventually came to mean anything honest or true. The English word ‘sincere’ evolved from the Spanish sin cera—‘without wax.’ ”

Though all the stories claim in the end that “sincere” comes from “without wax,” the details vary widely. Sometimes the people trying to disguise flaws in stone were ancient Greek quarrymen, sometimes Roman sculptors, construction workers, or architects.

In at least one version, the flawed goods were pieces of pottery that wouldn’t hold water unless they were secretly repaired with wax. In another, we’re told that a biblical injunction (“Be thou sincere!”) literally means “Be without wax.”

Yet another version, from the early 1900s, claims that “in the days when they began to make furniture,” dishonest cabinet makers used wax to hide the knots and cracks in inferior wood.

A gullible writer in 1870 passed this one along: “In old times, people used to write notes to each other, and tie a string around them, and seal the ends of the string with wax. When friends were intimate, and open-hearted toward each other, they folded the letter, and, leaving off the string and wax simply wrote the word ‘sincere.’ ” Hence, he wrote, the Latin for “without wax” became the English word “sincere.”

But the oldest versions of the myth claim that vendors of honey in the markets of ancient Rome cried “sine cera” to assure buyers that their honey was pure and free from wax.

Here, for example, is the explanation offered by John Gill in A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity:, Vol. 3 (1796): “The Latin word sincerus, from whence our English word sincere, is composed of sine & cera; and signifies without wax; as pure honey, which is not mixed with any wax.”

And here’s a definition of “sincere” from a religious dictionary published in 1661: “Sincere is that which is without mixture, as hony without wax.”

Believe it or not, there are still other versions, but you get the idea. As the OED says, “There is no probability in the old explanation [from] sine cera ‘without wax.’ ”

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Pronunciation Usage

Biblical commentary

Q: I hear the possessives of “Jesus” and “Moses” pronounced two different ways: with or without an “uz” sound at the end. Are both pronunciations correct?

A: For many years, it was customary to add only an apostrophe in forming the possessive case of a biblical or classical name already ending in a sibilant sound, like “Jesus” or “Euripides.” The final possessive “s” was neither added nor pronounced.

So, for example, the traditional practice was to write “Achilles’ heel” (not “Achilles’s heel”); “Jesus’ sake” (not “Jesus’s sake”); “Hercules’ strength” (not “Hercules’s strength”); “Moses’ commandments” (not “Moses’s commandments”), and so on.

Most style guides still follow that tradition, but the practice is no longer universal. Increasingly in recent years, classical and biblical names have come to be treated more like modern ones—at least in the way they’re written.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), which is widely used in the publishing industry, now recommends that biblical and classical names form the possessive with both an apostrophe and “s,” even if they already end in “s,” “x,” or “z.”

Among the examples given are “Jesus’s adherents” and “Tacitus’s Histories.”

But what about pronunciation? Generally, the addition of the apostrophe and “s” adds a final syllable.

But the Chicago Manual makes an exception for certain classical name: those ending in an “eez” sound, like “Sophocles” and “Aristophanes.”

The editors write: “In a departure from earlier practice, Chicago no longer recommends the traditional exception for proper classical names of two or more syllables that end in an eez sound. Such names form the possessive in the usual way (though when these forms are spoken the additional s is generally not pronounced).”

The “eez” examples given in the style guide are “Euripides’s tragedies,” “the Ganges’s source,” and “Xerxes’s armies.”

So if you were following Chicago Manual style, you would write “Achilles’s heel,” but you would pronounce the possessive name without the extra syllable: a-KILL-eez heel.

However, this wouldn’t apply to a classical name like “Zeus,” which doesn’t end in an “eez” sound. So “Zeus’s wrath,” according to Chicago, would be pronounced with the extra syllable: ZOOSE-uz rath.

Keep in mind, though, that style customs are not written in stone; they change over time. And most style guides still recommend the old practice (an apostrophe without “s”) with biblical and classical names ending in a sibilant sound.

We just wanted to alert you to the fact that the ground here is slowly shifting.

However, it’s safe to say that if you add an apostrophe plus “s” when writing the possessive form of a name like “Jesus” or “Moses,” then you should add the extra syllable “uz” when pronouncing the name

But if you write the possessive forms in the traditional way (“Jesus’ name,” “Moses’ wisdom”), then don’t pronounce what’s not there.

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Pronunciation Usage

Heteronyms: linguistic chameleons

Q: The word “wind” has one spelling, but two different pronunciations and meanings: 1) “The wind is blowing”; 2) “Did you wind your watch?” Is there a classification for a word like this? What other words are in this category?

A: Many (if not most) words have dual or triple or even quadruple roles as different parts of speech.

As you point out, “wind” (with a short “i”) is a noun for a stiff breeze; “wind” (with a long “i”) is a verb meaning to twist or wrap.

Another such pair with differently pronounced vowels is “row” (the noun meaning a quarrel) and “row” (the verb).

Many other such pairs exist, in which identically spelled words can be either nouns or verbs, depending on how they’re pronounced. They’re heteronyms—words with identical spellings but different pronunciations and meanings.

Most such words have more than one syllable. Here are some examples:

“record” (accented on the first syllable) is a noun, while “record” (accented on the second) is a verb; “conflict” (accented on the first syllable) is a noun, while “conflict” (accented on the second) is a verb; “permit” (accented on the first syllable) is a noun, while “permit” (accented on the second) is a verb; and “extract” (accented on the first syllable) is a noun, while “extract” (accented on the second) is a verb.

Some of the other words that follow this pattern include “addict,” “combat,” “compound,” “conduct,” “incense,” “insult,” “present,” “produce,” and “subject.”

Occasionally a spelling will change with a move in the stressed syllable, as with “envelope” (noun, accented on first syllable) and “envelop” (verb, accented on second).

The word “heteronym,” by the way, entered English in the late 19th century, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary. The earliest citation is from an entry in the first edition of the The Century Dictionary (1889-1991).

The OED defines the term as a “word having the same spelling as another, but a different sound and meaning: opp. to homonym and synonym.”

The dictionary says it was formed from an earlier adjective, “heteronymous,” which showed up in the 18th century and had a different meaning: “Having different names, as a pair of correlatives, e.g. husband, wife: opp. to synonymous.”

Both words are derived from the Greek heteros (different) and onoma (name).

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Etymology Usage

What’s normal now?

Q: “Normalcy” or “normality”? What are your thoughts?

A: Both “normalcy” and “normality” are legitimate nouns in American English, though only “normality” is used in British English.

Anyone who quibbles about “normalcy” should keep in mind that both words came into use only in the 19th century, so they’re relatively new.

So, for that matter, is the adjective “normal” in its usual sense. It’s derived from the Latin norma, a carpenter’s rule, and until the 1840s it meant perpendicular.

So these words are still sorting themselves out.

As Robert W. Burchfield writes in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.): “What we are dealing with here is a group of modern words that has hardly had time for the customary processes of assimilation or rejection to have taken their course.”

He continues: “Normalcy and normality stand side by side in AmE as legitimate alternatives. In BrE normality is the customary term, and normalcy is widely scorned. The distribution of these two abstract nouns in the rest of the English-speaking world needs to be investigated further before any claims are made about their currency.”

Since this is an election year, here’s a political aside. While “normalcy” existed in American English in the 19th century, it was uncommon until Warren G. Harding popularized it in his 1920 presidential campaign.

Harding ran on a platform promising a “return to normalcy” in the wake of World War I. Here’s an excerpt from a speech he gave in Boston in 1920:

“America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”

We quote the whole sentence only to demonstrate what a windbag and a clumsy writer Harding was. But when his critics tore the speech to shreds, they were rather clumsy themselves. They accused him of using “normalcy” in error and assumed he meant “normality.”

In fact, Harding was using an established word (he was fond of 19th-century expressions, and is also credited with reviving “bloviate”).

Despite his tin ear (“nostrums”? “equipoise”?), Harding won the election. And “normalcy” survived the criticism, too.

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Etymology Usage

Is Peggy wise or wizened?

Q: This is from the actress Elizabeth Moss of Mad Men: “I started the show way more confident, way more wizened, way more aware of the world around me than Peggy was, but over the years she’s caught up quite a bit.” Wizened? Wow, she started more shriveled than her character, and now they’re both old and dried up. I wish these stars had grammar stylists as well as fashion stylists.

A: You’re right. Elizabeth Moss, who plays the secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olson on the AMC series, goofed during her March 8, 2012, interview with the New York Post’s Page Six.

She obviously meant “wise,” not “wizened,” but this is a mistake of usage, not grammar. The word “wise” means discerning, sensible, and sagacious, while the adjective “wizened” means withered, shriveled, and dried up.

The adjective “wizened” showed up in English in the early 1500s, but it’s ultimately derived from an older verb, “wizen” (wisnian in Old English), which first appeared in the late 800s and meant (as you might imagine), to dry up, shrivel, or wither.

The adjective “wise,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, first showed up in the Old English poem Beowulf (circa 1000): “Thu eart mægenes strang, and on mode frod, wis wordcwida!” (You are strong of might and wise in spirit, wise of words!)

We’ve expanded on the OED citation, and changed the runic letter thorn to “th.”

We’ll end this with a look at “wisenheimer,” a slang American term for a smart aleck that showed up in the early 20th century, according to published references in the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from The Show Girl and Her Friends, a 1904 book by the humorist Roy McCardell: “He wants to know some good way to reduce his weight. … You don’t know any such a way? No? Why, I thought you was a wisenheimer.”

Finally, here’s a comment from H. L. Mencken in The American Language (1919):

“Several years ago -heimer had a great vogue in slang, and was rapidly done to death. But wiseheimer remains in colloquial use as a facetious synonym for smart-aleck, and after awhile it may gradually acquire dignity.”

Well, “wiseheimer” has acquired an “n” and 338,000 hits on Google, but as far as we can tell it hasn’t acquired all that much dignity.

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Street theater

Q: In the course of one of many Scrabble games with a dear friend, I “created” a word that was not in the dictionary but, by all logic, should have been. I used the word “busk” as the verb for what a “busker” does. Is this correct or permissible?

A: We generally try to stay out of disputes about Scrabble, which is a world unto itself, but we’ll make an exception for this question since it’s pretty clear-cut.

We can unreservedly stand up for “busk,” a verb that’s been around (with various meanings) since the 1300s, and can be found in standard dictionaries as well as in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines the verb as to “play music or perform entertainment in a public place, usually while soliciting money.” The noun form (“busker”) is given without comment at the end of the entry for the verb.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), on the other hand, has separate entries for both the verb and the noun. The noun is defined as “a person who entertains in a public place for donations,” and M-W says it was derived from the verb.

The OED says the use of the verb in this sense (“to play music or entertain in the streets, etc.”) first showed up in the early 19th century. The first citation is from The Life of an Actor, an 1825 book by Pierce Egan:

“I agreed with my clown, Tom Jefferies, who could sing a good low comedy song, Mr. Brown, a musician, and myself, to busk our way up to London.”

However, a much earlier OED citation includes a verbal phrase with the same meaning. Sir John Hawkins writes in A General History of Music (1776) of musicians “going a-busking.”

The OED agrees with Merriam-Webster’s that the verb “busk” gave us the noun “busker,” defined as “an itinerant entertainer or musician.”

Oxford’s earliest citation for this use of the noun in print is from an 1857 issue of The National Magazine. An article headlined “The Busker” went on to offer an etymology of the word:

“His avocation is strictly peripatetic; and hence he takes his title from the short boot, or ‘buskin,’ which has been a common article of stage-apparel … ever since the earliest days of the drama.”

While it’s true that a “buskin” is a short, laced boot, that’s probably not the source of “busker.”

The verb “busk” meant “to prepare oneself, get ready” (a sense now considered obsolete) when it first showed up in English in the 14th century, according to the OED.

The sense we’re talking about, however, is derived from a nautical meaning of “busk” that apparently came into English by way of an obsolete French verb, busquer (to shift, filch, prowl, catch by hook or crook).

The OED says the French verb in turn came from either Italian (buscare, to filch, prowl, shift for), or Spanish (buscar, to seek).

When it entered English in the mid-17th century, seafarers used the verb “busk” in the sense of “to beat or cruise about; to beat to windward, tack.” For example, “to busk it out” meant “to weather a storm by tacking about.”

But to “busk” also meant “to cruise as a pirate,” which the OED says was “perhaps the original sense: compare Italian buscare, French busquer.”

The verb took on another meaning in the 18th century: “to go about seeking for, to seek after.”

Here are two examples, from different volumes of Roger North’s Lives of the Norths, written sometime before 1734:

“My Lord Rochester … was inclined … to busk for some other way to raise the supply.”

“Running up and down and through the city … perpetually busking after one thing or other.”

It was nearly another century before “busk” was used in the sense of street performing. And while the OED presents this as a development from those earlier meanings, it leaves open the possibility that “perhaps this is a distinct word.”

Call us romantics, but we like to think that the 19th-century sense of “busk” descended from piracy, and that itinerant musicians cruise the streets for booty of a different kind.

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Etymology Usage

Why doesn’t the NY Times capitalize AIPAC?

Q: I see that AIPAC is referred to as Aipac in the NYT (or perhaps NYt). Please help me understand this. Are we now going to see the U.s., the F.b.i., and Nato?

A: First, let’s sort out those abbreviations. An abbreviation that’s spoken as a word (like NATO) is called an “acronym”; an abbreviation that’s spoken as letters (like FBI) is called an “initialism.”

Usage writers generally note this distinction, but many people use the term “acronym” for an initialism, and some dictionaries accept the usage. We’ll have more to say about this later.

The New York Times’s practice is to print acronyms of proper names entirely in capitals if they have four letters or fewer: NATO, NASA, PIN, SALT. With longer acronyms, only the first letter is capitalized: Unesco, Nascar, Unicef, Nasdaq, and so on.

That’s why the Times capitalizes only the first letter of Aipac, the acronym for the American Israel Political Action Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying group.

However, many publications—the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Christian Science Monitor, among them—disagree and prefer AIPAC.

The Chicago Manual of Style, which is widely used in book publishing, generally prefers the all-capital form unless the term is listed otherwise in standard dictionaries.

Chicago would consider an acronym like “radar” an exception, since it’s all-lowercase in dictionaries (it stands for “radio detection and ranging”).

Getting back to your question, initialisms are supposed to be all-cap in Times style, and we don’t think you’ll be seeing U.s. or F.b.i. in the paper any time soon. If you do, consider it a typo.

As we said above, usage authorities generally make a distinction between the terms “acronym” and “initialism.”

We’re among those who make the distinction. And so is Bryan A. Garner, who writes in Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) about “the technical differences between the two types of abbreviated names.”

R. W. Burchfield, in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), agrees that the “test of a true acronym is often assumed to be that it should be pronounceable as a word.”

But Burchfield writes that this use of the term “is not widely known to the general public” and it’s “often applied to abbreviations that are familiar but are not pronounceable as words.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) considers the use of the term “acronym” for an initialism a “usage problem.”

A usage note in American Heritage says the distinction between the two terms “has some virtue in precision,” but it acknowledges that the distinction “may be lost on many people.”

Published references in the Oxford English Dictionary suggest that the term “acronym” is a relative newcomer in English, showing up in the early 1940s.

Interestingly, “acronym” referred to what we now consider an “initialism” when it first entered English in 1940, according to OED citations. But by 1943, it was being used as well for abbreviations pronounced as words.

The dictionary says the term was adapted from the German akronym, which the OED dates to “1921 or earlier.”

The citations in the OED suggest that the English term “acronym” has been used steadily since the early 1940s for an abbreviation spoken as a word as well as one spoken as letters. Here are a couple of recent examples:

“The acronym TSS—Tout Sauf Sarkozy (‘Anything But Sarkozy’).” The Atlantic, June  2008.

“Turning tea into an acronym for Taxed Enough Already, demonstrators were expected to attend more than 750 rallies to protest government spending.” The New York Times, April 16, 2009.

(We assume the Times writer would have used all caps, TEA, for the actual acronym.)

Yes, there’s a case to be made for using “acronym” loosely. But for now we’ll continue to observe the distinction in our writing, while making allowances for the many people who are unaware of it.

We’ve written before on the blog about acronyms and initialisms. You might find the postings helpful.

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Etymology Usage

Backhanded criticism

Q: Is there is a term for pre-qualifying statements like “Nothing personal, but …” or “Don’t take this the wrong way, but …”? I don’t want anyone to take this personally or the wrong way, but people who use these phrases are cowards and morons.

A: You can find several non-technical terms online for these back-handed statements, including “false fronts,” “wishwashers,” “but heads,” and “lying qualifiers.”

The lexicographer Erin McKean, who discusses these expressions in a Nov. 14, 2010, article in the Boston Globe, says their object is “to preemptively deny a charge that has yet to be made, with a kind of ‘best offense is a good defense’ strategy.”

“This technique,” McKean notes, “has a distinguished relative in classical rhetoric: the device of procatalepsis, in which the speaker brings up and immediately refutes the anticipated objections of his or her hearer.”

The word comes from post-classical Latin, and it’s defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a “rhetorical figure by which an opponent’s objections are anticipated and answered.”

Nobody is fooled by the modern usage, of course. Someone who begins by saying “No offense, but …” or “Nothing personal, but …” is about to step on your toes, and both parties know it.

In her article (headlined “I hate to tell you: Phrases that announce ‘I’m lying’ ”), McKean includes a rich selection of these expressions, the ones you mention and these besides:

“It’s not about the money, but …”

“It really doesn’t matter to me, but …”

“I hate to be the one to tell you this, but … ”

“I hate to say it, but …”

“I hear what you’re saying, but …”

“I’m not a racist, but …”

“I’m not trying to hurt your feelings, but …”

“I don’t mean to be rude, but …”

“Promise me you won’t get mad, but…”

“It’s (really) none of my business, but …”

“I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable, but …”

We might add another example that’s become popular lately. This one (“Just sayin’ ”) has no “but,” and it usually comes after the irritating statement, as in “You might look for a new hair stylist. Just sayin’. ” [Note: We wrote a post about this phrase in 2013.]

To be fair, though, the impulse to use phrases like these is understandable.

“It would be nice if we all stood behind our words instead of erecting walls of disclaimers in front of them,” McKean says. “But it’s also human to want to mitigate people’s reactions when we say something negative.”

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 26, 2020.]

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Etymology Pronunciation

Why does “clerk” rhyme with “jerk” in the US?

Q: In Origins of the Specious, you discuss many words that Americans pronounce in a more traditional way than the British. You don’t mention “clerk,” but I wonder if it could have been included.

A: There’s some truth to what you say, but the phonological history of “clerk” is a bit more complicated than the histories of those words mentioned in Origins of the Specious.

As we write in our book about language myths and misconceptions, the American Colonists took the English pronunciations of the day with them when they came to the New World.

The Colonists preserved many of those pronunciations after the Revolution, but in the late 18th and early19th centuries educated Britons began “r”-dropping, “a”-stretching, adding or subtracting an “h,” and lopping off next-to-last syllables.

For anyone who hasn’t read Origins of the Specious, the New York Times website includes a large excerpt from Stiff Upper Lips, the chapter about differences between American and British English.

Now, let’s get back to your question.

During much of the Middle English period (1100 to 1500), “clerk” sounded something like cleirk, a pronunciation still heard in parts of Scotland and Ireland, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

An extensive pronunciation note in American Heritage explains that in Middle English the “e” of “clerk” was pronounced like the one in “pet,” and the “r” was sounded.

By the late 16th century, when people began leaving England for the Colonies, “clerk” had two principal pronunciations: klerk  (in areas where the future Colonists generally lived) and klark (in the south of England). The “r” was sounded in both pronunciations.

The “clerk” that accompanied English immigrants to the Colonies and the early United States rhymed with “jerk,” according to the AH note, while the one in southern England rhymed roughly with “spark” (though the “a” may have sounded like the one in “cat”).

In the 18th century, AH says, people began “r”-dropping in southern England and “clerk” came to be pronounced klak. This pronunciation spread to educated speakers elsewhere and you’re likely to hear it today on the BBC. (With a broad “a” and the “r” muted, it sounds almost like “clock.”)

Before filing “clerk” in our archive, we should mention that the noun didn’t refer to a clerk in an office or a retail store when it entered English around 1050.

The Oxford English Dictionary says it originally meant an ordained Christian clergyman. In fact, both “clerk” and “cleric” are derived from clericus, Late Latin for a clergyman.

But not long after “clerk” entered English, the OED adds, it took on a secular sense:

“In early times, when writing was not an ordinary accomplishment of the laity, the offices of writer, scribe, secretary, keeper of accounts, and the transaction of all business involving writing, were discharged by clerks.”

Here’s a 1377 example from Piers Plowman, the 14th-century allegorical poem by William Langland: “Hadde iche a clerke that couthe write.” (The “th” in “that” was actually a runic letter called a thorn.)

The use of “clerk” for an office worker first showed in print, according to OED citations, in a 1512 act of Parliament early in the rein of Henry VIII: The said Collectours and Comptrollers and theire Clerkes.”

The use of the term for a shop assistant (the OED describes this usage as North American) first appeared in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, which was published in various versions after his death in 1790:

“He propos’d to take me over as his Clerk, to keep his Books (in which he would instruct me), copy his Letters, and attend the Store.”

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Etymology Pronunciation Usage

Priming the pump

Q: During Pat’s appearance on WNYC last month, someone said the sense of “primer” as a first coat of paint probably comes from the primary sense of the adjective “prime.” I think it’s derived from the preparatory sense of the verb “prime” (as in “to prime the pump”).

A: You’re right. The word “primer” (the kind you get at Home Depot, not at a bookstore) is indeed all about preparation.

On the air last month, Pat, Leonard Lopate, and a listener were discussing the two different words spelled “primer,” a subject we’ve written about before on our blog.

As you know, the word that rhymes with “trimmer” is an instructional book. The one that rhymes with “timer” is a first coat of paint.

Inspired by your question, we’ve decided to give the etymology of that second one a closer look.

This “primer,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is apparently derived from the verb “prime,” meaning “to cover (wood, canvas, metal, etc.) with a preparatory coat of paint, size, etc., esp. to prevent the absorption of subsequent layers of paint.”

Those two words, the noun “primer” and the verb “prime,” were first recorded in the 16th and 17th centuries.

However, another word, “priming” (defined as “the coating of wood, canvas, metal, etc., with primer, in preparation for painting”), happened to make its way into writing before the others, and was first recorded in the early 15th century.

So, not surprisingly, painters were priming with primers long before the word “primer” itself actually found its way into print.

Etymologists aren’t sure precisely how the verb “prime” came into English. The source, according to the OED, is either the adjective “prime” (first, foremost) or its earlier forms in Middle French (prime) or classical Latin (primus).

But the notion of preparing is perhaps buried somewhere in the word’s etymology.

The OED suggests a comparison with a post-classical Latin verb, primare, which meant “to prepare”—specifically, to prepare a surface for gilding. This Latin word appears in British sources in the early 14th century, the dictionary adds.

At any rate, the underlying idea is that “priming is usually preliminary to another operation (such as applying subsequent layers of paint, firing a gun, etc.),” Oxford explains.

This idea of a preliminary step is evident in many uses of the verb “prime.” Since the early 16th century, to “prime” something has meant to fill, charge, or load it.

This sense of the word has proved useful over the centuries. People have spoken about priming a firearm (that is, preparing it for firing by placing gunpowder in the touch-pan); priming a pump (by pouring water into it); priming a boiler; priming someone with drink; even priming the nostrils with snuff.

For an example of that last usage, here’s an OED citation from the satirist Henry Neville’s Newes From the New Exchange: Or, the Commonwealth of Ladies (1650): “She that with pure Tobacco will not prime Her Nose, can be no Lady of the time.”

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Etymology Usage

Trust territory

Q: A “trusty” is a prisoner who can be trusted not to try to escape while a “trustee” is a person reputed to be of good character who can be entrusted with great responsibilities. So it’s laughable to hear people refer to “trustees” raking leaves outside a prison wall! I welcome your thoughts.

A: We can think of a few banking trustees involved in the foreclosure scandal who may end up as prison trusties, but let’s leave their fate to the courts.

As for the words, “trusty” is the usual spelling for a trustworthy prisoner, and “trustee,” broadly speaking, is the term for someone entrusted with property. Here’s how these words evolved.

Their ancestor, the noun “trust,” was first recorded in early Middle English sometime around 1200, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But it probably had a more distant, unrecorded history in Old English.

“Trust” was derived from a word in Old Norse, traust (help, confidence, firmness), the OED says. There are similar words in many other old Germanic languages, as well as in prehistoric Proto-Indo-European.

And, as you might suspect, “trust” is distantly connected with “true” and “truth.”

The word “trusty” entered English as an adjective. When first recorded, it meant trusting—that is, having faith or confidence. But that meaning is rare today, and now the adjective means trustworthy, a sense it acquired in the 1300s.

But beginning in the late 1500s, “trusty” was also used as a noun for a trustworthy person—that is, someone who could be trusted, like a loyal employee or the faithful family retainer.

This is the sense of the word that was adapted into use in the American prison system in the mid-19th century, the OED says.

In the 1850s, Oxford explains, “trusty” was used both as an adjective and as a noun to describe a trustworthy prison inmate.

A “trusty prisoner” or, more simply, a “trusty,” is defined as “a well-conducted convict to whom special privileges are granted.”

Here’s the first such usage cited in the OED, from an 1855 issue of the San Francisco Citizen: “Two ‘trusties’ named Scottie and Greene, escaped in a whale boat from the State Prison grounds on Sunday night.”

A “trustee” is another person altogether (not that trustees haven’t occasionally found themselves in the pokey).

This noun dates from the mid-17th century, according to the OED, as a legal term for “one to whom property is entrusted to be administered for the benefit of another.”

But the word is also used more loosely to mean “one of a number of persons appointed to manage the affairs of an institution; also a member of the controlling body of a trust.”

Now for the flies in the ointment! There are two, but they’re easily dispensed with.

(1) Pronunciation. The two words, “trusty” and “trustee,” are generally pronounced differently, with “trusty” accented on the first syllable, “trustee” on the second.

Those are the only options given in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.). But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says “trusty” is also, though less commonly, accented on the second syllable. We don’t advise it. Anything that distinguishes between these two words helps!

(2) Variant spelling. The prison word “trusty” is occasionally spelled “trustee,” as in Norman Mailer’s book The Executioner’s Song (1979): “A trustee standing by a glass museum case was selling convict-made tooled leather belts to a group of tourists.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate makes note of this variant spelling of “trusty,” but American Heritage doesn’t mention of it.

Another source, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, says the “trustee” spelling for a prisoner “is not common, and people who pride themselves on their spelling will undoubtedly call it an error. We recommend that you use trusty instead.”

We second that recommendation. These words are confusing enough when spelled the usual way. Why add to the confusion?

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Etymology Usage

De gustibus

Q: I have seen both “gastronomic” and “gastronomical” as adjectives for “gastronomy.” Is one of them right and the other wrong? Are they interchangeable? Do they have different uses?

A: They’re both OK, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and several other standard dictionaries we checked.

Perhaps some people might consider the longer one a bit stuffier, but we don’t see much, if any, difference between them.

Merriam-Webster’s, for example, defines “gastronomy” as “the art or science of good eating” as well as “culinary customs or style,” and it lists both adjectives without comment.

So the choice here is up to you. It’s a matter of taste, and (in this case at least) there’s no disputing taste.

The noun “gastronomy” showed up in English in the early 1800s, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first citation in the OED is from the 1814 diary of Sir Robert Thomas Wilson, a British general: “The banquet was according to all the rules of perfect gastronomy.”

English adopted the noun from the French gastronomie, but the word’s roots are in ancient Greek, where gastronomia meant the “laws or science pertaining to the stomach,” according to Panorama of the Classical World, by Nigel Spivey and Michael Squire.

Interestingly, the OED has an earlier citation for the adjective “gastronomical” than for the noun “gastronomy.”

The first cite is from Diedrich Knickerbocker’s satirical History of New York (1809): “The gastronomical merits of terrapins.” (Knickerbocker was a pen name of Washington Irving.)

The adjective “gastronomic” arrived on the scene in 1828 and the adverb “gastronomically” in1875, according to the OED citations.

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Grammar Usage

Adverbs on the hoof

Q: Why are adverbs used so rarely in horse racing? For example, “He ran real good.”

A: We’re not so sure adverbs are used rarely in horse racing. A bit of googling gets just about as many hits for “He ran real good” and “He ran real well.”

Many of the results (with and without adverbs) do indeed refer to horse racing, but not all of them. Others refer to people running on tracks, or in a football games, or at other sporting events.

Why do some sportswriters prefer “good” to “well” in a sentence like the one you mentioned? We can think of a few possible reasons:

1) They may not know that adverbs (like “well”) generally modify verbs and that adjectives (like “good”) generally modify nouns.

2) They may feel that “well” sounds a bit stuffy for a racing story and that “good” is acceptable in informal writing.

3) They may be confused by the standard English use of “good” instead of “well” with a linking verb like “be,” “feel,” “seem, “look,” etc. Example: “He looked good before the race.”

If you want to read more, we’ve had many items on our blog about “well” and “good,” including a posting in 2010 that has links to a couple of others.

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Did Caesar drive a Lexus?

Q: If a husband and a wife each own a Lexus, do they have two Lexuses or Lexi?

A: The plural of “Lexus” is “Lexuses.” The brand name isn’t derived from Latin, contrary to popular belief, but was an invention of the Toyota Motor Corporation.

In a history of the car, Lexus:The Relentless Pursuit (2011), Chester Dawson writes that “Lexus” was a shortening (and a respelling) of an earlier choice for the brand name: “Alexis.”

In 1986 a New York consulting firm, Lippincott & Margulies, gave Toyota “a master list of 219 potential names,” Dawson says, and Toyota officials eventually narrowed the list to five.

Of these, the favorite was “Alexis,” the author writes, but that “sounded like the name of a person, not a car.”

What’s more, Dawson says, it reminded some Toyota officials of a “femme fatale” character in the TV show Dynasty. (Joan Collins originated the role of Alexis Colby.)

After a little fiddling, Dawson writes, “the group stumbled upon the neologism Lexus.

How should this linguistic creation be pluralized in English? Like any other noun ending in “s,” it’s made plural by adding “es”—hence, “Lexuses.”

But a bit of googling suggests that a lot of people, including many Lexus owners, mistakenly believe the word is Latin and should be pluralized as “Lexi.”

In fact, Dawson writes, a comedian on a popular BBC radio series “made a running gag of the plural neologism ‘Lexi.’ ”

And that’s today’s lesson in lexi-cography!

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Etymology Usage

What’s with “what”?

Q: For a couple of years, I’ve been hearing an extra “what” in sentences like this: “She’s less aloof than (what) she was last year.” I wonder when this phenomenon started.

A: This particular use of “what” after “than” isn’t new. And it isn’t incorrect, either, just a bit wordy by modern standards.

The 20th-century grammarian George O. Curme has written that this “than what” construction usually shows up in speech, but was once common in writing.

In A Grammar of the English Language, Vol. II (1931), Curme says the “what” is sometimes inserted in informal speech to make up for a perceived absence—a dropped subject or adverb.

He begins by using a “what-less” sentence as an illustration: “He works harder than he did as a young man.” He then discusses cases in which a “what” is added “to fill the vacancy” that’s felt.

Sometimes, he writes, the “what” that’s inserted after “than” is the subject of a clause, as in “thicker than what was usual.” And sometimes it’s an adverb, as in “I laughed heartier then than what I do now.”

Here we’ve abbreviated the examples given by Curme, both of which come from 19th-century writers. The “what” in each of them would probably be considered unnecessary today and would be omitted.

In a sentence like the one you mention—“She’s less aloof than what she was last year”— “what” functions as an adverb.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says that as an adverb, “what” means “how much; in what respect; how.”

Both American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) use interrogative examples to illustrate the adverbial usage. AH: “What does it matter?” M-W: “what does he care?”

But the kind of sentence you’re noticing, with “what” used adverbially after “than,” is different. It isn’t a question, and the “what” is normally omitted in modern written usage.

As Curme says: “This what is a marked feature of current popular speech; ‘I’m more in earnest than what you are.’ ‘I hope you can walk quicker than what you eat.’ What is now never inserted here in the literary language.”

The 19th-century American grammarian Goold Brown noted that earlier writers often omitted the word “what” after “than.”

In A Grammar of English Grammars (1851), Brown makes his point by restoring the omitted “what” in two well-known quotations:

“He does nothing who endeavours to do more than [what] is allowed to humanity” (Samuel Johnson);

“My punishment is greater than [what] I can bear” (Cain in Genesis 4:13).

Today, nobody notices the omission of “what” in sentences like those, and speakers who insert it raise eyebrows.

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Etymology Pronunciation Usage

Clef notes

Q: Why is “roman à clef” pronounced ro-MAN-a-CLAY while the “f” is sounded at the end of neuf, the French word for nine?

A: The letter “f” is usually pronounced at the end of French words (oeuf, for example), but clef (key) is an exception.

In French, a key can be either a clef or a clé. Both terms are pronounced clay and both can refer to either musical notation or door opening.

Our blog is about English, not French, and a more intriguing question for us is why English speakers pronounce the “f” in “bass clef” (the musical term), but not the one in “roman à clef” (a novel in which real people or events are disguised).

English borrowed both the musical and the literary terms from French, but many years apart. The musical “clef” showed up in the 1500s, while “roman à clef” didn’t appear in print until the 1800s.

The ultimate source of “clef,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is clavem, Latin for key.

The earliest published English example of “clef” (spelled “cliffe”) in the OED is from The Schoole of Abuse (1579), Stephen Gosson’s puritanical attack against the theater: “How many keyes, how many cliffes, howe many moodes.”

(The dictionary notes that Gosson used the term here in the musical sense: a character that indicates the pitch on a line of musical staff.)

The earliest spellings of “clef” in English (“cliefe,” “cliffe,” “cleiffe,” etc.) suggest that the “f” was pronounced at that time.

We’ve read that the “f” in “clef” was pronounced in Old French, where speakers sounded many final consonants that aren’t heard in Modern French. We wonder if the “f” may have been sounded in Middle French (or Anglo-Norman) when English borrowed the word.

The OED suggests that the expression roman à clef (literally, a novel with a key) may be of relatively recent vintage in French as well as in English.

It dates the appearance of roman à clef in French at “1863 or earlier,” but then cites a 1690 French phrase, la clef d’un roman, which refers to the key character or passage that explains a novel.

The OED’s first English citation for “roman à clef” is from an 1882 book about Dickens by Sir Adolphus William Ward: “That art of mystification which the authors of both English and French romans a clef have since practised with so much transient success.”

And here’s a more recent citation, from a May 5, 2003, issue of New York Magazine: “The young dirt-disher reads from her thinly veiled roman-à-clef, The Devil Wears Prada.”

Why don’t English speakers pronounce the “f” in “roman à clef”? Probably because the French didn’t pronounce it when the expression entered English in the 19th century.

Note: Our Paris correspondent points out that a theory published in 1935 suggests clé arose as a back formation from the plural clés, which itself arose because the f + s combination in clefs looked odd. He’s skeptical, though, because both plurals, clefs and clés, are popular today.

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The spicy history of baba ganoush

Q: I have a word—actually two words—that I just love saying: “baba ganoush.” To get the full effect, you need to say it out loud and quickly, with enthusiasm (and emphasize the first “b”).

A: Eggplant is not our favorite vegetable, but we also love the term “baba ganoush.” It’s a joy to pronounce. Did you know that it may have been born in a harem?

First, the food itself, which generally appears as an appetizer or side dish.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “baba ganoush” as “a Middle Eastern (originally Lebanese) dish of puréed roasted aubergine, garlic, and tahini.” Often other ingredients are added, like mint, onions, and various spices.

Now for the name. It comes from the Arabic phrase baba gannuj, in which baba can mean father or daddy (or an endearment), and gannuj can mean coquettish or pampered.

The dish, the OED says, was named “perhaps with reference to its supposed invention by a member of a royal harem.” So the pampered daddy may have been a sultan.

Oxford’s first citation for the use of the term in English is from Scudder Middleton’s book Dining, Wining, and Dancing in New York (1938):

“The meal begins with sesame seed, ground to a paste and mixed either with eggplant or simple oil and lemon juice and called either Babba Gannouge or Hommes Lit Tahena.”

Here’s a more recent example, from a 2004 issue of Time Out New York: “Snack on classic Middle Eastern fare like stuffed grape leaves, hummus and baba ghanoush.”

Even if it weren’t such a popular snack, we’d bet that baba ganoush would live on, if only because of its wonderfully musical name!

And incidentally, it’s spelled all kinds of ways; we’ve used the OED’s modern English spelling.

But The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has it as “baba ghanouj,” or “baba ghannouj,” or “baba ganoosh.”

And Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has it as “baba ghanoush” or “baba ghanouj.”

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Etymology Usage

All the fixings

Q: Would you please discuss the derivation of “fixing to” do something? I understand it means getting ready to do something, but as a New Yorker living in Texas, I hear it all the time.

A: We’ve written before on the blog about the use of the phrase “fixing to” in the sense of “preparing to” or “ready to.” The construction dates back to mid-19th century America, and an earlier version, “fixing for,” is a century older.

But we wrote that brief post nearly five years ago, so we’ll refresh it now with a little more detail.

The Oxford English Dictionary has examples in which the verb “fix” and its participle “fixing” are used to mean “to intend; to arrange, get ready, make preparations, for or to do something.”

In this sense, the verb is accompanied by the prepositions “to,” “for,” “out,” and “up,” says the OED, adding that these phrases are American in origin.

The earliest example in writing is by an American-born colonist, Col. Benjamin Church, who fought in the First Indian War in the late 1600s. In his account of the conflict, History of King Philip’s War (1716), he wrote: “He fixes for another Expedition.”

A similar usage appears in a 1779 document, now in the New Hampshire Historical Society Collections, in which Capt. Daniel Livermore wrote: “Troops are busy in clearing and fixing for laying the foundations of the huts.”

The OED’s first example of “fixing to” is from Norman Ellsworth Eliason’s 1956 book Tarheel Talk: An Historical Study of the English Language in North Carolina to 1860: “Aunt Lizy is just fixing to go to church.” (The example is dated 1854-55.)

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has an interesting usage note on “fixing to,” or as American Heritage spells it, “fixin’ to.” (We’ll break the note into paragraphs to make it easier to read.)

Fixin’ to ranks with y’all as one of the best known markers of dialects of the Southern United States, although it occasionally also appears in the informal speech and writing of non-Southerners. Fixin’ to means ‘on the verge of or in preparation for (doing a given thing).’

“It often follows a form of the verb to be, and it consists of the present participle of the verb fix followed by the infinitive marker to; They were fixin’ to leave without me.

“Although locutions like is fixin’ to can be used somewhat like the auxiliary verb will in sentences that describe future events, fixin’ to can refer only to events that immediately follow the speaker’s point of reference. One cannot say, We’re fixin’ to have a baby in a couple of years.

“The use of fixin’ to as an immediate or proximate future is very common in African American Vernacular English, and is one of many features that this variety of English shares with Southern dialects. Although this expression sometimes appears in writing as fixing to, in speech it is usually pronounced fixin’ to.”

As for the use of “fix up” in a similar sense (to arrange), here’s a line from J. B. Priestley’s novel Wonder Hero (1933): “I may be able to fix up for you both to go out to supper afterwards.”

And while we’re at it, let’s look at an entirely different construction—“fix up with.” The OED says it means “to arrange for (a person) to be provided with.

The earliest citation is from Booth Tarkington’s novel The Conquest of Canaan (1905): “Can you fix me up with something different?”

And then of course there’s “fix up” and “fix up with” in the matchmaking sense: “to encourage or arrange for (a person, couple, etc.) to embark upon a romantic or sexual relationship,” in the words of the OED.

Oxford’s first citation is from a Sidney Kingsley novel, Men in White (1933): “Fix him up. … It’d do him good.”

We like this later example, from Helen Fielding’s comic novel Bridget Jones’s Diary (1997): “The minute I decide I like Mark Darcy, everyone immediately stops trying to fix me up with him.”

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Etymology Usage

From Ta to Ta-ta to TTFN

Q: Any idea why the Brits say “ta” to mean “thank you” and “ta-ta” to mean “goodbye”?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary views “ta” (thank you) and “ta-ta” (goodbye) as infantile or nursery expressions that are now also commonly used by adults colloquially—that is, in speech.

No further etymology is given for these characteristically British interjections, so we can assume they got their start as baby talk.

The OED’s first citation for the use of “ta” in writing is from a birthday letter written in 1772 by an Englishwoman, Mary Delany, to her year-old niece:

“My dearest little child, this is your birthday, and I wish you joy of its return; perhaps if you knew what a world you are enter’d into, so abounding with evil you would not say ‘Ta’ to me for my congratulation.” (We’ve gone to the original to expand the quotation.)

This 19th-century example of the word is from Israel Zangwill’s novel Children of the Ghetto (1892): “Give it me. I’ll say ‘ta’ so nicely.”

The later expression “ta-ta,” for “goodbye,” was first recorded in a letter written in 1823 by Sara Hutchinson, who was a friend of Coleridge and Wordsworth:

“Baby I believe has not learnt any new words since Mrs M. wrote last, but she has the old ones very perfect—‘Gone’—‘Ta ta’—‘By bye.’ ”

And here’s a later example from the Victorian era, in Sir Francis Cowley Burnand’s novel Strapmore! (1878): “Ta-ta, little one très cher! Bye-bye.”

Among the many more modern examples given in the OED is this one from L. R. Banks’s novel The L-Shaped Room (1960): “Charlie’ll come up in a few minutes and see how you’re getting on. Tata for now.”

In fact, “ta-ta for now” became so common in Britain that it inspired “TTFN,” an initialism (with or without dots) that the OED says was popularized in the 1940s by a BBC radio program called Itma (the letters stand for “It’s That Man Again”).

The dictionary’s first citation for “TTFN” in writing is from a 1948 book about the show, Itma, 1939-1948, written by its producer, Frank Worsley.

In writing about “the beloved Cockney Charlady, Mrs. Mopp (played by Dorothy Summers),” he says that among “her famous sayings were the letters ‘T.T.F.N.’—a contraction of ‘Ta-ta for now’ with which she made her exit.”

With that, we’ll say “ta” for your question and “ta-ta for now.”

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Etymology Usage

Let’s get it on

Q: When I tell my wife that I’m going to “get a shower,” she corrects me and says it should be “take a shower.” Who’s correct and why?

A: We’re on your side. “Get” is one of the most versatile verbs in English, and it’s always adapting itself to new usages well beyond its original meaning—to acquire or obtain possession of.

Particularly in colloquial (that is, spoken) or informal usage, “get” is widely used. It wouldn’t be unusual to hear someone say, “I don’t get out much, but today I think I’ll get a nap, get a shower, then get a bite to eat.”

In many common phrases, the verb “get” has something immaterial as its object, as in “get the better of,” “get the worst of it,” “get religion,” “get a cold,” “get the upper hand,” and “get a lift,” all of which are several hundred years old.

More recent examples from the OED include “get your dinner,” “get there” (that is, attain one’s object), “get wind of,” “what gets (annoys) me,” “get about,” “get back at” (retaliate), “get your own way,” and “get a shave,” all of which were first recorded in writing in the 19th century.

It seems to us that there’s little semantic difference between “get a shave” and “get a shower.” And the latter expression is hardly unusual, since “get a shower” gets about 2.7 million hits on Google (though the more common “take a shower” gets 63.4 million).

These days, new usages of “get” come along so swiftly that the Oxford English Dictionary is always adding new ones in online draft additions.

The relative newcomers are too numerous to mention, but they include “get by” (to manage), “get across” (make understood), “get lost” (go away), “get moving” (hurry up), “get it” (see a joke), “get with it,” “get it on,” “get with the program,” “get over yourself,” “get real,” “get off on,” “get a life,” and “how [fill in the blank] can you get?”

In the grand scheme of things, a marital difference over “get a shower” versus “take a shower” is small potatoes. May all your arguments be trifles! As Marvin Gaye put it, “Ah, baby, let’s get it on.”

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Etymology Usage

The OED is not enthused

Q: Is “enthused” a word?

A: Many people object to the verb “enthuse” (to feel or cause or show enthusiasm) and to its participle “enthused.” But both are indeed words, if inclusion in dictionaries is any indication.

You can find them in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and the Oxford English Dictionary, among others.

They’re back-formations, a term given to new words formed by dropping prefixes or suffixes from older ones—in this case the noun “enthusiasm.”

We’ve written about back-formations before on our blog. Other words that were formed this way include “incent” (from “incentive”), “escalate” (from “escalator”), “baby-sit” (from “babysitter”), and “curate” (from “curator”).

Back-formations always take time to gain acceptance. And while “enthuse” and “enthused” are now accepted by most lexicographers as standard English, this wasn’t always the case.

A Merriam-Webster’s usage note says the verb “is apparently American in origin, although the earliest known example of its use occurs in a letter written in 1827 by a young Scotsman who spent about two years in the Pacific Northwest.”

The note continues: “It has been disapproved since about 1870. Current evidence shows it to be flourishing nonetheless on both sides of the Atlantic esp. in journalistic prose.”

American Heritage also includes an interesting usage note within its entry for “enthuse” (we’ll add paragraph breaks for readability):

“The verb enthuse, a back-formation from enthusiasm, is viewed as an irritant by many. The sentence The majority leader enthused over his party’s gains was rejected by 76 percent of the Usage Panel in our 1982 survey, by 65 percent in 1997, and by 66 percent in 2009.

“Back-formations often meet with disapproval on their first appearance and only gradually become accepted. For example, diagnose, which was first recorded in 1861, is a back-formation from diagnosis and is perfectly acceptable today.

“Since enthuse dates from 1827, there may be something more at play here than a slower erosion of popular resistance. Unlike enthusiasm, which denotes an internal emotional state, enthuse denotes either the external expression of emotion (as in She enthused over attending the Oscar ceremonies) or the inducement of enthusiasm by an external source (as in He was so enthused about the diet pills that he agreed to do a testimonial in a television ad).

“It is possible that a distaste for this emphasis on external emotional display and emotional manipulation is sometimes the source of distaste for the word itself.”

Both American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s now accept “enthuse” and “enthused” as standard English. The Oxford English Dictionary, however, still labels “enthuse” as humorous or colloquial (that is, characteristic of spoken rather than written English).

As for the etymology of “enthuse,” the OED calls it “an ignorant back-formation.” Ouch! As we said, these things take time.

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Etymology Usage

The best of verbs, the worst of verbs

Q: In The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell writes that Johnson could not brook appearing to be worsted in argument, even when he had taken the wrong side.” How did both “to worst” and “to best” come to mean to defeat?

A: The verb “worst,” meaning to defeat or overcome or outdo, isn’t seen much these days, but it’s the older of the two usages.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for “worst” used in this sense is from a 1636 book about the Roman emperors by Robert Basset: “After many battailes Otho being worsted … slew himselfe.”

Initially, the usage referred to military defeats, but by the mid-1600s, it was being used for defeats in arguments, suits, and so on.

In a 1651 religious tract, for example, Richard Baxter writes: “Lest if you were silent the people should think you were worsted.”

The use of the verb “best” in similar senses didn’t show up in print until the mid-1800s, according to citations in the OED.

Here’s an example from The World in the Church, an 1863 book by Mrs. J. H. Riddell: “As I am a staunch Churchman I cannot stand quiet and see the Dissenters best the Establishment.”

Oxford describes this usage as colloquial—that is, occurring more in speech than in writing—but the standard dictionaries we’ve checked list it without qualification.

How, you ask, did the verbs “best” and “worst” come to mean the same thing?

The OED explains that to “best” comes from the idea of “getting the better of” or “having the best of it” while to “worst” is another way of saying “to make worst” or “put to the worst.”

In an etymology note accompanying its entry for the verb “best,” the dictionary acknowledges that “the form is hardly in accordance with the sense, which is nearly equivalent to the existing vb. to worst.”

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Hip hip hooray

Q: Your post concerning City College’s old “allagaroo” cheer prompts me to ask about several other examples of public exuberance. Do the terms “hurray,” “hurrah,” “hooray,” “huzzah,” and “whoopee” have different origins or was variable spelling an art form when they originated?

A: The interjections variously spelled “hurrah,” “hurray,” and “hooray” are variants on an earlier one, “huzza” (or “huzzah”), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Huzza” was first recorded in writing in 1573, the OED says, when it was used as a noun meaning “the shout of huzza.”

The interjection itself—described as “a shout of exultation, encouragement, or applause; a cheer uttered by a number in unison”—didn’t make its way into writing until the following century.

The OED’s earliest citation for “huzza” actually used as an interjection is from a 1682 translation of Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux’s poem Le Lutrin: “Oh see (says Night) these Rogues sing Huzza! proud Of sure success, under my favouring Shroud.”

And here’s another early citation, from George Farquhar’s comedy The Recruiting Officer (1706): Huzza then, huzza for the Queen, and the Honour of Shropshire.”

Where did “huzza” come from? The OED says it’s “apparently a mere exclamation, the first syllable being a preparation for, and a means of securing simultaneous utterance of the final” sound, the “ah.”

The word has seafaring associations, according to the dictionary, which notes that it’s “mentioned by many 17-18th cent. writers as being originally a sailor’s cheer or salute.”

So the OED speculates that it may be the same word as “heisau” and “hissa,” which were cries used by mariners while hauling or hoisting ropes. A similar-sounding word, “heeze,” was an old verb meaning to hoist or raise.

The dictionary suggests another connection too: “German has also hussa as a cry of hunting and pursuit, and, subsequently, of exultation.”

Wherever it came from, “huzza” went on to give us the later substitutes “hurrah,” “hurray,” and “hooray,” a development the OED says is “perhaps merely due to onomatopoeic modification, but possibly influenced by some foreign shouts.”

As examples of possible foreign influences, Oxford mentions similar exclamations in Swedish, Danish, Low German, Dutch, Russian, French, and Middle High German.

The dictionary also cites an authority saying that “hurrah was the battle-cry of the Prussian soldiers in the War of Liberation (1812–13), and has since been a favourite cry of soldiers and sailors, and of exultation.”

As used in English, the OED adds, “the form hurrah is literary and dignified; hooray is usual in popular acclamation.”

You didn’t ask, but we ourselves were wondering about the “hip” (or multiples thereof) often accompanying a “hooray.” The OED says that in this usage, “hip” is “an exclamation used (usually repeated thrice) to introduce a united cheer.”

The use of “hip” in cheers was first recorded in the 19th century. This is a good example, from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Pendennis (1849): “Here’s Mrs. Smirke’s good health: Hip, hip, hurray.”

However, “hip” was used earlier as a simple shouted greeting. The OED gives this definition, from Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755: “An exclamation or calling to one; the same as the Latin eho, heus!

This example of that earlier usage comes from Abraham Tucker’s philosophical work The Light of Nature Pursued (1768-74): “Perhaps Dr. Hartley … may give me a hip, and call out, ‘Prithee, friend, do not think to slip so easily by me.’ ”

We now turn our attention to “whoopee.” (We’ve been waiting for years to write that sentence!)

It’s a relative latecomer, first recorded in Harper’s Magazine in 1862: “He yelled at the top of his voice, ‘Whoopee! Whiskey only twenty-five cents a gallon!’”

But it turns out that the ancestor of “whoopee” is very old indeed. Oxford says that “whoopee,” defined as “an exclamation of exuberant joy,” was formed from an earlier interjection “whoop,” that dates back to about 1450.

Shakespeare used the expression several time in his plays. In King Lear (1608), for example, the Fool cries, “Whoop, Jug! I love thee.”

As for the origin of “whoop,” the OED calls it “a natural exclamation consisting of a voiceless w followed by an o or u sound, concluded by closure of the lips. The phonetic significance of some early forms is uncertain.”

The phonetic significance of many of these expressions is uncertain, but the athletic significance is quite obvious!

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Etymology Grammar Punctuation Usage

Is “who’s” short for “who is” or “who has”?

Q: I avoid “who’s” when referencing “who has” as opposed to “who is,” which seems the most obvious and possibly only correct usage. Can you clarify whether “who’s” can be used for “who has,” and if other contractions like it are acceptable as well?

A: In pronoun + verb contractions like “she’s,” “he’s,” “who’s,” “that’s,” and so on, the ’s ending represents a shortening of either “is” or “has.” Both are grammatically correct, according to standard usage guides, including Pat’s book Woe Is I.

So “who’s” is a legitimate contraction of both “who is” and “who has.” Examples: “Who’s he?” … “Who’s done the dishes?”

Similarly, “what’s” is a legitimate contraction of “what is” and “what has.” Examples: “What’s your name?” … “What’s happened to you?”

However, the use of ’s as a shortening of “does” is considered a casual or informal usage. So using “what’s” for “what does” (as in “What’s he think he’s doing?”) would not be recommended for formal writing. We recently had posting about this.

One last point: A lot of people think contractions aren’t quite right, especially when they want their writing to be at its very best. If you’re one of them, think again.

As we write in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, writers have been using contractions since Anglo-Saxon days.

Old English contractions include nis from ne is (“is not”), naes from ne waes (“was not”), nolde from ne wolde (“would not”), naefde from ne haefde (“did not have”), and nat from ne wat (“does not know”).

“And such shortenings were an accepted part of the language for hundreds of years,” we say. “In Elizabethan times, for instance, Shakespeare didn’t spare contractions. He used them in dialogue (‘But he’s an arrant knave’—Hamlet), in titles (All’s Well That Ends Well ), and in sonnets (‘That’s for thyself to breed another thee’).”

It wasn’t until the early 1700s that anybody thought to question the use of contractions. Addison, Swift, Pope, and others began raising questions about their suitability in print, though educated people routinely used them in conversation.

By the late 18th century, contractions were tolerated in speech but considered a no-no in writing. But by the early 20th century, contractions were back in favor again.

In the 1920s, Henry Fowler used them without comment in his famous usage guide, and most writing handbooks now recommend contractions.

Lots of traditionalists, however, still haven’t gotten the word.

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Etymology Grammar Usage

Does “let’s” need lexical support?

Q: In a book I’m reading, a character says, “Let’s begin the chase, you and I.” This sounds correct, at least to me, but analyzing the line got me thinking that maybe it should be “you and me.” In my own writing, which should I use?

A: In spoken English, “let’s” (or “let us”) is often followed by either “you and I” or “you and me”—with or without words and punctuation between the two parts.

Is one version better than the other? Not really. The case of the accompanying pronouns—nominative “you and I” or objective “you and me”—doesn’t much matter.

This is because the “us” that’s part of the contraction “let’s” is all the pronoun you need, strictly speaking.

So adding either “you and I” or “you and me” is technically redundant—similar to adding “us” and creating the pronoun-heavy “let’s us.”

So arguments about the “correct” grammatical case here are pointless. We’re talking about idiomatic, colloquial expressions that are common and generally acceptable in speech.

“Let’s you and I” and “let’s you and me” are seldom found in written English, except in writing that’s reproducing speech, like that of the character in the book you mentioned.

Now for a little historical perspective.

The contraction “let’s” has been around since at least as far back as Elizabethan times. Shakespeare used it hundreds of times in his plays, including King Henry VI, Part II, with its famous line “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Generally, the verb “let” is used with pronouns in the objective case: “let me,” “let us,” “let him,” and so on.

But over the years, “let” has occasionally been used with pronouns in the nominative case. The grammarian Otto Jespersen, in his Essentials of English Grammar, cites several examples, including this one from Byron: “Let He who made thee answer that.”

And in spoken English, “let’s” has been used with extra pronouns in both cases.

The Oxford English Dictionary labels “let’s you and me (or you and I, or us)” as a colloquial usage—that is, characteristic of spoken rather than written English—and calls it an “irregular phrase.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage describes the construction as idiomatic and has this to say: “Let’s can also be followed by a pair of pronouns in either the nominative or the objective case; the constructions occur in both American and British English.”

The quotations that follow include examples in the nominative case (like “let’s you and I go together,” from Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1895 play The Benefit of the Doubt), and in the objective case (“Let’s you and me duck out of here,” from John D. MacDonald’s 1950 novel The Brass Cupcake).

We’ll also provide an example, though it doesn’t use the contraction: “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky.” from T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915).

(Obviously, “you and I” rhymes with “sky.” But if the last word in the second line had been “sea,” who knows? Eliot might have written “you and me.”)

But back to Merriam-Webster’s and the “let’s” usages. It notes that these “are idiomatic constructions—no matter what the case of the pronoun—found almost exclusively in spoken English.”

“You can use whichever of them sounds right to you wherever you would use speech forms in writing,” M-W adds. “You will probably not need any of them in anything you write that is at all removed from speech.”

Perhaps what we ought to be asking is why speakers feel the need to add either pair—“you and I” or “you and me”—to “let’s” in the first place. (People never use “let’s we,” and “let’s us” is widely frowned upon.)

Some grammarians believe that “let’s” is treated here as a single unit rather than a contraction of “let us”—that is to say, the “us” is swallowed up.

Consequently, the speaker senses that “let’s” needs some propping up, and adds “you and me” or the slightly more formal-sounding “you and I.”

This would also account for the similar constructions “let’s both” and “let’s each,” as well as the even more propped-up “let’s both of us” and “let’s each of us.”

In all these “let’s” phrases, notice how the “us” represented by that ’s has almost disappeared.

A modern grammarian might say that “us” or ’s has been “desemanticized” or has experienced “semantic loss,” and thus requires additional information in the way of “lexical support.”

It’s been argued now and then that because the object pronoun “us” is part of the contraction, any propping up should be done with pronouns in a similar case. By this argument, “let’s you and me” is preferable to “let’s you and I.”

But in our opinion, that argument merely creates the illusion that “correctness” is possible (or even desirable) here. As the OED says, this is an “irregular phrase” no matter what the case.

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Etymology Usage

Idiom proof

Q: Can the words “colloquial” and “idiomatic” be used interchangeably? Is “idiomatic” somewhat more formal?

A: The terms “idiomatic” and “colloquial” widely overlap, but they aren’t identical. In general, a colloquialism is a spoken usage, but idioms can be found in speech as well as in writing, even in formal prose.

We wrote an extensive blog item last year about the term “idiomatic.” As we say in that posting, “Broadly speaking, an idiom is simply a peculiarity of language.”

An idiom might be an expression or grammatical construction that’s unusual in some way—peculiar to a language, a region, a dialect, a time period, or a group of people.

(For example, groups like doctors, mechanics, and teenagers all have their own vocabularies and expressions, which might be described as idiomatic.)

“Idiom” is a very broad term and can even refer to a distinctive literary expression. In our blog entry, for instance, we noted that in the 17th century John Donne called the biblical “amen” an idiom.

Some idioms aren’t easily translated, or can’t be taken literally. As the Oxford English Dictionary says, an idiom can be “a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from the meanings of the individual words.”

“Colloquial,” on the other hand, means characteristic of spoken language. So colloquialisms are more likely to be found in common speech than in formal written English.

The OED says the word “colloquial,” first used by Samuel Johnson in 1751, means “of or pertaining to colloquy; conversational.”

Both “colloquial” and “colloquy” (a conversation or dialogue) are derived from Latin, in which the prefix col- means together and the verb loqui means to speak

When “colloquial” is used in reference to words, phrases, and so on, the OED says, it means “belonging to common speech; characteristic of or proper to ordinary conversation, as distinguished from formal or elevated language. (The usual sense.)”

In summary, many colloquialisms can be described as idioms—like “I could care less,” which isn’t meant literally, or “that dress just isn’t you,” which wouldn’t make sense in another language.

But not all idioms are colloquial. Phrases like “weather permitting” or “on the other hand” are idioms commonly used in writing as well as speech.

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Etymology Usage

An appetizing question

Q: Pat seemed puzzled during her last appearance on the Leonard Lopate Show by the use of the noun “appetizing” for such things as smoked fish, bagels, and cream cheese. I guess she didn’t grow up in or near a Jewish community.

A: You’re right—Pat grew up among Irish Catholics in Iowa. And Stewart, who did grow up in New York when an “appetizing” shop could be found on every other street, was home in rural Connecticut and couldn’t bail her out at the WNYC studio.

So what is an “appetizing store” and what is the “appetizing” sold there?

For an answer, we’ll go to the website of Russ & Daughters, a Lower East Side institution and one of the few appetizing stores that still survive in New York.

The noun “appetizing,” the site says, refers to “a Jewish food tradition that is most typical among American Jews, and it is particularly local to New York and New Yorkers.”

Put simply, according to Russ & Daughters, “appetizing” consists of “the foods one eats with bagels.”

And the popularity of cold appetizers like smoked fish and cream cheese to go on those bagels “led to the creation of the institution known as the appetizing store.”

“In New York City, until the 1960’s, there were appetizing stores in every borough and in almost every neighborhood,” the website says. “On the Lower East Side alone there were, at one point, thirty appetizing shops.”

The site notes that Jewish dietary laws prohibit the eating and selling of meat and dairy products together, so two different types of stores sprang up to cater to Eastern European Jewish immigrants:

“Stores selling cured and pickled meats became known as delicatessens, while shops that sold fish and dairy products became appetizing stores.”

And, as Stewart recalls, grocery stores commonly had both deli and appetizing counters when he was growing up in New York.

The word sleuth Barry Popik, on his Big Apple website, lists several early citations for “appetizing store,” including an April 7, 1914, reference in the New York Times to the “Lenox Appetizing Store, 154 Lenox Ave.”

Joel Russ opened his first appetizing store in 1914 on Orchard Street and moved it around the corner in 1920 to 179 East Houston Street, the site of the present store.

In 1933, he changed the name from “J. Russ National Appetizing Store” to “Russ & Daughters” (for his daughters Hattie, Anne, and Ida, who worked with him in the store).

The store concludes its online page about appetizing this way: “So, now that you know, please don’t call us a deli!”

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