Etymology Usage


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: Our vote goes for “6 Pairs,” a choice no usage expert would quibble with.

But some language authorities say either “pair” or “pairs” may be used here. And the “pair” usage can be defended on etymological grounds.

We’ll present the evidence and let you be the judge.

Most usage guides recommend “pairs” in a situation like this, and that includes Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), and Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I (3rd ed.).

Here’s the advice in Woe Is I: “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 pairs: Two pairs are brown.”

Fowler’s agrees: “The pl. form pairs is desirable after a numeral (e.g. seven pairs of jeans). The type seven pair of jeans is non-standard, at least in Br.E [British English].”

And here’s Garner’s: “The preferred plural of pair is pairs. In nonstandard usage, pair often appears as a plural.”

So our advice is to use “pairs” in a situation like this: “Each package contains six pairs of socks.”

Now for the dissenting voices, those that would not rule out “six pair.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “The usual plural is pairs, when there is no preceding number or indicator of number (as several).” It gives as an example “conflicting pairs of truths.”

But M-W adds: “When a number or indicator of number precedes pair, either pair or pairs may be used.” It gives examples including “six pair of pants” and “three pairs of oars.”

Another source, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), says that while “pairs” is the more common plural form, “pair” is not incorrect.

In a usage note, American Heritage says “pair” or “pairs” can be used after a number other than one, “but the plural is now more common: She bought six pairs (or pair) of stockings.”

As for the etymology, the word “pair” first showed up in English 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.”

It gives as an example “three pair shoes” and compares it to the German drei Paar Schuhe.

But Oxford notes that the usage “is now chiefly non-standard.”

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’. ” [Update: We wrote about 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 speci