Etymology Usage

A fuselage of bullets?

Q: I was listening to WNYC the other day when I heard Murray Weiss, an editor and investigative reporter, say the police fired “a fuselage of bullets” during the Sean Bell shooting. Dear me!

A: We think you heard incorrectly.

We listened to a podcast of Murray Weiss’s March 26 commentary on WNYC, in which he described the 2006 shooting of Sean Bell. What we heard Weiss say was “a fusillade of bullets,” not “a fuselage of bullets.”

So Weiss, who comments on crime at WNYC, quite properly used the word “fusillade” to describe a hail of bullets.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines “fusillade” this way: “1. A discharge from a number of firearms, fired simultaneously or in rapid succession. 2. A rapid outburst or barrage: a fusillade of insults.

English adapted the word from the French verb fusiller (to shoot). A related English word is “fusilier,” an old term (like “musketeer”) for a soldier carrying a firearm.

But we’re glad you brought this up, because we’re always coming across the incorrect usage you thought you heard.

Either “fusillade” or “barrage” would be appropriate choices to describe heavy gunfire. But not “fuselage,” which means the body of an aircraft.

Yet many people—especially in speech, but sometimes in writing—conflate “fusillade” and “barrage” and come up with “fuselage.”

We even found “a fuselage of bullets” in a 2007 article in the Washington Post about a skirmish involving a Mexican drug smuggler and Border Patrol agents. (It was later corrected after complaints from readers.)

Crime writers, of both fiction and nonfiction, also need to use their dictionaries more often. Here are a few examples (we’re quoting only partial sentences):

“Kate ducked under a heavy fuselage of bullets” (from Lorenzo Carcaterra’s novel Midnight Angels, 2010).

“He was met not only by the cold winds whipping off the Hudson River but by a fuselage of bullets” (from Philip Carlo’s The Butcher: Anatomy of a Mafia Psychopath, 2009).

“A fuselage of bullets killed Donahue instantly” (from The Boston Mob Guide: Hit Men, Hoodlums and Hideouts, by Beverly Ford and Stephanie Schorow, 2011).

We suspect that spell-check programs could be to blame for some of the written usages. One more reminder that spell-checkers can’t read your mind (not as of this writing, anyway), or take context into account.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage


Q: Having taken Latin for a number of years, I’m fastidious about using “per” in English. Yet I often see “as per” where I would use simply “per,” as in this sentence: “Per your instructions, I have enclosed an extra copy of my curriculum vitae.” I can’t think of an instance in which “as per” is correct. Can you?

A: “Per” is a very versatile preposition—in English as well as in Latin (where its meanings include through, all over, during, by means of, and for the sake of).

In English, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), the word has these meanings:

“1. To, for, or by each; for every: Gasoline once cost 40 cents per gallon. 2. According to; by: Changes were made to the manuscript per the author’s instructions. 3. By means of; through.”

(An example of that rather archaic meaning in the third definition would be “Letters take a week per Pony Express.”)

As for your question, the short answer is yes. It’s not incorrect, as you suggest, to precede “per” with “as.” That second example from American Heritage could just as well read “as per the author’s instructions.”

In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary says that “per” is “usually preceded by as” in English when the meaning is “according to,” or “as stated, indicated, or directed by.”

One of the OED’s early citations is from a 16th-century treatise on accounting methods, James Peele’s The Pathe Way to Perfectnes, in th’ Accomptes of Debitour, and Creditour (1569):

“Readie monie by him paide oute for goodes … and alowed to him self as per his accompte receaued [account received].”

Tobias Smollett used the same construction in his novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771): “This pair of boots, bran new, cost me thirty shillings, as per receipt.”

And Oscar Wilde used “as per” in an 1884 business letter: “There are a few printer’s errors in my article on Dress, which … I would like to have corrected, as per enclosed.”

Finally, here’s an example from Zuleika Dobson, Max Beerbohm’s 1911 satirical novel about undergraduate life at Oxford: “How many of you can be turned out, as per sample, in England?”

Check out our books about the English language


Due date

Q: Here’s a pet peeve. My eighth-grade English teacher taught me that “due to” should be used as an adjective and “because of” as an adverb. However, I see “due to” used instead of “because of” all the time, even in reputable literary and news sources.

A: This is a peeve that you share with the New York Times. When we were editors there, we were expected to take a close look at every “due to” that came our way.

The Times’s policy was to allow “due to” as an adjectival usage modifying a specific noun (as in, “his bankruptcy was due to a market fluctuation”).

But “due to” wasn’t allowed when modifying a verb and meaning “because of” (as in, “he went bankrupt due to the stock-market collapse”).

This was the position of most usage authorities for quite a while, but the ground is shifting.

(Keep in mind that here we’re talking about “due to” as a modifying phrase, and not about the use of “due” plus an infinitive, as in “The train is due to leave at 4:10.”)

The usage showed up in the 17th century as an adjectival phrase meaning “caused by” or “resulting from.” But over the last century and a half, it has also been used adverbially as a compound preposition meaning “because of” or “on account of.”

The newer usage is now accepted by all 10 online standard dictionaries that we regularly consult. Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, cites this example of “due to” used to modify a verb: “he had to withdraw due to a knee injury.”

Some traditionalists still object to the usage, but the Oxford English Dictionary says it “became well established during the 19th century, and is now usually regarded as acceptable standard English.”

The dictionary notes that the use of “due to” to mean “because of” was first “criticized in usage guides in the early 20th century, apparently beginning with H. W. Fowler.”

In the 1926 first edition of his Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Fowler describes it as “often used by the illiterate.” But in the 2015 fourth edition, Jeremy Butterfield says “it looks as if this use of due to is now part of the natural language of the 21c.”

[Note: This post was updated on Nov. 2, 2019.]

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a novel.

Etymology Grammar Punctuation

Lyrical punctuation

Q: Anthropologie, a price-inflated clothing company with a creatively spelled name, emailed me a sales pitch with a line of lyrics that I found hilariously alienating. Who goofed—the writer of the song or of the ad?

A: In Anthropologie’s email, the first line of Ingrid Michaelson’s song “You and I” reads this way: “Oh let’s get rich and buy our parents’ homes in the south of France.”

That possessive apostrophe doesn’t belong there.

Obviously, the indie singer-songwriter means “buy our parents homes”—that is, buy homes for the parents, not from them.

The possessive apostrophe in the email version skews the meaning into “let’s buy from our parents the homes they own in the south of France.”

But the mistake is Anthropologie’s, not Ingrid Michaelson’s. The lyrics as given on her website don’t use the apostrophe.

On the other hand, Michaelson isn’t entirely without blame. In the lyrics on her website, the contraction “let’s” is missing its apostrophe. And everything is lowercase, even “France.”

However, we aren’t usually bothered by lyric writers who take liberties with English. We’ve said before on the blog that lyricists are exempt from the rules of grammar, syntax, usage, spelling, pronunciation, and even logic!

As for the company’s “creatively spelled name,” it’s the French word for “anthropology.” In fact, the English word has occasionally been spelled that way too.

For example, that spelling is used in a 1673 English translation of De Motu Cordis, William Harvey’s 1628 book in Latin about the circulation of blood:

“I call the generall doctrine of man Anthropologie, the parts of which, I do ordain to be, according to this division, Psychologie, Somatologie, and Hœmatologie, into the doctrine of the soul, bodie, and blood.”

In case you’re curious, “anthropology” (spelled with a “y”) entered English in the late 16th century.

In fact, the first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1593 work by another Harvey, the astrologer and polemicist Richard Harvey:

“Genealogy or issue which they had, Artes which they studied, Actes which they did. This part of History is named Anthropology.”

The word is ultimately derived from the Greek anthropos (man) and –logia (a science or area of study).

Check out our books about the English language


Let’s recombobulate

Q: Your posting on “discombobulate” reminds me of a sign at the Milwaukee airport. After undergoing the indignities of TSA screening, you enter the RECOMBOBULATION AREA, a place to sit down and put shoes, belt, etc., back on.

A: Yes, “recombobulate” fills a much needed gap! It implies putting yourself back together after being discombobulated. And what’s more discombobulating than going through airport screening?

We haven’t been through the Milwaukee airport since that sign was mounted, but we recall that it generated some news. Garrison Keillor, for instance, commented on it in an Op-Ed column in the New York Times a couple of years ago. He wrote:

“My heart was gladdened by an official-looking sign in the Milwaukee airport, just beyond the security checkpoint, hanging over where you put your shoes and coat back on and stuff your laptop back in the case: The sign said, ‘Recombobulation Area.’ The English language gains a new word. Recombobulate, America. Pull yourself together, tie your shoelaces, and if your pilot is wearing a button that says ‘To hell with the F.A.A.,’ wait for the next flight.”

(We’ve noticed images online of two different recombobulation signs at the Milwaukee airport, one with all the letters capitalized and one with just the first letter of each word capped.)

The airport put up its sign in 2008, but “recombobulate” and “recombobulation” were in the air (no pun intended) long before that. We’ve found examples going back to 1970, and our guess is that they weren’t the first.

Margaret Bennett used the verb in her book How To Ski Just a Little Bit (1970): “If you find this happening, put your weight on your outside ski and ride that until you’re recombobulated and back on course.”

And Amanda Cross (a k a Carolyn Heilbrun) used the noun in her mystery Poetic Justice (1970): “ ‘To return,’ Reed said, ‘to the conversation of last night, why has misrule and horseplay brought you to such a state of discombobulation? Or, since it has, may I offer my help in recombobulation?’ ”

Even if “recombobulation” isn’t all that new, we’re glad to know that the Transportation Security Administration people at General Mitchell International Airport have a sense of humor.

In case anyone is wondering, “discombobulate” isn’t a negative version of “combobulate,” as a reader of the blog has suggested. In our earlier posting, we note that “discombobulate” is a joke word formed in 19th-century America.

Check out our books about the English language

Grammar Usage

Little orphan “any”

Q: I wonder if you’re as struck as I am by the use of “any” in comparisons. Here’s one example: “the hottest of any year since records were kept.” Is this correct?

A: The use of the phrases “than any” and “of any” can sometimes be illogical when used to make comparisons.

Some usage authorities object to these constructions when not strictly logical, but others consider them acceptable idiomatic English. We’re somewhere in the middle.

The difficulty is more obvious in comparative phrases combining “than any” with words like “better” or “taller” or “bigger.”

The problem is less easy to see in superlative phrases combining “of any” with “best,” “tallest,” “biggest,” and so on.

For example, a comparative phrase like “louder than any singer in the choir” would make more sense as “louder than any other singer in the choir.” (A singer can’t be louder than himself.)

And in our opinion, “of any” can be illogical in superlative phrases as well. For instance, “the prettiest of any of her dresses” isn’t as logical as “the prettiest of all her dresses.”

That’s because the phrase “any of her dresses” implies that the comparison is being made individually—dress by dress by dress—which would call for a comparative phrase: “prettier than any of her other dresses.”

But you can find language commentators who’d consider this nitpicking, and there’s sometimes a fine line between a sensible superlative comparison and one that falls on the ear with a thud.

The phrase you mention—“the hottest of any year since records were kept”—seems reasonable to us.

But is “of any” really necessary here? Why not simply “the hottest year since records were kept” or “the hottest year on record”?

R. W. Burchfield, who edited the revised third edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, put the problem this way:

“A fine net of illogicality mars constructions of the types this is the most brutal piece of legislation of any passed by this government (read this is a more brutal piece of legislation than any other passed by this government), and a better book than any written by this author (read than any others).”

We generally agree with Burchfield, though we’d drop the “any” business entirely in his first example: “this is the most brutal piece of legislation passed by this government.”

As we’ve said, some usage authorities disagree with us, and see no problem with using “of any” in superlative comparisons.

For example, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says that in 2009, three-quarters of its Usage Panel accepted the sentence “He is the best known of any living playwright.”

And Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage calls this kind of construction a “long established idiom.”

Still, we have to ask, why not simply “the best known living playwright”? Why make this a comparison at all?

As we’ve said before, reasonable people can disagree. We think that when comparisons are being made, “than any” is problematic in comparative phrases and “of any” is problematic—and can often be dropped—in superlative ones.

Check out our books about the English language

English language Usage

Queer studies

Q: I had to laugh at your TripAdvisor post about the censoring of the word “cum.” Something similar happened to me when I tried to leave a comment on a newspaper’s website. I had to edit my remarks to avoid using the word “queer” in the sense of odd. Maybe someday comment filters will be smart enough to recognize context.

A: It would be great if comment-filtering programs had brains, and could distinguish innocuous usages from loaded ones. But technology has its limits. Don’t expect to see a filter with a high IQ for quite a while.

Your use of “queer” in the old, traditional sense was of course legitimate, as was the usage we wrote about in that blog posting.

An amused reader had told us that her use of the respectable preposition “cum”—as in “a language school cum Eco hotel”—was blocked on Trip Advisor’s website.

Interestingly, the Google search box on OUR website blocks the TripAdvisor posting when tuned to its default SafeSearch setting!

We’ve discussed “queer” before on our blog, within a posting about the history of the word “gay.”

As we said, the origins of “queer” are uncertain, though it may be related to the German quer (oblique or at odds). It’s been in English in the ordinary sense (peculiar or strange) since the 1500s.

Published references in the Oxford English Dictionary indicate that “queer” in the sense of homosexual was first recorded as a noun in 1894 and as an adjective in 1914.

But in the early decades of its usage, that sense of “queer” (as with “gay”) was often an inside joke. A sophisticated writer could get some sly humor by using the word in two ways at once.

In our posting about “gay,” we cited this example from a 1939 song lyric by Noel Coward: “Everyone’s here and frightfully gay, / Nobody cares what people say, / Though the Riviera / Seems really much queerer / Than Rome at its height.”

We came across another double-edged usage recently while rereading Angela Thirkell’s 1934 comic novel Wild Strawberries.

One of the minor characters is an effeminate young BBC commentator whose hobby is embroidery and who’s headed for a “companionate marriage” with a female colleague.

His aunt says of him: “Queer boy, Lionel. I’d let my girls go out with him, but I don’t know that I’d let my boys.”

We’re huge fans of Thirkell, by the way, and we’re pretty sure she knew what she was doing with “queer” in that passage.

Her novels occasionally include gay characters, like Miss Hampton and Miss Bent, a couple who live in a village in Thirkell’s fictional Barsetshire (yes, Anthony Trollope’s county dragged into the 20th century).

Miss Hampton, “the strong and gentlemanly spirit of the pair,” makes a study of “vice” and writes earthy novels (like Temptation at St. Anthony’s, set in a boys’ school) that are selected by the Banned-Book-of-the-Month Club.

And Thirkell enjoys naughty puns. For example, some of her younger characters are prep-school boys who enjoy baiting—or teasing—the schoolmasters. In at least three of her novels, she refers to them as “master baiters.”

Oh, dear. We’ve divagated a bit from our original point—that a perfectly innocent word can be interpreted as something to be filtered out by Big Brother.

Until a program is invented that can handle meanings with the delicacy of a Noel Coward or an Angela Thirkell, comment filters will continue to make asses of themselves.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Grammar Usage

Pleonastically speaking

Q: Which of these two sentences is right? And why? (1) “He was the boy whose job was to plow the field.” (2) “He was the boy whose job it was to plow the field.” Many thanks for any help you can provide.

A: This is a very interesting question. The short answer is that both versions, with and without “it,” are acceptable. The longer answer—the why—is a bit more complicated.

In the final clauses of both sentences (the part beginning “whose job …”), the subject is “job,” the verb is “was,” and the object is the infinitive phrase “to plow the field.”

But in the second version, “it” has been added after “job.” In effect, the pronoun amounts to an extra subject, a doubling of the real one.

Within its entries for “it,” the Oxford English Dictionary says the pronoun is sometimes “used pleonastically after the noun subject.” (Pleonasm is the use of more words than are required.)

The extra (or pleonastic) “it” is especially common in archaic writings and in poetry—as in Shakespeare’s “For the rain it raineth every day,” sung by both the clown in Twelfth Night and the fool in King Lear.

Here’s where things get complicated. Despite its long history, today this usage is frowned upon in some cases and acceptable in others.

The use of an extra subject pronoun is now considered nonstandard in clauses like “my brother he said” or “her car it broke down.”

But the redundant “it” is still acceptable, even a bit literary sounding, in such constructions as “whose job it was to plow the field.”

In fact, we’ve noticed that this construction is especially common in clauses beginning with “whose,” where the verb is a form of “be” and the object is an infinitive phrase.

For example, “whose task it is to cut the budget,” “whose aim it was to start anew,” “whose duty it is to volunteer,” “whose purpose it was to topple the dictator,” “whose mandate it is to find a cure,” and so on.

No one frowns on usages like that, though “my brother he said” and “her car it broke down” raise a lot of eyebrows.

Why? We don’t know, but the construction with the infinitive phrase somehow managed to survive from older English with its reputation intact while the others lost respectability along the way.

In the acceptable usages we mentioned, the pronoun “it” is certainly not necessary. It seems to be added either for emphasis or for some other rhetorical purpose—for instance, variety or rhythm.

We say this because sometimes good writers will use such phrases both with and without the extra “it” in the same passage. We’ll cite a couple of examples, highlighting the phrases in boldface italics.

From Julie Salamon’s novel White Lies (1987):

“Jamaica at times played the worldly younger sister, whose job was to keep her cloistered, somewhat academic doctor-sister in touch with the goings on in the big world out there. … Geneva would become the wise commentator, whose job it was to press a mirror to her sister’s face and force her to acknowledge the presence of an adult on the glistening surface.”

From the memoir Stolen Lives (2001), by Malika Oufkir and Michéle Fitoussi:

“Then came the housekeepers, whose job was to supervise the running of the Palace and to maintain the traditions that the King valued. Muhammad V had a concubine whose job it was, on feast days, to dress him in his ceremonial costume, a white jellabah and trousers.”

The extra “it” alters the rhythm and avoids the monotony of having “whose job was” appear twice within the same passage.

Notice that in all these cases, the object of the verb “be” is an infinitive phrase: “was to keep her … sister,” “was to press a mirror,” “was to supervise the running,” and so on.

There’s yet another kind of optional “it” construction, one that creates a double object instead of a double subject. This one, too, is considered idiomatic rather than incorrect.

Here the optional “it” immediately follows the verb and precedes clauses beginning with “that.” We’ll invent a couple of examples: “I regret [it] that you took offense at my email” … “Mom resents [it] that you took the car without asking.”

The “it” in such sentences, according to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, “can be omitted without any apparent change in meaning.”

Similarly, “it” can be used or omitted in certain idiomatic phrases. The examples in the Cambridge Grammar include “This brought [it] home to us that we were in great danger” and “He had taken [it] for granted that he would be given a second chance.”

But sometimes the “it” can be omitted only if the clauses are reversed.

The Cambridge Grammar says, for example, that “it” is required here: “We owe it to you that we got off so lightly.” But in reverse, the “it” is dropped: “That we got off so lightly we owe to you.”

Sorry we can’t be more enlightening, but we hope this helps.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Pronunciation

Sound bites: “envelop” vs. “envelope”

Q: Why do we have a choice in pronouncing the noun “envelope” while the verb “envelop” is so unforgiving?

A: We touched briefly on the “envelop/envelope” issue in a recent posting about heteronyms, words with identical spellings but different pronunciations and meanings.

As we said in that posting, some identically spelled words can be either verbs or nouns, depending on how they’re pronounced. For example, “record” (accented on the second syllable) is a verb, while “record” (accented on the first) is a noun.

Similarly, “conflict” (accented on the second syllable) is a verb, while “conflict” (accented on the first) is a noun. Some other words that follow this pattern include “permit,” “extract,” “addict,” “combat,” “compound,” “conduct,” “incense,” “insult,” “present,” “produce,” and “subject.”

[Note: A later post, on the pronunciation of “concept” as a verb, appeared in June 2019.]

But occasionally a spelling will change with a move in the stressed syllable, and this is what happened with the verb “envelop” (accented on the second syllable) and the noun “envelope” (accented on the first).

Here’s a little history.

The verb, “envelop” (from the Old French envoluper), came into English first.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation is from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale” (1386): “For he is most envoliped in synne.”

The noun (from the Modern French French enveloppe) didn’t appear until the early 1700s.

The OED has this early citation from a memoir by Bishop Gilbert Burnet, written sometime before 1715:

“A letter from the King of Spain was given to his daughter by the Spanish Ambassador, and she tore the envelope, and let it fall.”

In modern usage, the verb is always spelled “envelop” and stressed on the second syllable (en-VEH-lup). Rhythmically, it’s similar to the verb “develop.”

And the noun is always spelled “envelope” and stressed on the first syllable (EN-vuh-lope or AWN-vuh-lope). The only variation is in the vowel sound of the first syllable, and both are accepted as standard English.

Why, you ask, do we have one pronunciation for the verb and two for the noun?

Well, the noun entered English in the 18th century, when many educated English speakers favored French pronunciations for words derived from French.

While the French-sounding AWN pronunciation isn’t wrong, it’s hard to justify.

As the OED says, “this pronunciation, or rather some awkward attempt at it … is still very frequently heard, though there is no good reason for giving a foreign sound to a word which no one regards as alien, and which has been anglicized in spelling for nearly 200 years.”

And as Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) notes, the figure is more like 300 years by now, “plenty of time for it to become completely anglicized.”

Finally, if you’d like to read about an “envelope” that’s pushed, not posted, we had a posting a couple of years ago about “pushing the envelope.”

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage

Remembrance of things past

Q: I used to see a lot more verbs with irregular past tenses (“lit,” “leapt,” “woke,” etc.).  But now I usually see regular endings (“lighted,” “leaped,” “waked,” etc.). Is this something new or am I just imagining it?

A: You’re just imagining it. There’s a name for this phenomenon: the “recency illusion.”

The linguist Arnold Zwicky came up with the term, which he has defined as “the belief that things YOU have noticed only recently are in fact recent.”

Some verbs have two possible endings for the past tense and past participle: either “-d” or “-t.” For example, “light” can use either “lighted” or “lit,” and “leap” can use either “leaped” or “leapt.” There’s no irregularity in using one or the other.

This is the case with many other verbs as well. Both forms, “-ed” and “-t,” are standard English and have been part of the language since the Middle Ages.

Here’s how Pat wrote about verbs like these in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

“He spilled the milk, or he spilt it? He burned the toast, or he burnt it? Actually, they’re all correct.

“Most English verbs form the past tense the familiar way, by adding d or ed at the end (for example, sneeze becomes sneezed). But some past forms end in t, including bent (except in the phrase on bended knee), crept, dealt, felt, kept, left, lost, meant, slept, spent, swept, and wept.

“Still other verbs, like spill and burn, are in between and can form the past tense with either ed or t. In some cases, ed is more common in the United States, and in other cases t, but they’re both correct, so the choice is yours. In these examples, the spellings I use are given first and the others, many of which are popular in Britain, follow in parentheses: bereaved (bereft), burned (burnt), dreamed (dreamt), dwelt (dwelled ), knelt (kneeled), leaped (leapt), learned (learnt), smelled (smelt), spelled (spelt), spilled (spilt), spoiled (spoilt).”

As for “wake,” we’ve written about it on our blog as well as in our book Origins of the Specious. Here’s an excerpt from Origins about “waked” versus “woken”:

“Both are correct. Since the early 1600s, ‘woken’ has been a bona fide past participle (a verb form that among other things is used with the verb ‘have’ to make compound tenses).

“We’ve always had lots of ways to talk about getting up in the morning, perhaps too many. ‘Wake,’ ‘waken,’ ‘awake,’ and ‘awaken’ are an intimidating bunch. The problem is an embarrassment of riches: There are so many correct ways to use them. Here are the acceptable present, past, and present perfect tenses, according to modern dictionaries.

“• I wake / I woke or I waked / I have woken, I have waked, or I have woke.

“• I waken / I wakened / I have wakened.

“• I awake / I awoke or I awaked / I have awoken, I have awaked, or I have awoke.

“• I awaken / I awakened / I have awakened.”

With so many ways to talk about waking up, you’ll probably be right no matter which one you choose.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

Can three things be back to back?

Q: I bristle at the use of “back to back” for more than two things: “I’ve had over a dozen appointments today, all back to back.” Have you blessed this construction?

A: Some old familiar idioms lose their literal meaning over the years. This is the case with “back to back.”

In modern usage, this phrase is often used to describe not only physical objects alongside each other, but also events that come one after another.

As we all know, events come in threes and fours as well as twos, while logic would require that only two things can be “back to back.”

Besides, events don’t really have fronts and backs. And even if they did, they’d follow one another “front to back,” not “back to back.”

The point is that the phrase “back to back” has broken the bounds of logic.

There are several literal examples in the Oxford English Dictionary of the phrase used adverbially, including this one from a ballad version of Robin Hood (circa 1500): “And there they turnd them back to back.”

The OED’s earliest examples of the phrase used adjectivally (and hyphenated) are in 19th-century writings about houses. In those days, the phrase was meant literally.

The first quotation is from Dr. Lyon Playfair’s Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Large Towns in Lancashire (1845): “Back-to-back houses cannot be considered dwellings of proper construction.”

A century later, the phrase was used literally to describe paired fireplaces. This OED citation is from the sociologist Dennis Chapman’s The Home and Social Status (1954):

“The other living-room usually has a ‘back-to-back’ combination fireplace ‘shared’ with the kitchen.”

But when used to describe events, the OED says, the phrase means “following one upon another without a break, consecutive.” And by extension, it also means “full, crowded.”

The use of “back to back” for events is “chiefly” American, the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a sports story that appeared in the New York Times on August 24, 1952:

“Back to back doubles by Gene Woodling and Joe Collins off Early Wynn in the fourth inning produced the only tally of the day.” (The Yankees beat the Indians, 1-0.)

And here’s an example of the phrase used in the sense of “crowded.” It’s from Lady Bird Johnson’s A White House Diary (1970): “Today was one of those full, back-to-back Washington days.”

Have we, you ask, blessed such constructions? We think the nonliteral use of “back to back” is now firmly established in English.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines the adverbial “back to back” as an idiom meaning “consecutively and without interruption: presented three speeches back to back.”

The dictionary defines the adjectival “back-to-back” as meaning “consecutive; successive: back-to-back performances; back-to-back home runs.”

American Heritage doesn’t even bother with the literal meaning. But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives two definitions: (1) “facing in opposite directions and often touching,” and (2) “coming one after the other: consecutive.”

Apparently the only problem with this usage is what to do about the hyphens. Our advice is to use hyphens only when the phrase is used adjectivally before a noun (“back-to-back doubles”). Otherwise, drop the hyphens.

Check out our books about the English language


Gilding the Bard

Q: I’m an old curmudgeon and it gets under my skin whenever I hear someone say Shakespeare coined the phrase “gilding the lily.” The actual quote is “Painting the lily or gilding pure gold.”

A: You’re right in thinking that Shakespeare never suggested gilding a lily. Here’s the quotation, from King John (probably written in the late 1590s):

“To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, / To throw a perfume on the violet, / To smooth the ice, or add another hue / Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light / To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, / Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”

That quotation, though, strikes us as a perfect example of gilding the lily. The Oxford English Dictionary has this definition: “to paint (or to gild) the lily: to embellish excessively, to add ornament where none is needed.”

While the original Shakespearean phrase was “paint the lily,” the misquotation “gild the lily” is far and away the more popular version.

In fact, there’s not much of a comparison. A Google search turns up 4.6 million hits for “gild the lily,” but only 108,000 for “paint the lily”—and many of those are attempts to correct the misquotation.

Like it or not, the misquotation has become an English idiom. Why did it become so instilled in the popular imagination?

Possibly because of the assonance of the vowels and the alliteration of the “l” in “gild” and “lily.” That’s just our guess. Or perhaps because the idea of gilding a lily—that is, covering it in gold—is even more outrageous than painting it.

But if it’s any consolation—and it probably won’t be, to an admitted curmudgeon like you—many other Shakespearean phrases have been embellished a bit in the 400 years since they were written.

For example, in King Henry IV, Part I, Shakespeare wrote, “The better part of valour is discretion,” not “Discretion is the better part of valour.”

In Macbeth, he wrote, “Lay on, Macduff,” not “Lead on, Macduff.” Macbeth was encouraging Macduff to fight, not precede him.

In the same play, Shakespeare wrote, “Double, double toil and trouble,” not “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.” The witches’ intent was to multiply the mischief.

In Hamlet, he wrote, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio,” not “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him well.”

We’ve written before on our blog about another misquotation from Hamlet. Shakespeare wrote “to the manner born,” not “to the manor born.”

But Shakespeare was a realist who worked hard for a living. He would have though it better to be misquoted than not to be quoted at all.

Check out our books about the English language


Why does “ameliorate” mean “meliorate”?

Q: My question is about “meliorate” and “ameliorate.” They mean the same thing, but shouldn’t the “a” at the beginning of the latter negate the former?

A: These words mean the same thing—mostly.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “meliorate,” which came into English in the mid-16th century, as “to make better; to improve.”

This meaning is identical to that of “ameliorate,” which entered the language some 200 years later.

But according to the OED, “meliorate” has another meaning the newer verb doesn’t have: “to mitigate (suffering, ill feeling, etc.).” To mitigate a trouble or difficulty means to lessen or alleviate it.

Unlike the OED, however, standard American dictionaries fuzz the difference between the verbs.

The US references  say that to “ameliorate” a situation means not only to make it better but also to make it more tolerable—which sounds perilously close to mitigating it.

So for all practical purposes, the difference seems hardly worth worrying about.

Both “meliorate” and “ameliorate,” according to the OED, can be traced to the classical Latin adjective melior (better), which is the source of the post-classical Latin verb meliorare (to make or become better) and noun melioratio (improvement, betterment).

So how did English end up with two words—“meliorate” and “ameliorate”—when the original one would do?

For the answer, we look to French, which was a strong influence on British usage in the 18th century.

The influence in this case, says the OED, was the French word améliorer (meaning refashioned), which came from an Old French verb, ameillorer (to make better). The French verbs incorporate the preposition à.

English speakers in the latter part of the 18th century began adding an “a-” and using “ameliorate,” patterning this new formation on the French améliorer, when the meaning was to improve or get better.

Meanwhile, the two original senses of “meliorate” (to mitigate as well as to improve or get better) stuck with the original verb.

As for the “a-” prefix, it isn’t always negative (as in “amoral”). Its other meanings include “on” (“abed”), in the act of (“a-fishing”), a state or condition (“afire”), in such a manner (“aloud”), and in the direction of (“astern”).

Check out our books about the English language

English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage

Hear Pat live today on WNYC

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

 Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

What’s the takeaway?

Q: Sometimes the things political pundits say on the air send me screaming from the room. Other times, I just cringe and stick my fingers in my ears. Take, for example, “takeaway,” a word that sticks in my craw. WHERE did it come from?

A: We first noticed this use of the noun “takeaway” about five years ago when a newcomer brought it with him to our rural New England town.

But the usage was undoubtedly around in the US before that, and it has roots in an earlier adjectival use in Britain dating from the early 1960s.

As far as we know, however, only one standard dictionary, British or American, includes this newish sense of “takeaway.”

The recently published American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) includes this definition: “The lesson or principle that one learns from a story or event. Used with the.”

Most of the Oxford English Dictionary’s entries for the adjective and noun “take-away” (which it hyphenates) have to do with the kind of food that Americans call “takeout” (a term that’s been in use in the US since the early 1940s).

In Britain, for example, “take-away” is food that’s meant to be eaten off the premises, and a “take-away” is a shop that sells takeout food. These date from ’60s and ’70s, the OED says.

But the OED has a more general definition of the adjective “take-away,” referring to anything “that may be taken away.” And—voila!—here’s where we find usages similar to the one we’re after.

The citations the OED gives for the general adjective “take-away” refer to food (early 1960s), exam papers (early ’70s), and finally to messages or lessons (mid-’70s).

Here, for example, is one from a 1976 issue of Nature magazine: “The takeaway message of the Dunbars’ monograph is that superficially similar social systems may be the product of different behavioural arrangements.”

And this one is from the London Review of Books (1982): “As a takeaway sample of what he had in mind, Alvarez contrasted the horses of Larkin’s poem ‘At Grass’ … with the ‘urgent’ horses of Ted Hughes’s ‘A Dream of Horses.’ ”

So what’s the takeaway here? Should we conclude that the message or lesson sense of the noun “takeaway” is ultimately derived from the food term?

Perhaps, but the answer is probably much simpler. It seems likely to us that the sense of “takeaway” as a lesson or message is merely an extension of the verbal phrase to “take away.”

We’ve often heard similar (though less annoying) usages, like “What did you take away from the corporate retreat?” and “I took away a feeling of camaraderie.” It’s only a short jump to “What was your takeaway from the corporate retreat?”

While we’re at it, we should mention that the noun has other definitions as well. As American Heritage says, a “takeaway” can be “a concession made by a labor union during contract negotiations; a giveback.”

And in sports terminology, a “takeaway” is also an act or instance of taking away the ball or puck from an opposing team, according to AH and to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

Both the OED and Merriam-Webster’s include another sports usage, in which “takeaway” means the initial movement of  a golf club at the beginning of a backswing. The OED’s first example is from the early 1960s.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Pronunciation Punctuation Spelling Usage

Was the Founders’ English less than perfect?

Q: A coworker points out that the Founding Fathers used “insure” incorrectly. Of course no one wants to say Thomas Jefferson was wrong! And as you note, “ensure” and “insure” have much in common.

A: The Constitution and its Preamble were written in 1787, and the language, capitalizations, and spellings reflect the usage of the day. The Preamble reads:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

We’ve reproduced the original 1787 spellings, quoting from the document held in the National Archives. The spellings “defence” (still used in British English) and “insure” were common usage in the 18th century.

As we’ve written before on our blog, in current usage to “insure” is to issue or buy insurance against financial loss, while to “ensure” is to make certain of something.

That’s the usual practice, and the one recommended by usage guides, though dictionaries say the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably.

Meanwhile, in current usage to “assure” means to reassure or remove doubt, though the British sometimes use the term in the technical sense of to underwrite financial loss.

As you can see, English usage changes over time!

Thomas Jefferson used “insure” in the general sense in a memoir he wrote in 1825, cited in the Oxford English Dictionary: “A recurrence to these letters now insures me against errors of memory.”

Jefferson, by the way, didn’t write the Preamble or any other part of the Constitution. He was ambassador to France at the time, and was out of the country during the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

But he did write the Declaration of Independence in 1776, though a few touches were added by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.

The authorship of the Preamble and much of the rest of the Constitution is credited to another of the Founders, Gouverneur Morris, who was a Pennsylvania delegate to the 1787 convention.

In the past, we’ve answered several other questions about the Preamble, in case you’re interested.

In 2011, we had postings in May and November about the phrase “We the People.” And in 2008, we had postings in January and November about the phrase “more perfect.”

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

Do we need a new word to express equivalence?

Q: A Slate headline: “Stop Comparing Fukushima to Chernobyl.” Huh? We can’t compare two nuclear accidents because one was much worse? Isn’t that what a comparison is? Many people seem to think “compare” just means finding things equivalent. But how might one express such equivalence? We need a word, perhaps “equivalate.”

A: English does seem to need a verb meaning “to regard as equivalent” or “to find similar.”

“Liken” is sometimes appropriate, and a lot of verbs come close: “approximate,” “equal,” “imitate,” “match,” “parallel,” “resemble,” and so on. But they’re not quite there, or might not always do. The verb “equate,” for example, can mean to make equivalent as well as to regard as equivalent.

Actually, there is a verb that’s equal to the task, “equivale,” but it’s considered rare or obsolete. English adapted it in the early 17th century from the French équivaloir, which is derived from the Late Latin æquivalēre (to have equal force).

The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for “equivale” lists two meanings: (1) to provide an equivalent, and (2) to be equivalent to.

The OED doesn’t have any written examples for the first sense, and describes it as obsolete. The dictionary describes the second sense as rare and has several examples from the 1600s, but none since then.

If enough people feel the need, perhaps “equivale” may be revived one day or perhaps your suggestion, “equivalate,” may catch on.

Certainly, “compare” can’t always be relied on to do the job. Are people right to take offense over its use? On that point we’re forced to equivocate. Perhaps they’re right, but then again maybe they’re being oversensitive.

In modern English, to “compare” two things isn’t necessarily to find them equivalent. It can have that meaning, but it can also mean to merely examine for similarities and differences. Here’s the story.

Our verb “compare” comes from French and ultimately from Latin, in which comparare literally means “to pair together, couple, match, bring together,” according to the OED.

When it was first used in English writing, in 1447, “compare” did have that narrower meaning. It was generally followed by “to” and meant “to speak of or represent as similar; to liken.”

Here’s an example from Thomas Starkey, written sometime before 1538: “The one may … be comparyd to the body & the other to the soule.”

When this sense of “compare” is used in the negative (as in “not to be compared to”), the expression usually implies “great inferiority in some respect,” the OED says.

Here’s an example from a 1611 version of the Bible: “All the things thou canst desire, are not to be compared vnto her.”

Note that in this sense, the verb “liken” could replace “compare.”

However, a broader sense of the word emerged soon after the original.

This meaning, first recorded in the early 1500s, is defined by the OED as “to mark or point out the similarities and differences of (two or more things); to bring or place together (actually or mentally) for the purpose of noting the similarities and differences.”

Here are examples of this usage, from the pens of famous writers:

Sir Robert Burton: “Whats … the world it self … if compared to the least visible Star in the Firmament?” (from The Anatomy of Melancholy, before 1640).

John Milton: “To compare Great things with small” (from Paradise Lost, 1667).

Ralph Waldo Emerson: “In England … property stands for more, compared with personal ability, than in any other [country]” (from an 1847 work on Montaigne).

Both senses of “compare”—to liken as well as to mark similarities and differences—are still alive today, which can account for hurt feelings once in a while.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has these definitions:

“1. To consider or describe as similar, equal, or analogous; liken: Is it right to compare the human mind to a computer? 2. To examine in order to note the similarities or differences of: We compared the two products for quality and cost.”

The definitions in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) are similar. Yes, we compared them for similarities and differences!

The lesson, though, is not to use “compare” loosely when sensitive topics are being discussed. The audience may assume you’re likening two things, when in fact you’re merely examining them.

Check out our books about the English language


Is the proof in the pudding?

Q: My pet peeve is misquoting. For example, saying “the proof is in the pudding” when the actual quote should be “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

A: There’s more to this old saying than meets the eye.

Quite often, an axiom is so old that its original form is lost in the mists of time, and its earliest known version has been altered through common usage by succeeding generations of English speakers.

This is the case with the “pudding” proverb, which has been around in various forms for roughly 800 years. We’ve written about it on our blog, but only briefly. So here’s some more detail.

The traditional form of the proverb, at least for the last few hundred years, has been “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” That makes sense; it means you can’t judge something until you’ve tried it.

As the Oxford English Dictionary says, the proverbial phrase and its variants mean that “the efficacy, quality, etc., of something can only be shown by putting it to its intended use.”

But the saying often appears in shorthand as “the proof is in the pudding.” And you’re right—that form does not make literal sense.

It also appears sometimes without a verb: “the proof of the pudding.” This snippet, though, does make sense. As the OED explains, “the proof of the pudding” is “that which puts something to the test or (in later use) proves a fact or statement.”

So much for the various versions. But keep in mind that even the “traditional” form we’ve mentioned isn’t the original version of the proverb, which etymologists may never be able to trace.

Proverbs by their very nature are often handed down orally. They aren’t meant to be exact quotations in the way of, say, lines of poetry or passages from speeches that were recorded in writing on the spot.

What many authorities consider the earliest known written version of this proverb showed up in English sometime before 1400—without the pudding!

Here’s how it looked in Kyng Alisaunder, a medieval poem written by an unknown author sometime in the 1300s: “It is ywrite [written] that euery thing Hym self sheweth in the tastyng.” (We replaced the runic letters known as thorns with “th.”) The OED says that in this quotation, “tasting” is used in a general sense to mean trying or testing.

The OED’s earliest record of the proverb in its modern “pudding” version—“All the proofe of a pudding, is in the eating”—is from William Camden’s Remaines of a Greater Worke, Concerning Britaine, published in 1605.

In that same year, Miguel de Cervantes published the first part of his Don Quixote in Spanish. In one episode of the novel, Sancho Panza says to Don Quixote, “al freír de los huevos lo verá” (“you’ll see when the eggs are fried”).

When Peter Anthony Motteux translated Don Quixote into English in 1700, he rendered that line very loosely, as “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” The same line was translated in 1755 by Tobias Smollett in a similar way: “the proof of the pudding, is in the eating of it.”

Footnotes in both Motteux’s and Smollett’s translations offer explanations of Cervantes’s Spanish. A 1749 edition of Motteux, for example, has this note:

“The original runs, it will be seen in the frying of the eggs. When eggs are to be fry’d, there is no knowing their goodness till they are broken. … Or, a thief stole a frying-pan, and the woman, who own’d it, meeting him, ask’d him what be was carrying away & he answer’d, you will know when your eggs are to be fry’d.”

Meanwhile, another version of the proverb showed up in 1682 in an English translation of a long poem by Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, Le Lutrin (1672-74). The line was rendered as “The proof of th’ pudding’s seen i’ the eating.”

There’s a similar version in Italian as well. Ferdinando Altieri’s Dizionario Inglese ed Italiano (English and Italian Dictionary, 1726), says the Italian proverb “La pruova del testo è la torta” translates into English as “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” (Torta is Italian for cake.)

For an early American example, we can go to the writings of Alexander Hamilton (1727): “I leave them to my Reader, with the old Proverb to accompany them, that the Proof of the Pudding is in eating it.”

We did some searches for early examples of the shorter phrase, “the proof of the pudding,” and came up with a couple of examples from the 18th century.

This passage is from a 1789 issue of The Monthly Review, a British literary journal: “As to the proof of the pudding, indeed, some of us may pretend to a little experience, in that respect.”

This earlier example is from A Tea-Table Miscellany, a collection of songs and poems published in 1762: “The proof of the pudding lies there.”

The OED has some more recent citations:

“The proof of the pudding is that some of our students break into print even before they finish the course” (from an ad in Parenting magazine, 1990).

“And the proof of the pudding is a very simple statement that the President keeps repeating: ‘It’s better to kill them there than to have them kill us here’” (from an article in the New Yorker, 2004).

As for the version that bugs you, it’s been around for nearly a century and a half. Although the OED doesn’t have any citations for “the proof is in the pudding,” a search of Google Books finds lots and lots of them. Here are a couple from the mid-1800s:

1863: “The proof is in the pudding—or the turkey if you please, so I will even ring for it” (from Joseph Anstey, a novel by D. S. Henry, the pen name of Henry Dircks).

1867: “as the proof is in the pudding, as seen at this and other gatherings, there was ample material even without cattle, to make a capital show” (from The Farmer’s Magazine).

By the way, the proverbial “pudding” wasn’t a dessert, but a sausage. As the OED explains, the proverb used the noun in its original sense.

When it entered English in the late 13th century, Oxford says, “pudding” meant “the stomach or one of the entrails (in early use sometimes the neck) of a pig, sheep, or other animal, stuffed with a mixture of minced meat, suet, oatmeal, seasoning, etc., and boiled; a kind of sausage.”

And as we all know, you can’t judge a sausage by its skin—that is, without tasting it. You first!

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Linguistics Usage

Referendum, shmeferendum

Q: I caught the tail end of Pat’s comments on WNYC last month about “Referendum, Shmeferendum,” a headline on a news site in Amman, Jordan. So has Yiddish infiltrated Arab journalism?

A: Pat wasn’t the only one to raise an eyebrow over that headline. It also caught the attention of contributors to the Linguist List, the mailing list of the American Dialect Society, and prompted an exchange of comments in March.

For readers of the blog who haven’t seen the Feb. 28, 2012, headline on the English edition of Al Bawaba, here it is in full: “Referendum, Shmeferendum: A Famous ‘Yes’ as Syrian Celebs Vote For Assad.”

The article, with an accompanying slide show, is critical of nine Syrian celebrities—mostly movie stars—who supported the government of Bashar Assad in the Feb. 26 referendum.

So has Yiddish infiltrated Arab journalism?

Well, it’s true that rhyming jingles like “referendum, shmeferendum,” “fancy-shmancy,” and “gravity-shmavity” (from a 1990s ad for the Wonderbra) are characteristic of a Yiddish construction.

But this playfully derisive rhyming usage is thoroughly English by now, and many (if not most) English speakers who use it are probably unaware of its Yiddish origins.

In expressions like “referendum, shmeferendum,” the speaker or writer pooh-poohs a word by repeating it with “shm-” at the beginning, forming a rhyming compound.

The history of the Yiddish language is complicated and often unclear, but one thing is certain about this usage.

It didn’t (as many people believe) just spring into being on the Lower East Side after the waves of Jewish immigration to New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

So where does this usage ultimately come from?

Many scholars of Yiddish linguistics believe the construction has Turkish roots and may date back as far as the 13th century.

This isn’t as weird as it may sound. As we wrote in a posting earlier this year, it was the Turks who gave Eastern European Jews the word pastrami.

And the familiar Yiddish word yarmulke (from Polish jarmułka and Ukrainian yarmulke) is ultimately of Turkic origin, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

Recent scholarship suggests that Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews adopted  rhyming shm- doublets through contact with the native East Slavic languages—Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Russian—spoken in the regions where they lived.

And those languages, in turn, got the rhyming-couplet construction through contact with Turkish and other Turkic languages spoken in neighboring parts of central Asia.

The linguist Mark R. V. Southern has written that the East Slavic and the Turkic language families had their own parallel sets of rhyming compounds that were used in a mockingly humorous way.

But in their case, according to Southern, the prefix was m instead of shm-. Yiddish speakers just added the sh sound.

As Southern writes in his book Contagious Couplings: Transmission of Expressives in Yiddish Echo Phrases (2005), the spread of the “Turkic m- echo-pairs” led to the “development within West Germanic of Yiddish/‘Yinglish’ shm- echo-twins.”

To illustrate this development, linguists have pointed to Yiddish expressions like Liebe-shmiebe, Poezje-shmoezje, and gelt shmelt. (In English, these would translate as “love-shmove,” “poetry-shmoetry,” and “money-shmoney.”)

Meanwhile, examples from Turkish include sapka-mapka and kitap-mitap (“love-shmove” and “books-shmooks”).

So expressions like “fancy-shmancy” got their start in the Ottoman Empire, made their way into the East Slavic languages, were adopted into Yiddish, then migrated to New York and beyond. Fancy that!

This feature of Yiddish, linguists say, has also been absorbed into Israeli Hebrew, and to some extent into modern German. It’s even been re-borrowed from Yiddish into a handful of playful phrases in Russian.

In the last half-century or so, the tradition of rhyming “shm-” compounds has spread across the United States.

For instance, the language researcher Barry Popik has pointed out that in Texas, the phrase “Texas shmexas” is often used by people who don’t think that much of the state.

Why has the tradition become so popular? Perhaps because there’s something inherently humorous  in words starting with “shm-” or “shl-” (like “shlep,” “shlemiel,” “shmooze,” and “shlock”).

And using a rhyming compound to ridicule a person or a notion—as in “Freud-shmoid”—turns the sneer into a joke.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Linguistics

Are you discombobulated?

Q: I always assumed (wrongly so I am sure) that the prefix “dis-” invariably made a word negative. Then the more I thought about it, I realized that many words starting with “dis-” don’t have a positive opposite. Specifically, I used “discombobulated” the other day, and then later (to be funny) used “combobulated” much to the confusion of my audience. Where does “dis-” come from?

A: As you suspect, the prefix “dis-” isn’t always negative. Buried inside it is a small clue to its origin. Yes, the clue is “di,” meaning two.

In classical Latin, the primary meaning of the prefix dis– was “two ways, in twain,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Here, very broadly, are the principal senses of the prefix given in the OED:

(1) “In twain, in different directions, apart, asunder.” This sense has given us words like “discern,” “discuss,” “dismiss,” “dissent,” “distend,” “distill,” and “disrupt” (literally, a division into parts).

(2) “Separately, singly, one by one.” This sense is evident in “dispute,” whose Latin ancestor disputare meant to estimate, investigate, or discuss. (In English, “dispute” was originally a commercial term for calculating a sum by considering each of its items separately.)

(3) “Implying removal, aversion, negation, reversal of action.” This is the usual, negative meaning of the prefix. This sense of opposition is found in words like “disjoin,” “displease,” “dissociate,” “dissuade,” “disown,” and many others.

Sometimes, as Oxford explains, the prefix has been reduced to “di-,” and the following “s” is part of the root word.

This is the case, for example, with “disperse” and “distinguish,” whose root words in Latin begin with “s”—spargere (to scatter or sprinkle) and stinguere (originally “to stick or prick”).

“In classical Latin,” the OED says, “dis- was rarely prefixed to another prefix.”

But in late Latin and in Romance languages, many words had the double prefixes “discon-” and “discom-”; examples include “discomfit,” “discomfort,” “discompose,” “disconnect,” “disconsolate,” “discontent,” and “discontinue.”

Which brings us to the word you mentioned: “discombobulate.” We can’t give you its classical origins because it doesn’t have any!

“Discombobulate” is a joke word formed in 19th-century America as an alteration of “discompose” or “discomfit,” the OED suggests.

It means “to disturb, upset, disconcert,” the dictionary says, and was first recorded (in a variant form) in an 1834 issue of the New York Sun: “May be some of you don’t get discombobracated.”

The OED cites a nearly contemporary example of the noun form, “discombobulation,” from a New York sporting newspaper, Spirit of the Times (1839): “Finally, Richmond was obliged to trundle him, neck and heels, to the earth, to the utter discombobulation of his wig.”

So don’t bother looking for the opposite, “combobulate,” because there’s no such animal. You’ll only get discombobulated.

We wrote a blog posting a few years ago about the many words in English (“disgruntled,” “unkempt,” “ruthless,” and so on) that seem to have only negative forms.

Their opposite (positive) forms either don’t exist or are no longer used. There’s actually a term for a word like this, “cranberry morpheme,” which you can read about on our blog.

You might also be interested in a posting we wrote a while back on the vast number of negative prefixes English has at its disposal.

Check out our books about the English language

Grammar Usage

Green eggs and ham

Q: Here’s an old Seussian question: Is the ham green? The title of the book is Green Eggs and Ham, but does the adjective “green” modify the ham as well as the eggs? I know what the book cover shows, but you can’t judge a book by the cover.

A: When an adjective (like “green”) appears at the head of a series of nouns (like “eggs and ham”), we tend to assume it applies to all of them.

And in the case of Green Eggs and Ham, we’d be right! Both the eggs and the ham are green in Dr. Seuss’s beloved children’s book.

How do we know? We looked at the pictures! In every case, the plate held aloft by the character named Sam I Am contains bright green eggs (apparently sunny-side up) as well as bright green ham.

So obviously the author, otherwise known as Theodor Seuss Geisel, meant the adjective “green” to modify both of the following nouns: “eggs” and “ham.”

Of course, he could have avoided any ambiguity by calling his book Green Eggs and Green Ham. But that just doesn’t have the charm of Green Eggs and Ham!

Besides, that would be quite unnecessary. Not only does the placement of the adjective do the trick, but the book’s cover also shows the plate of green food.

Writers ought to be aware that an adjective shouldn’t be used before a series of nouns unless it applies to them all.

A phrase like “her late father and mother” will be understood as meaning that both parents are dead. If only one is deceased, the order should be reversed: “her mother and late father.”

You might be interested in a blog posting we wrote a couple of years ago on the order of adjectives in English. It explains, for example, why we say “a perfect little black dress” instead of “a black perfect little dress.”

Check out our books about the English language

Grammar Usage

Getting tenses to play well together

Q: What’s the general consensus on mixing tenses within the same sentence? Example: “I was delighted to see that your website was robust and user friendly.” Or: “I was delighted to see that your website is robust and user friendly.”

A: People routinely mix tenses in their sentences. The challenge is to make sure the sequence of tenses makes sense.

Both of the sentences you propose make sense, though their meanings may be slightly different. That’s because the simple past tense (“I was”) takes in a lot of territory—the very distant as well as the very recent past.

For example, these might be the expanded meanings of those sentences (the material in brackets is understood but not stated):

“[When I looked at it in 2009,] I was delighted to see that your website was robust and user friendly.”

“[When I looked at it this morning,] I was delighted to see that your website is robust and user friendly.”

In the first example, the observation took place quite a while ago, so the speaker doesn’t take for granted that the website is still the same.

In the second, the observation was very recent; speaker assumes the site still exists and is still robust and user-friendly.

When something has been done in the very recent past (like this morning), the speaker might even choose to use the present all around: “I am delighted to see that your website is robust and user friendly.”

These are subtle distinctions and not every usage authority would agree with us. But it’s a good idea to think of your readers. How would they interpret the mixing of tenses?

We could say a lot more about this subject. In fact, we have. We’ve written several items on the blog about mixed tenses, including postings in 2009, 2010, and 2011.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

Rick Santorum—a tropism for the tragic?

Q: David Brooks recently said in the New York Times that Rick Santorum “has a tropism for the tragic.” I happen  to like the word “trope” and use it fairly often, but I’m unfamiliar with the use of “tropism” in other than the scientific sense.

A: When David Brooks said Rick Santorum “has a tropism for the tragic,” he meant the candidate is drawn toward tragedy.

Brooks went on to explain: “Santorum seems to dwell on misfortune—the enemies the country faces, the depravity closing in on us, the unfair criticism hurled against him, the terrible things that have happened. When the campaign goes into its fallen state, he has the pleasure of seeing his tragic worldview confirmed.”

Brooks was using “tropism,” a scientific term meaning a turning, in a metaphorical way.

When “tropism” first came into English in the early 19th century, it wasn’t a word in itself, but merely an element in other words. And all of them had something to do with turning in a particular direction in response to a stimulus.

Many such words can be found in botany or biology. For example, plants that exhibit “heliotropism,” a term dating from 1854, turn or bend toward light. And “geotropism” (1873), a characteristic of plant roots and some animals, means a turning (or a growth pattern) in response to gravity.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the separate word “tropism” came into English in the late 19th century in response to those longer scientific terms of which it was previously a part.

The OED defines the word as “the turning of an organism, or a part of one, in a particular direction (either in the way of growth, bending, or locomotion) in response to some special external stimulus, as that of light (phototropism, heliotropism), heat (thermotropism), gravity (geotropism), etc.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from the biologist C. B. Davenport’s Experimental Morphology (1899):

“All cases of true tropism are cases of response to stimuli: such are chemotropism, hydrotropism, thigmotropism, traumatropism, rheotropism, geotropism, electrotropism, phototropism and thermotropism.”

All the OED’s citations for “tropism” use it in the scientific sense. But we’ll bet that Oxford will soon be adding examples of its metaphorical use, in which it seems to mean a general tendency or predilection toward something.

The key element in all this turning is the noun “trope,” which ultimately comes from the Greek tropos, a turn.

“Trope” has been part of English since the 16th century, when it was used to mean a figure of speech—a nonliteral turn of phrase.

More recently, the word has also come to mean a recurring theme or motif. The OED’s first example of this newer usage is from a book review in the Chicago Tribune in 1975:

“Barthelme is funning with the eternal trope of fatherhood.”

And here’s a final example, from David Rieff’s Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World:

“A more unvarnished version of the same trope was Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner.”

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

Spending spree

Q: An insurance company I work with consistently uses “spend” as a noun in place of “spending.” I realize this is common jargon in the financial services industry, but I think it’s unacceptable slang.

A: The word “spend” is a legitimate noun meaning the spending of money or the amount of money spent, and it’s been used this way since the late 1600s.

However, “spending” is much more common, and most of the standard dictionaries we checked don’t list “spend” as a noun.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, includes “spend” as both a verb and a noun, but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists it only as a verb.

None of the standard dictionaries we looked at describe the noun as slang, but we agree with you that it sounds like bureaucratic jargon.

We prefer the noun “spending,” which is much older as well as more popular. It entered English around 1000, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s an example from Piers Plowman, the 14th-century allegorical poem by William Langland: “But owre spences and spendynge sprynge of a trewe wille, / Elles is al owre laboure loste.”

The earliest citation for the noun “spend” in the OED is from Israel’s Hope Encouraged, a book by John Bunyan written sometime before he died in 1688:

“What if I cannot but live upon the spend all my days, yet, if my friend will always supply my need, is it not well for me?”

Here’s a more recent example, from the Jan 16,1983, issue of a British newspaper, the  Observer: The battle for advertising spend.”

Although the OED doesn’t consider this use of “spend” slang, it does include an obsolete slang noun meaning “semen, vaginal secretion; ejaculation.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the slang usage is from an 1879 issue of the Pearl, a short-lived magazine that was closed by the British authorities as obscene.

Here’s a head-scratcher. The OED says the verb “spend” is the source of the noun “spending.” But the dictionary has older citations for the noun than for the verb. Hmm.

The first OED citation for the verb, meaning to pay out or expend money, is from Poema Morale (circa 1175), an anonymous Middle English poem.

We’ll end with a figurative example of the verb from Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona (written in the early 1590s): “Sir, if you spend word for word with me, I shall make your wit bankrupt.”

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

Good luck with that!

Q: Do you have any idea when people began wishing other people “good luck” in a backhanded way that suggests the outcome isn’t likely or especially lucky?

A: People have been wishing one another “good luck” in the ordinary—that is, the non-sarcastic way—for many hundreds of years.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for “good luck” used as a regular noun phrase (rather than as a salutation) is from William Caxton’s translation of The History of Reynard the Fox (1481): “Tho thought reynart, this is good luck.”

By its very nature, the salutation “Good luck!” is more often spoken than committed to writing. But this citation, from Miles Coverdale’s 1535 translation of the Bible, hints at a spoken usage offstage:

“The kynges seruauntes are gone in to wysh good lucke vnto oure lorde kynge Dauid.”

And here’s a written example from the early 19th century, with “good luck” directed at a country instead of a person. It’s from a letter written by Eleanor Cavanaugh, who was traveling in Russia, to her father back home in Ireland:

“‘Well to be sure,’ sais I. ‘Russia! & good luck to you, you are a comical place!’ ” (The letter is quoted in The Russian Journals of Martha and Catherine Wilmot, written in 1803-08 and published in 1934. Eleanor was Catherine’s maidservant.)

We can’t tell you when people began using the phrase sarcastically or doubtfully, as if the result were unlikely to be good. But a little googling suggests that it’s a fairly recent phenomenon.

When delivered sarcastically, “Good luck!” (or “Good luck with that!”) isn’t meant literally. It means, more or less, “Yeah, sure” or “Fat chance.”

Examples would be “Good luck beating me at arm-wrestling!” and “You’ve decided to fight City Hall? Good luck with that!”

Either the speaker is doubtful that that such a thing will happen, or hopes it won’t.

As far as we can tell, none of the published references in the OED’s entry for “good luck” convey this kind of doubt or sarcasm.

However, a citation in the entry for “black” as an adjective suggests such a usage.  The quotation is about dangerous ski runs.

Here’s the reference, from the Feb. 25, 1973, issue of the Chicago Tribune: “Slopes marked red correspond to expert runs in the United States, and the black runs, well … good luck!”

We made a cursory search of our own and turned up this example, from an exchange between two characters in Gwyneth Cravens’s novel Speed of Light (1979):

“ ‘One person could warn another, with the provision that the information be retold in exactly the same way.’ ‘Good luck with that,’ he said, ‘No—another way had to be found.’ ”

And here’s another example, from Jonathan Carroll’s novel A Child Across the Sky (1990): “Philip Strayhorn wanted to be a very famous man but stay private, live his own life. Good luck with that, as we all know.”

Finally, David Letterman used the phrase in a whimsical way when he said goodbye to Al Gore at the end of the Vice President’s appearance on the Late Show in 1993: “Good luck with that government thing.”

We’ve found several discussions of the sarcastic “Good luck!” on blogs, but nothing that would pin down an origin or a chronology.

Interestingly, there are similar usages in Yiddish, where A glick ahf dir (Good luck to you) is sometimes used sarcastically, and A glick hot dir getrofen (A piece of luck happened to you) is used in the sense of “Big deal!”

But we’ve seen no suggestion from authoritative sources that the sarcastic English sense was influenced by these Yiddish expressions.

Again, the earliest examples of this usage we’ve found are from the early 1970s. We’re not saying there aren’t earlier ones. We invite you to do some googling of your own—and good luck with that!

Check out our books about the English language


Does Mitt Romney’s hair breathe?

Q: Note the new phrase “hare’s breath” in this Slate article. Someone might correct it soon (this is a Washington Post site after all), so grab it while you can.

A: Well, we were too late to spot the original error in that March 8 Slate article about the GOP primaries (we probably missed it by a hair’s breadth).

When we went to the website, the phrase “hare’s breath” had been “fixed”—sort of. Instead of “hare’s breath” (which would mean the exhalations of a rabbit), we found “hair’s breath.” Closer, but still no cigar.

Here’s the latest incarnation of that sentence (though we wouldn’t be surprised to see another “fix” after this posting appears):

“The numbers indicate that Mitt Romney, the on-again, off-again frontrunner in the Republican primaries, took the lion’s share of delegates at stake Tuesday, including a hair’s breath win in the important industrial state of Ohio.”

The word wanted here is “breadth” (that is, width), not “breath” (as in respiration). The common expression “hair’s breadth” means the width of a hair, and it’s used figuratively to indicate a narrow or close margin.

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for the use of “hair’s breadth” in writing is from Reginald Scot’s The Discouerie of Witchcraft (1584): “Limits … beyond the which they cannot passe one haires breadth.”

The term appeared a decade or so earlier without the possessive, as “hairbreadth.” The OED defines this as “the breadth or diameter of a hair; an infinitesimally small space or distance; a hair’s-breadth.”

In northern dialects of English, the phrase appeared even earlier—in the 1400s—as “heere-brede.” This old usage lasted into the 19th century, when it appeared in Francis Kildale Robinson’s A Glossary of Yorkshire Words and Phrases (1855).

The glossary illustrates the use of “hair-breed” with this example: “‘She’s dying by hair-breeds,’ by very slow degrees.”

Both the possessive “hair’s breadth” and the non-possessive “hairbreadth” are often used adjectivally, as the bungled phrase was used in the Slate article.

The OED’s earliest citation for the adjectival usage is from Shakespeare’s Othello (before 1616), in which Othello tells of “Heire-breadth scapes ith imminent deadly breach.”

Here’s a later example from A History of New York by “Diedrich Knickerbocker” (a k a Washington Irving), written in 1809: “His hair-breadth adventures and heroic exploits.”

Later in the 19th century, the possessive form first appeared as an adjective. The earliest example in the OED is from George Catlin’s Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians (1841): “Our chief conversation was … hair’s-breadth escapes.”

So while Mitt Romney’s hair is in the news a lot (it even has a Facebook page), it does not breathe. A hair has “breadth,” not “breath.”

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Slang

Feebee minded

Q: Regarding your recent post about abbreviations, I think there’s a trend to morph initialisms into acronyms. What comes to mind is “Fibbee” (for an FBI agent). True, it’s often not capitalized, but it may have some creds. Have you checked it out?

A: This morphing of initialisms into acronyms, as you put it, has been going on for quite some time, especially when it comes to government agents.

Jonathon Green, in his three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang, writes that people have been finding creative ways to refer to an FBI agent since at least the early 1940s.

Although he doesn’t include “Fibbee” among the creations, he has citations for “Feeb,” “Feebee,” “Feebie,” and “Phoebe,” sometimes with an initial capital letter and sometimes all lowercase. (A bit of googling suggests that “Feeb” is the most popular of these followed by “Feebee.”)

The earliest published reference in Green’s Dictionary is from a 1942 letter from the literary theorist Kenneth Burke to the novelist Malcolm Cowley:

“A publisher told me that a faithful phoebe had been going the rounds, presumably begging to be told that you were a C.P. because you didn’t support Franco.”

And here’s a citation from a 1968 issue of  the Atlantic Monthly: “On their left stands a man in a very dark suit, with very dark tie, very dark glasses, very white shirt, and very bald head: a cop, Feebie, CIA, something like that.”

Finally, here’s one from Carl Hiaasen’s 1986 novel Tourist Season: “The clever Feebs used opaque envelopes.”

(The use of “feeb” for a feeble person is older, dating back to a 1910 Jack London story, “Told in the Drooling Ward.” Here’s the quote: “I’m an assistant, expert assistant. That’s going some for a feeb. Feeb?”)

Garland Cannon, writing in the summer 1989 issue of American Speech, refers to “Feebie” and similar terms as “variant forms” of initialisms.

Cannon notes that English speakers sometimes add affixes like -y or -ie, -er, -o to create slang or informal words. An affix, as you know, is a word element, like a prefix or suffix.

Of course these creative initialisms come with affixes and without. For example, “Beamer” (for BMW) and “Beeb” (for the BBC).

People seem to be especially creative in their spellings of variant forms for an FBI agent. In addition to the ones in Green’s, we’ve also seen the plural “Feebz.”

These FBI terms often seem to be used pejoratively. Candice Delong, in Special Agent: My Life on the Front Lines as a Woman in the FBI, writes of a police officer referring to FBI agents as “the fuckin’ feebs.”

Check out our books about the English language


Give it up for the emcee!

Q: “Give it up,” MC-speak when asking for applause, hasn’t sat well with me—until now. I recently came upon a similar wording that suggests the expression has Dickensian roots. In Great Expectations, Mr. Wopsle, the clerk at the village church, is described as “a gentleman that you would like to hear give it out.” Wot say ye?

A: The expression “give it up,” meaning to applaud, originated in the US more than a century after Charles Dickens wrote Great Expectations, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s first citation for the expression comes from a Usenet newsgroup in a posting from March 1990: “Hey folks, let’s give it up for Andy! One huge round of applause please!”

The dictionary’s definition reads “to give it up: (of an audience, etc.) to applaud; to show appreciation for an entertainer, etc.” The phrase is usually used in the imperative, the OED adds, especially “as an exhortation by a compère.”

Oxford has several more examples from the 1990s, including these two, one American and one British:

“Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together—give it up!—for three combative comedy releases” (from People magazine, 1993).

“London studio stalwart Tony Remy goes live, complete with a ‘Let’s give it up for Tony’ rallying call” (from the Evening Standard, 1999).

So it would appear that British emcees adopted the “Let’s give it up for …” routine from their colleagues in America, rather than the other way around.

Dickens’s phrase “give it out” has another meaning altogether, and Dickens wasn’t the first to use it.

As the OED explains, the expression “give it out” has been used in various ways since the 14th century in the sense of announcing, proclaiming, uttering, and so on.

It has also meant to put forth or utter prayers, to announce a psalm in church, or to read out the words to be sung by a congregation.

Here’s a 19th-century example cited by the OED: “The clerk in church … gave out the psalm” (from Sabine Baring-Gould’s novel The Gaverocks, 1887).

This latter meaning is probably the one Dickens had in mind in Great Expectations.

When Joe Gargery (Pip’s brother-in-law) calls Mr. Wopsle “a gentleman that you would like to hear give it out,” he apparently means the clerk has a great delivery in church.

Elsewhere in the novel, Pip, the narrator, describes a dinner-table scene in which “Mr. Wopsle said grace with theatrical declamation,—as it now appears to me, something like a religious cross of the Ghost in Hamlet with Richard the Third.”

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

Late for the funeral

Q: Mma Precious Ramotswe, the protagonist of Alexander McCall Smith’s detective series, says the mother of her foster children “is late.” Of course, she doesn’t mean their biological mother is not on time. It sounds as odd to me as if a tardy student were referred to as “the late Jimmy Jones.”

A: It’s true that Mma Ramotswe has an unusual way of referring to the dead as “late.” And so do the other Batswana (residents of Botswana) in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels.

Usually the adjective “late,” in the sense of “deceased,” precedes the noun, as in “her late father” or “the late Mr. Dithers.”

But the characters in Smith’s novels speak a dialect in which the adjective is used predicatively after the noun, as in “her father was late” or “Mr. Dithers became late.”

To most of us, “late” after a noun means tardy or not on time. If we mean a person is no longer alive, we use a different adjective in that position, like “dead” or “deceased.”

Smith is well acquainted with the English dialect used in Botswana. A British writer born in what is now Zimbabwe, he was a professor of law (first in Scotland and later in Botswana) when he began writing fiction. He now lives in Edinburgh.

This passage from The Double Comfort Safari Club, the 11th book in Smith’s series, illustrates how the Batswana use “late”:

“ ‘That road,’ observed Mma Mateleke, ‘goes to a place where there is a woman I know well, Rra. And why do I know this woman well? Because she has had fifteen children, can you believe it? Fifteen. And fourteen of them are still here—only one is late. That one, he ate a battery, Rra, and became late quite quickly after that.’ ”

Later in the novel is a passage in which two women are talking, and the author slips in an explanation of this use of “late”:

“’Standing under a fig tree is safe enough, Mma,’ she said. ‘But you should never stand under a sausage tree.’ The sausage tree, the moporoto in Setswana, was a sort of jacaranda that had heavy fruit like great, pendulous sausages.

“’Certainly not, Mma. there are many people who are late now because of that. Those are very heavy pods and if you get one on your head, then you are in great danger of becoming late.’

“She used the expression that the Batswana preferred: to become late. There was human sympathy here; to be dead is to be nothing, to be finished. The expression is far too final, too disruptive of the bonds that bind us to one another, bonds that survive the demise of one person. A late father is still your father, even though he is not there. A dead father sounds as if he has nothing further to do—he is finished.”

Suddenly, the usage makes sense!

Unfortunately, the Oxford English Dictionary has no entries illustrating this use of “late” in Botswana, whose official languages are Setswana and English.

However, the OED has examples going back to the 15th century for the adjectival use of “late” preceding a noun and meaning “recently deceased.”

Here’s the first citation, from William Caxton’s translation of The Boke yf Eneydos (1490): “Her swete and late amyable husbonde.”

No doubt the OED will eventually get around to the use of “late” in the dialect of Botswana. Better late than never.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

Oh, come now, TripAdvisor!

Q: I tried to post a hotel review on TripAdvisor, but got this response: “We can’t accept reviews that use profanity.” However hard I looked, I couldn’t find any profanity. In despair, I wrote to TripAdvisor. Two weeks later, a human informed me that “because of the double meaning of a particular word in the second-to-last sentence, we ask that you edit your original review.” Then, it dawned on me. Here’s the sentence: “It’s especially nice that La Mariposa is not only a language school cum Eco hotel, but part of a community which it is able to support in all sorts of ways.” Spot the word?

A: This is a hoot! We were both down with the flu when your email arrived, and it gave us a much-needed laugh.

Here’s the etymology of the perfectly respectable word “cum,” and we only wish the folks at TripAdvisor could see it.

The Latin preposition cum means “with” or “together with,” and it was adopted into use in English in the late 1500s.

In English, “cum” is frequently used “as a connective word forming compounds to indicate a dual nature or function,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

This is precisely how you used the word when you described La Mariposa as “a language school cum Eco Hotel.” You meant that the Nicaraguan resort is both a language school and an Eco Hotel. Generally, though, hyphens are used: “language school-cum-Eco Hotel.”

As the OED points out, the preposition “cum” is also “used in English in local names of combined parishes or benefices, as Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Stow-cum-Quy, where it originated in Latin documents.”

It can also be found, Oxford says, in several much-used Latin phrases, including “cum grano salis (or familiarly cum grano), lit. ‘with a grain of salt,’ i.e. with some caution or reserve.”

Here are some OED citations, from the 19th and 20th centuries, in which writers used “cum” just as you did, to indicate a dual nature or function:

“He greatly preferred coffee cum chicory to coffee pure and simply” (1871, from Julian C. Young’s book about his actor father, A Memoir of Charles Mayne Young, Tragedian).

“The Belgrave-cum-Pimlico life” (1873, from Anthony Trollope’s novel The Eustace Diamonds).

“Easy motor-bike-cum-side-car trips round London” (1913, from Rudyard Kipling’s story collection A Diversity of Creatures).

“The fervent mediaevalism … developed a philosophic-cum-economic tinge” (1939, from Osbert Lancaster’s book on domestic architecture, Homes Sweet Homes).

“Three short … dinner-cum-cocktail dresses” (1959, from the Manchester Guardian).

“The atmosphere of laboratory-cum-workshop” (1959, from Viewpoint magazine).

Now for the word that TripAdvisor thought you were using.

It’s simply a flippant misspelling of the slang noun “come,” which the OED says has been used since 1923 to mean “semen ejaculated at sexual climax, esp. spilt ejaculate. Also (rarely), fluid secreted by the vagina during sexual play.”

This noun sense of “come,” the OED says, originated with the identical verb (“to experience sexual orgasm”). And the sexual sense of the verb has been in English since before 1650, when it was recorded in a collection of raunchy songs.

Obviously, this wasn’t what you had in mind when you used the preposition “cum.” Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Check out our books about the English language

Grammar Linguistics Usage

When Aussies make the past more present

Q: I am writing from Australia, where police insert an unnecessary “has” when describing incidents. Example: “The perpetrator [has] entered the shop, and [has] removed a number of items from the shelves. He [has] then left without paying, and [has] made off on foot.” Are police here especially trained to talk like this—or is it universal police-speak?

A: Linguists have noticed the same phenomenon. Instead of using the simple past tense (“The perpetrator entered …”), the police in Australia often issue their statements in the present perfect (”The perpetrator has entered …”).

They do this even when a time element denoting the past is thrown in—like “the next morning.” Normally, standard English would not allow “I have eaten the next morning.” The grammatical construction would be “I ate the next morning.”

The police aren’t the only ones in Australia to communicate in this odd way, according to linguists who have observed the usage.

Radio news announcers as well as talk-show hosts and their call-in listeners also use the present perfect where standard English would call for the simple past.

They’re likely to do this when a progression of events is being described, revealing new or unexpected information.

Why do they do it? Apparently to make past events seem more “present,” and to make hot news seem even hotter.

The linguists Marie-Eve A. Ritz of Australia and Dulcie M. Engel of Wales use the term “vivid narrative use” to describe this practice.

In an article published in the Australian journal Linguistics in 2008, they say this device is “intended to locate hearers in a virtual present or to make them virtual observers of a virtual present speech event.”

“As performers are keen to achieve an effect,” the authors say, “they are hence more likely to make use of devices that attract and sustain their listeners’ attention.”

Here’s an example they gathered from a media report issued by a police sergeant in Perth:

“The victim in this case is a 15-year-old Wattleup boy who was on his way to school. … As he reached the steps leading to the shops he has been tapped on his shoulder. As he has turned around a young man has punched him to the face and a wrestle/fight has taken place during which the victim has dropped his wallet. The offender has grabbed the wallet and run off, removing the money and dropping the wallet as he ran.”

Notice how the tenses begin normally, then shift to the present perfect as the events unfold. As the linguists say, the use of the present perfect “enables the speaker to present situations as tightly connected.”

The authors note that newspaper writing often combines the present tense with past adverbs in what’s called the “narrative present.”

The writers illustrate this with a pair of photo captions from Australian newspapers: “Mr. Keating meets Emperor Akihito yesterday” … “President George Bush speaks to workers at an army tank plant in Lima, Ohio, on Thursday.”

But adverbial time elements normally wouldn’t accompany verbs in the past perfect.

In conclusion, the authors suggest that the differences between the “narrative present” and the “narrative present perfect” are becoming blurred in Australian English.

But why Australian English in particular? As the authors say, that question is “a difficult one to answer.”

“Part of the answer,” they say, “may lie in the extensive use of an informal style in Australia, in particular in the media and the radio more specifically, with presenters making use of further devices to attract their listeners’ attention and to express a sense of solidarity with them.”

Check out our books about the English language