Etymology Pronunciation Usage

Windows update

Q: My friends often laugh when I say the word “windows,” for I pronounce it WIN-diz (as if it rhymed with “whiz”). I grew up in and around NYC. So the question is, where did I get that pronunciation?

A: The standard US pronunciation of “window” is WIN-doh, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

The plural “windows” would be pronounced WIN-doze. We can’t find any standard dictionary in the US or the UK that mentions WIN-diz as a variant pronunciation of “windows.”

But pronunciation isn’t mathematics. Just about everybody varies a bit in pronouncing some word or other.

That’s why it’s taken programmers so long to develop decent speech-recognition software. And even the best programs still screw up once in a while.

Interestingly, American Heritage has an entry for “winder” (pronounced WIN-dur) as an upper Southern US variant of “window.” The plural would be pronounced WIN-durz, somewhat similar to your WIN-diz.

AH also mentions “winder” in a regional usage note accompanying its entry for “holler” used as a variant of “hollow.”

One feature of upper Southern US English, especially Appalachian English, the dictionary says, is the “pronunciation of the final unstressed syllable in words such as hollow, window, and potato” as “ur.”

Holler, winder, and tater are merely variant pronunciations reflected in spelling,” AH adds. “As a noun, holler has the specific meaning in the Appalachians of ‘a small valley between mountains’: They live up in the holler underneath Big Bald Mountain.

The Dictionary of American Regional English says the WIN-dur pronunciation has also been heard in the Northeast, and it cites “sporadic instances” in western New York. We’ve also read of it in Rhode Island and southern coastal Massachusetts.

That’s getting close, but we don’t recall hearing “windows” pronounced as WIN-diz in the New York metropolitan area. (We recently discussed the New York accent on our blog.)

However, we’ve often seen “Windows” spelled “Windiz” in references (usually critical) to Microsoft’s operating systems.

WindizUpdate, for instance, is an alternative, Web-based software update service for Windows. And another program, WinDiz, lets you browse zip-file archives.

The word “window,” by the way has an interesting history. Here’s an etymology note from American Heritage (we’ll break it up into paragraphs for readability):

“The source of our word window is a vivid metaphor. Window comes to us from the Scandinavian invaders and settlers of England in the early Middle Ages.

“Although we have no record of the exact word they gave us, it was related to Old Norse vindauga, ‘window,’ a compound made up of vindr, ‘wind,’ and auga, ‘eye,’ reflecting the fact that at one time windows contained no glass.

“The metaphor ‘wind eye’ is of a type beloved by Norse and Old English poets and is called a kenning; other examples include oar-steed for ‘ship’ and whale-road for ‘sea.’

“Recently we have restored to the 800-year-old word window a touch of its poetic heritage, using it figuratively in such phrases as launch window, weather window, and window of opportunity or vulnerability.

(Speaking of metaphors, expressions like those remind us of an old proverb: “The eyes are the windows of the soul.”)

Sorry we can’t be more definitive about the source of your pronunciation of “windows,” but we hope you find this effort to answer you eye-opening.

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Grammar Usage

We’ll take Long Island and Staten Island too

Q: I’ve lived ON Long Island all my life. A few weeks ago, a newscaster said an incident happened IN Long Island. One lives ON an island, not IN one. Simple, right? Not so! I retired two years ago after working IN Manhattan, but Manhattan is an island! Queens and Brooklyn are both ON Long Island, but people live IN them. However, people live ON Staten Island. What do you make of all this?

A: Where prepositions are used in geographical references, local usage is correct usage.

A good example is the use of “up” and “down” in England, where they don’t mean north and south, as they would to most Americans. We wrote a posting last year that touched on this issue.

But where islands are concerned, the convention is well established. The usual preposition is “on”—unless, of course, the island is a country in itself.

Karl Gunnar Lindkvist discusses this issue in his book Studies on the Local Sense of the Prepositions In, At, On, and To in Modern English (1950):

“In American English on is the common preposition with islands, except when denoting countries, and at least partially owing to influence from that quarter, on is now doubtless on the increase in Britain with these complements.”

We have never heard the phrase “in Long Island,” and can only assume the reporter you heard was new to the job and to the New York area.

In the US, and indeed in most British usage these days, the preposition “on” is used with the names of individual islands.

For example, we say “on Shelter Island,” “on Roosevelt Island,” “on Fire Island,” “on Block Island,” and so on. Similarly, the British say “on the Isle of Wight,” “on the Isle of Man,” and so on.

But we use “in” with the names of island groups: “in the Virgin Islands,” “in the Solomon Islands,” “in the British Isles,” “in the Philippines,” “in the Aran Islands,” “in the Hebrides.”

And we also use “in” with the names of towns, neighborhoods, and other entities that are located on islands: “He has a cottage in Sconset, on Nantucket” … “They live in Suffolk County, on Long Island” … “The hotel is in Victoria, on Vancouver Island.”

This last point is relevant to your question about why we use “in” with the New York City boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens (“He lives in Queens and works in Manhattan”).

In the case of Manhattan we use “in” because we’re thinking of the borough rather than the island it’s named for. As for Brooklyn and Queens, they aren’t islands in themselves anyway—only large chunks of an island.

Staten Island is a special case. Yes, it’s a borough like Brooklyn and Manhattan, but we DO think of it as an island (probably because the word is right there in the name).

So most of us say “on Staten Island.” But for parts of Staten Island, we use “in.” Example: “She lives in Richmondtown, on Staten Island.”

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Etymology Grammar Usage

The “hopefully” wars

Listen to Pat and Bryan A. Garner duke it out on CBC Radio over the use of “hopefully” as a sentence adverb.

Etymology Usage

Suspended animation

Q: Has the verb “suspend” morphed into a synonym for “terminate” when I wasn’t looking? Or can I hope that it is just sloppy usage on the part of former candidate Rick Santorum when he stated that he was suspending his campaign?

A: Many other people had the same reaction when Santorum announced last month that he was “suspending” his campaign. Till when? they quipped.

As it turned out, the campaign was dead, not held in suspended animation.

However, Santorum isn’t alone in using “suspend” this way. Unsuccessful political candidates often throw in the towel by saying they’re “suspending” their campaigns.

Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich ended their bids for the GOP presidential nomination the same way. And four years ago Hillary Clinton dropped out of the Democratic race with the same verb.

Why do many presidential candidates prefer to “suspend” their campaigns rather than “terminate” them? There are psychological, political, and financial reasons.

For example, suspending doesn’t sound quite so final as terminating.

And let’s not underestimate the power of wishful thinking. A candidate’s name may still be on the ballot in a few more primaries. Who knows? A miracle could happen at the convention.

In the meantime, debts have to be paid, some expenses have to be met, and a campaign that’s technically still alive can keep raising funds.

But despite the way politicians use the word, the verb “suspend” hasn’t changed its meaning in ordinary usage. It still means more or less what it has meant for 600 years: to temporarily stop or prohibit.

The word isn’t generally meant to imply forever after. The Oxford English Dictionary says that in its earliest sense, recorded around 1290, it meant “to debar, usually for a time, from the exercise of a function or enjoyment of a privilege; esp. to deprive (temporarily) of one’s office.”

Another usage from the same late 13th-century source is defined this way in the OED: “To put a stop to, usually for a time; esp. to bring to a (temporary) stop; to intermit the use or exercise of, put in abeyance.”

The word still has those meanings today, along with some others. For example, in the 15th through 17th centuries, these meanings came into use (all quotes are from the OED):

● “To bring about or entail the temporary cessation of.”

● “To stop or check the action or movement of (something) temporarily; to hold in suspense.”

● “To cause (a law or the like) to be for the time no longer in force; to abrogate or make inoperative temporarily.”

● “To bring about or entail the temporary cessation of” an event, condition, etc.

● “To cease (for a time) from the execution or performance of; to desist or refrain from, esp. temporarily.”

We aren’t counting the meanings that are irrelevant here—to “suspend” (defer or put aside) one’s disbelief or judgment, or to hang something up (like a chandelier).

But the sense of hanging is at the etymological root of “suspend.”

The verb came into English from Old French, but its ultimate source is the Latin suspendere, formed of the prefix sub– plus pendere (to hang). In Latin compounds, sub– (which can mean under, close to, up to, or toward) normally became sus– before a word starting with “p.”

So etymologically, to “suspend” something is to hang it up. And in common usage it generally implies doing so temporarily or for the time being. Standard dictionaries agree with the OED on this point.

By the way, a whole host of words have come down to us from the Latin verb pendere (besides hang, it also meant weigh or pay): “pending,” “append,” “appendix,” “depend,” “dispense,” “expense,” “impending,” “penchant,” “pendant,” “pendulous,” “pendulum,” “penthouse,” “perpendicular,” “spend,” and others.

With that, we’ll suspend our blogging for the day.

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Etymology Linguistics Pronunciation

Why Oynest has an erl can

Q: When I grew up in Brooklyn, NY, people would say “earl” when they meant “oil,” or “turlet” when meaning “toilet.” I don’t hear it much anymore, except among older folks, but I’m curious about where this switching of “oi” and “er” comes from.

A: The pronunciation of “er” as “oi”—and the reverse, with “oi” pronounced as “er”—has long been associated with New York.

In this speech pattern, the sounds “er” and “oi” are swapped, so a sentence like “My girl likes oysters” becomes “My goil likes ersters.” (Or as one observer noted in the 1920s, “Ernest has an oil can” sounds like “Oynest has an erl can.”)

But this isn’t heard as much today as it was in the past. These days, as you point out, it’s used mostly by the elderly, and of course by TV and movie actors supposedly playing hard-boiled New Yorkers.

As Allan Metcalf writes in his book How We Talk: American Regional English Today (2000), “These famous pronunciations—‘oi’ where the rest of the country has ‘er’ and vice versa—have largely been shamed out of existence.”

Your question about where this pronunciation comes from will have to remain unanswered (at least by us). None of our research turned up any authoritative answers for the why or the how.

But it probably has something to do with all the dialects that once combined to make up “New Yorkese” more than a century ago. Here’s how Sam Roberts described it in the New York Times in 2010:

“The New York accent is a distinctive amalgam of Irish, German, Yiddish and Italian—now infused with black and Hispanic dialects and a Caribbean lilt—that was identified at least as far back as the early 19th century.”

Perhaps this kind of talk was “shamed out of existence” (to use Metcalf’s phrase) by the schoolteachers of yesteryear.

A 1921 article in The English Journal, published by the National Council of Teachers of English, provided teachers with a checklist of “gross mispronunciations” common in schools.

These “wrong sounds, generally rated ‘vulgar,’ ” included “erl” (for oil) and “goil” (for girl).

The article didn’t note where such mispronunciations were likely to occur, claiming they were “generally recognized as apparently universal difficulties.” (The author added, in a rather schoolmarmish tone, that attention was also needed for “such other matters as undesirable posture in class recitations.”)

However, most of us think of New York when we hear pronunciations like those.

A vowel sound written as “er,” “ur,” or “ir” is spoken as the diphthong “oi” (a diphthong is one vowel sound gliding into another). And vice versa—the diphthong written as “oi” is spoken like “er.”

Frank H. Vizetelly, writing in The Homiletic Review in 1922, said: “Only a few years ago the Board of Education of the City of New York issued a circular directing attention to the more common errors of pronunciation among high-school pupils.”

The circular, he wrote, paid particular attention to “the sounds heard in ‘join,’ ‘oil,’ ‘oyster,’ ‘third,’ ‘girl,’ ‘turn,’ and ‘lurch.’ ”

The school board said “that ‘oi’ was far too frequently rendered ‘er,’ and that ‘ir’ and ‘ur’ were far too often pronounced ‘oi.’” So the words “ ‘oil,’ ‘join,’ ‘oyster’ became ‘earl,’ ‘jern,’ ‘erster,’ while ‘third,’ ‘girl,’ ‘turn,’ and ‘lurch’ became ‘thoid,’ ‘goil,’ ‘toin,’ and ‘loich.’ ”

(Are we reminded here of Damon Runyon’s guys and dolls? Soitanly!)

Apparently this speech pattern was still heard in the mid-20th century. In a 1940 article in the journal American Speech, entitled “‘Curl’ and ‘Coil’ in New York City,” the Columbia University linguist Allan Forbes Hubbell discussed this “oi”/“er” swapping and some of the myths associated with it.

“The diphthongal form, despite the efforts of the schools and despite the ridicule to which it has been subjected, is employed by a majority of New York’s seven-and-a-half millions,” Hubbell writes.

“I am inclined to believe that it was once general in this area, and it is today by no means confined to the level of uncultivated speech, but is often found in the speech of the educated, especially among older people.”

But we shouldn’t overgeneralize here. As Hubbell adds, “The exact quality of the diphthong is somewhat variable,” so it doesn’t sound identical from group to group. He describes three or four different varieties.

In fact, to spell this diphthong as “oi” is perhaps a slight exaggeration. As Metcalf describes it in his book, “words like girl and learn are pronounced something like ‘guh-il’ and ‘luh-een.’ ”

And the substitution of this diphthong doesn’t happen with all “er,” “ir,” and “ur”-spelled words. For example, Hubbell writes, some variation of the diphthong might be heard in words like “first,” “third,” and “work,” but not in “stir” or “fur.”

Similarly, not all words spelled with “oi” or “oy” come out sounding like “er,” he writes. “In the speech of certain less-educated New Yorkers,” Hubbell says, these words sound much as they do in standard pronunciation.

Words spelled with “oi” or “oy” that stay pretty much the same, Hubbell says, include “all words in which the diphthong is final as, for example, toy, boy, enjoy, destroy, annoy, and the derivatives of such words,” as well as “loyal, royal; poise, noise; exploit, loiter, goiter.”

The “oi”- or “oy”-spelled words in which these same New Yorkers might use “an r-colored vowel or a diphthong whose first element is r-colored,” Hubbell writes, include “boil, toil, broil, foil, soil, spoil, oil, toilet; coin, join, loin; point, appoint, disappoint, joint, ointment; choice, rejoice, voice, Rolls-Royce; hoist, joist, moist, oyster, boisterous; void, avoid; poison, voyage.”

Again, however, we should emphasize that not all New Yorkers spoke extreme “New Yorkese,” even when Hubbell was writing. As he says, “Metropolitan speech is of course not uniform, but differs widely on different social levels.”

And 60 years later, as Metcalf writes, the “oi”/”er” swapping is fading away (though movie and TV producers are doing their best to keep it alive).

We can’t resist ending this post with something we found on Barry Popik’s “Big Apple” website. It’s from the chorus of a song written in the mid-1940s by Bobby Gregory (the last line is its title).

She wears a tight skoit right up to her knees. Instead of poifume she wears Limboiger cheese. Who leaves me limp when she gives me a squeeze? Moitle from Toidy Toid and Toid.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

The ploy’s the thing

Q: When troops are deployed, does that mean that they were previously ployed?

A: In technical military writing, the verbs “deploy” and “ploy” have sometimes been used in contrasting ways.

“Deploy” has meant “to spread out (troops) so as to form a more extended line of small depth” while “ploy” has meant “to move (troops) from line into column,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, only two of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult, Collins and, have entries for the verb “ploy,” and both describe it as an archaic military term.

(The OED is an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence; standard dictionaries focus on language as it’s used now.)

The US Defense Department’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (November 2021), doesn’t have entries for “ploy” or “ployment,” and it defines “deployment” as the “movement of forces into and out of an operational area.

Here’s the earliest OED citation for the old military sense of the verb ploy:

“In the march by echellons, the battalions may be ployed into columns with deploying intervals, as in a full line” (Army and Navy Chronicle, March 17, 1836).

And this is the first Oxford citation for “deploy” used in its old military sense:

“His columns … are with ease and order soon deploy’d” (“Progress of War,” a poem in The European Magazine, 1786, by an officer identified as “Lieutenant Christian”).

The two old military terms were undoubtedly influenced by the earlier French use of ployer and déployer in the same sense in a treatise on military tactics, Essai Général de Tactique (1772), by Jacques-Antoine-Hippolyte, Comte de Guibert.

When “deploy” entered English in the 15th century, it briefly meant the same thing as the earlier word “display”—to unfold or spread out. In fact, “deploy” was merely a different way of spelling “display.”

So if either “deploy” or “display” had an etymological opposite based on the same Latin roots, it would be “ply” (to fold or layer).

Both words come ultimately from the Latin displicare, which is composed of the negative prefix dis– (un-) and plicare (fold).

This is also the ancestor of “ply,” “apply,” “comply,” “complicated,” “employ,” “imply,” “pleat,” and “splay,” according to the OED and John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

So why did we once, very briefly, have these two words for the same thing? You might call it a printer’s idiosyncrasy.

The Latin verb displicare made its way into Old French (as desplier, later desployer), and from Old French it passed into Middle English in the 1300s as desplay (later spelled “display”).

In the late 1400s, the printer William Caxton chose to spell this word in the Parisian fashion: “deploye” and “dysploye.”

But Caxton’s variations, credited with being the first uses of “deploy,” didn’t really establish the word in English. As the OED explains, the actual adoption of “deploy” in a specific sense didn’t take place until the end of the 18th century.

That’s when “deploy” acquired its original military meaning (“to spread out (troops) so as to form a more extended line of small depth”).

So we might think of a line of “deployed” troops at that time as being unfolded or spread out.

[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 5, 2023.]

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Etymology Usage

Are you ept, ane, and ert?

Q: On a recent Leonard Lopate show, a caller said she was laughed at as a child for using “ept’” as the opposite of “inept.” Pat replied that “ept” was actually a word—a humorous invention. I don’t see “ept” in my dictionary, nor “ane,” nor “ert.”

A: No, you won’t find “ept” in standard dictionaries, but the Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for the adjective, with written examples dating back to the 1930s. The OED even includes the adverb “eptly” and the noun “eptitude.”

Oxford credits the New Yorker writer E. B. White with the first recorded use of “ept.” In a letter dated October 1938, he said, “I am much obliged … to you for your warm, courteous, and ept treatment of a rather weak, skinny subject.”

The dictionary says “ept” means adroit, appropriate, or effective. It describes the word as a back-formation and “deliberate antonym” of “inept.” A back-formation is a word formed by dropping part of an earlier word.

Although the OED doesn’t have entries for “ane” or “ert,” it does include them (as humorous antonyms for “inane” and “inert”) in its entry for “ept.”

Here’s the citation, from the Sept. 7, 1966, issue of Time magazine: With the exception of one or two semantic twisters, I think it is a first-rate job—definitely ept, ane and ert.”

By the way, many listeners wrote Pat after her appearance on the WNYC show to point out that “inept” had a more conventional antonym: “adept.”

But interestingly, these two words weren’t always opposites. In fact, “adept” didn’t even exist when “inept” showed up in the first decade of the 1600s. And when it did appear, “adept” had an entirely different meaning from its usual one today.

When “inept” first showed up, according to the OED, it had several meanings: not adapted; unsuited, or unfit; without aptitude; absurd; wanting in reason or judgment; silly or foolish.

It can be traced to the Latin ineptus, which the OED defines as “unsuited, absurd, foolish.” The Latin word is composed of the negative prefix in- plus the noun aptus, meaning a general tendency.

The Latin aptus is the source of our adjective “apt,” which came into English in the 14th century meaning suited or fit. Only later did “apt” come to mean inclined or disposed, as in “Children are apt to fidget.”

We don’t want to get lost in a labyrinth of classical etymology, but we should note here that aptus is the past participle of the verb apere (to fasten, attach, or bind). We’ll get back to apere in a moment.

As for “adept,” it’s derived from the Latin adeptus, composed of the prefix ad– plus apisci (to get), which is derived in turn from the verb that’s at the root of “inept”—apere, to fasten. Bingo: a classical connection between “adept” and “inept.”

When the adjective “adept” came into English in the mid-17th century, the OED says, it described someone or something “that has attained knowledge of the secrets of alchemy, magic, and the occult.”

The word often appeared in the phrase “adept philosopher,” meaning one skilled in alchemy, magic, or the occult.

It was first recorded in Thomas Vaughan’s Magia Adamica (1650), a book on magic: “I knew a Gentleman, who meeting with a Philosopher Adept, and receiving so much Courtesie as to be admitted to Discourse, attended his first Instructions passing well.”

The adjective led to a noun usage; originally an “adept” was a person with skills in those occult arts.

By the end of the 17th century, the adjective “adept” had taken on the more general sense it has now: very skilled at something. And the noun “adept” followed suit, coming to mean a skilled person.

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Linguistics Usage


Q: In the opening sequence of The Simpsons, Bart writes sentences like these on the chalkboard: “TEACHER’S DIET IS WORKING,” “I WILL NOT MOCK TEACHER’S OUTDATED CELL PHONE,” and “TEACHER IS NOT A LEPER.” The absence of “the” before “teacher” here sounds odd to me. How would you describe this usage?

A: The dropping of articles before nouns is, among other things, a characteristic of young children’s speech—children a lot younger than 10-year-old Bart. The show’s writers are having him use baby or toddler language to humorous effect.

This usage isn’t limited to children, however. A receptionist in a medical office may say, “Doctor will see you now,” or a church bulletin might read, “Pastor will be on vacation next week.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says the common noun “nurse is sometimes given the status of a proper name, as in “Have you seen Nurse?”

Interestingly, studies of how children acquire language show that this phenomenon of article-dropping occurs in many languages, not just English.

For example, the linguist Sergio Baauw, in a study of Spanish and Dutch children, has noted their “frequent omission of functional elements” in speech.

Until around the age of three, he writes in Grammatical Features and the Acquisition of Reference, children often omit articles “in contexts where they are obligatory in the adult language.”

In another study, The Dissociation Between Grammar and Pragmatics, the linguists Jeannette Schaeffer, Aviya Hacohen, and Arielle Bernstein note that “in an experimental setting, English-acquiring children drop articles around 10% between the ages of 2 and 3. By the age of 3, they no longer drop articles.”

Of course “article drop,” the term linguists use for this phenomenon, isn’t limited to children’s speech. Headline writers drop definite and indefinite articles all the time.

In fact, the linguist Andrew Weir has written a paper on this very subject: “Article Drop in English Headlinese.”

And the adult use of articles before nouns can differ depending on which side of the Atlantic one lives on. Americans recover from surgery “in the hospital” while the British do their recovery “in hospital.”

We discussed this usage distinction a few years ago in an extensive posting about differences between American and British English.

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Etymology Usage

Is the matrix the message?

Q: What is your feeling about a “matrix organization” vs. a “matrixed organization”? Is either one correct?

A: Well, you won’t find them in standard dictionaries, but they’re alive and well online. Both terms get about the same number of hits in Google searches, somewhat under half a million.

More to the point, you can find entries for “matrix organization” (not “matrixed organization”) in the Oxford English Dictionary and in online business dictionaries.

That’s reason enough to go with “matrix organization,” assuming your audience is familiar with the term. We hadn’t heard of it until your question popped up in our inbox.

The OED defines the term as a business structure “in which project teams are formed of staff drawn from separate departments or functions within the organization.”

In a matrix organization, the dictionary says, “two or more lines of reporting, responsibility, or communication run through the same individual.”

The OED adds that such an organization, where the same person has two or more bosses, is “often used to supplement a traditional hierarchical structure.”

An online reference site,, explains that a matrix organization draws “employees from different functional disciplines for assignment to a team without removing them from their respective positions.”

The term “matrix organization,” according to, “gets its name from its resemblance to a table (matrix) where every element is included in a row as well as a column.”

The website says the structure was developed by NASA and its suppliers, but the earliest OED citations for the usage make no reference to the agency.

The OED’s earliest citation for the use of “matrix” in this management sense (but without the word “organization”) is from a 1959 anthology of articles on business structure.

The first citation that uses the actual term “matrix organization” is from the 1964 summer issue of Business Horizons, a journal of the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University:

“The concept of a matrix organization entails an organizational system designed as a ‘web of relationships’ rather than a line and staff relationship of work performance.”

In other words, this matrix isn’t much like the cyberpunk simulated reality that Keanu Reeves challenges in the sci-fi Matrix movies.

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The quick and the late

Q: Your recent post on “late” reminded me of a question I’ve always had. In the Nicene creed, we say, “He will come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead.” Is “quick” in that sense—living—at all related to the use of “late” in the sense of dead?

A: Our post last month about “late” notes that since the 1400s the word has meant dead or recently deceased. That’s a long time.

And for much longer, since early Old English, “quick” has been used to mean alive. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example is from Beowulf, possibly written as far back as 725.

However, the fact that these two words are semi-opposites—and on two different fronts—is mere coincidence.

Both “late” and “quick” came into English from old Germanic sources, “late” in the 800s and “quick” in the 700s, according to OED citations.

But originally they weren’t opposites in any sense.

“Quick” originally meant alive or animate. It didn’t come to mean swift or rapid until 600 or 700 years later.

“Late” meant slow or tardy when it was first recorded in writing in the late 800s. Six centuries later it was used to mean deceased.

In other words, “quick” was late in taking on its meaning of swift. And “late” wasn’t so quick in taking on its sense of dead.

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Does the ending of “alimony” mean money?

Q: What is the meaning of the suffix at the end of the word “alimony”? Does it have anything to do with money?

A: The word ending you’re talking about is “-mony,” and it appears in several English nouns that were adopted from Latin (like “matrimony,” “patrimony,” and “acrimony”).

This word element (it’s technically not a suffix) has no meaning on its own but, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, it occurs “in essentially abstract nouns mainly denoting a state, condition, or action.”

Most of these words, the OED says, were borrowed into “Middle English (in some cases through French) or early modern English.” The Latin originals ended in –monia or –monium.

Here are the ones most familiar today and the dates of their earliest OED citations:

“patrimony” (1340), “matrimony” (1357), “ceremony” (1380), “testimony” (1382), “parsimony” (possibly before 1475), “sanctimony” (1541), “acrimony” (1542), and “alimony” (1655).

The latecomer, “alimony,” etymologically means nourishment; the Latin alimonia meant nutriment. Thus it came into English with the sense of an allowance or means of support.

(“Palimony” is a 20th-century invention, originally intended as a humorous or cynical play on “pal” plus “alimony.”)

While we’re on the subject, we’ve always thought it odd that “matrimony” and “patrimony” aren’t masculine and feminine versions of the same thing. Instead, one means marriage while the other means an inheritance from a father.

The Latin elements matri– and patri– are derived from the words for mother and father (mater and pater). So one would think “matrimony” and “patrimony” should be the feminine and masculine versions of something or other, like “matriarchy” and “patriarchy.”

But that’s not the case. Even in classical Latin, the meanings of matrimonium and patrimonium weren’t the flip sides of a coin.

To the Romans, matrimonium meant the state of being married. But patrimonium, says the OED, meant the “property of the head of a household, personal estate, fortune, private chest of the Roman emperors.” And in post-classical Latin it also meant the “estate of the church.”

Those are roughly the meanings of “matrimony” and “patrimony” in English. The word “matrimony” never had to do with property handed down by a mother (though it had that meaning in Old French). And “patriarchy” never meant the state of marriage.

It’s a puzzle and, as we said, the Latin roots are no help.

In English as in Latin, the word element matri- was used, the OED says, in “forming nouns and adjectives with the sense ‘of or relating to relationship through a female line.’ ”

Meanwhile, the word element patri– was used in “forming words with the sense ‘of or relating to social organization defined by male dominance or relationship through the male line.’ ”

So the only parallelism in their meanings is that bit about “relationship through a female [or male] line.” That still leaves the question why the Romans made matrimonium and patrimonium so different.

We came across one sensible explanation in Christopher Francese’s book Ancient Rome in So Many Words (2007):

“The obvious counterpart of patrimony would be matrimony,” Francese writes. “But in Latin, as in English, there is a striking asymmetry between the two.”

For Romans, he writes, “Matrimonium means marriage, but only for a woman. A man ‘leads’ (ducere) his bride into matrimonium, which is literally the condition of being a mother, suggesting that childbearing is the true purpose of marriage for a woman.”

“It would be absurd for a man to enter matrimonium; he ‘takes a wife into his matrimony’ (uxorem in matrimonium ducere),” Francese says, adding:

Patrimonium means not marriage or fatherhood but inherited property and fortune, implying that fatherhood is a vehicle for passing down property. Patrimonium and matrimonium reflect the asymmetrical roles and duties of father and mother in the Roman patriarchal family.”

We found a less serious (and very politically incorrect) explanation in a quote from the Kansas City Star, repeated in a trade journal in 1914: “Matrimony is engineered by the mother and patrimony is supplied by the father.”

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Etymology Linguistics Pronunciation Usage

Worcester source

Q: You’ve written previously that the British habit of contracting the next to last syllable in words like “secretary” and “territory” is fairly recent. What about the contracted British pronunciation of place names like “Worcester,” “Gloucester,” and “Leicester”? I’m a curious Yank who wonders when and how this occurred.

A: As you say, we’ve written on our blog and in our books about the development of those speech characteristics we now associate with the modern British accent.

We’ve had several posts about the subject and we discuss it in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths. The New York Times website includes a large excerpt from the chapter in Origins about differences between American and British English.

Many characteristics of modern British speech—like the syllable-dropping in “secretary”—developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

But that’s not the case with the clipped pronunciation of “Worcester,” “Leicester,” and “Gloucester.” That abbreviated way of pronouncing place names ending in “-cester” is quite a bit older—old enough to show up in Shakeseare and to accompany the English-speaking Colonists to the New World.

As you know, the names of those English cities are much easier to say than to write. They sound like WOOS-ter (with the “oo” of “wood”), GLOSS-ter, and LESS-ter.

The standard pronunciations (and the only ones given in the Oxford English Dictionary) call for pronouncing the final “-cester” as “ster.”

The names of the corresponding counties—“Worcestershire,” “Leicestershire,” and “Gloucestershire”—are pronounced the same way, except that each has another syllable (“sher”) at the end.

The British aren’t the only ones who say the names that way. Massachusetts also has cities named Worcester, Leicester, and Gloucester, pronounced as if they were spelled “Wooster,” “Lester,” and “Gloster.”

The OED doesn’t give etymologies for these place names. But there are clues in the dictionary’s entry for “chester,” a long-defunct noun that originally meant a Roman encampment in ancient Britain.

This word, spelled ceaster in Old English writings, comes from the Latin castra (camp), and is “often applied to places in Britain which had been originally Roman encampments,” the OED says.

“This is one of the best ascertained of the Latin words adopted by the Angles and Saxons during the conquest of Britain,” the dictionary adds.

The oldest citation for the use of the word in writing is from the mid-800s. But it existed even earlier, before English was written. As Oxford notes, it’s been reconstructed as cæstra in the prehistoric Old English of the 400s to 500s.

The word still exists today in place names ending in “-cester,” “-caster,” and “-chester.” Those ending in “-caster” and “-chester” are pronounced as written, as in “Lancaster” and “Winchester.”

Why is “-cester” given a clipped pronunciation in place names? The OED says only that “the history of the form written -cester, of which only -ster is pronounced (in Worcester, Bicester, etc.), is obscure.”

It’s difficult to trace the pronunciations of place names, since we have only written records to go by, and many old pronouncing dictionaries don’t include place names.

Two that do, however, might lead us to believe that the “-ster” pronunciation developed  in the early 18th century.

Thomas Dyche, in A Guide to the English Tongue (1709), gives three-syllable pronunciations for the three cities, which he renders as “Wor-ce-ster,” “Lei-ce-ster,” and “Glou-ce-ster.”

Half a century later, William Johnston’s A Pronouncing and Spelling Dictionary (1764), in a table devoted to “Words With Quiescent Consonants,” says the “c” is not pronounced in “Worcester,” “Leicester,” and “Gloucester.” (This makes them two-syllable words.)

So it would seem at first glance that the “-ster” pronunciation established itself sometime between 1709 and 1764, assuming these lexicographers were in touch with local usage.

However, as a reader of the blog points out, the names “Worcester,” “Leicester,” and “Gloucester” appear dozens of times in the works of Shakespeare, and “scansion almost always requires two-syllable pronunciations of these words.” (Scansion is analysis of verse to show its meter.)

Here are some two-syllable examples from Shakespeare: “At worcester must his body be interr’d” (King John); “He is, my lord, and safe in leicester town” (Richard III); “As ’tis said, the bastard son of gloucester” (King Lear).

Well, that takes us back to square one. It won’t even help us to analyze the spellings of these words in Old English. The historical spellings of place names are hard to pin down with any certainty.

As Randolph Quirk and Sherman M. Kuhn pointed out in a 1955 article in the journal Language, Old English scribes tended to respell place names freely.

As an example, they wrote, “Four spellings of Worcester occur in two copies of a single document.” The spellings were Wigra Ceastre, Weogerna ceastre, Wegerna ceaster and Wigerna cestre.

“Obviously,” Quirk and Kuhn commented, “somebody altered something, and probably not all of the spellings cited represent local usage.”

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Etymology Usage

General relativity

Q: The word “general” in the title “solicitor general” is an adjective, not a noun. So are the Supreme Court justices using incorrect English when they address the solicitor general as “general”? What do you guys think?

A: When an attorney general, a solicitor general, a surgeon general, an inspector general, a comptroller general, and a postmaster general sit down together, there isn’t a general among them.

The gathering consists of an attorney, a solicitor, a surgeon, an inspector, a comptroller, and a postmaster. In their titles, the adjective “general” isn’t used in the military sense.

In conversation, according to protocol guides, these officials should be addressed by name, as “Mr. Smith” (or “Ms.” or “Mrs.” or “Dr.,” etc.), or as Mr. Solicitor General, Madam Attorney General, and so on—but not as “General.”

Yet many people insist on calling them generals—especially the attorneys general and solicitors general. This used to annoy Janet Reno no end. The former attorney general preferred to be addressed as “Ms. Reno.”

But Elena Kagan, when she was solicitor general, wanted to be called “general.” In a posting a couple of years ago, we quoted her as saying “the justices have been calling men SGs ‘general’ for years and years and years; the first woman SG should be called the same thing.”

So are justices on the Supreme Court using poor English when they address the solicitor general (or attorney general) as “general”? Technically, perhaps. But the justices have the authority to rule on proper usage in their own courtroom.

Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage, says the justices’ use of “general as a faux title appears to have been popularized by William Rehnquist, who was otherwise known as a stickler for grammar.”

Garner says Rehnquist used the term this way as early as 1980, during oral arguments in Fedorenko v. US, a case in which the court held that people who assisted in Nazi persecutions were not eligible for US visas.

While Justice Rehnquist was addressing the solicitor general as “general,” Garner says, “the Chief Justice in that era, Warren Burger, fastidiously addressed the Solicitor General as ‘Mr. Solicitor General.’ ”

When Rehnquist became chief justice, according to Garner, he continued to use “general” as a title, “undoubtedly helping to spread this linguistic innovation.”

“Lamentably,” Garner writes, “the practice has continued with Rehnquist’s successor and has been adopted by other members of the Court as well.”

He notes that even the court’s official “transcript references to the Solicitor General now simply state ‘General Clement,’ ‘General Kneedler,’ and ‘General Kagan.’ ” (Not surprisingly, Justice Kagan now refers to the Solicitor General as “general.”)

As for the future, Garner says: “Sticklers will abstain. Others will blithely persist. And the militarization of high legal offices will march forward.”

He isn’t alone in lamenting this usage. Michael E. Herz, a law professor at Cardozo School of Law-Yeshiva University, has written a paper arguing that addressing a solicitor general or an attorney general as “general” is “flatly incorrect by the standards of history, grammar, lexicology and protocol.”

“Notwithstanding the popularity of ‘come here, gorgeous,’ it is grammatically incorrect to call someone by an adjective,” Herz says.

He adds that “historically, ‘general’ refers not to rank or command but to the breadth of attorneyship.” (The Oxford English Dictionary says that “general” in the title of an office holder means “having superior rank and comprehensive command or control.”)

“According to the standard text on protocol,” Herz writes, “a letter should begin ‘Dear Mr. Solicitor General’ or ‘Dear Mr. Doe,’ and in conversation the SG should be referred to simply as ‘Mr. Doe.’ ”

(The “standard text” he refers to is Protocol: The Complete Handbook of Diplomatic, Official and Social Usage, by Mary Jane McCaffree and Pauline Innis.)

Interestingly, as we note in our earlier Kagan posting, the word “general” was once the less important part of the military title, according to the language sleuth Dave Wilton.

The first general officer, he writes on his website,, was a “capteyn generall, an officer who had authority over the other captains, or commanders, in an army; in other words, the commander-in-chief.”

“This term dates to 1514 and is a lift from the French, who used the rank captain général,” Wilton says. “By 1576, the captain was being dropped from the title and superior officers were simply being addressed as general.”

In that earlier posting we also quoted the linguist Mark Liberman as suggesting that addressing an attorney general as “general” may have been “common practice at the state level, in some parts of the U.S., for a long time.”

Writing on the Language Log, Liberman notes that the judge in the Scopes trial in 1925 addressed the Tennessee attorney general as “general”—and out of courtesy addressed the other lawyers as “colonel.”

Many centuries ago, the title wasn’t “attorney general” but “general attorney.” So where did the “general” come from?

As the OED explains, “The designation began in England, where this officer was at first merely the king’s attorney … called from the reign of Edward IV, ‘the king’s general attorney,’ to distinguish him from those appointed to act on special occasions, or in particular courts. The descriptive designation seems to have grown into a title during the 16th c.”

These days, in both England and the US, “attorney general” is “the title of the first ministerial law-officer of the government,” the OED says.

In case you’re interested, we’ve also written on the blog about the use of honorifics (like “Mr.”) in titles and forms of address, including postings in 2008 and 2012.

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Neither hot nor cold

Q: Like the King of Siam, I have a puzzlement. I will be most grateful if you can help me make sense of the word “lukewarm.”

A: We assume you’re puzzled about the history of “lukewarm,” not its meaning (mildly warm or indifferent).

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the key to “lukewarm” is an obsolete Middle English term for tepid, leuk or luke.

The dictionary calls attention to another obsolete Middle English term, lew, meaning warm or sunny, which it traces back to hleow, an Old English word for warm.

Chambers also notes the similarity of luke to other Germanic words for tepid or weak, such as luk in Low German and leuk in modern Dutch.

But the Oxford English Dictionary says “it seems impossible to connect the word etymologically” to the Low German and modern Dutch words, “notwithstanding the resemblance in form and meaning.”

When the adjective “lukewarm” entered English in the late 14th century, according to OED citations, it meant moderately warm or tepid.

The earliest published reference in Oxford is from a 1398 translation of Bartholomew de Glanville’s De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the Order of Things), a 13th-century encyclopedia:

“The broth of clete … comfortyth the teeth: yf it be luke warme hote holde in the mouth.” (“Clete” is an obsolete term for burdock, a root vegetable.)

By the early 16th century, “lukewarm” was being used loosely to describe someone with  little warmth or depth of feeling or enthusiasm.

The OED’s earliest citation is from Thomas More’s De Quatuor Novissimis (The Four Last Things, 1522):

“Like as god said in thapocalips vnto the churche of Loadice. Thou arte neyther hote nor cold but luke warme, I would thou were colde yt thou mighteste waxe warme.”

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Etymology Phrase origin

Amphibian transportation

Q: Your recent discussion about “tadpoles” and “pollywogs” reminded me of another amphibian usage, “frog march.” Can you enlighten me?

A: When “frog march” first showed up in Britain in the 19th century, it was a noun phrase that referred to a way of moving recalcitrant prisoners.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes this usage as historical (that is, it’s used now in referring to a practice of the past) and defines the noun phrase this way:

“A method of moving a resistant person (such as a prisoner), in which he or she is lifted by the arms and legs and carried in a prone position with the face pointing towards the ground; the action or an act of moving a person using this method, or an instance of being moved in this way.”

The earliest example of the phrase in the OED is from an 1871 issue of the Evening Standard in London: “They did not give the defendant the ‘Frog’s March.’ ”

The phrase soon crossed the Atlantic and showed up in American usage in an 1874 issue of the Daily Evening Bulletin in San Francisco:

“The London method is called the ‘frog’s march’; in which the prisoner is carried to the station, with the face downwards and the whole weight of the body dependent on the limbs.”

In the 20th century, however, “frog-march” evolved into a verbal phrase for an action that’s not quite that extreme or uncomfortable.

The OED says “to frog-march,” which came along in the 1930s, means “to hustle forwards (a reluctant or resisting person), typically by seizing the collar or pinning the arms behind the back.”

Here’s a recent example, from Stephen Brown’s Free Gift Inside! (2003), a book about marketing : “I failed to wait behind the yellow line, as instructed, and was promptly frog-marched … to a welcoming interrogation room.”

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English language Grammar Usage

A taxing question

Q: Can you please explain to me why “He wants everyone to pay less taxes” is wrong, while “He wants everyone to pay less in taxes” is OK?

A: You ask a very interesting question. That’s because the words “tax” and “taxes” aren’t your simple, generic examples of a singular and a plural.

Each of them can be interpreted in two different ways. And that complicates their use with the adjectives “less” and “fewer.” This is what we mean:

(1) “Tax” can refer to an individual levy, as in a gasoline tax or an income tax or a sales tax. And two or more of these would be “taxes”—different KINDS of levies.

(2) “Tax” can also be what’s known as a singular “mass” noun for an amount of something—in this case, the amount of money owed to the government. And “taxes,” even though it’s a plural, is ordinarily used in this same sense. You might reasonably say either “I owed no tax this year” or “I owed no taxes this year.” Though you use the plural “taxes,” you’re thinking of a single sum of money.

Now let’s toss the adjective “less” into the mix.

Nobody would argue with a sentence like “I paid less tax this year.” But how about “I paid less taxes this year”? Is that good English usage?

Not to our ears, it isn’t. And we’re not alone.

When we Google the phrase “less taxes,” we come up with several hundred thousand hits. But there are twice as many for “less tax.” In our opinion, the majority has a better ear (or better ears).

Broadly speaking, the rule in modern usage guides is that the adjective “less” is for a smaller amount of one thing (“less milk”), while the adjective “fewer” is for a smaller number of things you can count (“fewer cookies”).

We’ve written before on our blog about the decline of “fewer,” a word that seems to be occurring fewer and fewer times. And we’ve written that the line between “less” and “fewer” wasn’t always as distinct as it is in modern usage guides.

The Oxford English Dictionary has examples from the year 888 to modern times of “less” used to mean “fewer”—that is, a smaller number of things. This isn’t surprising, of course, since “fewer” wasn’t even available until the 14th century.

But getting back to your question, “taxes,” no matter how it’s used, is grammatically plural (like “cookies”). And most people’s ears rebel at the use of “less” with a grammatical plural, as in “less cookies” or “less taxes.”

The appropriate adjective with “taxes” would be “fewer,” but “fewer taxes” would mean a smaller number of individual taxes. And that’s not what we’re trying to say.

The solution? When you want to use the plural “taxes” in a wider sense (meaning the sum), it’s perfectly correct to add “in” and say you paid “less in taxes.” Here’s why.

In the phrase “less in taxes,” the word “less” isn’t an adjective. It’s a noun meaning “a smaller amount.” And “in taxes” (you could just as well use “in tax”) is a prepositional phrase.

This is probably why the phrase “less in taxes” doesn’t offend many ears. It gets more Google hits (2.6 million) than “less taxes” and “less tax” combined.

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Etymology Slang Usage

Yo! Bum Rush the Show

Q: I was listening to NPR the other day when a football scout said he’d waited outside a prospect’s home and then “bum-rushed” him. When I grew up, giving a “bum’s rush” to someone meant hustling him out the door, figuratively or literally. Lately I’ve been hearing “bum-rush” used as a verb meaning to ambush. What the heck? Where’s the context? How did this happen?

A: This use of “bum-rush” as a verbal phrase is fairly recent, and it’s undoubtedly a variation on the earlier noun phrase “the bum’s rush.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says to “bum-rush” is “to charge at or into (a person or place): groupies who bum-rushed the musician’s dressing room.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines it similarly: “to attack or seize with an overpowering rush,” as in “bum-rush the stage.”

M-W dates the expression from 1987, though it doesn’t give the origin. However, 1987 was the year the hip-hop group Public Enemy released its first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang (Vol. I) attributes the usage to the title song on the Public Enemy album, but dates it to 1986. We assume that’s because Public Enemy was performing the song that year while it was the opening act for the Beastie Boys.

Since the album came out, “bum-rush” has been used pretty freely as a verbal phrase meaning to deliberately run into someone or something at full tilt.

The intent can be to ambush, push past, beat up, tackle, or shove aside. It can also mean to gatecrash, or push into a club or event without paying.

Though the expression is sometimes used in the sense of to have anal sex (likely a play on the British slang word “bum,” meaning buttocks), the usage we find most often has little to do with sex.

For example, a 2010 news story on the website TMZ reported that Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber had been “bum-rushed” by an overenthusiastic 12-year-old fan.

And in late April the LA Weekly blog reported that a stand-up comic, Randy Kagan, had been assaulted and pushed off the stage at the Hollywood Improv. “I was blindsided, bum rushed,” Kagan is quoted as saying. (He had made remarks about a woman in the audience and her boyfriend took offense.)

As we said, this verbal usage is probably derived from the older phrase “bum’s rush,” defined in Merriam-Webster’s as “forcible eviction or dismissal.” M-W dates this one from 1904.

The “bum” in the phrase is a vagrant or tramp who’s thrown out of a place or forcibly escorted off the premises.

This sense of “bum” as a tramp is of American origin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and apparently so is the phrase “bum’s rush.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang (Vol. I) says the phrase originated “in the saloons of late 19C New York where vagrants and other hungry people attempted to take advantage of the sometimes sumptuous free lunch counters, which were meant for drinkers only.”

Freeloaders, in other words, got the “bum’s rush.”

Here’s a mid-20th-century usage, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary, from Marten Cumberland’s novel Murmurs in the Rue Morgue (1959):

“Chotin was being given what the vulgar term the ‘bum’s rush.’ He was down the steps … through the gate and flat on his back on the pavement.”

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Grammar Usage

Make a new plan, Stan

Q: The following sentence sounds fine when spoken, but too colloquial in writing: “We are planning on going to the movies tonight.” Shouldn’t one write: “are planning to” or better yet “plan to”? I generally change “are planning to” to “plan to,” much to the consternation of an ex-boss I used to edit.

A: Both “plan on” and “plan to” (as well as the progressive-tense versions you mention) are standard English, though “plan on” is more common in the US than in the UK.

But you’re right that “plan on” sounds more at home in speech or informal writing, while “plan to” seems a better choice for formal writing.

In fact, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “Our evidence suggests that plan on is more often found in spoken than in written use; we have few printed examples.”

The only written example cited in the usage guide is from a December 1977 issue of Cats Magazine: “I will be discharged from the service in 1979 and plan on returning to the States.”

The verbal phrase “plan on” is usually followed by a gerund (“Do you plan on seeing King Lear?”), but it’s sometimes seen with a noun object (“Let’s plan on vichyssoise for lunch”).

The phrase “plan to” is always followed by an infinitive (“So when do you plan to clean your room?”).

By the way, the book Words Into Type (3rd ed.), familiar to journalists, has a handy section called “The Right Preposition,” consisting of a long list of words together with the prepositions they usually take. (It recommends that “plan” be used with “to.”)

As for “plan to” versus “are planning to,” we find the present-progressive version a bit informal, but we don’t think it would be out of place in a casual business letter.

We hope that ex-boss of yours isn’t an ex because of his consternation over your editing. If you’re planning to do that again with your next boss, maybe you should take Paul Simon’s advice and make a new plan.

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What’s in “inane”?

Q: My dictionary says “inane” is derived from inanis, the Latin term for empty. Is there an English antonym based on the same Latin root? Something like “pronane,” for example?

A: There isn’t such a word. That’s because “inane” no longer means what it did when it was adopted from Latin. It now means silly or senseless, but it originally meant empty or void.

The Latin adjective inanis (empty) and verb inanere (to empty) do have opposites—plenus (full) and implere (to fill).

You’ll recognize in them the ancestors of our words “plenty,” “plenteous,” “plenum” (a full assembly), and “plenipotentiary” (having full power).

But there’s no English antonym for “inane” that’s based on the same Latin root. Your playful suggestion, “pronane,” doesn’t exist in English, and if it did, it would mean the opposite of empty, not silly.

The Latin-derived words that look a bit like “inane” and come closest to being its opposite in meaning have different classical roots. “Animated,” for example, ultimately comes from anima, Latin for breath or soul.

The adjective “inane,” as you know, means senseless, unimaginative, insubstantial, or unintelligent. It’s used to describe someone or something that lacks sense or substance.

Of course there are lots of English words that mean the opposite. For starters, let’s simply turn around the words in the definition above: “sensible,” “imaginative,” “substantial,” and “intelligent.”

We could add many more: “smart,” “sharp,” “deep,” “profound,” “weighty,” and so on. However, we can’t think of a single word that truly does the job.

It’s interesting that a term derived from the Latin word for empty is so full of senses of one sort or another, though all of them are related to emptiness.

When “inane” showed up in English in the mid-17th century, it simply meant empty and was used to refer to abstract things.

The first citation in the OED is from Joseph Glanvill’s Lux Orientalis (1662), a book about Eastern beliefs in the existence of souls: “To have confined his omnipotence to work only in one little spot of an infinite inane capacity.”

It took a century and a half for the word to come to mean silly, senseless, or empty-headed. The OED’s first citation is from The Cenci (1819), a verse play by Shelley: “Some inane and vacant smile.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says “inane” is probably a back formation from the noun “inanity,” which showed up at the beginning of the 17th century.

(A back formation, as regular readers of the blog are aware, is a word formed by subtracting an element from an older one.)

“A similar development is found in vain and vanity,” Chambers notes, “where the noun is recorded earlier than the adjective.”

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Etymology Usage

Does “nauseous” make you puke?

Q: I worked on my daughter for 20 years to distinguish “nauseous” and “nauseated.” Finally, after graduating from med school, she spoke correctly. Now, a new issue: in teaching her med students, should she insist they get it right?

A: We assume you passed on to your daughter the traditional view—that “nauseous” means sickening while “nauseated” means sickened.

But the distinction between these two words is becoming less distinct year by year. In fact, it was even less so when they entered English hundreds of years ago.

In a posting we ran on our blog in 2006, we said: “If someone is sick to his stomach, he’s nauseated. If something is sickening, it’s nauseous. Never say, ‘I’m nauseous.’ Even if it’s true, why admit it?”

But in the six years since we wrote that post, the sands of English usage have been shifting. So your daughter might want to pause before correcting anyone.

These are interesting words with a tangled history.

The root word here, “nausea,” ultimately comes from ancient Greece, in which nausie (in Ionic Greek) and nautia (in Attic Greek) meant seasickness, sickness, disgust, or loathing. The word passed into Latin, in which nausea means seasickness.

The seasickness angle is significant, since the Greek nausie and nautia were derived from nautes (sailor), which in turn came from naus (ship).

All these words share an ancestor, a prehistoric Indo-European word reconstructed as nau (“boat”), according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

Through Greek and later Latin, that Indo-European root is the distant ancestor of such seafaring English words “nautical,” “nautilus,” “navy,” “naval,” “navigation,” and of course “nausea,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

“Nausea” came into English from Latin in the early to mid-1400s, and while the Latin word meant seasickness, the English word had a more general meaning.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this early meaning as “a feeling of sickness with an inclination to vomit; an occurrence of such a feeling.” (It was later used to mean seasickness too.)

In the 17th century, the OED says, “nausea” came to have figurative meanings like “strong disgust, loathing, or aversion,” or “a feeling of this.”

These are still the meanings the noun “nausea” has today. But the adjectives are another matter.

The earlier of the adjectives, “nauseous,” was first recorded in 1613, according to the OED, and it originally meant “inclined to sickness or nausea; squeamish.”

That, of course, is a somewhat milder version of the meaning that makes you sick: about to throw up.

The original sense of “nauseous” has since become obsolete. But before it died out, it overlapped with another, first recorded in 1618, defined by the OED as “causing nausea,” and “in later use: esp. offensive or unpleasant to taste or smell.”

Later in the 1600s, figurative meanings of “nauseous” came along, and it was used to mean nasty, repellant, loathsome, disgusting, repulsive, or offensive.

In the late 19th century, however, two senses of “nauseous” similar to the early ones showed up in the US: “affected with nausea; having an unsettled stomach,” and “disgusted, affected with distaste or loathing.”

The OED’s earliest citation for this usage is from 1885, and the numerous examples continue into the year 2000.

A representative example is this one from a 1949 issue of the Saturday Review: “After taking dramamine, not only did the woman’s hives clear up, but she discovered that her usual trolley ride back home no longer made her nauseous.”

Meanwhile, “nauseated” was undergoing some changes of its own.

When it was first used, in the 17th century, “nauseated” meant “causing nausea, cloying, rank,” the OED says. In other words, it meant pretty much what sticklers now insist “nauseous” should mean.

The OED’s first citation for the use of the word in writing is from Richard Allestree’s book The Gentlemans Calling (1660): “Forsaking all the unsatisfying nauseated pleasures of Luxury.”

The meaning later shifted to “suffering from or characterized by nausea,” as in this citation from the works of Sir Charles H. Williams, written sometime before 1759: “The nauseated reader, no longer cou’d brook The hoarse cuckow note.”

And that has been the meaning of “nauseated” ever since—or has it?

As you can see, “nauseous” and “nauseated” have had bumpy rides. Where do they stand today?

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says flatly, “Any handbook that tells you that nauseous cannot mean ‘nauseated’ is out of touch with the contemporary language. In current use it seldom means anything else.”

Standard dictionaries agree—though not all of them state the case so strongly.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives “nauseous” two meanings: “1. causing nausea or disgust: nauseating. 2. affected with nausea or disgust.”

And in a usage note M-W adds: “Those who insist that nauseous can properly be used only in sense 1 and that in sense 2 it is an error for nauseated are mistaken. Current evidence shows these facts: nauseous is most frequently used to mean physically affected with nausea, usually after a linking verb such as feel or become; figurative use is quite a bit less frequent. Use of nauseous in sense 1 is much more often figurative than literal, and this use appears to be losing ground to nauseating.

In case you think the people at Merriam-Webster’s are out on a limb, here’s what the newly revised American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says on the subject (we’ll add paragraph breaks for readability):

“Traditional usage lore has insisted that nauseous should be used only to mean ‘causing nausea’ and that it is incorrect to use it to mean ‘feeling sick to one’s stomach.’ Back in 1965, the Usage Panel was in step with this thinking, with 88 percent rejecting the ‘feeling sick’ meaning of nauseous.

“This attitude persisted for decades but has since begun to give way. In our 1988 survey, 72 percent of the Panel thought that a roller coaster should be said to makes its riders nauseated rather than nauseous. By the 1999 survey, the Panel’s attitude had changed dramatically—61 percent of the Panel approved of the sentence Roller coasters make me nauseous.

“This change might have been inevitable once people began to think that nauseous did not properly mean ‘causing nausea,’ as traditional lore would have it. Even in our 1988 survey, this was the case, as 88 percent preferred nauseating in the sentence The children looked a little green from too many candy apples and nauseating (not nauseous) rides. The 1999 results for this same example were not significantly different.

“Since there is abundant evidence for the ‘feeling sick’ use of nauseous, the word presents a classic example of a word whose traditional, ‘correct’ usage is being supplanted by a newer, ‘incorrect’ one. In other words, what was once considered an error is becoming standard practice.

Nauseous is now far more common than nauseated in describing the sick feeling. While nauseated remains for some the only ’correct’ word in this use, it is more apt to be interpreted metaphorically. We were left nauseous by the movie suggests that it made us ill. We were left nauseated by the movie implies that we were repulsed by the images.”

We could go on ad nauseam, citing Collins, Macmillan, Cambridge, and other online  dictionaries, but we’ll stop here and answer one more question: what do we think about all this?

We think it’s OK to use “nauseous” for feeling sick, though we don’t do it ourselves and we wouldn’t recommend it for formal writing. However, some holdouts would disagree. If you don’t want to get on their wrong side, use “nauseating” for sickening and “feeling sick” (or “feeling queasy”) when you’re about to throw up.

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Grammar Usage

The “whom” front

Q: My daughter had to correct the following sentence on her seventh-grade pronoun test: “Whom does the manager think will be the most efficient employee, her or him?” She changed it to “Who does the manager think will be the most efficient employee, she or he?” The teacher marked this as incorrect, but I can’t figure out why. Please help!

A: We can’t figure out why, either. Your daughter was right, and her teacher ought to go stand in the corner with a grammar book. (No, we won’t insist on a dunce cap!)

Before examining that sentence, let’s get rid of some clutter.

The choice between “who” and “whom” becomes obvious when we strip down the first part of the sentence to its basic subject, verb, and object: “Who … will be the most efficient employee….”

Next, let’s move around a few words to make it easier to identify the subject and object in the second part of the sentence. Again, the choice (“she or he” vs. “her or him”) is obvious: “… she or he … will be the most efficient employee….”

We’ve discussed “who” and “whom” many times on the blog (you can search for the terms) and we have a section about them on the Grammar Myths page of our website.

The real question here is whether “whom” matters anymore. We’ll get to that later, but first let’s look at the traditional view about who-ing and whom-ing, with an excerpt from Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

“If you want to be absolutely correct, the most important thing to know is that who does something (it’s a subject, like he), and whom has something done to it (it’s an object, like him). You might even try mentally substituting he or him where who or whom should go: if him fits, you want whom (both end in m); if he fits, you want who (both end in a vowel). “Who does something to (at, by, for, from, in, toward, upon, with, etc.) whom. The words in parentheses, by the way, are prepositions, words that ‘position’—that is, locate—other words. A preposition often comes just before whom, but not always. A better way to decide between who and whom is to ask yourself who is doing what to whom.

“This may take a little detective work. Miss Marple herself might have been stumped by the convolutions of some who or whom clauses (a clause, you’ll recall, is a group of words with its own subject and verb). For instance, other words may get in between the subject and the verb. Or the object may end up in front of both the subject and the verb. Here are two pointers to help clear up the mystery, and examples of how they’re used.

“• Simplify, simplify, simplify: strip the clause down to its basic subject, verb, and object.

“• Move the words around mentally to make it easier to identify the subject and the object.

Nathan invited only guys [who or whom] he thought played for high stakes. If you strip the clause of its false clues—the words separating the subject and verb—you end up with who . . . played for high stakes. Who did something (played for high stakes), so it’s the subject.

Nathan wouldn’t tell Miss Adelaide [who or whom] he invited to his crap game. First strip the sentence down to the basic clause, [who or whom] he invited. If it’s still unclear, rearrange the words in your mind: he invited whom. You can now see that whom is the object—he did something to (invited) whom—even though whom comes ahead of both the verb and the subject.”

Here’s the $64,000 question: Does this “who”/”whom” business really matter anymore? Our authoritative answer: yes and no. This is what Pat has to say about it in Woe Is I:

“Now for the good news. In almost all cases, you can use who instead of whom in conversation or in informal writing, like personal letters and casual memos.

“Sure, it’s not a hundred percent correct, and I don’t recommend using it on the most formal occasions, but who is certainly less stuffy, especially at the beginning of a sentence or a clause: Who’s the letter from? Did I tell you who I saw at the movies? Who are you waiting to see? No matter who you invite, someone will be left out.

“A note of caution: Who can sound grating if used for whom right after a preposition. You can get around this by putting who in front. From whom? becomes Who from? So when a colleague tells you he’s going on a Caribbean cruise and you ask, ‘Who with?’ he’s more likely to question your discretion than your grammar.”

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Etymology Usage

Holding patterns: “maintain” vs. “retain”

Q: Can “maintain” and “retain” be used interchangeably? If not, please explain the differences and give some examples. I’m writing from Iran and find your blog very helpful.

A: These words aren’t interchangeable, though they do overlap a bit in their meanings, and they have an etymological relative in common.

To “retain” is to keep in one’s possession; to hire; to remember or keep in mind; or keep in one’s service or pay.

To “maintain” is to preserve or keep in an existing state; support or provide for; uphold or defend; affirm or assert; or adhere or conform to.

These definitions are derived from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

The clue to what these words have in common is the word element “-tain.” This element doesn’t exist as a separate word in English, but if it did it would mean “hold” or “keep.”

The “-tain” in words like “maintain” and “retain” developed from the Latin tenere (to hold), according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It came into English words that were adopted from French, in which tenir means to hold.

English has many such words besides the two you ask about, including “contain,” “detain,” “pertain,” and “sustain.”

Sometimes this word element (spelled “ten-”) appears at the beginning of a word having to do with holding, as in “tenant,” “tenacious,” and “tenable.”

As for the two verbs you asked about, English adapted “maintain” from the Anglo-Norman maintenir in the early 1300s, when it meant  to support or assist. And English got “retain” from the Anglo-Norman retener in the early 1400s, when it meant to restrain, prevent, or hinder.

Note: After reading this post, a reader comments, “Perhaps it is just the teacher in me, but I view retain with more negative connotations than maintain. Retain is holding back, while maintain is holding up. (I know this isn’t always the case.) Example: If a student cannot maintain her grades, I will be forced to retain her.

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The elephant in the room

Q: I’m trying to track down the origin of “elephant in the room.” My fading memory recalls something about a play from the first half of the 20th century in which the curtain opens on a living room with a body on the floor. Ring a bell?

A: When we use the expression “elephant in the room” today, the elephant we’re usually talking about is something that’s too obvious to go unnoticed but uncomfortable to mention.

For example, all the relatives attending the wake for filthy-rich Great Aunt Beatrice wonder what’s in her unopened will, but none of them bring it up. It’s the elephant in the room.

Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition for this sense of “elephant in the room” and variants thereof:

“A significant problem or controversial issue which is obviously present but ignored or avoided as a subject for discussion, usually because it is more comfortable to do so.”

The OED’s first published reference for this usage is the title of a 1984 book, An Elephant in the Living Room: A Leader’s Guide for Helping Children of Alcoholics, by Marion H. Typpo and Jill M. Hastings.

Here’s a more illustrative citation, from a 2004 issue of the New York Times: “When it comes to the rising price of oil, the elephant in the room is the ever-weakening United States dollar.”

In short, the OED’s citations for this use of the phrase go back only about 30 years. And we haven’t found any evidence of a connection to an earlier “body in the room,” in either a theatrical or a real crime scene.

However, there’s an older “elephant in the room” with a different meaning—roughly, something huge yet irrelevant, or perhaps unprovable. Here’s the OED’s definition of this one:

“The type of something obvious and incongruous, esp. (in Logic and Philos.) in discussions of statements which may or may not correspond to observable facts.”

The OED credits the philosopher Harry Todd Costello with the first recorded use of this sense of the phrase.

In an essay published in 1935, Costello wrote: “It is going beyond observation to assert there is not an elephant in the room, for I cannot observe what is not.” (The essay was published that year in American Philosophy Today and Tomorrow, by Horace Meyer Kallen and Sidney Hook.)

Did the philosophical use of the phrase lead to the more familiar usage that’s common today? Perhaps, but before committing ourselves we did a bit more searching. And we came across yet other kinds of elephants.

For example, here’s a quotation in which the elephant is too big to ignore, but not necessarily off-limits in conversation. It comes from a 1961 issue of the Appraisal Journal, a real-estate industry publication:

“To continue to pretend that the American economy is thriving in an isolated vacuum would be like trying to ignore the presence of an elephant in the living room.”

And in a 1969 essay entitled “Elephants in the Living Room,” David Aspy used the term “elephant experience” to mean one that’s just too much to cope with—like coming home to find a you-know-what standing you-know-where.

We’ve also found the phrase “pink elephant in the room,” an apparent reference to hallucinating or waking up with a hangover.

This example is from a collection of anecdotes called Gridiron Nights (1915), by Arthur Wallace Dunn: “ ‘It reminds me of the fellow who woke up in the night and found a pink elephant in the room.’ ‘How did he get rid of it?’ ‘Oh, it backed slowly out through the keyhole.’ ”

Even before that, Mark Twain wrote a very funny story, “The Stolen White Elephant” (1882), about something too big to miss yet impossible to find.

In the story, which caricatures detective fiction, a large white elephant, freshly imported from Siam, disappears while quarantined in Jersey City.

But if the Twain story inspired the phrase “elephant in the room,” why did it take so long?

As you can see, in searching for the roots of the expression that’s popular today, it’s hard to determine which of these elephants might have suggested it.

But we suspect that white elephants and pink elephants are mere red herrings in this case. The clue to the origin of our particular “elephant in the room” probably lies with Harry Costello, the philosopher mentioned a few paragraphs ago.

Elephants are familiar presences in philosophy and logic. For instance, many philosophers have commented on the Indian parable of the blind men who attempt to describe an elephant by touch, each “seeing” and hence defining it differently. The fable is often used to make a point about language, experience, and deniability.

The fable would have been familiar to Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell. The two had an argument at Cambridge University in 1911 about the certainty of knowing that there is no rhinoceros in the room (in some versions of the story, it was a hippopotamus).

Their argument was much discussed and long influential in philosophical circles. It was probably what Costello had in mind in his 1935 comment on the assertion that “there is not an elephant in the room.”

So can we trace the popular sense of the phrase back to Wittgenstein in the days before World War I? That’s our guess. But, as Wittgenstein would caution, we can’t know it with empirical certainty.

Finally, we should mention that there are earlier “elephant” expressions in other languages, but none of them have the usual metaphorical meaning of “elephant in the room” in English. And we’ve seen no etymological evidence that any of them influenced the English usage.

For example, “The Inquisitive Man” (1814), a seven-paragraph short story by the Russian writer Ivan Krylov, describes a man who looks at the beasts, birds, and bugs in a museum of natural history, and tells a friend, “I saw everything there was to see and examined it carefully.”

When the friend asks if he saw the elephant, the man says: “Elephant? Are you quite sure that they have an elephant?” When told that there was one, he adds “Well, old man, don’t tell anybody—but the fact is that I didn’t notice the elephant!”

Dostoevsky, in his novel Demons (1871-72), refers to Krylov’s elephant with a literal, not metaphorical, expression: “Belinsky was just like Krylov’s Inquisitive Man, who didn’t notice the elephant in the museum, but gave all his attention to French socialist bugs.”

[Note: This post was updated on April 27, 2020.]

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Etymology Usage

Is the media dissing Mr. Obama?

Q: For the past few years, the media has referred to the president as “Mr. Obama.” This strikes me as wrong and even disrespectful. Even Phil McGraw is “Dr. Phil,” not “Mr. McGraw.” What’s your opinion?

A: First of all, this mistering of a president is nothing new.

Here’s an example from an April 18, 1861, article in the New York Times from New Orleans: “Mr. LINCOLN’s war proclamation was received with no astonishment.”

There’s nothing wrong or disrespectful about this usage, but it’s by no means universal.

The media—that is, the world of mass communications—is a big place that includes TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, news websites, and the blogosphere.

The news organizations populating this world follow many different style guides, but they generally refer to the occupant of the Oval Office as “President So-and-So” when first mentioned.

They differ, however, over how to refer to the president on second or third or whatever reference.

The Associated Press, for example, uses only his last name while the New York Times mixes things up and uses “the president,” “Mr. So-and-So,” or “President So-and-So.”

As for the courtesy title “mister,” it began life in the 1500s as a variant of “master,” a much older term that first showed up in the early days of Old English, when it was written as mægster.

The ultimate source of “mister” and “master,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is magister, Latin for master, chief, teacher, and a few other things.

When “master” first showed up in English in the writings of King Alfred, the ninth-century ruler of the West Saxons and Anglo-Saxons, it meant a man who had authority over others.

Over the years, it has taken on many other meanings, including an employer (early Old English), a teacher (early Old English), a courtesy title (Old English), a skilled workman (circa 1300), a manager of a shop (c. 1400), a male head of a household (1536), a captain of a merchant vessel (mid-1900s), and so on.

The abbreviated title “Mr.” showed up in the 1400s, according to OED citations, initially a shortened form of “Master” and later short for “Mister.”

“Until the latter half of the 17th cent.,” the OED says, “the title was often written in the full form master, but there is reason for believing that from the 16th cent. it was, at least in rapid or careless speech, treated proclitically, with consequent alteration of the vowel of the first syllable.”

In other words, as “master” began being treated proclitically (that is, as a prefix-like term connected to a name following it), this sense of the word evolved into “mister.”

“Eventually the word came to have the weakened pronunciation whenever it was used as a prefixed title,” the OED adds, “and it became customary always to employ the abbreviated spelling for this use, and only for this.”

As for Dr. Phil, enough said.

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Hear Pat live today on WNYC

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

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Etymology Usage

An apocryphal moment?

Q: I was listening to a trailer for a BBC Radio 4 broadcast about the reconstruction of the Globe Theatre when a novel usage caught my attention. The speaker referred to an “apocryphal” moment in which she realized she wanted to be involved in the project. Have you noticed a shift in the meaning of “apocryphal”?

A: No, we hadn’t noticed, at least not until we got your question.

A bit of googling, though, suggests that quite a few other people are using (or, rather, misusing) the adjective “apocryphal” to describe a sudden insight or inspiration or perception.

We came across a book on cancer research, for example, that describes an inspired technological breakthrough in treatment as “truly an apocryphal moment.”

You’re not the only person to raise an eyebrow at that BBC Radio 4 broadcast on April 22, 2012, of The Reunion. In the broadcast, the host Sue MacGregor reunited five people involved in the reconstruction of the theater.

We noticed several comments online by BBC listeners who wondered whether Claire van Kampen, the woman speaking, might have meant “apocalyptic,” not “apocryphal.” But we find that unlikely after listening to the comments by van Kampen, the new Globe’s first music director.

In the broadcast, she describes the moment that inspired her to join the project. She was visiting the site with her husband, the actor Mark Rylance, and felt disappointed at how little progress had been made:

“And then suddenly it—it was one of those apocryphal moments. The moon came out from behind the clouds. And it shone directly on this—this place. And then we heard St. Paul’s chime and we thought, ‘No, no, this—this is going to be magical. And we—we really want to be involved.’ ”

Our guess is that she (like others who misuse the term) was under the mistaken impression that “apocryphal,” which means inauthentic, erroneous, or fictitious, could be used to describe an epiphany.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, defines epiphany as “a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something”  or “an intuitive grasp of reality through something usually simple and striking.”

We couldn’t find a single standard dictionary that includes insightful, inspirational, or perceptive as a sense of “apocryphal.”

When the adjective showed up in English in the late 16th century, it referred to a statement or story or other piece of writing.

By the early 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was being used to refer to the “the Jewish and early Christian uncanonical literature”—that is the Apocrypha, the etymological parent of the adjective.

Around the same time, “apocryphal” took on its modern meaning of unreal, counterfeit, or sham. The earliest OED citation for this sense is from Ben Jonson’s 1612 comedy The Alchemist: “A whoresonne, vpstart, Apocryphall Captayne.”

So will the inspirational sense of “apocryphal” that you noticed catch on? We haven’t had an epiphany, but we don’t think so.

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Etymology Usage

Water ways: River Thames vs. Potomac River

Q: I hope you can shed light on something that has bugged me ever since I noticed it. Here in the UK, rivers are referred to as the “River Thames,” “River Avon,” and so on, whereas in the US they are referred to as the “Potomac River,” “Mississippi River,” etc. Is there a reason why?

A: Once upon a time, river names in English usually included the word “of.” So instead of “River Jordan” (in modern British usage) or “Jordan River” (in American usage), you would have found “River of Jordan” (written something like “rywere of Iordane”).

Many of the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citations for names of rivers, dating from the late 1300s, include “of.” Chaucer in 1395, for example, wrote of “the ryuer of Gysen.”

This practice of including “of” in river names, the OED says, wasn’t the only way of naming rivers, but it was “the predominant style before the late 17th cent.”

At that point, “of” began to drop out of river names, and British and American practices started to diverge.

In proper names, the word “river” commonly came first in Britain, but last in the American Colonies. In other words, most English speakers simply dropped “of,” but Americans reversed the word order as well.

While “river” has occasionally appeared at the end in British writing, this was “uncommon,” the OED says. Most of Oxford’s citations for “river” in last place are from the mid-1600s and after, and most are from North American sources.

As things now stand, the OED explains, the word “river” appears first “chiefly in British English referring to British rivers and certain other major, historically important rivers, as the Nile, Rhine, Ganges, etc.”

In North American usage, however, “river” comes at the end except sometimes in “certain other major, historically important rivers” like the ones mentioned above.

But we haven’t addressed the question “Why?” Why does usage differ in Britain and America? Why did the Colonists prefer “James River” and “Charles River” to the reverse?

We can’t answer that. But certainly the style adopted by the Colonists wasn’t unknown in the mother country.

The earliest OED citation with “river” following a proper noun is from about 1460, in a poem by John Lydgate mentioning the “Rodamus Ryuer.” And as late as 1612, the historian and cartographer John Speed mentions the “Thames Riuer.”

All we can say is that somehow a usage that was uncommon in England was transported to the New World and took hold.

As for earlier etymology, “river” can be traced to the Latin riparius (of a riverbank), from ripa (bank). It has more distant ancestors in the Greek ereipein (to plunge down) and in an ancient Indo-European root reconstructed as reip.

Interestingly, as John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “A heavily disguised English relative is arrived, which etymologically denotes ‘come to the shore.’ ”

“River” entered the language by way of Anglo-Norman and French, first appearing in written English around 1300, the OED says. But the word was part of people’s names as far back as the 11th century.

The OED says it is “attested earlier in surnames, as Gozelinus Riuere (1086; 1084 as Gozelinus de Lariuera), Walter de la Rivere (c1150), Johannes de la Riviere (1166), Willelmus de la Rivere (1200), etc.”

However, Oxford adds, “the early examples certainly, and the later probably, reflect the Anglo-Norman rather than the Middle English word.”

If you’d like to read more about rivers, we had a posting in 2011 about selling someone down the river, and one in 2010 about the differing US and UK pronunciations of Thames.

Finally, all this river talk may have left you wondering about the name “Riviera,” which we now use for the Mediterranean coasts of southeastern France and northwestern Italy. That name, first recorded in the 18th century, comes from an archaic use of “river” to mean a coast or seaboard.

Time to book a vacation!

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To surveil with love

Q: If an agency performs surveillance upon a person, is the person surveilled or surveyed? I would think the latter. Please advise.

A: When Big Brother is watching you, you’re being surveilled, though we’d prefer saying you’re under surveillance, a much more popular usage. In fact, our spell-checker doesn’t recognize “surveil” or “surveilled.”

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, defines “surveil” as “to subject to surveillance.” It gives “surveilled” as the past tense and the past participle.

The dictionary says the verb is a “back-formation from surveillance.” (A back-formation is a new word formed by dropping parts of an older one.)

The verb “survey” has several similar meanings—to look over, examine, evaluate, supervise, and so on—but none of them are quite the same as “surveil” or the longer verb phrase “subject to surveillance.”

English borrowed the noun “surveillance” from French in the late 18th or early 19th century. It’s derived from the Latin vigilare (to watch).

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, from 1799, appears to be using the French word in an English sentence.

The next example is from an 1802 letter by John Gustavus Lemaistre about a visit to a tapestry factory in Paris:

“The workmen are not locked up within the walls of the manufactory … but they are kept under the constant ‘surveillance of the police.’ ” (We’ve expanded the OED citation.)

The word “surveil” didn’t show up until much later. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) dates it to 1914, but M-W doesn’t mention a source.

The earliest example in the OED is from a 1960 court opinion in the Federal Supplement, which publishes case law: “The plaintiff also stresses that the store as a whole, and the customer exits especially, were closely surveilled.”

Is “surveil” etymologically related to “survey”? Not really, though both are derived from Latin words that have something to do with vision.

The verb “survey,” which entered English in the 15th century via the Anglo-Norman surveier, is derived from videre, the Latin verb for see, while “surveil” (as we’ve said above) comes from vigilare, the Latin verb for watch.

And these two verbs have different reconstructed Indo-European roots: “survey” is ultimately derived from weid (to see) while “surveil” is derived from weg (to awake).

Finally, all this talk about surveillance reminds us of “To Surveil With Love,” an episode on The Simpsons a couple of years ago.

In the episode, Homer accidentally leaves his gym bag at train station after nuclear waste is hidden in it. Fearing terrorism, officials suspend civil liberties and install surveillance cameras all over town.

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Etymology Usage

Really? Really?

Q: I wonder if you know where the new, slightly sarcastic, tic “Really? Really?” comes from.  I hear it mainly from young people, so it’s likely from some pop-culture source I don’t touch.

A: We hear the single sarcastic “Really?” quite a bit, but we haven’t noticed the repetitive usage. It doesn’t surprise us, though. In modern English, “really” has multiple uses—and some corresponding overuses.

For example, “really” is used nearly to death as an intensifier—that is, to be emphatic: “He’s really angry.” And when a single “really” isn’t intense enough, it’s doubled : “He’s really, really angry.”

(We’ve written before on the blog about the repeating of words for emphasis, a practice that’s been common for centuries.)

Other common uses of “really” express doubt (“I look good in orange? Really?”) or surprise (“I won the raffle? Really?”). And again, when a single “really” isn’t sufficiently doubtful or surprising, it’s doubled: “Really? Really?”

And, of course, there’s the sarcastic usage (“You have a 200 IQ? Really?”). We’re a bit surprised, however, that you’re hearing a doubling here. It seems to us that a second “Really?” would lessen the sarcasm.

The word “really” has other uses as well, of course. It can be used to express protest or dismay: “Really now! Five dollars for coffee?”

And it still retains its original, literal sense, in which it means in reality or in fact. In fact (if you’ll pardon the repetition), the word has had quite a history.

When it was first recorded in English in the 1400s, “really” had a strictly literal meaning—as the adverbial form of the adjective “real”—and it often had religious significance.

Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines the original word: “In reality; in a real manner. Also: in fact, actually.”

The word is still used this way, but in its early days it was frequently used “with reference to the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist,” the OED says.

Here, for example, is an early usage dated about 1450. It’s from a Middle English prose translation of a religious poem by Guillaume de Deguileville, The Pilgrimage of the Lyf of the Manhode (The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man):

“With inne this bred al the souereyn good is put … bodiliche and rialliche, presentliche and verreyliche.” (“Within this bread all the sovereign good is put … bodily and really, presently and verily.”)

The religious historian John Foxe also used the word in a doctrinal sense in his multi-volume Actes and Monuments (1563), shorter editions of which were popularly known as The Book of Martyrs.

In a passage about the Roman Catholic persecution of a Protestant who was burned at the stake in 1410, Foxe writes: “He held this opinion, that it was not the body of Christe really, the whiche was sacramentally vsed in the churche.”

This literal sense of “really”—both religious and otherwise—was later joined by another.

In the mid-16th century, the OED says, people began using it to mean truly, indeed or positively. And somewhat later it was used in the same sense as an intensifier to mean very or thoroughly.

Among the OED’s citations for this sense of the word is a quotation from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722): “This last Bill was really frightful.” (The “bill” was a weekly tally of the dead.)

A less grim, and more modern, example comes from a 2003 issue of the New York Post: “I have a really big scoop for you.”

In the early 17th century another use of “really” came along—the one expressing dismay or protest.

Here’s an early example, from Aphra Behn’s comedy The Roundheads (1682): “Really, Madam, I shou’d be glad to know by what other Title you wou’d be distinguish’d?”

A more recent OED citation is from John Braithwaite’s novel Never Sleep Three in a Bed (1969): “Being hauled out of mud-holes by horses was bad enough. But oxen, really!”

Finally we come to the “really” that’s usually framed as a question, though it’s more like a sideways statement of skepticism, doubt, or surprise. This one cropped up in the mid-18th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for this sense of the word comes from Samuel Richardson’s novel The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753):

“ ‘The Count of Belvedere. He was more earnest in his favour—’ ‘Really?’ ‘Yes, really—than I thought he ought to be.’ ”

This is the “really” that’s doubled in the sarcastic usage you ask about: “Really? Really?”

As we said, this repetitive usage is new to us, but we’re not really surprised!

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Do parkways lead to parks?

Q: During Pat’s last appearance on the Leonard Lopate Show, Leonard said parkways are so named because they lead to parks. What park does the Garden State Parkway lead to? Or the four parkways that form the Belt Parkway in NYC? There are many parkways that don’t lead to parks.

A: You’re right that a lot of parkways don’t lead to parks, but the first parkway apparently did, according to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

The department’s website describes Eastern Parkway, which runs between eastern Brooklyn and Prospect Park, as “the world’s first parkway.”

The department says Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who designed the parkway as well as the park, coined the term “parkway.”

The parkway, which was built from 1870 to 1874, connects Grand Army Plaza, the main entrance to Prospect Park, and Ralph Avenue to the east.

“Olmsted and Vaux intended Eastern Parkway to be the Brooklyn nucleus of an interconnected park and parkway system for the New York area,” the department says.

Although the plan was never completed, it adds, “their idea of bringing the countryside into the city influenced the construction of major parks and parkways in cities throughout the United States.”

The earliest published reference that we could find for the term “parkway” is in Olmsted and Vaux’s 1868 layout map for the construction of Eastern Parkway:

“City of Brooklyn. Plan of a portion of park way as proposed to be laid out from the eastern part of the City to the Plaza.” (Brooklyn was a city until it was annexed by New York City in 1898.)

So, was Leonard right in saying a parkway leads to a park?

Well, that was what Olmsted and Vaux had in mind when they used the term.

And one of the definitions of “parkway” in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, could be interpreted that way: “a roadway in a park : a landscaped thoroughfare connecting parks.”

However, the primary definition in Webster’s Third describes it as “a broad landscaped thoroughfare; especially : one from which trucks and other heavy vehicles are excluded.”

And the Oxford English Dictionary defines “parkway” similarly: “A broad arterial road planted with trees; an open landscaped highway or boulevard. Occas. also: the planted area of such a highway.”

In other words, a road is usually called a “parkway” today because of the parklike appearance of the planted median strip or side strips.

As for the Garden State Parkway, a reader of the blog comments: “Here in sunny New Jersey we have a different definition of parkway. The road is so-named because that’s where you park (we have a lot of traffic on our roads at rush hour).”

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Etymology Usage

Flame proof

Q: I disagree that “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing. “Flammable” means consisting of materials that will burn if lit. “Inflammable” means can be lit. Example: “In normal humidity, the grasses of Secaucus, NJ, are flammable, but not inflammable. When it’s dry, they’re inflammable.” I always try to maintain distinctions.

A: We believe in maintaining distinctions too—where distinctions exist. But “inflammable” and “flammable” have identical meanings. We can’t find any dictionary definitions that would support your case.

We’ve written about this on our blog, but that was a while ago. We wrote about it more recently in our book Origins of the Specious.

In Origins, we note that some people insist “inflammable” means not burnable, but is misused to mean burnable. Others say it does indeed mean burnable, but it’s merely a puffed-up, redundant version of “flammable.” Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“For the record, ‘inflammable’ does mean ‘burnable.’ And it’s meant that since at least 1605, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘Flammable,’ the new kid on the block, didn’t appear in print until more than three hundred years later.

“The cause of all the confusion is the ‘in’ at the beginning of ‘inflammable.’ It turns out that the prefix in– can make a word negative (as in words like ‘incapable,’ ‘inflexible,’ ‘incompetent’), or it can add emphasis (‘invaluable,’ ‘inflame,’ ‘intense’), or it can mean ‘within’ (‘incoming,’ ‘inbreeding,’ ‘infighting’). The in– of ‘inflammable’ is of the emphatic type—it’s called an intensive or an intensifier. The word ‘inflammable’ comes from the Latin inflammare, meaning to inflame. The upstart ‘flammable’ was coined in the early nineteenth century, but for decades it was rarely used. So how did ‘flammable’ eventually catch fire?

“We can thank the National Fire Protection Association for this one. In the 1920s it called for using ‘flammable’ instead of ‘inflammable,’ which it considered confusing because of that in- at the beginning. Insurers and other fire-safety advocates soon joined the cause. In 1959, the British Standards Institution took up the torch: ‘In order to avoid any possible ambiguity, it is the Institution’s policy to encourage the use of the terms ‘flammable’ and ‘non-flammable’ rather than ‘inflammable’ and ‘noninflammable.’ ”

“Which word should a careful writer use today? Well, history may be on the side of ‘inflammable,’ but common sense wins here. If you want to be sure you’re understood—say, the next time you see a smoker about to light up near a gas pump—go with ‘flammable.’ ”

We’ll grant you this—if “flammable” had been the original word, and if the prefix had been ADDED as in intensifier (yielding a word that meant extra flammable), then the distinction you talk about might make sense.

Unfortunately, the history of the development of these words doesn’t bear out such an interpretation.

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Etymology Usage

Burial ground

Q: We recently went to a service at Arlington National Cemetery, where ashes were placed into an above-ground niche in the Columbarium. The verb “inter” doesn’t seem to work here (the niche isn’t in the earth). What is the correct word?

A: The verb “inter” does indeed have earthly roots. It’s ultimately derived from the medieval Latin interrare—the prefix in- plus terra (earth).

But in English, the verb “inter” and the noun “interment” can properly be used in connection with burial in any kind of tomb—mausoleum, crypt, or columbarium niche.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines “inter” this way: “To place in a grave or tomb; bury.” And Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has “to deposit (a dead body) in the earth or in a tomb.”

The Oxford English Dictionary also says the verb “inter,” dating back to the early 1300s, means “to deposit (a corpse) in the earth, or in a grave or tomb; to inhume, bury.”

And a tomb needn’t be under ground. Among the definitions of “tomb” in the OED is this one: “A monument erected to enclose or cover the body and preserve the memory of the dead; a sepulchral structure raised above the earth.”

As long as we’re defining terms, Merriam-Webster’s says “columbarium” can mean either “a structure of vaults lined with recesses for cinerary urns” or an individual recess in such a structure.

The word “columbarium” is more poetic than it sounds. It comes from Latin, in which columbarium means “dovecote” and columba means “dove.”

The point is that it would be quite normal to speak of cremated remains “interred” in a niche at Arlington National Cemetery’s Columbarium.

However, many people who are in the funeral business or operate cemeteries prefer different words for this. They often use the terms “inurn” (to put in an urn), “inurned,” and “inurnment.”

For example, a publication called “Administrative Guide to Information and Burial at Arlington National Cemetery” uses the terms “inurn” and “inurnment” for placement of urns into niches at the Columbarium.

On the other hand, the publication uses “inter” and “interment” for burials in the ground (of either caskets or cinerary urns).

The verb “inurn” may sound like industry jargon, but it’s actually been around for quite a while. In fact, the OED’s earliest written example is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

In the citation, which we’ve expanded upon, Hamlet asks the Ghost why the sepulcher “Wherein we saw thee quietly enurn’d, / Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws.”

The OED says “inurn” means “to put (the ashes of a cremated body) in an urn.” Hence, Oxford says, by transference it means “to entomb, bury, inter.”

The noun form of “inurn” (“inurnment”) didn’t show up until the mid-20th century and has an unpleasantly officious ring, in our opinion.

Here are the OED’s citations for “inurnment”:

1934: “Olivet Memorial Park provides every service for Entombments, Inurnments, Interments” (an ad cited in an article in the journal American Speech).

1948: “Normal disposal is by inhumement, entombment, inurnment or immurement, but many people … prefer insarcophagusment” (from Evelyn Waugh’s comic novel The Loved One).

In summary, the choice is up to you—“inter” or “inurn.” However, Shakespeare or no Shakespeare, we prefer “inter.”

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On tadpoles and pollywogs

Q: It’s spring and I can hear the peepers once again, which raises a question. Where on earth did the words “tadpole” and “pollywog” come from? They seem to mean the same thing, but they don’t seem to have anything in common linguistically, except perhaps for “pole” and “poll.”

A: You’re onto something there.

The larvae of frogs and toads—known popularly as “tadpoles” and “pollywogs”—have big round heads. And the old noggin sense of the word “poll” is very likely the key to the etymologies of those common names.

“Poll” probably came into English from the Middle Dutch word pol (top, summit), and there are similar words in other Germanic languages. Beyond this, the word’s etymology is uncertain, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The term has been in English in one form or another since around 1300, and it has various meanings relating to the head.

Among other things, it can mean the crown, the scalp, the area where hair grows, and, in the words of the OED, “the prominent or visible part of a head in a crowd.”

That last sense of “poll” has given us many extended meanings related to counting, voting, taxing (“poll tax”), surveying (“opinion poll”), and so on.

But back at the pond, those wiggly big-headed larvae got the name “tadpole” sometime in the Middle Ages. The word is a compound of the Middle English tade or tadde (toad) and, apparently, the noun “poll” (head or roundhead), Oxford says.

The word was first recorded in writing—as “taddepol”—in the 1400s, and its spelling took several centuries to settle down.

Shakespeare, for example, spelled it “tod pole” in King Lear (1608): “Poore Tom, that eats the swimming frog, the tode, the tod pole.”

The modern spelling had become established by the time Oliver Goldsmith wrote An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature (1774): “The egg, or little black globe, which produces a tadpole.”

(An aside: as we wrote in a blog entry earlier this year, the word “tad” for something small, as in “a tad bit,” may be derived from “tadpole.”)

The word “pollywog” came along at roughly the same time as “tadpole” but it took longer to develop its modern spelling.

Its earliest appearance in writing—spelled “polwygle”—is from 1440, the OED says. That very odd-looking word was originally derived, Oxford says, from “poll” plus “wiggle.” In other words, the creature looked like a wiggly head!

It wasn’t until the late 18th century, the OED explains, that a vowel sound crept in between the first two elements of the word, which became “pollywig.” The modern form, “pollywog” followed in the 19th century.

All this talk about pollywogs and pollywigs reminds us of postings we’ve written that discuss two entirely different words with similar endings: “gollywog” and “earwig.”

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