Etymology Usage

The theory of irrelevance

Q: Is it OK to say something is “more irrelevant” or do you have to say it’s “less relevant”? The second is more common, but I was wondering if the first is incorrect.

A: Both phrases are acceptable, but they have different shades of meaning.

A careful writer would use “less relevant” when comparing two relevant things, and “more irrelevant” when comparing two irrelevant things.

These hypothetical sentences will illustrate what we mean:

“The salesman insisted that price was less relevant than quality” (quality was relevant, but price less so).

“She considers numerology more irrelevant than astrology” (astrology is irrelevant to her, and numerology even more so).

The word “relevant” has had an interesting history, in case you’d like to know more.

It ultimately comes from the classical Latin verb relevare (to raise, lighten, or lessen), the same word that gave us “relieve” and “relief.”

In medieval Latin, the adjective relevantum or relevans came to mean legitimate, valid, or pertinent, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

This is the sense of “relevant” that entered English in the early 1500s, originally as a Scottish legal term.

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “The modern English sense ‘appropriate’ probably developed from a medieval application of relevare to ‘take up,’ hence ‘take possession of property,’ which led to relevant being used as a legal term for ‘connected with.’”

“Relevant,” the OED says, was first recorded in Scottish law in 1516 to mean “legally sufficient, adequate, or pertinent.”

Soon afterward, another sense developed: “bearing on or connected with the matter in hand,” but the OED says that use of “relevant” was “relatively rare before 1800.”

The contemporary meaning—appropriate or applicable in the circumstances, or having relevance—didn’t become common until the 1950s, the OED says.

We’re old enough to remember that for a while in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the word was so widely overused that it became almost trite.

Here’s an OED citation from a 1969 issue of Harper’s Magazine: “Either we can commit ourselves to changing the institutions of our society that need to be changed, to make them—to use a term which I hate—‘relevant’ … or we can sit back and try to defend them.”

As for “irrelevant,” it first showed up in writing in the late 18th century, and was mostly used to describe legal depositions, arguments, and proceedings.

One of the OED’s few citations for the adjective used in a general sense is from the essayist Charles Lamb, who wrote in 1823, “A Poor Relation—is the most irrelevant thing in nature.”

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Etymology Usage

Satisfaction guaranteed

Q: I’m at a loss. Can you help clarify the difference between “guarantee” and “guaranty”?

A: Some sticklers insist on a difference in meaning, but we disagree. In contemporary English, “guarantee” and “guaranty” are nearly always interchangeable as nouns and verbs.

They differ in that “guarantee” is far more popular, and “guaranty” is used in the proper names of some financial institutions. (There’s a difference in pronunciation, too: “guarantee” is stressed on the last syllable, “guaranty” on the first.)

We’ll get to the sticklers later, but first let’s look at what Henry Fowler, the language maven’s language maven, has to say about this in the 1926 first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

“Fears of choosing the wrong one of these two are natural, but needless,” Fowler writes. “As things now are, -ee is never wrong where either is possible.”

Although “guaranty” may be preferred in some legal uses, he adds, it’s OK to use “guarantee” for these senses too.

“Those who wish to avoid mistakes have in fact only to use -ee always,” he concludes.

As for contemporary English, R. W. Burchfield, writing in the 2004 revised third edition of the usage guide, says Fowler’s “advice is still sound.”

All the standard dictionaries we checked have either similar definitions for “guarantee” and “guaranty,” or don’t bother to include an entry for “guaranty.”

“As a look at any good dictionary will show,” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “these two words are interchangeable in almost all of their uses.”

In fact, both the Associated Press and New York Times style books recommend that “guarantee” be used in all cases except in proper names (Guaranty Bank & Trust Co., for example).

Dictionaries define the noun this way: (1) something that assures an outcome; (2) a promise about the quality of a product; (3) a pledge that something will be done in a specified manner; (4) a promise to assume responsibility for another’s debts.

And here’s how the verb is defined: (1) to assume responsibility for another’s debts; (2) to assure the quality of a product; (3) to undertake to do something for another; (4) to make certain of something; (5) to furnish security; (6) to express with conviction.

Bryan A. Garner, one of the sticklers we mentioned above, disagrees with us. In Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), he recommends using “guaranty” for a promise to pay money if someone else fails to do so.

Garner has history on his side, if not modern usage.

The first of these words to enter English is the noun “guaranty,” which showed up in the late 1500s as a promise to answer for someone else’s debts, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The noun “guarantee” appeared in the mid-1600s, the verb “guaranty” in the mid-1700s, and the verb “guarantee” in the late 1700s.

The OED says English adopted “guaranty” from the Anglo-Norman guarantie. The “guarantee” version apparently began as a misuse, “perhaps taken as a semi-phonetic adoption of French garantie.”

In summary, “guaranty” has history on its side, especially used in the sense Garner prefers, but “guarantee” has passed the test of time.

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Grammar Usage

When the complement was roses

Q: I was taught (cue the “harrumph, harrumph”) that a “what” or “all” clause takes a singular verb: “What I’m asking for is people who follow the rules.” But all I hear now is plural verbs in these constructions. This is obviously a sign of the approach of the Last Days. Can you comment on this thrilling topic?

A: Your question raises two common problems in subject-verb agreement, a topic that can be notoriously confusing:

(1) When a subject is singular and its complement (the word or phrase that completes the sentence) is plural, do we use a singular or a plural verb? (The short answer: singular.)

(2) Are the pronouns “all” and “what” always singular and accompanied by a singular verb? (The short answer: no.)

Now on to the longer answers.

It can be hard to choose a verb when the subject of a sentence is clearly singular and the complement, on the other side of the verb, is clearly plural.

For example, should we say, “The thing that annoyed me most was the grammatical errors,” or “ … were the grammatical errors”?

The answer is “was.” As we’ve written before on the blog, the verb agrees with the subject, not its complement.

Here’s Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.): “When a subject and a complement of different number are separated by the verb to be, the verb should agree with the number of the subject.”

You might rephrase the sentence as “The grammatical errors were the thing that annoyed me most.” In that version, “errors” is the subject and “the thing that …” is the complement.

But correctness is one thing and graceful English is another. Even when it’s correct, a sentence whose subject and complement are different in number—one singular and the other plural—can sound awkward.

In this case, we’d advise substituting “what” for “the thing that,” since “what,” as we’ll explain below, can be construed as either singular or plural.

So we end up with “What annoyed me most were the grammatical errors” (or “The grammatical errors were what annoyed me most”).

Which brings us to problem No. 2: clauses beginning with “what or “all.”

A clause, as you know, is part of a sentence with its own subject and verb, and a clause that starts with “what” (or “all”) can present a thorny problem in subject-verb agreement.

Whether the “what” in such a clause is the subject or the object, the verb may be either singular or plural.

When “what” is the subject of the clause (and the same is true of “all”), it agrees in number—singular or plural—with the complement (as we said, the word or phrase that completes the sentence).

For example, both of these sentences are correct: “She’s eating what looks like caviar” … “She’s eating what look like tiny black marbles.” Note that “what” is construed as singular when the complement is singular, and plural when the complement is plural.

The situation is a bit more complicated when “what” (or “all”) is the object of a clause that is itself the subject of a sentence, like the one you mention: “What I’m asking for is/are people who follow the rules.”

The question here is what verb to use in the main clause. The complement is plural (“people who…”), so we would use a plural verb in the main clause (“are”).

There are many good discussions of this problem. One of the more succinct can be found in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.):

“When the what in the what-clause is the object of the verb and the complement of the main clause is singular, the main verb is always singular: What they wanted was a home of their own.”

The usage note continues: “When the complement of the main sentence is plural, the verb is most often plural: What American education needs are smaller classes.

But, the editors add, “one also encounters sentences such as What the candidate gave the audience was the same old empty promises.” In a sentence like that, the writer is treating “the same old empty promises” as a singular concept.

Now (take a breather, if you like), there’s one other case we haven’t covered yet, and it’s the thorniest of all.

In this case, “what” is the subject of a “what” clause that is itself the subject of the sentence as a whole. Here’s American Heritage (we’ve broken the usage note into smaller paragraphs):

“When what is the subject of a what-clause that is the subject of a main clause, there is greater variation in usage. When the verb of the what-clause and the complement of the main clause are both plural or both singular, the number of the verb of the main clause generally agrees with them.

“When the verb in the what-clause is singular and the complement in the main clause is plural, one finds both singular and plural verbs being used. Sentences similar to both of the following are found in respected writers: What drives me crazy is her frequent tantrums; What bothers him are the discrepancies in their accounts.

“When the complement of the main clause consists of two or more nouns, the verb of the main clause is generally singular if the nouns are singular and plural if they are plural: What pleases the voters is his honesty and his willingness to take on difficult issues; On entering the harbor what first meet the eye are luxurious yachts and colorful villas.

“Occasionally the choice of a singular or plural verb may be used to convey a difference in meaning. In the sentence What excite him most are money and power, the implication is that money and power are separable goals; in What excites him most is money and power, the implication is that money and power are inextricably bound together.”

So what’s known as “notional agreement,” a subject we’ve written about on our blog, plays a role here.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has another good perspective on this most troublesome of “what” clauses. M-W concludes: “It is desirable to be consistent, but, in an area where notional agreement appears to hold absolute sway, it is perhaps even more desirable to be natural.”

We’ll second that, naturally. And now, presumably, we know what’s what!

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Etymology Usage

“Informational” vs. “informative”

Q: I use “informational” to describe something that’s intended to provide information and “informative” to describe something that actually provides information. I suppose that means an informational program may or may not be informative, depending on how effective it is. Am I just making this up? Am I splitting hairs?

A: No, you’re not making it up, but you may be making too much of it. As for splitting hairs, we’ll let you decide.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “informational” this way: “Of, relating to, or involving information; conveying information, informative.”

Some of the OED citations refer to something merely “involving information” while others refer to something actually “conveying information.”

But the treatment of “informational” and “informative” by the six standard dictionaries we’ve checked suggests that you may be on the right track.

All the dictionaries define “informative” as providing information, especially useful information. But most of them don’t have separate entries for “informational,” and simply list it, without a definition, under the noun “information” as an adjectival form.

The Cambridge Dictionaries Online was the only standard dictionary we found with entries for both “informational” and “informative.”

In American English, the dictionary says, “informational” means relating to or providing information, while “informative” means providing useful information.

That seems to support you a bit. The dictionary’s British definitions seem to support you a bit more: “informational” means containing information while “informative” means providing a lot of useful information.

We’ll end with the etymologies of these two words, which are ultimately derived from the Latin verb informare (to shape, form an idea, mold someone’s mind).

The older English word, “informative,” showed up in the late 14th century, when it referred to the forming or shaping of something, especially a child in the womb, according to the OED.

In the late 16th century, Oxford says, lawyers began using the term “informative process” to describe a complaint or accusation.

By the mid-17th century, the adjective took on a more general sense: “Having the quality of imparting knowledge or communicating information; instructive.”

When “informational” showed up in the early 19th century, it referred to something that involves information or provides it.

As you can see, these two words overlap a lot. So what do we think?

Well, we use “informative” when we mean providing useful information, and “informational” when we mean providing information that may or may not be useful.

We hope you’ve found this useful.

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Etymology Linguistics Usage

Taking issue with us

Q: I am disappointed. In discussing the use of “up” and “down” in England, you noted that you had already “touched on this issue.” Perhaps you meant: “touched on this subject.” I have difficulty understanding why “issue” has become the preferred alternative to “problem,” “concern,” “subject,” etc. It is sad to see you following this trend.

A: We’re sorry you were disappointed by that wording in our posting last May about “up” and “down,” but we beg to disagree.

The noun “issue” has been used to refer to a problem, concern, subject, and so on for nearly two centuries, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s how the OED defines this sense of the word: “Of a matter or question: In dispute; under discussion; in question.”

We checked six standard dictionaries in the US and the UK, and all but one of them say “issue” can be used to mean a subject of discussion.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, begins its definition with this sense of the word: “A point or matter of discussion, debate, or dispute: What legal and moral issues should we consider?”

And the Cambridge Dictionaries Online starts its definition this way: “a subject or problem which people are thinking and talking about: environmental/ethical/personal issues.”

The only exception (and not much of one) is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), which insists that the subject must be vital, unsettled, or in dispute.

A more controversial issue concerning “issue” is the use of the noun to mean a problem (as in “I have an issue with that”). We discussed this on the blog a couple of years ago.

In our earlier posting, we described the many meanings that “issue” has had since it entered English in the 1300s as a verb and a noun.

All of these senses arise more or less out of the word’s early meanings of egress, outflow, exit, discharge, or output.

The “issue,” in other words, is what comes out, whether from a drain pipe, the human body, a magazine publisher, a stressful situation, or a problematic legal settlement.

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Etymology Linguistics Usage

Whence “-ency” and “-ence”?

Q: I’ve wondered about this one for a while and didn’t know (until I discovered your blog) whom to ask about it. Why is everyone saying “insurgency” and not “insurgence”? We don’t say “resurgency,” do we? We say “resurgence.”

A: We’ll start by saying that both “insurgence” and “insurgency” are legitimate nouns.

The first means an act of rising up against authority, and the second generally means a state or condition of being insurgent. There’s a very subtle difference here, and in fact “insurgency” can be used both ways.

By the way, “resurgence” and “resurgency” are legitimate words too, and we’ll have more to say about them later.

Your question illustrates an interesting point about English. It’s a very expansive language, and it has many suffixes for forming new nouns from adjectives, verbs, and other nouns.

Some of the most familiar noun-forming suffixes are “-ence,”
“-ency,” “-ance,” “-ancy,” “-acy,” “-cy,” “-ment,”
“-age,” “-ness,” “-ship,” and “-ism.”

The ones we’re concerned with here are the first two, “-ence” and “-ency,” which can be traced to a suffix the Romans used to form nouns: the Latin –entia.

To speakers of English, it would seem, nouns are like peanuts. We can’t have just one.

So over the centuries we’ve frequently formed twin nouns by appending both “-ence” and “-ency” to the same base.

Often, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the twins quietly drops out of the picture.

But sometimes both survive, as with “persistence” and “persistency,” “coherence” and “coherency,” and others. Both forms are legitimate, and though the differences are often extremely subtle, they aren’t haphazard.

The suffixes “-ence” and “-ency” have played different roles in the development of English nouns.

As the OED explains, the Latin suffix –entia yielded two types of nouns, those representing “action or process” and those representing “qualities or states.”

In English, the first type (ending in “-ence”) is more closely associated in meaning with its corresponding verb, the second type (“-ency”) with its corresponding adjective.

When the same word exists in both the “-ence” and “-ency” forms, there’s often only a fine line of difference.

We can see how this works in the case of “insurgence” and “insurgency.”

The first to appear, “insurgency,” was coined around 1800 as a noun meaning the state of being insurgent. Only later did the concrete sense (an insurgent movement or revolt) develop.

The second to appear, “insurgence,” was coined in the 1860s to mean the act of rising against authority. So though the words overlap, both are legitimately used today to mean an insurrection.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines “insurgence” as “an act or the action of being insurgent.”

M-W defines “insurgency” as “the quality or state of being insurgent; specif: a condition of revolt,” and includes “insurgence” as a second definition.

Similarly, “resurgence” and “resurgency” are legitimate nouns, both now meaning the act of rising again.

“Resurgency” was first recorded in 1798 and “resurgence” in 1810, according to OED citations.

While you’ll find “resurgency” in the OED, however, it’s not often used and it isn’t included in standard dictionaries. So it’s probably dying out.

As we were writing this, we thought of two extremely different twin nouns, “emergence” and “emergency,” both of which appeared in the 17th century.

The older of the two, “emergency” originally meant a “state of things unexpectedly arising” and demanding immediate attention, the OED says.

“Emergence,” on the other hand, meant an action—the act or process of emerging, as from a hidden or submerged place.

But for much of their history, “emergence” and “emergency” were used interchangeably in both senses.

For example, in his Memoirs, written sometime before 1676, the historian Henry Guthry writes, “The Castle of Dunglass was blown up with Powder,” an event he later refers to as “this tragical Emergence.”

With two such different meanings, however, there was room for two distinct nouns. So over time the two became increasingly different. Today, as a result, an “emergence” is vastly different from an “emergency.”

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Punctuation Usage

Dating service

Q: I am a proofreader at a law firm where the house style calls for a comma after a full date in a sentence. Recently I was reprimanded (mildly) for removing commas after the years in a list like this: “July 24, 2011, letter; February 16, 2012, memorandum; April 19, 2012, document , etc.” I contend that the dates here are being used as adjectives, and should not be separated by punctuation from the nouns they modify. Can you help me with this? Otherwise I will be forced to insert commas while my mind screams “NO.”

A: Our answer will disappoint you. As we’ve written before on our blog, “In the month-day-year style, we use commas both before and after the year (except at the end of a sentence): ‘The party on March 3, 2009, was a blowout.’ ”

And this is true whether or not the date is being used as an adjective, as in “The March 3, 2009, party was a blowout.”

Most American style and usage authorities follow this system, though not all. One dissenter, Bryan A. Garner, is an authority on legal writing, and his views may be of particular interest to you. We’ll get to them later.

But first let’s see what The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), one of the most widely used American style guides, has to say on the subject of “dates as adjectives”:

“Dates are often used as descriptive adjectives, more often today than in years past. … If a full month-day-year date is used, then a comma is considered necessary both before and after the year (the May 18, 2002, commencement ceremonies).”

Here the Chicago Manual adds that such a construction is awkward and “is therefore best avoided (commencement ceremonies on May 18, 2002).”

Later, the editors give examples of non-adjectival usage, like this one: “June 5, 1928, lives on in the memories of only a handful of us.”

We’re not sure the dates in your list can be called adjectives or not, but that’s irrelevant. Either way, we recommend that you retain the commas after the years.

Again, this convention applies only to dates that use the full shebang—month, day, and year. As we noted in that previous blog entry, you don’t need a comma if only the day and month, or the month and year, are given: “The March 5 party was a blowout” or “The party in March 2009 was a blowout.”

By the way, we’re describing the use of commas in the American dating system (month-day-year). In the British system (day-month-year), no commas are used.

Here’s an example of the British style from the Chicago Manual: “See his journal entries of 6 October 1999 and 4 January 2000.”

Now for that dissenting opinion from Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage and editor of Black’s Law Journal.

In the third edition of his usage guide, Garner agrees with the Chicago Manual that using the full date as an adjective “is particularly clumsy.” But then he goes on to say:

“Stylists who use this phrasing typically omit the comma after the year, and justifiably so: in the midst of an adjective phrase (i.e., the date), it impedes the flow of the writing too much.”

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The grunts of a gruntled pig

Q: I’m still searching for a dictionary containing the adjective “gruntled.” I do it every time I read about a “disgruntled” athlete. (And, yes, I include you, Osi Umenyiora!)

A: We wrote blog postings touching on “gruntled” in 2007, 2009, and 2010. But you’ve given us an excuse to trace it to its roots, with the help of the one dictionary you didn’t check: the Oxford English Dictionary.

The relatively new adjective “gruntled,” a word you’ll find mostly in humorous writing, is descended from a very old verb, “gruntle.”

And that very old verb comes from an even older one, “grunt” (yes, the sound pigs make), which was first recorded in writing in the early eighth century.

“Grunt,” the OED says, is an “echoic formation,” which means it echoes the sound it represents.

And “gruntle” is merely “grunt” with a “diminutive or frequentative ending” tacked on, the OED explains. (A frequentative verb represents a repetitive action—“crackle,” “sparkle,” “wobble,” and so on.)

“Gruntle,” first recorded in writing about 1400, is defined this way in the OED: “To utter a little or low grunt. Said of swine, occas. of other animals; rarely of persons.”

The first recorded example is from Mandeville’s Travels, by Sir John Mandeville, written sometime before 1425:

“Thai … spekez nogt, bot gruntils as swyne duse.” (We’ve replaced the runic letters in the quotation, which in modern English means, “They speak naught, but gruntle as swine do.”)

And here’s an example of the past tense, “gruntled,” from a 1605 translation of Pierre le Loyer’s Treatise of Specters or Straunge Sights, Visions and Apparitions: “Shee growing enraged, made so filthy a noyse and gruntled so horribly against him.”

Toward the end of the following century, “gruntle” was being used to mean grumble or complain. Here are some early OED citations:

1591: “It becommeth vs not to haue our hearts heir gruntling vpon this earth.” (From Robert Bruce’s Sermons Preached in the Kirk of Edinburgh.)

1601: “He cannot endure that wee should gruntle against him with stubborne sullennesse.” (From Arthur Dent’s The Plaine Mans Path-way to Heaven.)

1687: “She does nothing but gruntle.” (From a definition in Guy Miège’s The Great French Dictionary.)

At around the time that last example was recorded, the prefix “dis-“ was added to “gruntle” as an intensifier. So, to use the OED’s definition, to “disgruntle” was “to put into sulky dissatisfaction or ill-humour; to chagrin, disgust.”

The verb was generally used in the form of a past participle—to be “disgruntled”—a form also used as a participial adjective. The OED’s first citation is from Henry Care’s The History of Popery (1682): “Hodge was a little disgruntled at that Inscription.”

We come at last to the latest incarnaton of “gruntled,” an adjective that the OED defines as “pleased, satisfied, contented,” and describes as a back-formation from “disgruntled.” (A back-formation is a new word formed by dropping part of an old one.)

This new version of “gruntled” wasn’t recorded until the mid-20th century, and the author credited with the first use in print is one of our favorites, P. G. Wodehouse.

In his novel The Code of the Woosters (1938), Wodehouse writes: “He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”

To make a long story short, the “dis-” in “disgruntled” wasn’t originally a negative prefix, which is why “gruntled” wasn’t originally the opposite of “disgruntled.” It took a humorist like Wodehouse to construe an “opposite.”

But this newish adjective makes a certain amount of sense. As we said, the verb “grunt” is the ancestor of “gruntle” and “disgruntled.” Just think of a satisfied pig, happily grunting to itself. What better adjective to describe that contented pig than “gruntled”?

And as for Osi Umenyiora, the NFL defensive end is probably gruntled too after agreeing on a new contract with the Giants.

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Scientific methods

Q: I’ve read that the term “scientist” is only a couple of hundred years old. Is that true? If so, what were scientists called before then?

A: William Whewell, an English scientist, theologian, and philosopher, is credited with coining the word “scientist” in the 19th century. Before that, scientists were usually called natural philosophers.

In The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World, Laura J. Snyder describes the birth of the word “scientist.” Here’s a summary:

Whewell, she writes, coined the word at a June 24, 1833, meeting at Cambridge University of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

After listening to Whewell lecture at the meeting on the state of science, Snyder says, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge stood up to speak.

Coleridge, who had earlier written a paper about the scientific method, said men digging in fossil pits or experimenting with electricity shouldn’t refer to themselves as natural philosophers.

Whewell agreed with Coleridge that a better word might be needed to describe the members of the association and their diverse interests. If “philosopher” seems “too wide and lofty a term,” he said, “by analogy with artist, we may form scientist.”

(Whewell is credited with coining or suggesting several other scientific terms, including “physicist,” “ion,” “anode,” and “cathode.”)

The earliest written example of the word “scientist” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1834 review—written anonymously by Whewell—of a book by the science writer Mary Somerville.

In reviewing On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences for the Quarterly Review, Whewell notes “the want of any name by which we can designate the students of the knowledge of the material world collectively.”

He adds slyly that at a meeting of the British science association “some ingenious gentleman proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist.”

As for the word “science,” English adopted it from French in the 14th century, but it can be traced to the Latin noun scientia (knowledge) and verb scire (to know).

The terms “natural philosophy” and “natural philosopher” also entered English in the 14th century. The OED notes similar terms in fifth-century Latin (philosophia naturalis) and in Classical Greek (fisiki filosofia).

The dictionary defines “natural philosophy” this way: “The study of natural bodies and the phenomena connected with them; natural science; (in later use) spec. physical science, physics.”

A “natural philosopher,” as one might expect, is  an “expert in or student of natural philosophy; a natural scientist.”

The OED describes both terms as historical now.

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Etymology Usage

Getting down to essentials

Q: I recently encountered the verb “essentialize” in an academic monograph: “the term Hinduism is often essentialized.” The meaning here eludes me. (I’ve read what Pat has to say in Woe Is I about “-ize” endings.)

A: The verb “essentialize” means to express something in its essential form—that is, to reduce it to its essentials.

So the author of that monograph is apparently saying that the term “Hinduism” is often reduced to its essentials. In other words, the word “Hinduism” is used to refer to the essence of the religion.

If that is indeed what the author intended, we think he should have said so, even if it meant using a few more words.

But academic writing has its own rules and they don’t include simplicity. Stewart once helped a friend, a French meteorologist, translate a paper into English for a scientific journal.

When Stewart had finished, the English was so readable that the journal wouldn’t publish the paper until it was rewritten in academic jargon. Live and learn!

You can find “essentialize” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and other standard dictionaries.

It’s not all that popular outside academese and bureaucratese (only about 60,000 hits on Google), but “essentialize” has been around in one form or another since the 17th century.

When it entered English in the mid-1600s, it meant “to give essence or being” to someone or something. A noun that showed up at the same time, “essentializer,” referred to the “first fabricator, perfector, essentialiser of Beings or he that gives Essence to Beings.”

The sense of the word that’s apparently being used in the monograph you read (“to formulate in essential form, to express the essential form of”) didn’t show up until the early 20th century, according to the OED.

This 1922 example from the Times Literary Supplement refers to Dante: “A poet in whom the manifold passions and cultural movements of his time were essentialized and ennobled into the highest poetical utterance.”

Many English words have been formed by adding “-ize” to the end of nouns and adjectives. This is a legitimate practice, but it can get out of hand. Here’s an excerpt from Pat’s comments about it in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

“For centuries, we’ve been creating instant verbs in English simply by adding ize to nouns (demon demonize, for instance) or to adjectives (brutal brutalize). The ancient Greeks were the ones who gave us the idea. The ize ending (often ise in British spellings) has given us loads of useful words (agonize, burglarize, fantasize, mesmerize, pasteurize, pulverize). It’s just as legitimate to add ize to the end of a word as it is to add un or pre to the beginning.

“Yet there can be too much of a good thing, and that’s what has happened with ize. Verbs should be lively little devils, and just adding ize to a word doesn’t give it life. Fortunately, many recent horrors (credibilize, permanentize, respectabilize, uniformize) didn’t catch on. But some lifeless specimens have slipped into the language, among them colorize, prioritize, and finalize, and they’re probably going to be around for a while.”

Our advice: If you don’t like ’em, don’t use ’em. Maybe they’ll go away.

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On guard

Q: When you guard people in basketball, you defend against them. When you guard people off the court, you protect them. How did this happen?

A: The verb “guard” means one thing in basketball terminology, but quite another off the court.

Away from the hoops, to “guard” someone—a baby, for instance—means to keep the child safe. But to a basketball player, to “guard” an opponent means to keep him from scoring points.

In both cases, the person doing the guarding is in a defensive posture, though the attitude toward the guarded object is protective in one case and hostile in the other.

The word “guard”—as both verb and noun—came into English in the 15th century through French. But its roots aren’t in Latin.

It came into the Romance languages from prehistoric Old Germanic words reconstructed as warda (noun) and wardon (verb), both having to do with watching or guarding. These are from a root, war-, meaning to observe, watch, guard, or take care.

In sports terminology, “guard” is used in a specialized way, as a verb and as a noun. Both basketball and football have defensive players referred to as “guards.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says that in basketball, the “guard” is “either of the two players who are chiefly responsible for the marking of opposing forwards.”

The earliest citation in the OED for the use of the noun “guard” in basketball is from a 1905 rulebook, Official Basket Ball Rules:

“The position of the guard is the most difficult and unsatisfactory place in the team. … He is expected to prevent his opponent from throwing a goal, and that without making a foul himself.”

The use of the verb “guard” in sports isn’t all that new. The OED has published references for the usage dating back to the middle 1700s, but the early examples (from curling, cricket, and chess) use the verb in the sense of protecting.

Here’s an example from Delabere P. Blaine’s Encyclopaedia of Rural Sports (1840): “The object of the next in order is to guard the stone of his partner, or to strike off that of his antagonist.” (The citation refers to curling, a sport in which players slide stones across a sheet of ice toward a target area.)

The OED doesn’t have any citations for the verb “guard” used in basketball, but it has a half-dozen similar, non-sports examples dating from the early 1700s. In this sense, the verb is defined as “to prevent from exceeding bounds; to keep in check, control.”

Here’s an 18th-century example, from Edward Young’s The Complaint: Or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death & Immortality (1742): “Guard well thy Thought; our Thoughts are heard in Heav’n.”

And here’s one from a late 19th-century translation of the Bible (Proverbs 13:3): “He that guardeth his mouth keepeth his life.”

That Old Germanic root we mentioned (war-) has given English a great many useful words besides “guard.” It’s also the prehistoric ancestor of “guardian,” “aware,” “wary,” “ward,” and “warden.”

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English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage

Hear Pat live today on WNYC

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

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Etymology Grammar Usage

Is “done” on the “finish” line?

Q: I cringe every time I hear “I am done” instead of “I am finished.” Am I right in thinking the correct terminology here is “finished“?

A: Well, “finished” is correct in that sentence, but so is “done.”

In fact, the adjective “done” has meant finished since well before the adjective “finished” entered the English language.

But you’re not alone in mistakenly thinking that there’s something fishy about the use of “done” to mean finished. Here’s the story.

The adjective “done” (meaning finished, performed, accomplished, etc.) first showed up in writing during the early 1400s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, the OED has citations dating from the early 1300s of the past participle “done” used in a similar way.

The slowpoke here, the adjective “finished,” didn’t show up until the late 1500s, according to OED citations.

As we’ve said, “done” has been used steadily since the beginning of the 14th century to mean finished. Here are some examples:

“When the Clerkes have dooen syngyng,” Book of Common Prayer, 1549;

“And having done that, Thou haste done, I have no more,” John Donne, 1623;

“Now the Chime of Poetry is done,” John Dryden, 1697;

“It was a done thing between him and Scrooge’s nephew,” A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, 1843.

So how did “done” get its bad reputation?

In early examples, “done” is usually accompanied by the verb “have,” as in the citation from the Book of Common Prayer (“have dooen syngyng”). In later examples, it’s usually accompanied by the verb “be,” as in the Dryden example (“is done”).

As far as we know, nobody complained about either usage until the 20th century, when some language mavens got it into their heads that it was OK to use “done” with “have,” but not with “be,” in a sentence like the one in your question.

The first objection to the “be” usage appeared in the Manual of Good English (1917), by H. N. MacCracken and Helen E. Sandison, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

“They do not say what is wrong with it but prescribe have finished in its place,” Merriam-Webster’s says.

Other language mavens joined in, but by the late 20th century most of the objections had been dropped and the use of “done” to mean finished was considered standard English, according to the M-W usage guide.

We could stop here, but we’re not done yet. We’ll finish with a proverb that first showed up in writing in the 1700s but had probably been heard in speech much earlier:

“Man’s work lasts till set of sun; woman’s work is never done.”

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Etymology Usage

Mortgage interest

Q: Hardly a week passes without something in the news about mortgage hanky-panky. After reading one of the stories, I looked up the word “mortgage” and learned that it comes from old words for “dead” and “pledge.” Is that because a borrower’s pledge of repayment survives his death?

A: “Mortgage” is now such a common term that most of us are unaware that it was once a compound with a literal meaning: dead pledge. the words “mort” and “gage” are rare or defunct English terms for “dead” and “pledge.”

Why was a secured loan regarded as a dead pledge? There are differing explanations, but none have to do with the death of the borrower, as you suggest.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology explains the meaning of “mortgage” this way: “so called because the debt becomes void or ‘dead’ when the pledge was redeemed.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says, “The notion behind the word is supposedly that if the mortgagor fails to repay the loan, the property pledged as security is lost, or becomes ‘dead,’ to him or her.”

Which explanation is right? Both of them, it turns out, even though they look at the transaction from different points of view.

Thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary, we know what lawyers in the 1600s thought about the notion of a “mortgage.”

For an “explanation of the etymological meaning of the term current among 17th-cent. lawyers,” the OED directs the reader to a quotation from Sir Edward Coke’s The First Part of the Institutes of the Lawes of England:

“It seemeth that the cause why it is called mortgage is, for that it is doubtful whether the Feoffor will pay at the day limited such summe or not, & if he doth not pay, then the Land which is put in pledge vpon condition for the payment of the money, is taken from him for euer, and so dead to him vpon condition, &c. And if he doth pay the money, then the pledge is dead as to the Tenant, &c.”

The term was first used in the 1300s in a general rather than a legal sense, however. It originally meant an arrangement for acquiring a benefit at the expense of a risk or constraint.

In fact, the first recorded use is a rather romantic one. It’s from John Gower’s long poem Confessio Amantis, written sometime before 1398: “In mariage His trouthe plight lith in morgage, Which if he breke, it is falshode.” (In marriage, his troth plight lies in mortgage, which is falsehood to break.)

And here’s another example of the general use, from William Hazlitt’s Table Talk: Or, Original Essays on Men and Manners (1822): “They will purchase the hollow happiness of the next five minutes, by a mortgage on the independance and comfort of years.”

The legal term “mortgage,” in which a debtor borrows money in exchange for an interest in real or personal property, developed in the mid-15th century.

Now for a closer look at the parts of this venerable compound.

The old adjective “mort,” now very rare, was once used in English to mean “dead.” And the noun “mort” meant “death.” Both are derived from Latin and came into English from Anglo-Norman and Old French sometime in the 14th century, but have since died out.

A related word, the now defunct “morth,” is a much older term for “death.” It came into Old English through Germanic sources.

Both the Germanic and Latinate versions—“morth” and “mort”—ultimately come from the same prehistoric Indo-European base, which has been reconstructed as mer- (to die).

This word element (mer-) was also a part of the Old English morthor, now “murder.”

The second part of the compound, “gage,” was once a more common English word than it is today.

It came into the language in the 14th century from Old French (guage or gage), but the French got the word from Germanic sources, according to the OED.

The ancestor is a prehistoric Old Germanic word reconstructed as wadjo, which is also the source of our words “wage” and “wed” (originally a pledge).

The English term originally meant a pledge or challenge to do battle. The “gage” was usually a glove thrown to the ground.

In the 15th century, the OED says, “gage” came to mean “something of value deposited to ensure the performance of some action, and liable to forfeiture in case of non-performance; a pawn, pledge, security.”

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Grammar Usage

Doing a number on amount

Q: I become nauseated when someone confuses “amount” with “number” in quantifying something. For example, “the amount of cars in the parking lot.” I hear this error all too frequently out of the mouths of people who should know better.

A: In contemporary English, “amount” is generally used with mass nouns and “number” with count nouns. (Mass nouns, like “water” and “love,” are usually singular while count nouns, like “boy” and “car,” can be singular or plural.)

However, the distinction between “amount” and “number” wasn’t always so clear, and we’re simplifying the way these two words are used now.

In fact, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage takes more than a page of small  type to describe the variations in the way the two words are used.

Here are a couple of examples from Merriam-Webster’s of “amount” used with singular mass nouns:

“a reasonable amount of prosperity,” from The Olive Tree, a 1937 collection of essays by Aldous Huxley;

“a ridiculous amount of erudition,” from “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” a 1917 essay by T. S. Eliot.

And here are two examples from M-W  of “number” used with plural count nouns:

“a number of misprints,” from the October 1966 issue of the journal Notes and Queries;

“a number of other schools,” from Slums and Suburbs: A Commentary on Schools in Metropolitan Areas (1961), by James B. Conant.

However, the usage guide says “amount” is sometimes used “with plural count nouns when they are thought of as an aggregate.” Here are some examples:

“he’d be glad to furnish any amount of black pebbles,” from the Sept. 20, 1952, issue of the New Yorker;

“the high amount of taxes,” from the Sept. 29, 1975, issue of Harper’s Weekly.

Merriam-Webster’s gives seven other citations from respectable sources, including one that’s very much like the example you find nauseating:

“One of the minor mysteries of modern life is the large amount of police cars with flashing lights and sirens,” from a July 15, 1975, issue of Punch.

We would have preferred “number” in the Punch example, as well as in the one you mentioned. But Merriam-Webster’s sees nothing wrong in using “amount” with count nouns that act like mass nouns:

“This less common use of amount is sometimes criticized, but the critics bring forth no cogent reason for condemning it, only the condemnation itself.”

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Etymology Grammar Usage

Open wide, please!

Q: I am a dental hygienist practicing in New Jersey. For the past 28 years, I have been asking patients to “Open widely, please.” But I have recently been informed by two of my patients that this is incorrect. They argue that the correct usage is “Open wide, please.” Is this true?

A: Your patients are right, though we wonder how they managed to correct you.

Our own dental hygienist is a very engaging person, and we love listening to her. But usually we’re in no position to answer back, with all those fingers and tools in our mouths!

Both “wide” and “widely” are adverbs, with many overlapping meanings, but “wide” is idiomatically correct when you mean completely or fully, as in “Open wide, please.”

A great many adverbs have two forms—they can come with or without the tail (the “-ly”).

The versions without tails are sometimes called “flat adverbs,” and you can spot them at work in phrases like “sit tight,” “go straight,” “turn right,” “work hard,” “rest easy,” “aim high,” “dive deep,” “play fair”—and, yes, “open wide.”

We’ve written about flat adverbs in our book Origins of the Specious as well as on our blog in 2011 and 2006.

The Oxford English Dictionary says plain old “wide” has been used as an adverb for well over a thousand years. The newcomer, “widely,” didn’t show up until the 17th century.

The adverb “wide” was first recorded in Beowulf, which may have been written as far back as the year 725, and it’s been quite common ever since, according to the OED. (The adjective “wide” is just as old, and can also be found in Beowulf.)

Here’s an example of the adverb from the Coverdale translation of the Bible (1535): “Open thy mouth wyde, & I shal fyll it.” (The reference was not to dental hygiene.)

But “open” isn’t the only verb that’s often modified by “wide.”

The OED has scores of examples, with things springing wide, standing wide, wandering wide, lying wide, shooting wide, floating wide, landing wide, bowling wide, going wide, flying wide, and circling wide.

And we can’t overlook things that are being flung wide, thrown wide, spread wide, carried wide, and blown wide.

Finally, “wide” is an adverb in two very common phrases.

When anything is said to be “wide open,” a phrase dating from the 1300s, “wide” is an adverb (it modifies the adjective “open”).

And when the phrase “far and wide” modifies a verb—which it generally does—“wide” is an adverb then too. “Far and wide” was first recorded sometime before the year 900.

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The sexy life of “hubba-hubba”

Q: In the October 2011 issue of Playboy (of course I read it only for the articles), Margaret Atwood says “hubba-hubba” may have come from hübsche, meaning beautiful in German. Can you confirm this? If not, can you give a definitive origin for the term?

A: We didn’t read the Playboy article, but Atwood makes a similar comment in her 2011 collection of essays about science fiction, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination.

In commenting about Al Capp’s “harem of eccentric glamour gals” like Stupefyin’ Jones, Appassionata Von Climax, and Moonbeam McSwine, Atwood writes:

Hubba hubba, men said in those days: a term obscure in origin but most likely a variant of hübsche, the German word for ‘beautiful.’ ”

Well, we agree with her that the term is obscure, but we haven’t seen any evidence that it’s related to hübsche or, for that matter, any other foreign word (Chinese, Spanish, and Yiddish roots have also been suggested).

We can’t give you the definitive origin of “hubba-hubba,” but we can give you a summary of the scholarship available. (You’d be surprised at how much time etymologists have spent on this!)

Let’s begin with the Oxford English Dictionary, which describes the term as a US slang interjection of unknown origin, and offers this definition: “Used to express approval, excitement, or enthusiasm. Also as n., nonsense; ballyhoo.”

The OED’s earliest published reference is from the journal American Speech, which cites this 1944 example of a “hubba-hubba” variant: “The inevitable fact is that the cry ‘Haba-Haba’ is spreading like a scourge through the land.”

A year later, American Speech described the term this way: “Hubba-hubba, originally gibberish, now means the spirit of double-time and eagerness; it is a verb, adjective or noun, an imprecation, warning or insult.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang cites reports that the term began life as either a college cheer or World War II GI slang used in the glamour-gal sense.

The dictionary says Bob Hope picked up the expression from the GIs, used it in his act, and that was “the seal of approval.”

The folk etymologist Peter Tamony has said “hubba-hubba” originated in the early 20th century as a blending of the baseball expression “habba-habba,” a corruption of “have a life,” and the drill sergeant’s command “hup, two, three, four.”

Although college students, ogling GIs, drill sergeants, entertainers, and baseball players may have played a role here, we can’t say for sure that “hubba-hubba” originated with any of them.

The language researcher Anatoly Liberman has written an extensive post on the Oxford University Press blog about the origin of what he describes as “a sexual salute by a male on seeing an attractive female.”

Liberman, who teachers courses in linguistics, etymology, and folklore at the University of Minnesota, suggests that “hubba-hubba” is simply another example of the rhyming slang that pops up in different languages around the world.

“The question why hubba-hubba came to mean what it did is not too hard,” he says. “From Africa to the Far East people accompany the act of catching a ball with the cries kap, kop, hap, hop, gap, gop, and so forth.”

As for why people “give vent to their excitement and triumph by such means,” he says, this is  “a question for psychologists rather than for students of language.”

“The repetition of hubba is not a riddle either,” he adds. “Reduplication means reinforcement: the sparrow ‘says’ peep-peep, a child is soothed by tut-tut, and Germans, when knocking on wood, say toi-toi.”

In other words, he writes, “Hubba-hubba takes more time and is thus weightier than hubba. It is a natural ‘sound gesture,’ and our main question consists of finding its earliest environment.”

Could “hubba-hubba” have its roots in a foreign language?

Well, he says, the English word closest to “hubba-hubba” is “hubbub,” which “goes back to an Irish battle cry.”

So “hubba-hubba” could in theory have foreign origins too, but attempts to trace the term to a foreign source “carry no conviction and have been abandoned.”

So what can be said for sure about “hubba-hubba”?  Here’s Liberman’s conclusion:

Hubba-hubba is a natural cry, reminiscent of many similar ones. Some of them begin with an h; others with a vowel. The home of this particular cry is American English, and its source was not a foreign language. It became known around 1920, spread like wildfire in the forties, and died peacefully some time later.”

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Grammar Usage

Parallel universe

Q: I see this kind of sentence so often I’m starting to wonder if I’m wrong and it’s OK: “He also berated Ravi for attempting to cover-up the crime, including deleting text messages, tweets and trying to influence a witness.” Am I too cranky?

A: No, you’re not too cranky. Parallel structure is a notion that eludes many journalists, including some who work for the BBC website where you spotted that sentence.

We’ve touched on the subject of parallelism in sentence structure in previous postings, including blog items in 2008 and 2011.

What it generally amounts to is making sure that the parts of a sentence are in balance. For example, if a sentence includes a series, then all the items in the series should be grammatically equivalent.

The sentence you spotted on the BBC’s website has a series that isn’t composed of parallel terms. But it has another strike against it: the series is introduced with a word (“including”) that’s too vague.

Here’s the sentence again (the “he” is a judge): “He also berated Ravi for attempting to cover-up the crime, including deleting text messages, tweets and trying to influence a witness.”

That “including” is fuzzy, as it often is when it precedes a list. What includes the series that follows—the berating, the attempting, or the crime itself?

We had to do some reading to get to the facts.

The BBC article was about the so-called “cyberbullying” case in which a Rutgers University student used a webcam to secretly spy on his gay roommate, who later committed suicide.

Among other more serious charges, Dharun Ravi was convicted of tampering with evidence (specifically, deleting text messages and altering a Twitter post) and tampering with a witness.

It turns out that Ravi’s attempts to cover up the crime included that subsequent list of items. So the sentence should have begun “He also berated Ravi for attempting to cover up the crime by …” (No, there’s no hyphen in the verb phrase “to cover up.”)

Then we come to the list itself: “… deleting text messages, tweets and trying to influence a witness.” This series isn’t parallel—that is, the terms in the list aren’t grammatically similar. Besides, it implies, inaccurately, that tweets were deleted.

Armed with the facts, we can complete the sentence, making each term in the series parallel with the first: “He also berated Ravi for attempting to cover up the crime by deleting text messages, altering a Twitter post, and trying to influence a witness.”

Parallel structure isn’t all that difficult to master. As The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) says, a parallel construction is a “series of like sentence elements” and when “linked elements are not like items, the syntax of the sentence breaks down.”

In one of the examples in the Chicago Manual, a series is unparallel because a verb phrase appears in a list of noun phrases:

WRONG: The candidate is a former country judge, state senator, and served two terms as attorney general. RIGHT: The candidate is a former country judge, state senator, and two-term attorney general.”

In another pair of examples, the Chicago Manual corrects a series that needs parallel prepositions:

WRONG: I looked for my lost keys in the sock drawer, the laundry hamper, the restroom, and under the bed. RIGHT: I looked for my lost keys in the sock drawer, in the laundry hamper, in the restroom, and under the bed.”

We’ll continue with some examples of our own.

The verbs in a series should not be in different tenses, as in “He had eaten dinner, showered, and was in bed by 10. (Make it, “and gone to bed by 10.”)

A list of adjectives shouldn’t include a verb phrase, as in “She’s tall, heavy, blond, and has blue eyes.” (Either make it “and blue-eyed,” or rewrite: “She’s tall and heavy, with blond hair and blue eyes.”)

And a list of phrases shouldn’t be dissimilar, as in “He likes reading, taking long walks, and has a weekend place in the Berkshires.” (Either make the second phrase “enjoys long walks,” or change the last phrase to “and spending weekends at his place in the Berkshires”).

When a sentence feels wrong, there’s always a reason, and sometimes the problem is lack of parallel structure.

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Etymology Pronunciation Usage

Heat treatment

Q: I’ve lived in Astoria, Queens, all my life—I was born there—and I pronounce “radiator” with a short “a” like the one in “fad.” I was well into my teens when I realized this wasn’t the common pronunciation. (I never made the connection between “radiate” and “radiator.”) I’ve been told that my pronunciation is unique to Queens. Is this true?

A: No, the pronunciation of “radiator” as RAH-dee-ay-ter (rhymes with “gladiator”) is not unique to Queens.

It’s not very common, though. Stewart (an ex-New Yorker) is familiar with it, while Pat (an ex-Iowan) can’t remember ever hearing it.

We’ve checked a half-dozen dictionaries and all of them say the standard American pronunciation is RAY-dee-ay-ter. The British pronounce it pretty much the same way, though they tend to drop the final “r.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) is the only standard dictionary we’ve found that mentions the RAH-dee-ay-ter pronunciation, but M-W describes it as dialect that’s not considered standard.

So where is your pronunciation of “radiator” heard aside from the New York City borough of Queens?

The Dictionary of American Regional English says the RAH pronunciation of the first syllable is especially heard in Pennsylvania.

Contributors to DARE have reported hearing it in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and various areas in southeastern and central southern Pennsylvania.

DARE cites this excerpt from a 1971 letter to the Today Show: “I have found a very reliable indicator of someone from the Philadelphia area is how a person pronounces the first ‘a’ in radiator as though it were the first ‘a’ in radical.”

And what does DARE have to tell us about the pronunciation in Queens?

The dictionary’s most recent citation, from 2001, says: “Radiator—NYC and environs, the 1st a is pronounced as in fat.”

In case you’re curious, the noun “radiator” showed up in English in the early 1800s, but the first citations used the word in the sense of material (like glass or metal) that “radiates heat, light, or any other form of energy.”

The word, which ultimately comes from the Latin radiare (to emit rays or to shine), didn’t come to mean a device for heating a room until 1838, according to citations in the OED.

The first example of this usage, from the Daily Whig & Courier in Bangor, Maine, refers to “an apparatus called a radiator, which … has an effect in absorbing and distributing the heat equal to that of a very long pipe.”

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Etymology Usage

Is this any way to talk to a boss?

Q: I work for a two-woman company. The other day I opened an email that was largely directed at my boss. I could have handled it, but I forwarded it to her with the comment “I trust you will take care of this one?” She was offended, and when I tried to defend myself, she criticized my grasp of English. Please advise!

A: We suspect that it was the tone of your comment—rather than the grammar or usage—that rubbed your boss the wrong way.

Did she have reason to take offense? Well, one meaning of the verb “trust” is to assume something, and she may have felt you were assuming too much.

Also, the word “trust” is sometimes used sarcastically and a sensitive person might pick up on that, even if no sarcasm was intended.

In fact, the only example given in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) for this sense of the verb rings of sarcasm: “I trust that you will be on time.”

And a touchy or insecure boss might have felt that your comment was the kind of thing an employer, not a hired hand, would make.

We wouldn’t have worded a note to the boss that way, especially not to a boss whose antennae are especially sensitive. Something like “Shall I take care of this, or will you?” would have been more graceful.

But enough said. You don’t need any more criticism.

Let’s turn instead to the Oxford English Dictionary for a look at the history of the verb “trust” and how such a trusting word took on a few negative senses.

When English adapted the verb from the Old Norse treysta in the early 1200s, it meant (and still does mean) to have faith or confidence in someone or something.

Over the years, it has added such positive senses as to depend on, believe, entrust, and so on. But it has also been used in negative ways.

Since the early 1800s, the OED says, it’s been “used sarcastically or ironically to express one’s assurance that a person will or will not do something.”

Here’s an example from Richard Bagot’s 1902 novel Donna Diana: “Trust a religious old maid for scenting out love!”

And according to the OED, the command “Trust!” has been used since the mid-19th century as “an instruction given to a dog, requiring it to wait for a reward, usu. in a begging position with a titbit placed on its nose.”

Though we’re both experienced dog handlers, we hadn’t heard of this usage. All the citations in the OED appear to be from British writers, and some use the command with people, not dogs.

Here’s a canine example from Julia Maitland’s 1854 novel Cat & Dog (the narrator is “a thoroughly well-bred dog”):

“To please Lily, I learned to sit patiently watching the most tempting buttered crust on the ground under my nose, when she said ‘Trust, Captain!’ never dreaming of touching it till she gave the word of command, ‘Now it is paid for’; when I ate it in a genteel and deliberate manner.”

You can’t offer your boss a tempting buttered crust, but a small bouquet might be a good idea.

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Etymology Usage

Healthy, wealthy, and wise-isms

Q: I don’t know where I got this from, but for years I’ve been saying: “Healthy enough to do what I want, wealthy enough to pay for what I want, wise enough not to spend it all in one place.” Any idea where I got it?

A: You may have come up with it on your own. We haven’t been able to find any examples of other people using those exact words.

However, many people have come up with similar riffs on the old “healthy, wealthy, and wise” proverb.

For instance, an e-card we spotted online displays a bottle of champagne and says: “May you always be healthy enough to drink it, wealthy enough to afford it, and wise enough to sip it.”

And a woman on a Web dating service summed up Mr. Right this way: “I like a man to be healthy enough to keep up, wealthy enough to go dutch, and wise enough to know when the time is ripe to sweep me off my feet, or take me, passionately in a dark alley.”

We could go on, but you get the idea. It’s not hard to find a wealth of examples out there.

The original proverb was first recorded in John Clarke’s Paroemiologia Anglo-Latina, a 1639 book of English and Latin proverbs: “Earely to bed and earely to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

However, similar expressions date back to the late 1400s. If you’d like to read more, we wrote a posting a couple of years ago that discusses the history of the proverb as well as Ben Franklin’s take on it.

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Etymology Pronunciation

Spicy language

Q: Does anyone anywhere pronounce the first “r” n turmeric?

A: We’ve written before about the pronunciations of “basil” and “cumin,” but until now nobody has asked us about “turmeric.”

As it happens, you can correctly pronounce “turmeric” either with or without sounding that first “r”: TUR-mer-ik or TOO-mer-ik.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) gives both as standard pronunciations. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives those two plus a third, whose first syllable sounds like TYOO.

Turmeric, a spice made from the powdered rhizome of an East Indian plant (Curcuma longa), is an important ingredient in curry powder. The crushed rhizome is also used in yellow dyes.

At our house, we use curry quite a bit, but we don’t often have occasion to use turmeric by itself so it doesn’t come up much in conversation. We had to stop and think how we pronounce it (Stewart doesn’t say it at all; Pat says TOO-mer-ik).

The etymology of “turmeric” is obscure, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It doesn’t help that similar words have been used for a tree and for the powdered roots of other plants.

Since the word came into English in the mid-16th century, it’s been spelled all kinds of ways (“tamaret,” “tormarith,” “turmerocke,” “tarmanick,” “tarmaluk”). The final “t” in the earliest English spellings eventually became “k” or “c.”

The earliest spellings, the OED says, “resemble a recorded French terre mérite and medieval or modern Latin terra merita ‘deserving or deserved earth.’ ”

The dictionary notes that the 19th-century French lexicographer Émile Littré said the powder was known by the Latin or French name in commerce. However, Oxford adds, “The reason and origin of this Latin and French appellation are obscure.”

The OED dismisses one theory of the origin: ”Some have suggested a corruption of the Persian-Arabic name kurkum ‘saffron,’ whence Latin curcuma, French curcuma, and Spanish curcuma; but the change seems too unlikely.”

Now that you’ve called our attention to turmeric, we think we’ll have some curried shrimp tonight.

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Etymology Grammar Usage

This here usage

Q: I was listening to Pat on WNYC when a caller wondered why some Americans say “this here” and “that there” instead of “this” and “that.” I think this usage may have originated among immigrants from Sweden, since the demonstrative pronouns in Swedish are parallel: den här and det här (sing.), de där (pl.).

A: In English, noun phrases like “this here dog” and “that there cat” are considered substandard. That’s because the demonstrative adjectives “this/these” and “that/those” already carry with them the notions of “here” or “there.”

“This” and “these” imply nearness to the speaker, so the “here” element is already built in. “That” and “those” imply distance from the speaker, so the “there” element is built in.

Linguists sometimes refer to one of those sets of demonstratives as “proximal” (near in space or time), and the other as “distal” (distant).

So in English, the phrases “this here dog” and “that there cat” are redundant; the spatial adverbs “here” and “there” are unnecessary. In fact, such phrases sound uneducated or backwoodsy to speakers of standard English.

But what’s true of English isn’t universally true.

In the Scandinavian languages, as you point out, as well as in many others, demonstrative adjectives don’t work in precisely the same way they do in English.

That is, they don’t necessarily carry with them the notion of nearness or distance. So an adverbial equivalent of “here” or “there” wouldn’t be out of place.

However, we doubt that Americans who speak this way inherited the usage from their Scandinavian ancestors.

The English essayist and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge complained in the mid-19th century that uneducated British speakers were committing the same misdemeanor.

In a treatise on grammar in the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana: Or, Universal Dictionary of Knowledge (1845), Coleridge criticized the redoubling of word elements “for the sake of emphasis, which is a habit common to barbarous nations, and to the illiterate in all countries.”

And he meant all countries. Coleridge didn’t exempt the English, grumbling that “our own rustics commonly say this here, that there.” This usage (at least in English) is still considered rustic today.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says: “Our evidence from published sources shows that writers in general have no need to be told that this here and that there are something less than standard English.”

“The use of here and there for emphasis following a demonstrative adjective is a characteristic of dialectal and uneducated speech,” M-W continues. “It does not occur in writing except when such speech is being recorded, evoked, or imitated.”

We found an interesting discussion of this usage in a paper by the linguist Dorian Roehrs, published in 2010 in the Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics.

In the paper, “Demonstrative-Reinforcer Constructions,” Roehrs describes four different patterns in Germanic and Romance languages in which a demonstrative is accompanied by a “reinforcer” (usually an adverb equivalent to “here” or “there”).

As the author shows, these patterns (which vary in their word order) can be found in Yiddish, German, Pennsylvania German, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, Dutch, Afrikaans, French, Italian, Spanish, and Catalan.

It would seem that in this case, English is the odd man out. But good or bad, “this here” has been part of the language since at least as far back as the 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED gives only two citations, one from around 1380 and one from 1762.

The later example, from Samuel Foote’s comedy The Orators, is a deliberate caricature, spoken by a blustering lawyer: “I should be glad to know, how my client can be try’d in this here manner.”

(A search of the play shows that the same character uses the phrases “that there manner,” “this here question,” “this here motion,” and “that there motion.”)

As the Oxford English Dictionary says within its entry for “this,” the use of the demonstrative adjective “strengthened by here immediately following” is “dial. [dialectal] or vulgar.”

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Etymology Usage

How well is wellness?

Q: Is “wellness” a real word or just another cutesy whatever?

A: Yes, “wellness” is a real word, though quite a few people (perhaps including you) think it’s a not-so-cutesy whatever.

When the noun entered English in the 1600s (yes, hundreds of years ago), it meant the “state of being well or in good health,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, the status of the word has been a bit iffy from the beginning.

Although it was formed, like “illness,” by adding the suffix “-ness” to an adjective, the OED describes “wellness” as “rather a nonce-wd. than of settled status like illness.” (A nonce word is one that’s made up for a specific occasion but not expected to last.)

The dictionary’s earliest published reference is from a 1654 entry in the diary of Sir Archibald Johnston, Lord Wariston: “I … blessed God … for my daughter’s wealnesse.”

The first citation with the modern spelling is from a letter, written around 1655, by Dorothy Osborne to her husband, Sir William Temple: “You … never send me any of the new phrases of the town. … Pray what is meant by wellness and unwellness?”

The OED has written examples from the mid-1600s until the early 1900s of “wellness” used in the sense of good health. But the word seems to have fallen out of favor in the first half of the 20th century.

In the 1950s, Halbert L. Dunn, chief of the National Office of Vital Statistics, resurrected “wellness” in a new sense: health care intended to prevent illness rather than cure it, according to the linguist Ben Zimmer.

In an On Language column in the New York Times Magazine two years ago, Zimmer described the revival of “wellness” in its new garb:

Dunn wrote a series of papers and collected them in a 1961 book, High-Level Wellness, but his views didn’t catch on until a follower, John W. Travis, opened the Wellness Resource Center in Mill Valley, Calif., in 1975.

The center and its concept of wellness got national attention when it was featured in the April 1976 issue of Prevention magazine and a Dan Rather segment on 60 Minutes in 1979.

Zimmer notes that language commentators belittled the new usage at first. In 1988, for example, 68 percent of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language disapproved of it, and a critical note was included in the 1992 edition.

“But carping over wellness faded away in the ’90s as the term gained a foothold in everyday use,” Zimmer writes, adding that American Heritage dropped the usage note in its 2000 edition.

Like it or not, the word “wellness” is alive and well today.

“A word that once sounded strange and unnecessary, even to its original boosters, has become tacitly accepted as part of our lexicon of health,” Zimmer writes. “Well, well, well.”

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Etymology Usage

How did a “caretaker” become a “caregiver”?

Q: Terminology changes, or perhaps it doesn’t. My wife has Alzheimer’s disease. When I began caring for her in 2000, I was called a “caretaker,” but now I’m a “caregiver.” When did it change, or did it?

A: We’re so sorry to hear about your wife. This has been a long haul for you, hasn’t it? We’ve both cared for elderly parents, and we know it’s not easy.

You raise an interesting question about what to call a person who looks after someone.

It’s ironic that “give” and “take” are opposites, while “caregiver” and “caretaker” mean the same thing. Such people not only give care to others, but they take care of them.

As you note, “caretaker” is the older term. It was first recorded in the mid-19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as “one who takes care of a thing, place, or person; one put in charge of anything.”

The OED’s first citation for its use in writing is from The Real “Souter Johnny,” a pamphlet published by Matthew Porteous in Glasgow in 1858:

“The souter’s wife … was servant to Gilbert Brown … and … acted as nurse and care-taker to Agnes his daughter.”

(The Agnes mentioned here was the mother of the poet Robert Burns, who immortalized the souter [shoemaker] John Davidson in his long poem Tam o’ Shanter, 1790.)

The newer term “caregiver” originated in the US more than a century later. The OED defines it as “a person, typically either a professional or close relative, who looks after a child, elderly person, invalid, etc.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from the title of a book by Richard A. Mackey, The Meaning of Mental Illness to Caregivers and Mental Health Agents, published in 1966 as a volume in the Catholic University of America Studies in Social Work.

But “caregiver” was still a new word in London in 1988, as shown by this quote from the Independent: “The term nanny tends to be avoided, and substitutes range from babysitter to … the latest, ‘caregiver.’ ”

And we can’t resist quoting the OED’s third example, from a 2000 issue of the Daily Monitor, a newspaper in Kampala, Uganda: “Sociologists will tell you that in cultures where women are valued for traditional roles of mother and caregiver, hips are in.”

A little googling on our part indicates that those in the social services community prefer the term “caregiver” over “caretaker.”

Perhaps that’s because a “caretaker” can also be someone who takes care of property, in which case there’s not much personal “caring” involved.

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Is “partly cloudy” the same as “partly sunny”?

Q: From the tiny weather thingy on the front page of a recent New York Times: “Today, mostly cloudy, then turning partly sunny.” Is there a difference?

A: First things first. That thingy—the box in the upper right-hand corner of the Times front page—is referred to by journalists as the “weather ear.”

As for your question, yes, there is a difference between “mostly cloudy” and “partly sunny.” More on this later.

Let’s take a moment for another divagation, a word favored by Angela Thirkell, one of our favorite writers.

Your question inspired us to ask a more puzzling question: Is there a difference between “partly sunny” and “partly cloudy”?

We like to think that the terminology of weather forecasting—if not the forecast itself—is fairly precise.

That’s why we always assumed there must be a subtle difference between “partly sunny” and “partly cloudy.”

Not so, it turns out. The choice of words seems to depend on the mood of the forecaster.

David Feldman pondered the question in his 1986 “Imponderables” book, Why Don’t Cats Like to Swim?

“While you might assume that a partly sunny sky should be clearer than a partly cloudy one, the two terms signify the same condition,” Feldman writes. “You have merely encountered a weathercaster who prefers to see the glass as half full rather than half empty.”

(Feldman’s book, by the way, addresses another burning question: Why do women open their mouths when applying mascara?)

If blogs maintained by newspapers, magazines, and broadcasting outlets are any indication, the “partly sunny/partly cloudy” business must be keeping plenty of people awake nights.

The only clear difference we can see, however, is that “partly sunny” isn’t appropriate at night.

Dan Stillman, a meteorologist at the Washington Post, addressed the question on the Post’s weather blog in 2008:

“What’s the difference between partly sunny and partly cloudy? Different forecasters and forecast outlets have different answers to this question. Here’s what we think makes the most sense: They both mean the same thing—a mix of sun and clouds. We tend to use partly sunny for daytime forecasts and, obviously, partly cloudy for nighttime. Sometimes we’ll use partly cloudy during the day to highlight a change from sunnier to cloudier skies.”

In expectation of further enlightenment (or perhaps encloudiment), we went to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website, where a meteorologist named Jeffrey Nesmith has written an article called “Weather Words.”

Nesmith says that in forecasting sky cover, the National Weather Service divides the sky into eight equal parts, then determines how many eighths are expected to be covered by opaque clouds.

(“Opaque” means you can’t see through them—no blue sky by day, no moon or stars at night.)

The Weather Service, Nesmith says, accompanies its forecast with the following “conversion table” for the use of local media:

“Cloudy: 8/8 opaque clouds;

“Mostly Cloudy, Considerable Cloudiness: 6/8 to 7/8 opaque clouds;

“Partly Sunny [day], Partly Cloudy [night]: 3/8 to 5/8 opaque clouds;

“Mostly Sunny [day], Mostly Clear [night]: 1/8 to 2/8 opaque clouds;

“Sunny [day], Clear [night]: 0/8 opaque clouds.”

As Nesmith says: “Different expressions can be used to depict similar sky conditions; e.g., partly cloudy and partly sunny can be used interchangeably to describe 3/8 to 5/8 opaque sky cover. Since some terms are more fitting for use during daylight hours (e.g., ‘partly sunny’ and ‘mostly sunny’), forecasters usually favor their use during the daytime over their nighttime equivalent.”

We all know, however, that plenty of radio, TV, and Internet weatherfolk go their own way, issuing daytime forecasts of “partly cloudy” instead of “partly sunny.” Maybe they just weren’t feeling perky that day., a Seattle network with radio, television, and Internet news outlets, acknowledged in a weather FAQ that there’s “a bit of psychological factor” involved:

“If the forecast is improving (as in, rain event is just ending and will clear up a bit), we’ll usually go partly sunny. If the forecast is deteriorating (as in, it’s sunny now, but rain moving in tomorrow), we might say mostly cloudy as the condition during the increasing clouds. We tend to save ‘partly cloudy’ for nighttime, since we can’t use partly sunny.”

And perhaps the need for variety plays a part too. “There really isn’t much of a difference,” said KOMOnews. “It just gives us a larger vocabulary to work with.”

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How erudite is your pronunciation?

Q: Why do so many people mispronounce “erudite” as ER-yuh-dite instead of the proper ER-uh-dite? And what does that have to say about their erudition?

A: Both ER-yuh-dite and ER-uh-dite are standard American pronunciations for “erudite.” In fact, Stewart uses the first one and Pat the second. (No, they won’t call the whole thing off.)

Both pronunciations are listed without comment in the two US dictionaries we consult the most, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

Interestingly, the Cambridge Dictionaries Online website lists ER-uh-dite as the British pronunciation and ER-yuh-dite as the American.

The adjective “erudite” is derived from the Latin verb erudire (to instruct or train). The verb combines e (out) with rudis (rude or untrained).

In fact “erudite” meant trained or well-instructed when it entered English in the 1400s, but that sense of the word is now considered obsolete or archaic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The noun “erudition,” which entered English around the same time, meant training or instructing, but the OED says that sense is now obsolete too.

Today, as you know, “erudition” means great knowledge, and “erudite” means having such knowledge.

As for your question, it’s OK for an American to use either pronunciation. And it’s OK to have strong feelings about one or the other.

Pat, for example, thinks Stewart’s pronunciation of “erudite” is overly erudite. It reminds her of postings we’ve written about the pronunciation of “news” as NYOOZE and “Tuesday” as CHYOOZ-day.

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Etymology Usage

Should Siri capitalize “God”?

Q: I was dictating a letter on my iPhone the other day and Siri didn’t capitalize “God.” That led me to thinking. Should “God” always be capitalized? (By the way, I dictated this to Siri and she capitalized God the first time but not the second. Interesting.)

A: In modern usage, the term “God” is generally capitalized when it refers to the Supreme Being in a monotheistic religion like Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.

In fact, The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) and other usage guides recommend capitalizing the proper names of deities in both monotheistic and polytheistic religions: “God,” “Allah,” “Jehovah,” “Jesus,” “Shiva,” “Yahweh,” “Jupiter,” and so on.

Many people also capitalize the pronouns that refer to specific deities, but all the usage guides we checked recommend lowercasing these pronouns: “The pilgrims prayed to God that he would bless their journey.”

The term “god” is usually lowercased when it’s used in a general or figurative sense: “My puppy treats me like a god” or “The gods are looking favorably on us.”

And it’s lowercased when part of words like “godchild,” “godfather,” “godsend,” “godly,” and “goddamn.”

Interestingly, the word “God” wasn’t always capitalized when referring to the Supreme Being in Christianity and other monotheistic religions.

It’s lowercased dozens of times, for example, in the Vespasian Psalter, an Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscript from the eighth century that contains the Book of Psalms and other religious works.

In fact, published references in the Oxford English Dictionary for the use of “God” as a proper name for “the Creator and Ruler of the Universe” indicate that the word wasn’t generally capitalized until the 1500s.

The word “god,” which showed up in Old English in the early 700s, also appeared in Old Frisian and Old Saxon, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Similar terms were common in other Germanic languages: got in Old High German, godh or gudh in Old Icelandic and guth in Gothic. All of these are believed to come from a proto-Germanic root reconstructed roughly as gudan.

Chambers speculates that the ultimate source of the word is an ancient Indo-European root, reconstructed as gheu or ghu, that means invoke, offer sacrifices, or pour.

Why pour? Because one poured libations while worshipping God.

One last point: Some people mistakenly believe that the word “God” is derived from the word “good.”

Although the words have the same spelling in Middle English, Chambers says, “the only association is in terms such as Good Friday, written god friday, in which god has the meaning of holy, sacred.”

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Grammar Usage

Unidentified Flying Objects

Q: I was just watching a grammar video in which the instructor discussed two sentences: (1) “I gave a book to my sister”; (2) “I gave my sister a book.” According to him, “to my sister” in the first sentence and “sister” in the second are both indirect objects. I object. To my mind, “to my sister” is a prepositional phrase.

A: We’re siding with you on this one.

As we’ve written before on our blog, a prepositional phrase can be used in place of an indirect object. (We had postings on this in July and November of 2010.)

So the sentence “I gave the book to her” can be used instead of “I gave her the book.”

“Her” in the first sentence is the object of a preposition, not of a verb. You might even say that the indirect object in this sentence has been paraphrased as a prepositional phrase.

In a normal sentence in which the verb has both direct and indirect objects, the indirect object comes first: “I gave her [indirect object] the book [direct object].”

If the objects are reversed, a preposition is needed: “I gave the book to her.” Thus what was an indirect object becomes the object of a preposition.

As we noted in the second blog entry mentioned above, the exception in which the direct object comes before the indirect object is a British usage involving two pronouns (“Give it her” … “Tell it me”).

In American usage, a preposition (“to”) would be inserted.

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Grammar Usage


Q: I’ve always understood that collective nouns are treated as singular, but I recently stumbled upon a rule in The Chicago Manual of Style (my company’s guiding light) that threw me for a loop: “When the subject is a collective noun conveying the idea of plurality, the verb is plural {the faculty were divided in their sentiments}.” Huh?

A: Contrary to what many people believe, collective nouns aren’t automatically accompanied by singular verbs in American English.

It’s true that a collective noun is singular in form: “group,” “bunch,” “team,” “band,” and so on.

But it sometimes conveys a plural idea, and refers to the separate individuals who make up the group, not the group itself.

When that’s the case, the collective noun is what linguists call a “notional plural” (that is, it’s plural in meaning), so it’s accompanied by a plural verb.

We’ve written frequently on our blog about collective nouns and notional agreement, including postings in 2007, 2010, and 2011.

“Couple” is a good example of a collective noun that can be regarded either as a single unit (“The couple in 4G makes a lot of noise”), or as individuals (“The couple are working in different cities”).

The first “couple” is a single unit; the second “couple” refers to two people working in different places.

In the case of “faculty,” if you mean a unified body of people, then it’s singular: “The faculty opposes the measure.”

But if you’re speaking of the faculty as a group of individuals—especially if they’re not acting in unison—then the idea of plurality comes into play and a plural verb is appropriate: “The faculty were divided.”

And of course if a plural pronoun follows, the need for a plural verb is more obvious: “The faculty were divided in their sentiments.”

We should note that these conventions are a matter of idiom. What we’ve described here, and what you’ll find in The Chicago Manual of Style, is typical American usage. British usage differs, as we’ve written on our blog.

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Etymology Phrase origin Usage

Favored treatment

Q: A recent headline caught my eye: “Obama Favors Gay Marriage.” Can a person “favor” something without being partial to it? For example, “Obama favors gay marriage over straight marriage.”

A: To “favor” something isn’t necessarily to prefer it over something else, though the word can have that meaning. In the case of that headline, the verb simply means to approve of or sanction.

The word “favor” has been a flexible addition to English since it showed up more than 700 years ago.

The noun “favor” arrived before the verb, and was first recorded around 1300, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It came into Middle English from Old French, but ultimately comes from the Latin verb favere, defined by the OED as to regard with goodwill, side with, show kindness to, protect.”

Originally, the noun “favor” meant good will or friendly regard, but very soon it also came to mean patronage, approval, partiality, support, kindness, and the like. (This is how a “favor” came to mean an act of kindness.)

The verb “favor” came along in the mid-1300s, and in early usage it had three related senses (we’ll quote the OED definitions):

(1) “To regard with favour, look kindly upon; to be inclined to, have a liking or preference for; to approve.”

(2) “To show favour to; to treat kindly; to countenance, encourage, patronize.”

(3) “To treat with partiality. Also, to side with, take the part of.”

All of those 14th-century usages are still with us today.

As you can see, “favor,” like its Latin ancestor, is a wide-ranging verb. It can mean to take sides, but it can simply mean to approve.

For instance, when you say you “favor” a certain political party, you mean you prefer it over the other. But when you say you “favor” an idea, you mean you approve of it or regard it in a positive light.

This latter sense of the word—simple approval—is what that headline writer meant to convey. In other words, President Obama sanctions gay marriage; he doesn’t prefer it over the heterosexual variety.

This discussion gives us a chance to favor a phrase that’s the result of a misunderstanding: “to curry favor.”

The expression, says the OED, is in fact a corruption of an old 15th-century phrase, “to curry favel,” which meant to use insincere flattery to gain advantage.

(On a more literal level, to “curry” means to prepare or make ready, and “favel” is a defunct noun that once meant cunning or duplicity.)

Sometime in the 16th century, people began substituting “to curry favor,” probably because “favor” was a better-known word and the two versions have kindred meanings.

In case you’re wondering, this sense of “curry” is unrelated to the curry in Indian, Pakistani, and other Asian cuisines. This spicy “curry” is derived from kari, a Tamil word for sauce or relish for rice, according to the OED.

By the way, we’ve written on our blog about another meaning of the verb “favor,” as when we say someone “favors” an injured leg or a sore foot. Here, to “favor” means to go easy on or to treat gently.

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