Etymology Phrase origin Usage

Doubling down at KFC

Q: I’ve been hearing a lot of “doubling down,” where it seems to connote increased effort. All my long life I’ve used “doubling up” with the same connotation. Are both right, or am I double damned? PS: Why not just “doubling”?

A: You’re right. The verbal phrase “double down” has been showing up a lot lately in a new sense: to increase one’s efforts.

This specific use of “double down” doesn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary or in any standard dictionary. But Macmillan’s online Open Dictionary, which accepts contributions from the public, has it.

The entry, submitted on Feb. 15, 2012, by an unnamed contributor from the United Kingdom, defines the verbal phrase as to “increase one’s efforts or focus,” and gives this example:

“It’s time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that rarely has been more profitable, and double-down on a clean energy industry that never has been more promising.”

Another sense of “double down” has a longer history. The phrase was a gambling term when it first appeared in the 1940s, according to published references in the OED. Although “double up” appeared much earlier in an entirely different sense, it also showed up in the 1940s as a gambling usage.

In blackjack, Oxford says, to “double down” means “to double the bet after one has seen the initial cards, with the requirement that one and only one additional card be drawn.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from John Scarne’s 1949 book Scarne on Cards: “He doubles down on a count of 9 and he draws a deuce.”

The OED adds that the use of the verbal phrase later expanded beyond gambling to mean “to engage in risky behaviour, esp. when one is already in a dangerous situation.”

The dictionary’s first citation for the broader usage is from A Line Out for a Walk, a 1991 essay collection by Joseph Epstein:

“Let me double down … and see if I can’t win some points for being a racist by asserting that, for some while now, black men have worn hats with more flair than anyone else in America.”

However, the OED doesn’t mention the more general newer usage (to increase one’s effort) noticed by you as well as the contributor to Macmillan’s Open Dictionary. Here’s an example from the Oct. 27, 2011, issue of the Wall Street Journal:

“After moving its apparel office to New York in 2009 with great fanfare about fashion, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is packing up the operation and moving it back to its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters, where it will double-down on basics.”

This new use of “double down” hasn’t escaped the notice of word junkies. It was recently discussed on the American Dialect Society’s mailing list, and the linguist Ben Zimmer wrote about it in his Sept. 14 Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus website.

As for “double up,” it entered English in the 18th century with the sense of two people joining together to share lodgings. But it took on a gambling sense in the first half of the 20th century—to double the stakes.

The OED’s first citation for the gambling usage is from Eggs, Beans & Crumpets, a 1940 collection of short stories by P. G. Wodehouse: “You doubled up when you won, thus increasing your profits by leaps and bounds.”

Can the verb “double” be used in place of the verbal phrase “double down” in either of the newer usages?

We don’t think so. It’s too precise to mean merely increasing one’s effort. And it doesn’t suggest responding to a risky situation with more risky behavior.

Speaking of risky behavior, how about Kentucky Fried Chicken’s breadless Double Down sandwich: bacon, two kinds of melted cheese, and the Colonel’s secret sauce, all between two Original Recipe chicken fillets.

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Etymology Usage

Everwhat and everwhere

Q: My father-in-law is from West Virginia and uses language in a way I hadn’t heard before. He switches around the parts of compound words, so “whoever,” “whatever,” “whichever,” and “wherever” become “everwho,” “everwhat,” “everwhich,” and “everwhere.” He also says “Ain’t this a rotter?” to show surprise or displeasure.

A: The Dictionary of American Regional English describes those four reversed compounds as characteristic of speech in southern Appalachia or the Ozarks.

In DARE’s entry for reversed compounds, it lists two other examples, “everhow” and “everwhen,” but doesn’t link them to specific regions.

The linguist Michael Montgomery has also described this usage as characteristic of southern Appalachian speech.

In a paper, “The Scotch-Irish Element in Appalachian English,” he notes the use of “everwhat,” “everwhich,” and “everwho,” and gives this example: “Everwho was here sure left in a hurry.”

However, Montgomery, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina, says the origin of the usage is unknown. (Some other regional usages cited in his paper are described as Scotch Irish, Southern British, or General British.)

Dialect Notes, Volume IV,  a 1917 publication of the American Dialect Society, includes a report from a contributor, L. R. Dingus, on the usage in southwestern Virginia.

“Compound words sometimes exchange places,” Dingus writes, citing “everwho,”  “everwhat,” “everwhich,” and “everwhere.”

You also mentioned your father-in-law’s use of the expression “Ain’t this a rotter?” to express surprise or displeasure.

The word “rotter” has been around for hundreds of years, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When it first showed up in the 1500s, the OED says, it meant “something which causes rot, decay, or an otherwise impaired condition in another thing.”

By the 1600s, it was being used figuratively. Here’s an example from Richard Fanshawe’s 1647 translation of Il Pastor Fido, an Italian play by Giambattista Guarini: “Rotter of soul and body, enemie of reason.”

In the 19th century, the OED says, the word came to be used colloquially in this sense: “A person who is morally corrupt; a dishonest, nasty, or worthless person; a scoundrel. Now freq. humorous or somewhat arch.

The dictionary describes this usage as chiefly British and Australian, but perhaps it made its way to Appalachia on the tongues of British immigrants.

However, the OED doesn’t have any example of “rotter” used to express surprise or displeasure. And we can’t find an example in DARE of the word used in this sense. So perhaps it’s just a quirk of your father-in-law.

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Etymology Usage

Is “the reason why” redundant?

Q: Whence comes the ubiquitous redundancy “the reason why”? Isn’t “reason” itself sufficient to the task?

A: Yes, “reason” is sufficient to the task, but we see nothing wrong with “reason why.” In fact, we sometimes use the phrase on our blog. And we’re not alone in this.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage uses it as well, as when the editors reach this conclusion on an unrelated matter: “There is no reason why you need to avoid this usage.”

We’ve written about this before on our blog. As the earlier post points out, the words “reason” and “why” here aren’t redundant.

In this expression, “why” is a conjunction and means “for which” or “on account of which,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

The noun “reason” in this usage means “cause” or “the thing that makes some fact intelligible,” Merriam-Webster’s says.

“Reason” in this sense, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is commonly used with “why,” “that,” “for,” or an infinitive. So all of these uses are correct:

(1) “The reason we left early …”

(2) “The reason why we left early …”

(3) “The reason that we left early …”

(4) “Our reason for leaving early …”

(5) “The reason to leave early …”

In obsolete usages, Oxford says, “reason” was also accompanied by “wherefore” and “of.”

The OED has examples of “reason why” dating back hundreds of years.

Here, for instance, is a line from William Caxton’s 1484 translation of a fable from Aesop: “The wulf on a daye came to the dogge and demaunded of hym the rayson why he was soo lene.”

And here’s one from John Bellenden’s 1533 translation of Livy’s History of Rome: “He couth fynd na resson quhy he aucht nocht to helpe the romane pepill to recovir the land.” (“He could find no reason why he ought not to help the Roman people to recover the land.”)

And you’ve probably heard the expression “to know the reason why” (as in “I’ll have her or know the reason why!”). The OED dates that usage from 1719.

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Grammar Usage

Does “sign off on” tick you off?

Q: When I was in the Carter administration, one of the most grating forms of bureaucratese was “sign off on.” The other day, I noticed with alarm that a Wall Street Journal article stated, “The board would have to sign off on any deal.” Am I too squeamish? Is “sign off on” now standard English?

A: Yes, you’re being too squeamish. There’s nothing wrong with “sign off on,” though some people might consider the usage colloquial—that is, more appropriate to speech or informal writing.

If what bugs you is the apparent contradiction of the words “off” and “on” in that Journal article, there is no contradiction.

The word “off” here is an adverb used in the sense of “to a finish” (as in “drink off,” “sign off,” “pay off,” and so on). The word “on” here is a preposition meaning “with reference to,” “concerning” or “about” (as in “He refused to comment on the bailout”).  

There are many examples of such apparently contradictory terms used in a legitimate way. A speaker may go “off on” a tangent, a ballplayer go “out in” a blaze of glory, and a soggy person come “in out” of the rain.

The verbal phrase “sign off” by itself means to conclude or to end a communication (as in “Click here to sign off”). The verbal phrase “sign off on” means to express approval (as in “Click here to sign off on the terms of use”).

The phrase “sign off on” originated in the US in the first half of the 20th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED defines is as meaning “to assent or give one’s approval to, by or as if by signing an agreement.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the phrase is from a 1930 issue of the New York Times: “Princeton has signed off on graduate coaching for baseball.”

In this 1973 citation from the New Yorker, the writer felt it necessary to explain the term:

“The military bureaucracy, most notably the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would have to ‘sign off’ on (Washington jargon for ‘approve’) the American proposal.”

That citation suggests that “sign off on” was common in government circles (though not with the general public) even before Jimmy Carter became president in 1977.

You ask whether “sign off on” is considered standard English. It’s certainly a common idiomatic usage, but lexicographers differ on whether it’s standard.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) labels it “informal,” but the OED and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) find it unremarkable and attach no usage label to it.

Under an entry for “sign off,” Merriam-Webster’s uses this example: “sign off on a memo.” We conclude that the OED and M-W consider it standard English.

And with that, we’ll sign off on your question.

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Etymology Usage

Is “legitimize” legitimate?

Q: I must protest the use of the word “legitimize.” I know, I’m a few decades too late, but I mourn the loss of the verb “legitimate.” If we must have an “-ize” verb (and I would rather not), I have mustered the temerity to offer my own substitute: “legitimatize.”

A: The verb “legitimate” (to make legitimate) is indeed becoming scarce in common usage, but there’s a good reason.

The verb and the adjective “legitimate” are easy to tell apart in speech because the last syllable is pronounced differently (MATE for the verb, MUT for the adjective). But in writing, the two are identical and can be told apart only from the context.

In our opinion, the development of “legitimize” was inevitable, and we see no reason to avoid it. While many people complain about new words ending with “ize,” there’s nothing unusual about this verb-forming suffix.

We agree that some “-ize” verbs are annoying and deserve to die a natural death (“credibilize” and “respectabilize” spring to mind).

But this way of forming new verbs, which was handed down from the Greeks, has given us valuable words too, words that will last, like “baptize,” “jeopardize,” “mesmerize,” “organize,” “civilize,” and scores of others.

Our vocabulary would shrink considerably if we tried to avoid all verbs with the “-ize” ending or its chiefly British sibling

By the way, the “-ize” ending is the more traditional, as we pointed out in a posting in 2011. We also wrote about these suffixes in 2012.

Now, let’s take a closer look at “legitimize” and “legitimatize.”

The verb you protest, “legitimize,” and the substitute you suggest, “legitimatize,” came into the language in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Legitimatize,” formed from the adjective “legitimate” plus the suffix, was first recorded in 1791, the OED says. The shorter (and, we think, the preferable) “legitimize” followed in 1848.

As for the two words written as “legitimate,” the adjective came first. Its source is the medieval Latin word legitimatus, past participle of legitimare (to make lawful).

An early form of the adjective, “legitime,” was recorded in 1393, but is now obsolete, the OED says.

The modern form of the word, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, showed up sometime before 1464 (as “legitimat”). It originally meant “lawfully begotten” and later “lawful,” Chambers says.

The verb “legitimate” was first recorded in 1530, according to the OED, and was modeled after the adjective. Its meaning, the OED says, is “to render lawful or legal,” or “to authorize by legal enactment.”

You didn’t ask, but in case you’re interested in “legit,” a 19th-century coinage, we had a posting on the subject a couple of years ago.

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Etymology Usage

The benefit of your thoughts

Q: I recently asked a friend to give me the benefit of his thoughts about something. He responded thusly: “Asking for the benefit of my thoughts is a bit presumptuous—my wife can confirm that using the word ‘benefit’ in connection with my thoughts is an abuse of the English language!” I believe his response was meant to be humorous, but perhaps there is an abuse of the language here. What think ye?

A: We think your friend was joking. He meant that in asking for the benefit of his thoughts, you were presuming they’d be of value—that is, beneficial. And according to his wife, that might be presuming too much!

But asking for the “benefit” of someone’s thoughts is a little more subtle than baldly asking for something of value. It’s a polite way to ask for something the speaker thinks may be to his advantage—almost like asking him a favor.

Here’s a little history.

When “benefit” entered English in the late 14th century, it meant a good deed or a kindness.

Its journey into the language began with Latin (benefactum, a good deed or, literally, a thing well done), then led into Old French (bienfait) and Anglo-Norman (benfet).

When it entered English in the late 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “benefit” had two meanings: (1) a good deed or something well done; (2) a kindness, favor, or gift.

The earliest examples of these senses of the word—both considered obsolete or archaic today—are from a single work, William Langland’s Piers Plowman (1377).

The “good deed” sense of the word survived into the 19th century. The OED’s final entry for the word used in this sense is from Walter Savage Landor, who wrote in 1811, “Man’s only relics are his benefits.”

The other early meaning—the “kindness” or “favor” sense of the word—survived into the 17th century.

Shakespeare uses “benefit” this way in As You Like It (circa 1600), where Rosalind says of Fortune that “her benefits are mightily misplaced.”

Today, people use “benefit” to mean advantage, profit, or good, a sense that came along in the early 1500s, though English writers sometimes used the Old French word in that sense in the 1300s and 1400s.

This is the meaning of the word “benefit” that’s used in certain stock expressions, including the one you wrote us about.

When people ask you for “the benefit of your thoughts (or expertise, etc.),” they’re asking to take advantage of your knowledge, or to avail themselves of it.

As the OED explains it, “for the benefit of” in this case means “for the advantage of.”

But we can’t help thinking that something of the old “kindness” meaning clings to the expression. People who ask for “the benefit of your thoughts” are saying in effect that you would be doing them a kindness by sharing those thoughts.

Another such stock expression is “the benefit of the doubt.” This originally meant giving a verdict of “not guilty” when the evidence against an accused person was uncertain.

Today, the expression is used in a wider sense. To give someone “the benefit of the doubt” means “to incline to the more favourable or kindly decision, estimate, or the like,” the OED says.

The sense of “benefit” meaning some kind of perk or financial assistance—like medical or pension benefits—came along in the late 19th century. And the phrases “fringe benefit” and “benefit package” were coined in the mid-20th century.

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Etymology Usage

The astonishing life of “Wow!”

Q: I’ve been seeing a lot of people use “wow” to preface a critical or sarcastic comment: “Wow, yet another moronic statement,” or “Wow, you must think the world is flat.” What is “wow” supposed to be? An expression of disbelief? Surprise? Awe? I can’t imagine that people in the 19th century used it (wrong I could be, though).

A: Yes, wrong you could be. The interjection “wow” first showed up in the early 1500s, though it was primarily used then in Scottish English.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the usage in its early sense this way: “An exclamation, variously expressing aversion, surprise or admiration, sorrow or commiseration, or mere asseveration.” Touches all the bases, doesn’t it?

The first published reference in the OED is from Gavin Douglas’s 1513 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Out on thir wanderand spiritis, wow! thow cryis.”

By the late 1800s, according to Oxford, the interjection was in “general use” among English speakers. Now, it’s chiefly used for “expressing astonishment or admiration.”

The dictionary’s first citation for this newer usage is from Nada the Lily, an 1892 historical novel by H. Rider Haggard: “Wow! my father, of those two regiments not one escaped.”

Here’s a more recent citation, from R. B. Dominic’s novel The Attending Physician (1980): “ ‘Wow!’ Mike Isham whistled reverently. ‘No wonder she was willing to murder.’ ” (R. B. Dominic is a pen name used by the economists Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart. Emma Lathen is another of their pen names.)

The noun “wow” (a sensational success), the adjective “wow” (exciting, delightful), and the exclamation “wowey!” (later “wowee!”) all showed up in the early 1920s, according to OED citations.

Why “wow”? The OED doesn’t exactly say, but it notes the similarity with the interjection “vow” (used in Scottish English to emphasize a statement). Oxford says this use of  “vow” is probably a clipped version of “I vow.”

You ask about the use of “wow” in critical or sarcastic statements online. We’ve noticed it too, but we haven’t seen this sense of the word in standard dictionaries.

We’ll end with a hyphenated version of “wowee” from a 1963 issue of Mad Magazine: Boy! Wow-wee! That’s quite an exciting evening line-up!”

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Etymology Phrase origin

The whole nine yards, continued

[Note: An updated post about “the whole nine yards” appeared on Dec. 14, 2016.]

We interrupt our regular programming for this special report.

Hundreds of you (well, dozens anyway) have written us over the years about the expression “the whole nine yards,” either to ask about its origin (nine yards of what?) or to suggest one.

Some common theories about the source of the expression are that it refers to a nine-yard length fabric (for a sari, a maharaja’s sash, a burial shroud, a three-piece suit, a nun’s habit, or a Scottish kilt).

Other notions are that the “nine yards” refers to a hangman’s noose, a continuous computer printout, or the cubic-yard capacity of a cement mixer.

But perhaps the most popular theory of all is that it’s a reference to the length of a machine-gun ammunition belt in World War II.

Unfortunately, no published evidence has been found that would back up any of these suggested etymologies.

All researchers can do is track down the earliest dates when the expression appeared in print, in hopes of finding the elusive explanation.

We last reported on the blog that the phrase in its popular sense (the whole thing, the full extent of something) first appeared in a short story published in the fall of 1962.

But we promised to keep you updated, so here’s the latest. New sightings have now  pushed the date back to the mid-1950s. 

Bonnie Taylor-Blake, a frequent contributor to the American Dialect Society mailing list, reported over the summer that she had ferreted out examples of “the whole nine yards” in articles published in 1956 and ’57.

And that’s not all. As she told ADS list subscribers, she even tracked down the author of the articles and interviewed him. Now that’s dedication!

The articles appeared in two issues of Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground, a Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife publication that’s only recently been added to searchable databases.

In July 1956, the journal ran a story about fishing derbies being held around the state.  After describing the prizes (including an Evinrude motor and a 14-foot boat trailer), the writer concluded:

“So that’s the whole nine-yards. The rules are simple. You’ll find them and everything you need to know on the inside page of every entry blank. Entry blanks have been placed at docks on the major lakes and in at least one sporting goods store in every county.”

Another story in the January 1957 issue, this time about hunters, said, “These guys go the whole nine yards—no halfway stuff for them.”

Taylor-Blake managed to find the author of both articles, Ron Rhody. But alas, he had no clues to offer about the source of “the whole nine yards” (and he said he had no particular reason for hyphenating “nine-yards” in the 1956 story).

Rhody told her he believed it was a common expression back then, but had no inside information as to its source.

What’s interesting here—especially in light of the popular ammunition-belt theory—is that the sightings are inching closer and closer to World War II.

We’re not the only language junkies to have that thought. The linguist Ben Zimmer, for example, made a similar comment about this ammunition-belt business last month in his Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus website:

“That, or some related military origin, could be the ultimate source, and as the documented sources for ‘the whole nine yards’ creep ever closer back to the World War II era we may eventually find an authoritative explanation for the phrase. For now, though, such an explanation remains tantalizingly out of reach.”

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English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Phrase origin Usage

Hear Pat live today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 PM Eastern time on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012, to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Today’s topic: an update on “the whole nine yards.” If you miss the program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.

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Etymology Usage

“Quash” vs. “squash”

Q: Any comments on “quash” vs. “squash”? I rarely hear anyone use the former. The latter sounds gauche to me, even absurd, in a sentence like “My boss squashed the rumor.” I would, however, accept “The landlady squashed the roomer.”

A: You’ve got good timing. When your question landed in our inbox, Pat was reading The Old Bank House, a 1947 novel by Angela Thirkell, and had just come across this sentence about a clergyman’s desire to quash a rumor:

“Though why quashed, he said to his wife, and not squashed, he did not know.”

Well, we would use the verb “quash” for the crushing of something in a nonphysical sense (say, a rebellion or a rumor) and “squash” for when the object is physically crushed (like a beer can or a bug).

However, both of these verbs were used for hundreds of years to refer to physical and nonphysical crushing, though “quash” seems to have lost its physical sense in contemporary usage.

We’ve checked a half-dozen standard dictionaries and most of them say “squash” can be used for crushing a box, a rebellion, a rumor, or a heckler.

But most of them say “quash” can be used in only two senses: (1) to set aside a legal ruling, and (2) to suppress or silence something, like an uprising or a rumor.

As we’ve said, we prefer to use “squash” for crushing boxes, not rebellions, but we could find only one usage guide that backs us.

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) says “squash” means just one thing: to flatten something by crushing or squeezing.

We had a brief posting a few years ago on “quash” and “squash,” but your question gives us a chance to update and expand on what we said then about these squishy words.

Both “quash” and “squash” are quite old and share the same Latin ancestor, though “quash” is far the older, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest citation for “quash,” a reference to quashing a woman’s lust, comes from The Owl and the Nightingale (circa 1275), one of the first long comic poems in English.

At that time, Oxford says, the verb meant “To bring to nothing; to crush; to destroy; to put down or suppress completely; to stifle (esp. a feeling, idea, scheme, undertaking, proceeding, etc.).”

English adapted “quash” from Anglo-Norman, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, but the verb ultimately comes from the Latin quatere (to shake) and quassare (to shake to pieces, to break).

In the 1300s, the OED says, “quash” took on a physical sense: “To break in pieces; to smash. Also: to crush, squeeze, squash.”

Here’s an example from a 1770 ecclesiastical history by John Foxe: “A mighty stone … hable to haue quashed him in peeces.”

As for the verb “squash,” according to OED citations, it first showed up in a 1565 English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People: “Ye must, I saye, teare them, rent them, and squashe them to peeces.”

Ayto’s etymological dictionary says “squash” ultimately comes from exquassare, a popular Latin derivative of quassare, one of the ancestors of “quash.”

When “squash” entered English in the 16th century, according to the OED, it meant to “squeeze, press, or crush into a flat mass or pulp; to beat to, or dash in, pieces, etc.”

But by the 1700s, Oxford says, it had taken on its nonphysical senses: “To quash; to suppress or put down; to undo or destroy in a complete or summary manner.”

Here’s an example from The Orators, a comedy by Samuel Foote written sometime before 1777: I therefore, humbly move to squash this indictment.”

And here’s one from The Water-Babies, an 1863 children’s story by Charles Kingsley: “Between crinolines and theories, some of us would get squashed.”

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Did whites coin “honky”?

Q: The recent death of Sherman Hemsley (of The Jeffersons on CBS TV) reminded me of all the times he referred to white people as honkies. You don’t hear “honky” much these days, but it got me thinking about the origin of this black slang term.

A: It’s likely that “honky,” the black American slang term for a white person, originated not with African-Americans, but as an ethnic slur used by white people against other whites.

Both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (Vol. 2) suggest that “honky” is a variant or a dialectal pronunciation of “hunky,” an older word used by whites to refer to someone of Eastern European origin.

Random House, edited by Jonathan E. Lighter, says flatly that this is the case, while the OED is less positive and says this is “perhaps” the origin.

Several other authorities agree with Random House.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang (Vol. 2), for example, says that “the Black use is a development of the White ‘hunky.’ ”

And Geoffrey Hughes, in An Encyclopedia of Swearing (2006), says that “honky” is derived from “hunky” and “Hun,” which he calls “diminutive and contemptuous forms of Hungarian, both words being originally applied to a person of Eastern European ancestry, especially a Hungarian or Slav, and often a manual laborer.”

There’s no disagreement about the early white use of “hunky.”

Both Random House and the OED say it cropped up in the early 20th century as a form of “hunk,” which was a 19th-century ethnic slur or derogatory nickname based on “Hungarian.”

The earliest example of “hunk” in this sense comes from a January 1896 issue of the New York Herald:

“The average Pennsylvanian contemptuously refers to these immigrants as ‘Hikes’ and ‘Hunks.’ The ‘Hikes’ are Italians and Sicilians. ‘Hunks’ is a corruption for Huns, but under this title the Pennsylvanian includes Hungarians, Lithuanians, Slavs, Poles, Magyars and Tyroleans.”

The later form “hunky” (also spelled “hunkie”) first showed up in print in 1909, according to Random House. This later citation, from A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang (1914), by Louis E. Jackson and C. R. Hellyer, is a good illustration of its usage:

Hunkie, current in localities where North European laborers abound. A corruption of Hungarian, but employed to signify a Continental European who is unwashed and unnaturalized.”

A similar derogatory American slang word from about 1903, “bohunk,” was apparently formed from “bo” for “Bohemian” plus “hunk,” according to Random House and the OED.

Oxford defines “bohunk” as “a derogatory term for a Hungarian” or for “an immigrant from central or south-eastern Europe, esp. one of inferior class; hence, a low rough fellow, a lout.”

Yet another such term, “hunyak (or “honyock”), is believed to combine elements of “Hungarian” and “Polack” (a native of Poland). It also dates from the first decade of the 20th century, a time when waves of new European immigrants were competing with American laborers for jobs in the industrial North.

So when did “hunky,” a term used by white Americans against some other whites, become a black term for all whites? Probably in the mid-1940s.

Its earliest appearance is a matter of dispute, since in the opinion of the OED the first two citations are only possibilities.

Here are the two early quotations, both from a book called Really the Blues (1946), by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe:

“First Cat: Hey there Poppa Mezz, is you anywhere? Me: Man I’m down with it, stickin’ like a honky.” Later in the book is this definition: “Honky, factory hand.”

As we said, the OED is reluctant to call these definitive sightings of “honky” used as a black slang term for a white person.

Lighter, on the other hand, treats “honky” in the first quotation as being used in that sense. But in the second quotation, he says, it merely represents the old “hunky”—the Eastern European laborer.

Black writers have often spelled “honky” with a “u,” according to citations in Random House.

For example, Lighter quotes this passage from Chester Himes’s novel Cast the First Stone (1952): “Convicts whose minds had gone and who had never had any to start with, one-armed black greasy niggers and one-legged pock-marked hunkies; convicts from the dirty gutters of cheap cities … degenerate and crazy.”

And this sentence is from Woodie King’s Black Short Story Anthology (1972): “He was a black man. There shouldn’t be no hunkies at his funeral.”

All the words we’ve mentioned—“hunk,” “hunky,” “bohunk,” “honyak,” and finally “honky”—are contemptuous as ethnic terms.

But, since we’d like to end on a positive note, there’s another “hunky” that’s quite the opposite. It means, more or less, just dandy.

This “hunky” (dating from the early 1860s) gave us the later term “hunky dory,” the subject of a post on our blog a few years ago.

And, of course, the “hunky” meaning thick-set and solidly built (dating from the early 20th century) gave us the modern use of the word to describe a sexy guy.

Here’s a 1990 OED citation from the Village Voice about the lead singer of the band Faith No More: “Michael Patton pranced his hunky bod around.”

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Etymology Usage


Q: Is “swoft” a word? I’ve been told it’s an old word for a liar, but I can’t find it in my dictionary.

A: “Swoft” is a very rare word, but it isn’t about lying. It’s about dirt and dust bunnies. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “swoft” as “sweepings.”

This isn’t a word you should expect to run into every day. The OED has only a single example of its use in writing, one that appeared in Middle English around the year 1250.

But the writers of the TV series House MD may have unwittingly spread the impression that “swoft” means “liar.” Here’s how the word was swoft-boated.

In an episode that first aired in March 2010, Dr. Gregory House (played by Hugh Laurie) and two other doctors go speed-dating.

House is intrigued when he meets a woman who’s holding a newspaper that’s folded to reveal a partly finished crossword puzzle.

But in glancing at the paper, he realizes it’s only a prop, because the puzzle has been filled in with fake words like “swoft.”

When he calls the woman’s bluff, he offers a very pointed, impromptu definition of the made-up “swoft”—a manipulative liar.

So much for invention. Getting back to the real “swoft,” this rare noun apparently came from a now obsolete verb, “swope,” meaning sweep.

The verb was first recorded in Old English sometime before the year 1000 and has relatives in other old Germanic languages, the OED says.

A related adjective, “swopen,” meant “swept,” as in this example from the 1300s: “Vppon the swpen grounde eche nygt he lay.” (“Upon the swopen ground each night he lay.”)

As you probably suspect, the old verb “swope” was eventually replaced by “sweep,” a word that began appearing sometime before 1300 and has been around ever since, despite the invention of the vacuum cleaner.

The people (often small boys) who made a living by cleaning soot from chimneys were first referred to in the 1500s as “chimney sweepers” (later “chimney sweeps” or just “sweeps”).

In the mid-19th century, “sweep” became a term of contempt for a disreputable person, as in “a drunken sweep” or “you dirty sweep.”

A disreputable person might be a liar, of course. But at least in common usage, a liar hasn’t yet become a “swoft.”

But stay tuned. Perhaps House’s invention will catch on. Stranger things have happened.

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Etymology Usage

Anxiety attack

Q: I often hear people (including me) use “anxious” in a sentence like “I’m anxious to get started.” My dad wishes they would say, “I’m eager to get started,” as there is no apparent anxiety present. Is he right?

A: Language mavens are divided over whether “anxious” should be used for “eager” in a sentence like that one.

For example, the Usage Panel that advises The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has been divided almost evenly over whether this sentence is legit: “We are anxious to see the new show of British sculpture at the museum.” (Fifty-two percent reject the usage.)

In fact, we’re divided too. Stewart thinks it’s OK to use the adjective “anxious” to mean very eager in that American Heritage example, but Pat gives the sentence a thumbs down.

The naysayers believe “anxious” should be used for “eager” only when the subject is clearly worried or uneasy about what follows, as in this American Heritage example: “We are anxious to see the strike settled soon.”

The editors of the American Heritage fifth edition note that “anxious” has a long history as a synonym for “eager,” but add that resistance to the usage “remains strong” despite the fact that “many people are willing to accept it.”

Interestingly, the prohibition against using “anxious” to mean “eager” is relatively new.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says the first language guide to mention it was Ambrose Bierce’s Write it Right (1909).

Bierce was especially bugged by what he considered the unidiomatic use of “anxious” followed by an infinitive phrase, as in your example as well as the two in American Heritage.  

Another language writer, Alfred Ayres, had criticized the usage earlier in “A Plea for Cultivating the English Language,” a 1901 article in Harper’s Weekly. Ayres was commenting on an anecdote cited in the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times.

“From its modest beginnings in the Ayres anecdote and Bierce’s prescription,” the Merriam-Webster’s usage guide says, “the anxious-eager question rapidly became a shibboleth in American usage.”

The M-W editors note that “anxious/eager is not a shibboleth in British English,” perhaps because Henry Fowler, the language maven’s language maven, “pooh-poohed the whole matter” in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926).

R. W. Burchfield, writing in the revised third edition of Fowler’s usage guide, suggests that the taboo against using “anxious” to mean “eager” may reflect the widespread use of psychiatric language in the 20th century.

He notes that “anxiety” originally meant merely “uneasiness of mind” when it entered English around 1525 in the works of Thomas More.

“In the 20c.,” Burchfield writes, “psychiatric terms like anxiety neurosis have strengthened the belief that a morbid state of mind lies behind the words anxiety and anxious.”

Although “anxious” did have its roots in “anxiety,” he says, “in the 18c., the adjective began to turn on its axis and came also to mean ‘full of desire and endeavour; earnestly desirous (to bring about some purpose).’ ”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest published reference for this sense of “anxious” is from “The Grave,” a 1743 poem by Robert Blair: “The gentle Heart Anxious to please.”

The OED’s next citation is from a 1794 letter by Lord Nelson: “The General seems as anxious as any of us to expedite the fall of the place.”

The Merriam-Webster’s usage manual points out that respected writers have been using “anxious” in the sense of “eager” ever since, sometimes suggesting a sense of worry and sometimes not.

Here are just a few of the usage guide’s many examples of the phrases “anxious to,” “anxious about,” “anxious for,” and “anxious that” used in this sense:

“I feel no hesitation in saying, I was more anxious to hear your critique, however severe, than the praises of the million” (Lord Byron, in a March 6, 1807, letter).

“Your mother is quite anxious about it, but cannot very well spare time to sit down herself, because of her fringe” (Jane Austen, in Mansfield Park, 1814).

“Constance insisted, anxious that he should live up to his reputation for Sophia’s benefit” (Arnold Bennett, in The Old Wives’ Tale, 1908).

“All seemed pleased with the performance and anxious for another of the same sort” (Kingsley Amis, in Lucky Jim, 1954).

After two pages of examples, Merriam-Webster’s concludes: “Anyone who says that careful writers do not use anxious in its ‘eager’ sense has simply not examined the available evidence.”

So is it OK for you to use “anxious” in the sense of “eager”?

Well, the etymological evidence supports this usage, but a lot of language types disagree. Go ahead and use it if you want, but be aware that you’ll bug some sticklers—including your dad!

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Etymology Phrase origin Usage

Back in the day, revisited

Q: When and why did “back in the day” come into popular use in reference to a cool time in the past? I don’t remember hearing it at all in the ’70s.

A: You don’t remember hearing this use of “back in the day” in the 1970s because it wasn’t heard much until the ’80s. However, it was around in the ’60s and ’70s. And similar phrases date back to the early 1800s.

We wrote a posting in 2007 about the use of the expression to refer, often nostalgically, to a period in the past. But five years is a long time in popular usage, so this calls for an update.

Let’s begin by pointing out that the phrase “back in the day” has been around since at least the 1940s, and the phrase “back in the days” has been around a lot longer, since the 18th century.

But in those earlier usages, “back in the day” and “back in the days” were part of larger phrases that referred literally to specific periods in the past.

Here’s an example of this earlier use of “back in the day” from The Blood Remembers, a 1941 novel by Helen Hedricks, wife of the publisher Alfred A. Knopf:

“I was back in the day when his father was buried, and the bright sun was killing the purple asters in Sam’s bent hands.”

And here’s a much earlier example of “back in the days” from an 1816 biography of Eudoxia Lopukhina, the first consort of Peter the Great, by Carl Theodor von Unlanski:

“The human race had learned to write—to make impressions with objects which are the equivalents of writer’s tools — away back in the days when the cuneiform folk put their marks into stones, and the cave men of prehistoric France daubed colored hieroglyphics.”

We found an even earlier example (“back in the days of Hezekiah”) in an undated sermon among the collected writings of the Rev. Ebenezer Erskine, a Scottish minister who lived from 1680 to 1754.

But the modern usage you’re asking about, plain “back in the day,” is a different sense of the phrase, one in which it stands alone and refers to an unspecified time in the past.

This clipped phrase has popped up all over the place in the last couple of decades. It’s done so much popping, in fact, that the phrase has got the attention of lexicographers at standard dictionaries.

The Cambridge Dictionaries Online, for example, defines the expression this way: “used for talking about a time in the past, usually when you are remembering nice things about that time.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says “back in the day” (occasionally “days”), especially in African-American usage, means “in the past” or “some time ago.”

The OED has four citations for the published use of the expression. The earliest example is a lyric from a hip-hop song, “Girls,” recorded by the Beastie Boys in 1986: “Back in the day / There was this girl around the way.”

The phrase also cropped up in a 1994 issue of the magazine Vibe: “Back in the day there were Josephine Baker, Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan, and Lena Horne.”

And the novelist Richard Price used it in his mystery Freedomland (1998): “Jesse had known one of them from back in the day.”

The OED’s most recent example is from The Nannie Diaries (2003), by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus: “One drunken night when your buddies from ‘back in the day’ called me a ho.”

You say you don’t remember hearing “back in the day” in the 1970s. We’ve done a bit of poking around in Google Books and found some examples from the ’70s, including this one from Joseph Wambaugh’s 1972 crime novel The Blue Knight:

“Around the LAPD it was said that mobbed-up former Soviets were more dangerous and cruel than the Sicilian gangsters ever were back in the day.”

In fact, our spot check of Google Books even found a couple of examples from the ’60s, including this one from Ruth Dickson’s 1967 advice book Married Men Make the Best Lovers:

“Yep, that’s all the IRS thought a spouse was worth back in the day.”

The earliest examples of the clipped usage that we could find are from white writers like Wambaugh and Dickson. And the first use of the phrase in hip-hop music seems to be from the song mentioned above by the Beastie Boys, a white band.

But some linguists and language writers have suggested that the phrase may have originated among African Americans.

The linguist Margaret G. Lee, for example, said in a 2001 comment on the Linguist List, the mailing list of the American Dialect Society, that “Back in the day originated in the African-American community.”

Geneva Smitherman, author of Black Talk and a distinguished professor of English at Michigan State University, told the language columnist William Safire in 2007 that the expression is used differently by different groups of African Americans.

“When used by middle-aged and older members of the black speech community,” she said, “ ‘back in the day refers to the 1960s and often reflects a kind of nostalgic longing for a historical moment when there was a very strong black unity.”

But when “used by members of the Hip Hop Generation,” Smitherman said, “it generally refers to the beginning phase of Hip Hop Music and Culture, in the ’70s in the South Bronx.”

H. Samy Alim, an anthropologist and sociolinguist at UCLA, suggested to Safire that the expression may have been popularized by the rapper Ahmad’s 1994 album (and title song) Back in the Day.

A bit of googling, however, indicates that the expression in its new sense was well established by the late 1980s, years before Ahmad’s album was released.

Interestingly, Ahmad (Ahmad Ali Lewis) uses “back in the day” and “back in the days” in the three versions of the title song on the album. And he uses them in the old as well as the new sense. Here’s an example of the plural phrase used both ways:

Back in the days when I was young I’m not a kid anymore
But some days I sit and wish I was a kid again
Back in the days when I was young I’m not a kid anymore
But some days I sit and wish I was a kid again
Back in the days

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Etymology Usage

Aboriginal meaning

Q: I was taught that “Aborigine” is a noun and “Aboriginal” is an adjective. I’d refer to one of the indigenous people of Australia as “an Aborigine” or “an Aboriginal person.” It irks me when people refer to “an Aboriginal” or “an Australian Aboriginal.” Where do you stand on these terms?

A: We’re a house divided. Pat uses “Aborigines” as a noun for the indigenous people of Australia and “aboriginals” as a noun for other indigenous people. Stewart uses “Aborigines” and “aborigines” in those contexts.

However, this is a matter of personal taste. There’s no right or wrong here.

We checked seven standard dictionaries in the US and the UK, and all but one say indigenous people can be referred to as either “aborigines” or “aboriginals.”  In reference to Australia, the terms are usually capitalized.

“Aborigines,” the older English noun, comes directly from the Latin aborigines, a plural noun for the pre-Roman inhabitants of Italy, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Latin, ab origine means from the beginning.

When the word entered English in the early 1500s, it was only plural and referred only to the original inhabitants of Latium, the Italian region that includes Rome.

But by the early 1600s, according to the OED, the term was being used more loosely to refer to “the earliest known inhabitants of a particular country.”

The word “aboriginal,” which entered English as an adjective in the mid-1600s, initially referred to the earliest people, plants, or animals in an area.

When the term was first used as a noun in the mid-1700s, the OED says, it referred to “an original or earliest inhabitant of a land, esp. as distinguished from a later settler.”

In the early 1800s, according to Oxford citations, the two nouns were first used to describe the indigenous people of Australia.

Here’s an 1803 citation for “Aborigines” from the Australian National Dictionary: “Nature not having furnished it with food sufficient to maintain any other race of men than the Aborigines.”

And here’s an 1828 citation for “Aboriginal” from the Hobart Town Courier: “Nothing herein contained shall authorize … any Settler … to make use of force (except for necessary self-defence) against any Aboriginal.”

It wasn’t until the 19th century, according to the OED, that “the singular form aborigine was formed from the English plural.”

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Etymology Usage

Kissing cousins

(An updated and expanded post about “cousin,” “niece,” and “nephew” appeared on Nov. 9, 2018.)

Q: I teach English at a university in New Jersey. A student of mine insists that the son of a cousin is a cousin too. To me, the son of a cousin is a nephew, since he’s one generation down in the family tree. Could you please shed some light on this word?

A: In modern English, a cousin’s child is referred to as a first cousin once removed or a second cousin. Today such a child wouldn’t be called a niece or nephew.

Although many people refer loosely to a second cousin as simply a “cousin,” the principal meaning of “cousin” is a son or daughter of an aunt or uncle.

Cousinhood in all its ramifications is an interesting subject, though for many of us it doesn’t come up much in conversation except around Thanksgiving.

In medieval times, “cousin” didn’t have the narrow meaning it has now. In olden days, it could mean almost any relative other than a sibling or parent.

The word came into English sometime during the 1200s from the Old French cosin. But its ultimate source is the Latin word consobrinus, which the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology defines as “mother’s sister’s child.”

When “cousin” first showed up in English, the Oxford English Dictionary explains, it was “a collateral relative more distant than a brother or sister.” It could also mean simply “a kinsman or kinswoman, a relative.”

Consequently, the OED adds, in those days “cousin” was “very frequently applied to a nephew or niece.”

Shakespeare, for example, used “cousin” to mean a nephew in Much Ado About Nothing (1600), as when Leonato says to his brother Antonio: “How now brother, where is my cosen your sonne.”

But those uses of “cousin” are now considered obsolete, the OED says. So today, you wouldn’t refer to a niece or nephew as a “cousin.”

We can’t tell you when that old sense of “cousin” died out, but the last citation given in the OED is dated 1747.

Another sense of the word that’s obsolete today was used in legal writing from the 1400s into the 1600s, according to published references in the OED.

In this legal usage, a “cousin” was one’s next of kin, “including direct ancestors and descendants more remote than parents and children,” Oxford says.

Here’s an example the OED gives from an Act of Parliament dated 1503: ““Robert Brews Squyer Cosyn and heire unto Sir Gilbert Debenham … that is to say, sone of Elizabeth Brews Sister to the seid Sir Gilbert.” (So this “cousin” was Sir Gilbert’s next of kin, who happened in this case to be his nephew.)

The principal meaning of “cousin” today—“the son or daughter of (one’s) uncle or aunt”—showed up around 1290, not much later than the obsolete broader meaning, according to the OED.

In this example from a sermon delivered around 1380, the relationship is pretty clear: “Joon Evangelist … Crist was his cosyn, and Cristis modir was his aunte.” (“John the Evangelist … Christ was his cousin, and Christ’s mother was his aunt.”)

Later that kind of cousin was sometimes called a “first cousin.” In the mid-1600s, as the OED explains, people began adding “first,” “second,” and so on to express various degrees of cousinhood.

“Thus,” the dictionary says, “the children of brothers or sisters are first cousins to each other; the children of first cousins are second cousins to each other; and so on. The term second cousin is also loosely applied to the son or daughter of a first cousin, more exactly called a (first) cousin once removed.”

There’s yet another use of “cousin” that has nothing to do with families. As the OED says, “cousin” is sometimes used “as a term of intimacy, friendship, or familiarity.”

For example, it’s not uncommon for young children to fondly call an old friend of the family “Aunt Gracie” or “Uncle Chuck,” even though they’re not related.

The OED gives another example. In the British county of Cornwall, the dictionary says, Cornishmen call one another “cousin Jan” or “cousin Jacky.” The BBC’s website once offered a possible explanation for this Cornish tradition:

“Some say that Cornish miners became known as ‘Cousin Jacks’ because they were always asking for a job for their cousin Jack back at home. Others think it was because the miners used to address each other by the old greeting of ‘cousin,’ and Jack was the most popular Christian name in Cornwall.”

Before ending this, we should note that “nephew” and “niece” have had other meanings in the past, too.

Nowadays, as we’ve written on our blog, “nephews” and “nieces” refer to the sons and daughters of siblings.

But they once were also used for grandsons and granddaughters, male and female descendants, and, euphemistically, illegitimate sons and daughters (especially those of popes and other churchmen who were supposed to be chaste).

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Etymology Usage

Does this excite you?

Q: Why does everyone say “excited for” instead of “excited about”? I started hearing this from my girls and now everybody—adults included—does it! Did I miss something? I am not excited for correct grammar but I am excited about it.

A: We’ve also noticed a jump in the use of “excited for” in contexts that would normally call for “excited about” or “excited by.” This has made us wonder what’s happened to the prepositions that usually follow “excited” in idiomatic usage.

The tendency to choose “excited for” seems especially common in sportswriting, or that’s our impression. Here’s a sampling of August headlines:

“Howard … excited for ‘fresh start’ in L.A.” ( … “Kobe ‘excited’ for new-look Lakers” (New York Daily News) … “Medlen excited for first start in two years” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) … “Michael Phelps is excited for football season” ( … “Fans excited for Olympics ‘Super Saturday’ ” (the Telegraph, London).

Sports editors aren’t the only perpetrators, though. This headline appeared in August on CNN’s Political Ticker: “Ryan: ‘Excited’ for a campaign about budget.”

But as the story itself showed, what Rep. Paul Ryan actually said was “Yes I’m excited about that.” So while Ryan himself used “excited about,” the CNN headline used “for.”

In all those cases, we would have advised the headline writers to choose “about” or “by” instead of “for.”

That’s because in idiomatic English, “excited for” means excited on someone’s behalf, as in “You’re engaged? We’re so excited for you!”

But to be “excited about” something means to look forward to it, whether eagerly or anxiously. Examples: “You must be so excited about the wedding” … “Don’t get all excited about the price tag.”

“Excited” also commonly appears with “by,” as in “The dog snapped because it was excited by the cat,” and “Foot fetishists are excited by shoes.”

And “excited” can be accompanied by “at,” as in “Mom got excited at the thought of becoming a grandmother,” and “Mom and Dad were excited at the prospect of grandchildren.”

So in summary, when we’re talking about what excites us—the object of our excitement—we generally use “excited about” or “excited by” or “excited at.” But when we’re excited on someone’s else’s behalf, we use “excited for.”

Of course, “excited” isn’t always followed by an object. Other prepositions enter the picture when we describe where, when, or how the excitement happens.

Examples: “The kids got excited at the playground” … “We were excited after hearing the news” … “Little Jimmy was excited to the point of exhaustion” … “He was excited beyond belief” … “Woofie gets too excited around children.”

Sometimes “for” is used in this sense: “The press was excited for about three days” … “She got excited for no good reason.”

“Excited” in all these cases is a participial adjective—that is, a past participle of the verb “excite,” functioning as an adjective—accompanied by a prepositional phrase.

But as is often the case with prepositions, there’s no particular set of grammatical rules about what goes or doesn’t go with “excited.”

What we’ve described are traditional uses that have become idiomatic. And as we all know, idiomatic usages can change if new ones become widespread enough.

By the way, the adjectival use of “excited” has been around since the 17th century, but it was initially used to describe the agitation of a seismographic instrument, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It wasn’t used in the emotional sense until the mid-19th century and in the sexual sense until the late 19th century, according to published references in the OED.

The only adjectival example with a preposition, from a 1919 issue of the Biological Journal, describes a male guinea pig who emerges from long isolation and “becomes sexually excited by the presence of any female.”

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Etymology Usage

Trench warfare?

Q: A friend often sends me tidbits from your website, so I decided to visit the site. I was surprised to see you say on your Authors page that Stewart “was experiencing journalism in the trenches—literally.” I’ve always understood “literally” to mean just that, but unless Stewart was a foreign correspondent in the trenches in World War I (or somewhere comparable), shouldn’t you have said “figuratively”?

A: As we say on the Authors page, Stewart reported on wars in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. And as a war correspondent in Vietnam, he did indeed experience journalism in the trenches.

In fact, he spent time in foxholes, tunnels, bunkers, and trenches.  On a web page of Vietnam War photos, we found a picture of a  trench at Khe Sanh, the site of some of the fighting Stewart covered.

As for “literally,” we agree with you that it should be used to mean word for word or to the letter. But a lot of people use it loosely for emphasis.

In fact, so many people have used “literally” this way that the looser meaning is showing up in dictionaries. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, says it can legitimately be used as “pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis.”  

We don’t endorse that usage, but we acknowledge that there’s a case to be made for the looser meaning. If you’d like a second opinion, check out the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower’s article on “literally” in Slate.

By the way, the noun “trench” didn’t always mean a ditch dug as a defense against enemy fire or assault—or, for that matter, a ditch dug in peacetime.

When it entered English in the 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to “a path or track cut through a wood or forest; an alley; a hollow walk.” It was adapted from the Old French trenche (a cut, a gash, etc.).

The English word came to mean a ditch in the 15th century and a defensive military excavation in the early 16th century.

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Etymology Pronunciation Usage

Name calling

Q: I was listening to a podcast that included comments about the former National Review columnist John Derbyshire. One person pronounced the surname DAH-bi-shuh (like the English county) but two others pronounced it DAR-bee-shir. Any comment?

A: The pronunciation of a personal name is up to the person who wears it. John Derbyshire, the former National Review columnist, could pronounce his name “Dosher” and be within his rights.

The correct way to say a person’s name is—within reason—the way he says it himself. So if someone named Jones pronounces it “Johns,” then “Johns” it is (in speech, anyway).

(The Monty Python boys went a bit overboard, though, in pronouncing the name “Luxury Yacht” as Throatwobbler Mangrove.)

There’s no rule that a personal name must be pronounced like a similarly spelled geographic term.

However, John Derbyshire, an American citizen who was born in Britain, does pronounce his last name like the county in England. And when pronounced in modern British speech, with its characteristic dropping of r’s, it sounds like “Dobbyshuh.”

In a column on Taki’s Magazine, Derbyshire renders the pronunciation of his name this way: DAH-bi-shuh.

But let’s not be silly. You can’t expect American commentators to speak with British accents. That would be taking Mr. Derbyshire’s personal preference too far.

Americans pronounce their r’s, so an American would naturally say DER-bee-shur or DAR-bee-shur or DAR-bee-shir or DER-bee-shir. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, lists all those pronunciations.

And as a historical note, we might add that the r’s in words like “Derbyshire” were not always dropped in British speech.

Before the American Revolution, the British pronounced their r’s pretty much the way Americans do today, as we’ve written on our blog in 2008 and in 2012.

So in pronouncing the r’s in Derbyshire, Americans are simply retaining a feature of earlier British speech.

If you’d like to read more about pronouncing names, we touched on the subject in a posting in 2009 about the pronunciation of foreign words. And we wrote a blog item in 2007 about the pronunciation of names ending in “stein.”

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Storm watch: williwaw

Q: I enjoyed your posting about the weather term “derecho.” I taught 8th-grade earth science for several years and talked about many weather terms. My favorite is “williwaw.” Do you know its origin?

A: We can’t tell you why a sudden, violent storm is called a “williwaw,” but the term apparently originated among sailors in the 19th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary has only a question mark for the origin of “williwaw,” and none of our other etymological sources are helpful. So the source of the term must remain a mystery—at least for now.

The OED defines the word, formerly spelled in a number of ways, as “a sailor’s (whaler’s, etc.) name for a sudden violent squall, orig. in the Straits of Magellan.”

The OED’s earliest citation for the word is from an 1842 quotation by the botanist Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker: “A squall or Williewaw, as they are called [round Cape Horn].”

A second comes from another 19th-century scientist, the meteorologist Robert Fitzroy. In a footnote in The Weather Book (1863), Fitzroy wrote: “Those whirlwind squalls, formerly called by the sealers in Tierra del Fuego, ‘williwaws.’ ”

The OED’s third and last citation is from Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim (1901): “Where storm and wandering wullie-wa got up to dance.”

Standard dictionaries give “williwaw” a more specific meaning.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), has two definitions: “(1) A violent gust of cold wind blowing seaward from a mountainous coast, especially in the Straits of Magellan. (2) A sudden gust of wind; a squall.”

While Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has similar definitions for the storm, it adds a third, figurative usage: “a violent commotion.” The dictionary’s updated online edition gives an example: “the surprise verdict of the jury created a wild williwaw as reporters rushed to file their stories.”

The Merriam-Webster’s entry doesn’t mention the Straits of Magellan, at the tip of South America. And the williwaws in the titles of several novels take place toward the other end of the globe, in the frigid waters off coastal Alaska.

Gore Vidal’s Williwaw (1945), for example, is a World War II tale about a US Army freighter in the Aleutians. And Tom Bodette’s Williwaw! (1999) is a children’s novel about two kids trying to cross an Alaskan bay in a skiff.

So although the earliest recorded uses of “williwaw” come from the Straits of Magellan, it’s been suggested that the word might have come from Aleut or some other native North American language.

Vidal’s novel contains this footnote: “Williwaw is the Indian word for a big wind peculiar to the Aleutian islands and the Alaskan coast.”

However, all the standard dictionaries we consulted agree with the OED that the origin of “williwaw” is unknown.

The word was familiar to American servicemen who fought the Japanese in the Aleutians during World War II under extreme weather conditions.

“Williwaw” crops up in Brian Garfield’s The Thousand-Mile War (1995), an account of the Aleutian campaign. And it’s given pride of place in the title of another book about the Aleutian fighting, The Williwaw War (1992), by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon.

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Etymology Usage

Team USA

Q: I am an Italian and I found it irritating to hear the US media constantly refer to Americans at the recent Olympics as “Team USA.” Why wasn’t the prefix “Team” used for other countries? Where does this usage come from?

A: You’re right that the American news media used “Team USA” a lot during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, but other national teams occasionally got the prefix too.

For example, an Aug. 6, 2012, article on the ESPN website about the basketball competition refers to both “Team USA” and “Team France.”

And a story that same day on Yahoo! Sports about fencing says, “Team Italy rounded out its fantastic week by snatching gold in the men’s team foil event.”

Also, an Aug. 13, 2012, item on the Forbes magazine website says, “Team Russia got off to an awful start in London, and for the better part of a week Kazakhstan had actually won more gold medals.”

We could cite dozens of other examples, but let’s first discuss how the word “team” came to be used in this sense.

The usage originally referred to the Canadian national ice hockey team as it prepared for its September 1972 Summit Series with the Soviet Union. Canada won four games to three, with one tie.

The earliest written example of the usage that we’ve seen is from a photo caption in the Toronto Star, Sept. 1, 1972:

“Team canada coach Harry Sinden is an intense observer at Soviet Union’s hockey practice in Montreal Forum this morning. Sinden watched the Olympic champions’ workout before making final decisions on lineup for opening game.”

As for “Team USA,” the earliest examples of the usage that we’ve been able to find are from hockey and have nothing to do with the Olympics.

The first such reference, dated Feb. 16, 1976, is in an Associated Press dispatch about the newly announced Canada Cup international hockey series, which was inaugurated that fall.

The AP story, picked up by the Miami News and other papers, says that “85 percent of the American-born players in the NHL and the rival World Hockey Association have agreed to play in the tournament. The squad will be called Team USA.”

North American newspapers and wire services were soon referring to both “Team USA” and “Team Canada.”

For example, a June 27, 1976, article in the New York Times says: “North America’s plans to defend its hockey reputation in an international tournament, to be held this September, took shape last week with the naming of coaching staffs and preliminary rosters for Team Canada and Team U.S.A.”

An AP story that ran in several newspapers on Aug. 10, 1976, uses the phrase “Team USA” in a way that identifies it exclusively with hockey:

“Team USA, the group of hockey players with American citizenship which is entered in next month’s Canada Cup international tournament, officially opened training camp Monday.” The same article calls the Canadian competitors “Team Canada.”

The other major US wire service, United Press International, used the same two phrases that year in stories about the hockey series.

Wire-service dispatches commonly appear with minor editing changes from newspaper to newspaper, but the “Team” phrase was picked up pretty consistently in the newspapers we checked.

The US and Canadian sports columnists who covered the series also referred to “Team USA” and “Team Canada.”

But columnists and local sportswriters, as well as the wire services, generally referred to teams from other nations very differently—“Sweden,” “the Czechs” (or “the boys from Prague”), “the Soviets,” “the Russian players,” “Finland” (or “the pesky Finns”), “Poland” (or “lowly Poland”), and so forth.

Since the mid-1970s, the “Team USA” refrain has become ubiquitous. As we know, it quickly outgrew hockey, and “Team USA” is now used for virtually any team representing the US in any international competition.

In fact, the phrase has even outgrown traditional sports. “Team USA” has been used, for example, to describe the American team in the World Scrabble Championship.

Still, nowhere has “Team USA” showed up as much as in American coverage of the Olympics. That’s not surprising, since the website of the US Olympic Committee is called “Team USA.”

Did the US news media go overboard in reporting on “Team USA” at the Olympics? Perhaps, but the British, Italian, Russian, Chinese, and other media didn’t exactly ignore their own Olympic teams.

[Note: This post was updated on May 23, 2023.]

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Etymology Usage

Into the woods

Q: I was reading Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poems and came across these lines: “With the ongoing havoc / the woods this morning is / almost unnaturally still.” My dictionary says a woodland can be referred to with either the singular “wood” or the plural “woods.” But can the plural noun take a singular verb?

A: Let’s begin by saying, as we’ve said many times before on the blog, that poets are allowed to break the rules of grammar and usage in the interest of art. But did Berry, in those lines from Sabbaths, 1999, break any rules?

Not really. His use of the plural “woods” with the singular “is” may be unusual, but it’s within the stretchy confines of standard English.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says both “wood” and “woods” can be used to refer to a forested area.

“The singular wood usually denotes a delineated area of medium size, larger than a grove and smaller than a forest,” the usage guide says.

M-W gives several examples, including this one by John Bartlow Martin in the June 22, 1957, issue of the Saturday Evening Post: “a cornfield, a field of oats, a wood.”

The plural “woods,” the dictionary says, usually “refers to the forest generally, without the suggestion of a delineated area that is implicit in the singular wood.”

“When used in this way,” M-W adds, “woods is construed as plural.”

The usage guide gives this example from Tennyson’s 1860 poem “Tithonus”: “The woods decay, the woods decay and fall.”

However, Merriam-Webster’s says the plural “woods” is sometimes used in the same way as the singular “wood”—that is, as a delineated forested area of medium size.

When “woods” is used this way, according to M-W, “it is usually (though not always) construed as singular.”

The usage guide gives two examples of this sense of “woods” treated as a singular and one example of it treated as a plural.

Here’s an example of “woods” used with the singular article “a,” from James Michener’s 1953 novella The Bridges at Toko-Ri: “more than one hundred communists had moved out of a woods and into a frozen road.”

The noun “wood,” by the way, is one of our oldest words, dating back Anglo-Saxon times.

When it was first recorded in Old English around 725, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was spelled widu or wiodu, and it simply meant a tree.

Over the years, “wood” has taken on many other meanings, including a forest, the material that the trunk of a tree is made of, and a golf club with a wooden head.

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Etymology Usage

Analyzing sabermetrics

Q: Should the term “sabermetrics” be reserved for baseball? Although it has “baseball” in its title, the term has been used in basketball for some time and is now entering the world of football.

A: As you say, the word “baseball” is built right into “sabermetrics,” which includes the initial letters of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).

The word was coined 30 years ago by the baseball historian and statistician Bill James to mean the use of statistics to judge the performance of a player or a team.

Since then, sports like football and basketball have followed baseball’s lead and are starting to use statistics in advanced ways. So is it legit to say they’re using “sabermetrics” too?

Despite the etymology of “sabermetrics,” we say yes. We think the term has outgrown its roots, so it can apply to statistical analysis in other sports. In fact, sportswriters and bloggers are already using “sabermetrics” in this broader way.

Lexicographers haven’t caught up to this newer usage, though. That’s no surprise, since “sabermetrics” has only recently made it into dictionaries.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language didn’t include the word until the new fifth edition was published in the fall of 2011. The new edition describes the word as a baseball term and defines it this way:

“The analysis of quantitative categories to evaluate the requirements for overall team success and the specific effectiveness of individual players in meeting those requirements. Sabermetrics often employs more complex statistical categories than those used in traditional baseball statistics.”

The word appeared earlier with a less long-winded definition (“the statistical analysis of baseball data”) in both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and in the Merriam-Webster company’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged.

The Oxford English Dictionary also limits its definition to baseball: “The application of statistical analysis to baseball records, esp. in order to evaluate and compare the performance of individual players.”

In outlining the word’s etymology, Oxford says it includes the letters SABR and is modeled after the word “saber” (sword), with “metrics” added.

The OED’s earliest citation is dated 1982, from the Bill James Baseball Abstract of that year: “Sabermetrics is the mathematical and statistical analysis of baseball records.”

A more recent citation is from the Calgary Herald (2003): “The Oakland A’s pioneered the use of sabermetrics to recruit players.”

We should note that in the broad sense, “sabermetrics” is used with a singular verb (as in “sabermetrics is a valuable tool”). But it’s used with a plural verb when it means the statistics themselves (“his sabermetrics are promising”).

The word played a big role in Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball (2003), which was about the Oakland Athletics’ use of sabermetrics. A film of the same name, as you probably know, was released last year.

No doubt “sabermetrics” will always be strongly identified with baseball. But while we don’t have any statistical analysis to back us up, we’ll bet that dictionary definitions will someday reflect a wider usage that includes other sports.

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Etymology Grammar Usage

A symptom of medical English

Q: I’m participating in a research project that uses a consent form with the following wording: “Only consent forms that include the Johns Hopkins Medicine logo should be used to consent research participants.” This is the first time I’ve seen “consent” used as a transitive verb.

A: Johns Hopkins is a distinguished medical institution. But its English? You were right to seek a second opinion.

Let’s take a look at the relevant sentence in that permission form (we’ll underline the odd usage):

“Only consent forms that include the Johns Hopkins Medicine logo should be used to consent research participants.”

There are two problems here—one of grammar and one of usage.

You’ve identified the grammar problem correctly. The hospital uses “consent” as a transitive verb, while in modern usage it’s intransitive.

We’ll pause here to explain our terms.

A transitive verb needs a direct object to make sense; it’s called “transitive” because the action is being transmitted from the subject to an object. But an intransitive verb doesn’t need an object to make sense.

Johns Hopkins used “consent” transitively. And it can’t be an accident since the same error occurs twice in the consent form. We were as startled by this as you were.

An intransitive verb like “consent” is often followed by a prepositional phrase (“consented to the sharing of information”), but never by a direct object (“consented the sharing of information”).

In addition to the screwy grammar, there’s also a usage problem. To “consent” is to give one’s consent, not to get the consent of another. It’s not the hospital that does the consenting, it’s the research participants.

Except for rare occasions, the verb “consent” has been intransitive since it entered English in the 1200s.

In today’s standard dictionaries, including The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), it’s intransitive, and means to agree or give assent to something.

Here are two early examples cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, one with a prepositional phrase and the other without:

From the Chronicle of Robert Mannyng (circa 1330): “Hir frendes alle consent.” (“Her friends all consent.”)

From the Wycliffe translation of the Bible (1382): “He consentide not to the counceil.” (“He consented not to the counsel.”)

We can’t resist this later (and more romantic) OED citation, from Lord Byron’s long poem Don Juan (1819): “A little still she strove, and much repented, / And whispering ‘I will ne’er consent’ —consented.”

This is generally the way the word has been used ever since—intransitively.

But for brief periods centuries ago, “consent” was sometimes used transitively, though such uses are now labeled obsolete in the OED.

Here’s an example, from Robert Parke’s 1588 translation of J. G. de Mendoza’s History of China: “In the end … they consented a conclusion amongest themselues.”

Even this construction would be in line with modern usage if one added the preposition “to” after the verb: “they consented to a conclusion.”

Our prescription for Johns Hopkins: Give your English a checkup. Think of it as preventive medicine.

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Etymology Grammar Punctuation Usage

Plural jam

Q: After being so careful to say “daughters-in-law” and “passersby,” it seems wrong to say “cupfuls” or “handfuls.” Can you explain?

A: The convention here, according to usage guides, is that you use a normal plural ending for a solid compound and that you pluralize the most important part of a compound that’s split into parts.

But what about “passersby”? It’s the exception that proves the rule (an expression we’ve discussed on the blog).

“Passerby” was two words when it first showed up in the 16th century as the plural “passers by,” according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

A hyphenated version appeared in the mid-18th century and a one-word version in the late 20th century. When the hyphen was lost, though, the plural “s” remained in the middle of “passersby.”

Here’s how Pat, in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I, explains the pluralization of compound words:

“• If a compound word is solid and has no hyphen (-), put the normal plural ending at the end of the word:

Churchmen love soapboxes. Kipling appeals to schoolchildren and fishwives. Doormen are good at getting taxicabs. You don’t find Biedermeier bookcases in alleyways. Babies dump spoonfuls of jam on footstools.

“• If the word is split into parts, with or without hyphens, put the plural ending on the root or most important part (underlined in the examples):

Mothers-in-law like to attend courts-martial. Are they ladies-in-waiting or just hangers-on? Those counselors-at-law ate all the crêpes suzette. Do rear admirals serve on men-of-war?

“• Watch out for general when it’s part of a compound word. In a military title, general is usually the important part, so it gets the s. In a civilian title, general isn’t the root, so it doesn’t get the s:

Two attorneys general went dancing with two major generals. Those consuls general are retired brigadier generals.

We’ve discussed hyphens and compound words many times on the blog, including a posting a couple of years ago.

As we said then, “Often nouns begin life as two separate words (like ‘home school’ and ‘try out’), then become hyphenated words (‘home-school,’ ‘try-out’), and finally lose their hyphens as they become more common (‘homeschool,’ ‘tryout’).”

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