English language Etymology Phrase origin Usage

Like a hole in the head

Q: Do you have an explanation of the saying, “I need this like I need a third armpit”? Where does it come from?

A: The expression is new to us. We couldn’t find that exact wording online, though we came across dozens of references to a website called “I Need This Like a Third Armpit.”

We also found many similar expressions on the Web, including “I need this like I need a tooth pulled,” “I need this like I need another pair of legs,” and “I need this like I need a heart attack.”

All of them are variations on a theme—the old saying “I need this [or whatever] like a hole in the head.” (The expression is often seen with the verb repeated: “I need this like I need a hole in the head.”)

The expression is a jocular way of describing something that you don’t need and don’t want. In fact, you could make up your own variation to describe something useless: “I need [fill in the blank] like a [fill in the blank].”

The Oxford English Dictionary says the phrase “to need (something) like a hole in the head” is “applied to something not desired at all or something useless.”

The OED compares the expression to a similar one in Yiddish, “Ich darf es vi a loch in kop” (I need it like a hole in the head).

While the dictionary doesn’t actually say the English version is derived from the Yiddish, we’re willing to bet that it is.

Oxford has several written examples of the usage, with the earliest dating from 1951. Here are the first two citations:

“A smart operator needs a dame like he needs a hole in the head.” (From Marshall McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, 1951.)

“The Disciples … were about as much use to Him as a hole in the head.” (From J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, 1951.)

However, we found many older references dating from as much as 30 years earlier.

For example, this passage is from The Heritage (1921), a collection of stories by Viola Brothers Shore: “ ‘He needs a car,’ commented her husband, ‘like I need a hole in the back of my head to let out the steam.’ ”

A character in Clifford Odets’s play Awake and Sing! (1933) remarks, “I need a wife like a hole in the head.”

And these lines, spoken by a character named Mrs. Levine, come from Arthur Kober’s story collection Thunder Over the Bronx (1935): “ ‘I need a dug in house like I need a hole in head. I need a hole in head?’ she asked rhetorically.”

Apparently Kober liked that passage. Here’s a reprise from another story collection, My Dear Bella (1941):

“ ‘He needs a britch table like I need a hole in head! I need a hole in head?’ he asked rhetorically.” In fact, Kober uses the expression “like I need a hole in head” at least twice in this book.

Those three writers—Shore, Odets, and Kober—were Jewish.

Shore supposedly descended from the first Kosher butcher in New York. Her stories were about Jewish Americans and their lives.

Odets was the son of Russian and Romanian Jewish immigrants, and Awake and Sing! is about an impoverished Jewish family in the Bronx.

Kober was a humorist known for his comically stereotypical portrayals of Jewish characters, some of whom spoke English haltingly.

It seems likely that these authors were adapting a familiar Yiddish usage, and that the “hole in the head” expression came to America with Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants.

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Why is a top 10 song a hit?

Q: What is the origin of “hit” as a positive term, as in “hit song”?

A: When we say a movie or an album is a “hit,” we aren’t implying that it got there by physical violence, even when the movie or album has a lot of rough stuff in it.

So why do we use such a pugilistic word to refer to a popular success? There’s a good reason, as it turns out.

The noun “hit” began life pretty violently—as a blow, a stroke, a collision, or an impact. But that kind of “hit” eventually gave us a successful stroke in any kind of endeavor, especially in the entertainment field.

Here’s how the word evolved.

The noun “hit” is derived from the earlier verb “hit,” which was nonviolent when it showed in English nearly a thousand years ago, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The verb is believed to have come into English from Old Norse, where hitta meant “to come upon, light upon, meet with, get at, attain to, reach one’s aim, succeed, and the like.”

This sense of getting at or attaining something is what the verb “hit” originally meant when it was first recorded in English sometime before 1075.

It wasn’t until two centuries later, around 1275, that “hit” got its more violent meaning—“to get at or reach with a blow, to strike,” the OED says.

Both senses of the verb are still with us today.

The original Old Norse meaning survives in phrases like “hit the road,” “hit the trail,” “hit my meaning,” “hit a happy medium,” “hit upon an idea (or fact),” “hit it off,” “hit the mark,” “hit the truth,” “hit the sack” (to get to bed), and so on.

All these senses of the verb are nonviolent. They don’t mean crashing or colliding into something, but rather reaching or attaining or getting at it.

The newer and more violent sense of the verb “hit” is the one that’s more familiar today, and it’s the one that gave us all senses of the noun “hit”—including the one you ask about.

The noun “hit” came along in the mid-15th century, and boy was it violent in the beginning!

The OED’s earliest citation is from Ludus Coventriae (circa 1450), an anonymous English miracle play:

“To hym wyl I go, and geve hym suche an hete / That alle the lechis of the londe his lyf xul nevyr restore.” (“To him will I go, and give him such a hit that all the leeches of the land his life shall never restore.”)

Yikes! It’s hard to tell what would be worse—the hit or the leeches.

Many uses of the noun are violent, of course—some more than others. For instance, a “hit” came to mean a killing, perhaps for hire, in the mid-20th century.

And this sense of the noun has been used attributively—that is, as an adjective—in phrases like “hit man” and “hit squad.”

But “hit” has more peaceful meanings as well. For instance, a “hit” can be a stroke of good luck or a stroke of a ball on the playing field.

We’re not sure, though, how to list a “hit” of drugs: violent or nonviolent?

More pertinent to your question is a usage that the OED dates to the early 19th century: “a successful stroke made in action or performance of any kind; esp. any popular success (a person, a play, a song, etc.) in public entertainment.”

This sense of the noun has also been used attributively in phrases such as “hit parade” and “hit song,” the OED adds.

The earliest recorded use of this sense of “hit” is from a letter written in 1811 by the comedian Charles Mathews:

“Maw-worm was a most unusual hit, I am told.” (Mathews played the role of Mr. Mawworm in The Hypocrite, by the Irish playwright Isaac Bickerstaff, on the London stage in 1809.)

And since we like quoting from mysteries, here’s a citation from Fredric Brown’s Murder Can Be Fun (1951): “She had big blue eyes that would have been a hit on television.”

We’ll end with the use of the noun “hit” in computing to mean a match in a processing task or a connection with a website.

The OED’s first citation for this usage, from Charles J. Sippl’s Computer Dictionary and Handbook (1967), defines the term “hit” in digital file maintenance as “the finding of a match between a detail record and a master record.”

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English language Punctuation Usage

Quote du jour

Q: I grew up learning and practicing that single quotes belong within double quotes, or sometimes in headlines. But everybody seems to be using single quotes now. Have double quotes gone the way of the buggy whip?

A: We haven’t noticed an increase in the use of single quotation marks—at least not in American usage. Could it be that you’ve been reading a lot of British authors lately?

In the American system of punctuation, double quotation marks are used to enclose quoted material. Any interior quotations—that is, words quoted within a larger quotation—are enclosed in single quotation marks.

The British convention is just the reverse. The British generally use single quotation marks, while the interior quotations are enclosed within double quote marks. That’s why novels and other materials published in the UK can look startling to an American reader.

So if you’re seeing more single quote marks in writing by Americans, you’re seeing something unusual. However, as you say, single quote marks are used in most newspaper headlines.

Here’s how the same sentence would be punctuated in the US and UK systems.

American: As Professor Witherspoon told us, “The word ‘fructify’ means to bear fruit.”

British: As Professor Witherspoon told us, ‘The word “fructify” means to bear fruit.’

However, The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) points out that there are exceptions in some specialized kinds of American writing.

In linguistic and phonetic studies, a definition is often enclosed in single quotation marks.

And in horticultural writing, the names of cultivars are sometimes enclosed in single quotation marks.

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English language Etymology Usage

Is “lectitude” a word?

Q: I looked up “lectitude” after coming across it online, but I couldn’t find the word in my dictionary. It sounds like a real word, perhaps a relative of “lecture” or “lectern” or even Hannibal Lecter. But is it really a word?

A: If we had to guess, we’d say you were googling and saw “lectitude” in the search results for a scanned book.

The word shows up in hits for a lot of 19th-century books scanned into the Google Books database. But on closer inspection the actual word turns out to be “rectitude” with the first letter scanned incorrectly. Fooled again!

You’re right that “lectitude” sounds like a real word. But you won’t find it in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and other standard dictionaries.

Was it ever a word? Well, you won’t find “lectitude” in the Oxford English Dictionary either, so it’s safe to say it never existed, period. But let’s be creative.

If the word “lectitude” did exist, it would probably have something to do with reading. (Sorry, Hannibal!) Many English words starting with “lect” are related to the Latin verb legere (to read), a word whose descendants in Latin generally begin with lect.

The OED says, for instance, that “lectory” (from the Latin lectorium) is an obsolete word for a reading place. So a really great place to read might be described as rich in lectitude.

The English “lector” (borrowed from the Latin word for a reader) originally meant a church official whose duty was to read the “lessons” at the service, the OED says. What quality does a good lector need? Lectitude, of course!

There are other words that, with a little imagination, could be sources of lectitude.

The noun “lectern” (lectrum in Latin) once meant a desk for reading or singing from in a church. And “lecture” (lectura) originally meant the act of reading. So a very long lecture could give the listener an earful of lectitude.

“Lection” (from lectionem) is a rare and obsolete word for the act of reading, or a lecture, or a lesson to be learned, the OED says.

And back in the 13th century, “lesson” (also from lectionem) had two meanings, Oxford says: “a portion of Scripture or other sacred writing read at divine service,” or something for a pupil to read, study, and learn.

So we might say that students who are diligent about doing their homework should get an A in lectitude.

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English language Etymology Phrase origin Usage

A lick and a promise

Q: My mom, who is nearly 90, says things like this: “The kitchen floor needs to be waxed, but I only have time to give it a lick and a promise.” Where does the phrase “a lick and a promise” come from?

A: The expression “a lick and a promise” is at least 200 years old. Why “lick”? The Oxford English Dictionary says one meaning of the word is “a slight and hasty wash.”

In this sense, according to the OED, “lick” usually appears in the phrase “a lick and a promise.” (The “promise” signifies an intention to do a better job sometime later.)

The dictionary’s earliest recorded use of “a lick and a promise” is from Walter White’s travel book All Round the Wrekin (1860): “We only gives the cheap ones a lick and a promise.” (The Wrekin is a hill in Shropshire, England.)

However, the word sleuth Barry Popik has found almost half a dozen earlier examples of “a lick and a promise.” Here’s the earliest, from the December 1811 issue of The Critical Review, a journal founded by Tobias Smollett:

“The Prince Regent comes in for a blessing, too, but as one of the Serio-Comico-Clerico’s nurses, who are so fond of over-feeding little babies, would say, it is but a lick and a promise.”

The “lick” in the expression was originally used by itself, to mean “a dab of paint” or the like, “a hasty tidying up,” or “a casual amount of work,” the OED says.

The earliest example in writing of this sense of “lick,” Oxford says, comes from James Maidment’s A Packet of Pestilent Pasquils (circa 1648), a collection of Scottish literary oddities: “We’ll mark them with a lick of tarre.”

Why is a cursory slap of paint or a casual attempt at a job called a “lick”? There could be a connection with another meaning of the word, which the OED defines as “a small quantity, so much as may be had by licking.”

This usage dates back to the 17th century and is often used in negative constructions: “he hain’t worked a lick” … “couldn’t cook a lick” … “didn’t have a lick of sense” … “couldn’t read a lick,” and so on.

While we’re on the subject, there’s another kind of “lick” altogether, the one that means “a smart blow,” in the words of the OED. This use of “lick” dates back to the late 17th century.

Oxford’s earliest example comes from Jean-Baptiste Tavernier’s A Collection of Several Relations & Treatises Singular and Curious (1680): “[He] gave the Fellow half a dozen good Licks with his Cane.”

And finally (since we seem to be on a roll here) comes the “lick” that means a short solo, usually improvised, in jazz or dance music. This one is of a much younger vintage.

The OED’s first example is from a weekly music newspaper once published in London, the Melody Maker (1932): “They manage to steal a ‘lick’ from an American record.”

This more recent example is from the Toronto Globe and Mail (1970): “The blues riff is even better, full of Charlie Parker-like bebop licks.”

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English language Etymology Linguistics Usage

A transformative vision?

Q: This book title makes me uncomfortable: Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity. I associate “transformative” with mutation, not necessarily in a good way, and “transformational” with improvements. I wonder what the experts say.

A: The words “transformative” and “transformational” have slightly different meanings, according to some of the dictionaries we consulted, though not in the way you think.

The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) recognize a difference, but The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) regards the two words as synonyms.

With lexicographers divided, it’s not surprising that many people use these words interchangeably. So it’s probably not worth lying awake nights trying to remember which is which.

The OED and Merriam-Webster’s say something that has the power to transform is “transformative” while something that’s simply concerned with or characterized by transformation is “transformational.” A couple of examples might help:

● “Sheila’s trip to Rome was transformative, since she left home a shrinking violet and came back a confident woman.”

● “The garden is in a transformational stage, halfway between wilderness and civilized landscape.”

More to the point, though, neither word should be interpreted as exclusively positive or negative.

These adjectives—like “transform,” the word they come from—merely have to do with change, and change can be for better or for worse. A magic spell, for instance, might transform a subject into a frog or a prince.

Ian Refkowitz used “transformative” in a positive sense when he subtitled his book A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity.

To quote from the book, Refkowitz discusses whether President Obama can succeed in “transforming our national identity,” so that America’s “many ethnic groups can truly become one people.”

The verb that’s at the bottom of all this change, “transform,” comes from the Latin transformare, which is composed of the prefix trans– (through) and formare (to form). In Latin, the noun forma means “form.”

The verb was first recorded in English in about 1340, according to the OED. It means to change, whether in form, character, condition, function, or nature.

The noun “transformation” came along in the 1400s and generally means “the action of transforming or fact of being transformed,” the OED says.

As for the adjectives, “transformative” means “having the faculty of transforming; fitted or tending to transform.” But the lesser-used “transformational” merely means “of or pertaining to transformation.”

Of the two, “transformative” is the older, and was first recorded in the late 17th century, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from John Flavell’s religious tract The Fountain of Life Opened (1673): The light of Christ is powerfully transformative of its subjects.”

“Transformational,” which came along in the late 19th century, is often used in a technical sense.

It was first recorded, the OED says, in an 1894 article in a London literary magazine, the Athenæum: “The distinction between ‘combinational’ and ‘transformational’ theories of experience.”

However, no more citations for “transformational” appear in the OED until the mid-1950s, when the term became identified with Noam Chomsky and his work in theoretical linguistics.

In 1955, the OED says, Chomsky used the term “Transformational Analysis” in the title of his Ph.D dissertation.

The adjective has since become well-known among linguists and others interested in what’s become known as “transformational” grammar, a theory about how the brain processes language.

Among the OED’s citations for “transformational” is this one from the New York Times in 1965: “Transformational grammar grew in part from M.I.T. computer experiments to produce mechanical translations of foreign languages.”

A related adverb, “transformationally,” is also used in linguistics, as in this OED citation from the journal Dædalus:

“If the interrogative sentence ‘Are the men here?’ is derived transformationally from the phrase structure underlying the declarative sentence ‘The men are here,’ it would seem to imply that a speaker first thinks of the declarative sentence and then transforms it into the interrogative form.”

Of course, “transformational” is also used by non-linguists. And a cursory survey of the usage in Google shows that many people who do use “transformational” generally use it in the “transformative” sense—that is, not merely having to do with transformation, but able to bring it about.

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English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage

Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the English language and take questions from callers.

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English language Etymology Linguistics Phrase origin Usage

Ten-dollar words

Q: What is the origin of the phrase “ten-dollar word”? I looked for an answer in your archives and on the Internet, but I didn’t find one.

A: You’re right. We haven’t written about the usage until now and we don’t see much about it online that’s definitive. So thanks for getting us on the case. Here’s what we’ve found.

The linguist Dwight L. Bolinger has written that the word “dollar” is used in many expressions to suggest something important or pretentious. The phrase “ten-dollar word,” for example, refers to a big and pretentious word.

In the October 1942 issue of the journal American Speech, Bolinger says “dollar” is common “as the second element (preceded by a numeral) in combinations ref. to important or pretentious words.”

Writing in the journal’s Among the New Words column, he notes that “cent” and “bit” are used as the second element in similar phrases. And by extension, he says, the “dollar” usage is applied to important things as well as pretentious words.

Bolinger, gives these examples of the usage in action: “two-, four-, five-, ten-; fifteen-dollar, seventy-five-cent, two-bit word; sixty-four-dollar question, problem; five-dollar question.

So a pretentious word, according to him, can be referred to as a “fifteen-dollar word,” a “seventy-five-cent word,” a “two-bit word,” and so on. And an important problem can be called a “sixty-four-dollar problem.”

Bolinger was writing back in 1942, but we’d argue against the use of “two-bit” today to describe a pretentious word. The term “two-bit” now means cheap, petty, or insignificant. (A bit used to be an eighth of a dollar, so two bits was 25 cents.)

The column includes several citations from the early 1940s for the use of “dollar” to mean pompous, but we’ve found many earlier ones now digitized in Google News and Google Books.

Here’s an example of “ten-dollar word,” the specific phrase you’ve asked about, from the Aug. 31, 1937, issue of the Reading (Penn.) Eagle:

“Some of the best paid Republican propagandists call it ‘totalitarianism,’ a ten-dollar word which is dear to those who argue against responsibility in government.”

And here’s an even earlier example from a 1930 issue of the journal Printers’ Ink: “A public speaker the other day spoke of the word ‘psychology,’ which he said was a ten-dollar word until recent years.”

And here’s a much earlier citation for a pre-inflationary “half-dollar word” from the Jan. 2, 1890, issue of the American Machinist:

“There has been far too much highfalutin by men who, to cover their own ignorance, have used long half-dollar words to express what no fellow could understand.”

As far as we can tell, the usage originated in the US in the late 19th century. Why “ten-dollar word,” rather than “ten-carat word” or “ten-pound word”? Sorry, but we don’t have an answer. For now, as Elvis sang, let’s say, “Just because.”

We’ll end with an inflated example from The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White: “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”

We don’t agree with everything in Strunk and White, but we’ll second that opinion.

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English language Etymology Phrase origin Usage

Triangulating love

Q: I think it’s a misnomer to use “love triangle” for a situation in which someone has two love interests. Since I’ve never heard of a case where these two interests are in turn in love with each other, this would be a triangle that doesn’t close. Your thoughts?

A: Come now, use your imagination! The triangle here is a figurative one, not a literal one. The word “triangle” has been used this way since the early 20th century.

Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines this figurative sense of the word: “A group or set of three, a triad. Esp. a
love-relationship in which one member of a married couple is involved with a third party; freq. as eternal triangle.”

The OED’s first example of “triangle” used this way is from the Dec. 5, 1907, issue of a London newspaper, the Daily Chronicle: “Mrs. Dudeney’s novel … deals with the eternal triangle, which, in this case, consists of two men and one woman.”

Here are some of the dictionary’s other amorously triangular examples:

1913: “The couples had rearranged themselves or were re-crystallizing in fresh triangles.” (From a story in Rudyard Kipling’s collection A Diversity of Creatures.)

1919: “For the modern drama, with its eternal triangle and so forth, he claims nothing, but that it proves adultery to be the dullest of subjects.” (Frank Harris on George Bernard Shaw, from Contemporary Portraits.)

1938: “He was much more substantial than in the days of our romantic triangle.” (From H. G. Wells’s novel Apropos of Dolores.)

The OED has a separate entry for “love triangle,” which it defines as “a state of affairs in which one person is romantically or sexually involved with two others (one or both of whom may not be aware of or complicit in the situation).”

If someone is involved with two others who are—in Oxford’s words—“complicit in the situation”—we have a ménage à trois. Would the triangle then be closed?

The first OED citation for “love triangle” is from the June 21, 1909, issue of the La Cross Tribune in Wisconsin: “Two yellow men and the pretty 20 year old missionary girl … form the love triangle the police have uncovered.”

Our favorite citation, however, comes from Ira Gershwin’s lyrics for the 1924 song Not So Long Ago:

“If you want my angle on the love triangle, / I’m for no front-headline stunts. / I hope to discover a husband and lover, / But both in the same man at once.”

So there you have it, our angle—and Ira Gershwin’s—on the love triangle.

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Grammar Linguistics Usage

Is this not cool?

Q: I was listening to the radio the other day when Michelle Obama met a bunch of kids and said, “Is this not cool?” Now, I’ve heard this before and it was obvious from her tone that she meant “Isn’t this cool?” But once I turned off the radio, I started to think about the strangeness of this structure. What exactly is that “not” doing? How is it doing what it’s doing? And why is its meaning so obvious? Or is it?

A: In her remarks at a White House state dinner for kids last August, Michele Obama could have said, “Isn’t this cool?” But instead she made good use of a common rhetorical device and chose “Is this not cool?”

You’re right to think that something’s going on here with “not.” Mrs. Obama’s choice of words called attention to “not,” thus compelling her audience to agree with her.

As you know, a negative verb used in a question can be either contracted or uncontracted. Someone could say “Isn’t this the best lasagna you’ve ever had?” or “Is this not the best lasagna you’ve ever had?”

While the two questions are grammatically equivalent, there’s a rhetorical difference between them. The second example is more emphatic.

Rather than simply asking a question, it seems to be urging agreement with an implied statement, as if the speaker had said, “This is the best lasagna, you must agree.”

One reason the uncontracted form seems more emphatic is that the subject (“this”) changes places. Instead of “Isn’t this …” we have “Is this not ….”

The result is that instead of being buried within the contraction, “not” emerges as a word on its own, and in a more noticeable position to boot.

As Sidney Greenbaum writes in the Oxford English Grammar, “In negative questions, contracted n’t is attached to the operator [the verb] and therefore comes before the subject, whereas not generally follows the subject.”

Using some other examples, notice the contrast between the contractions and the stretched-out forms:

“Aren’t you a smarty-pants?” … “Are you not a smarty-pants?”

“Isn’t she the best teacher?” … “Is she not the best teacher?”

“Aren’t I cool?” … “Am I not cool?”

As it turns out, this emphasis on “not” is more effective in some sentences than in others. In the “smarty-pants” example, for instance, it would be more effective to emphasize the pronoun (as if to say, “Aren’t YOU a smarty-pants?”) than the “not.”

In English, a word’s position in relation to others—that is, its syntax—can play an important role in the meaning of a sentence or a phrase. And the choice of a contracted or an uncontracted verb is a good illustration of this principle.

Update: A reader of the blog reminds us of these lines from Shylock in The Merchant of Venice: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? / if you tickle us, do we not laugh? / if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

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English language Etymology Phrase origin Spelling Usage

Who was the first nosy parker?

Q: I’m curious about the origin of the expression “nosy parker.” Could it be referring to a nosy (or is it a “nosey”?) hotel valet who looks through your glove compartment, etc., after parking your car?

 A: Well, an overly curious parking attendant could be referred to as a “nosy parker,” but the phrase has been around a lot longer than valet parking.

As it turns out, nobody knows how “nosy parker” originated, though there are several dubious theories.

The most often-heard suggestion is that the term is a reference to Matthew Parker, a 16th-century Archbishop of Canterbury who was known for poking his nose into the qualifications and activities of his clergy.

The big problem here is that Parker had been dead for several centuries before the term “nosy parker” appeared in print for the first time.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the May 1890 issue of Belgravia Magazine: “You’re a askin’ too many questions for me, there’s too much of Mr. Nosey Parker about you.”

Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English says the phrase may be a reference to peeping Toms or nose-twitching rabbits at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851. But Partridge offers no evidence to support either idea.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has yet another theory—that “nosy parker” evolved from “nose poker” (someone who pokes his nose in other people’s business). But Oxford has no evidence of the term “nose poker.”

The OED, which doesn’t mention any of these theories, says in an etymology note that the phrase is a combination of the adjective “nosy” and the surname “Parker.”

The dictionary adds that a 1907 postcard with the caption “The adventures of Nosey Parker” is apparently using the phrase “with reference to a (probably fictitious) individual taken as the type of someone inquisitive or prying.”

As more and more archives are digitized, we may eventually find out who this “(probably fictitious) individual” was.

How, you ask, is this inquisitive adjective spelled? Most of the dictionaries we’ve checked list “nosy” as the primary spelling, with “nosey” as a variant. The “e”-less version is far more common (twice as many hits on Google).

By the way, the earliest citation for “valet parking” in the OED dates from 1960, though some companies that offer valet parking say the use of attendants to park cars at hotels and restaurants originated in the 1930s.

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English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage

Pat on WNYC: schedule change

Pat will be on the Leonard Lopate Show this month on Oct. 31 instead of her usual appearance on the third Wednesday of the month. She’ll appear around 1:20 P.M. Eastern time to answer questions from listeners about the English language.


English language Etymology Phrase origin Usage

At long last

Q: I was wondering if you would address the peculiar phrase “at long last” (as in Joseph Welch’s famous rebuke of Senator Joseph McCarthy). What strikes me is that the phrase is nonsensical on its face: a preposition followed by two adjectives neither of which may be said to modify the other.

A: The phrase is quite old, dating back to the early 1500s, and it isn’t all that nonsensical when considered in light of the English spoken at that time.

The phrase appeared in a somewhat longer version, “at the long last,” when it first showed up, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest published reference for it in the OED is from A Goodly Garlande or Chapelet of Laurell, a 1523 work by the poet John Skelton:

“How than lyke a man he wan the barbican / With a sawte of solace at the longe last.” (A barbican is a defensive tower, gate, or bridge.)

Oxford suggests that the word “last” could be a noun here, not an adjective. At the time the phrase showed up, one use of “last” was as a noun meaning a continuance or a duration.

Although this sense of “last” is now rare, here’s an example from Holinshed’s Chronicles, a 1587 history of England, Scotland, and Ireland: “Things memorable, of perpetuitie, fame, and last.”

The OED’s first citation for the shorter phrase, “at long last,” is from Thomas Carlyle’s The History of Friedrich II of Prussia (1864): “At long last, on Sunday.”

And here’s a citation from the Dec. 11, 1936, speech in which the ex-King Edward VIII and future Duke of Windsor announced his abdication to marry Wallis Simpson: “At long last I am able to say a few words of my own.”

He went on to say: “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.”

The dictionary defines the phrase “at long last” as “at the end of all; finally, ultimately.”

Finally we’ll return to that June 9, 1954, comment by Welch, the chief counsel for the Army when it was being investigated by McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

On the 30th day of the Army-McCarthy hearings, as the Senator was attacking a junior attorney at Welch’s law firm, Welch broke in several times.

“Have you no sense of decency, sir?” he said during one interruption. “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

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English language Etymology Usage

Alphabet soup: ABC or ABCs?

Q: Why is “alphabet” singular and “ABCs” plural, yet they mean essentially the same thing? And wouldn’t “learning your ABC, etc.” be more accurate than “learning your ABCs”?

A: English is a big, stretchy language with many ways to refer to people and things. It’s not uncommon to have singular and plural nouns or noun phrases that mean pretty much the same thing.

For example, your “savings” may be called your “nest egg.” And the people tuned in to a radio program may be the “listeners” or the “audience.”

A blogger may have “followers” or a “following.” A museum may have “statues” or “statuary.” An orchestra may have “violins, violas, cellos, and double basses” or a “string section.”

And, of course, many nouns can be both singular and plural: “moose,” “fish,” “aircraft,” “species,” “offspring,” “deer,” “series,” and so on.

English has evolved over more than 1500 years and has collected a lot of idioms along the way. Not every idiomatic expression can be interpreted literally (as in “it’s raining cats and dogs” or “he reached for the stars”).

Broadly speaking, an idiom is simply a peculiarity of language. It’s an expression or some characteristic of speech that’s peculiar to a language, a region, a dialect, or a group of people.

But let’s get back to your question about “ABC,” a word with roots in Anglo-Saxon times, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In those days, the alphabet was referred to by its first four letters, not its first three. The OED’s earliest examples of the word in Old English are spelled abecede.

As for “ABC” itself, the term was singular when it entered Middle English in the early 1300s (spelled abece in Oxford’s earliest example).

In fact, the OED has 15 examples of “ABC” used in this sense and only one is plural, from a 1961 translation of Fidel Castro’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech in 1953:

“Who among us has not learned his ABC’s in the little public schoolhouse?”

However, we’ve found many earlier plural examples in Google Books, including this one from an 1898 report by the New York State Superintendent of Public Instruction:

They receive in one room pupils of all ages and all degrees of advancement, from ABC’s upward, sometimes even to algebra and Latin.”

Standard dictionaries now describe the term as either singular or plural—singular in the UK and usually plural in the US.

The Cambridge Dictionaries Online has this singular example: “He’s learning his ABC at school.”

And The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has this plural example: “learned her ABCs when she was three years old.”

Here’s how the OED defines “ABC” in this sense: “The alphabet. Freq. with reference to the teaching or learning of this, now esp. in to know one’s ABC. Also in pl. in same sense.”

Over the years, the term “ABC” has taken on other meanings: the rudiments of something (late 1300s), a book for teaching children the alphabet or reading (mid-1400s), and something simple or straightforward (late 1600s).

The word “alphabet” didn’t show up in English until the until the 1400s, according to citations in the OED, though it’s ultimately derived from a Hellenistic Greek word made up of the ancient Greek letters alpha and beta.

So in a way “alphabet” is another way of writing “AB,” and “learning your alphabet” doesn’t make any more sense literally than “learning your ABC” or “learning your ABCs.” But as we’ve said, not every idiomatic usage can be interpreted literally.

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English language Etymology Pronunciation Usage

Is there a fox in the forecastle?

Q: One day recently, I was listening to a British chap talking about boating, and he used the word “forecastle. ” It struck me that the British pronunciation of “forecastle” is remarkably similar to “foxhole.” Could there be a relationship?

A: Nope, there’s no “fox” in “forecastle.” And the FOLK-s’l pronunciation, which originated among sailors, is common in the United States as well as in Britain.

British dictionaries usually list FOLK-s’l as the only pronunciation of “forecastle.” American dictionaries generally list FOLK-s’l first, followed by FOR-cass-ul.

The word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is also sometimes “written fo’c’sle, after sailors’ pronunc.”

Some standard dictionaries define “forecastle” as simply the front part of a ship, but most say it can be either the forward part of the upper deck or the area in the bow of a merchant ship where the crew lives.

The OED adds that the term once referred to a short elevated forward deck that was “raised like a castle to command the enemy’s decks,” but the dictionary says this usage is now considered obsolete.

The word entered English in the late 1400s as a combination of the prefix “fore-“ and the noun “castle.”

Why “castle”? Because a now-obsolete meaning of “castle,” according to Oxford, was “a tower or elevated structure on the deck of a ship.”

The OED’s first citation is from William Caxton’s 1490 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Theyr chyeff maryner … was halfe a slepe vpon the forcastell.”

As for “foxhole,” the military term first showed up during World War I, according to published references in the dictionary.

The first citation is from an April 29, 1919, article in the Red Cross Magazine: “The bitter weeks of the Argonne when the same Yank lay hungry, cold, wet, and exhausted in some insufficient fox-hole.”

The dictionary defines the term as “a hole in the ground used by a soldier for protection; a slit trench.”

However, the OED has citations dating back to around 950 for the term (foxes holo in Old English) used literally to mean “an excavation made in the ground for habitation by an animal, as the fox or badger.”

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English language Usage

Puns and other moat points

Q: During an appearance by Pat on the Leonard Lopate Show over the summer, she paused to take note of a pun by the host that scored a perfect ten on the scale of punishment. Would Pat share some of her favorite Lopate puns?

A: During the WNYC show you refer to, Leonard made a truly atrocious pun when Pat mentioned that New Zealanders seem to lose their “Kiwi” accents when they sing.

Leonard’s comment: “That’s amaori” (a pun on the song title “That’s Amore”).

We love far-reaching puns, so when we say “truly atrocious” we mean that in an admiring way. And Leonard is an incurable punster (as are we). A few random examples:

● A listener called to talk about the difference between two rhetorical devices, metonymy and synecdoche. Leonard pointed out that one of them is a town in upstate New York (a pun on Schenectady).

● When Pat offered to check out a derivation in a reference book called Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, he said, “It’s the yeast you can do.”

● Pat mentioned that she’d heard a commentator on the Weather Channel describe Albany after a snowfall as looking “like something out of a Burl & Ives print.” Leonard’s comment: “Well they weren’t going to curry any favor with that one.”

● During a discussion of military terms, a caller mentioned that four divisions made an army. Leonard’s reply: “Well, that explains long division.”

● During another discussion of military terms and the language of war, Leonard asked a caller, “Are you crying Wolfowitz here?” (a pun on the former Pentagon official Paul Wolfowitz).  

● In a discussion of the pronouns “who” and “whom,” Leonard declared that “whom is where the heart is.”

● One afternoon the word “turntable” came up, as an example of words that had become almost archaic because of changes in technology. Pat mentioned that the only place you see a turntable now is inside a microwave oven. Leonard’s observation: “That’s where you play hot jazz.”

●And in case you hadn’t noticed, Leonard has fabulous taste in music. He knows his jazz—also blues, swing, rock, pop, but particularly jazz. On one show he and Pat talked about a word coined by James Joyce, “ubicity,” whose stem is “ubi,” meaning everywhere. Leonard remarked that it obviously originated with Eubie Blake (the jazz composer and pianist).

We can’t end this without noting that one of Leonard’s puns gave us the title of a chapter in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions.

When a caller asked about the garbled expression “in high dungeon” and wondered how a dungeon could be upstairs, Leonard quipped: “That’s a moat point.”

The title of our chapter on malapropisms, spoonerisms, mondegreens, etc.: “In High Dungeon: And Other Moat Points.”

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Etymology Usage

The plastic thingy on a bread bag

Q: Do you know the word for the plastic thingy that’s used to close bread bags and sometimes bags of produce?

A: You won’t find it in standard dictionaries—at least not yet—but that thingy is usually called a “bread clip” (about 81,000 hits on Google). Other common names for it are “bread tag” (18,000 hits) and “bread tab” (9,700).

The Kwik Lok Corp., the company that gave us the bread clip, calls it an “all-plastic bag closure” (18,000 hits, but mostly on business websites). You’ll find a lot of other jargony names for it on commercial sites.

Floyd Paxton, the founder of Kwik Lok, is credited with inventing the notched plastic contraption for fastening all kinds of plastic bags.

In 1952, the company’s website says, Paxton “whittled the ‘first’ Kwik Lok out of a piece of plastic while flying home from a business trip to the Pacific Northwest.”

Paxton, a member of the John Birch Society’s national board of directors, failed in four attempts to win a Congressional seat from Washington State—twice representing the Conservative Party and twice as a Republican. He died of a heart attack in 1975.

If you haven’t had your fill of bread-related reading, check out a posting we wrote a few years ago about the expression “bigger than a breadbox.”

Descriptive phrases like “no larger than a breadbox” and “not much bigger than a breadbox” were known in the 1940s. But the question “Is it bigger than a breadbox?” was popularized by Steve Allen back when he was a panelist on the TV quiz show “What’s My Line” in the 1950s and ’60s.

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Etymology Usage

How singular is “metrics”?

Q: My dictionary says “metrics” should be used with a singular verb, but a sentence like this doesn’t sound right to me: “The economic metrics doesn’t show improvement.” What do you say?

A: The plural noun “metrics” takes a singular verb when used in its traditional sense: the study of meter, especially in poetry.

The word has been used in this way since the late 19th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, replacing a singular version dating from the 15th century.

But you’re asking about a much newer meaning of the plural “metrics” that showed up in the 1980s: measurements, figures, statistics, and so on. In this sense, the word “metrics” is used with a plural verb.

A somewhat similar singular version, “metric,” which dates from the 1930s, refers to a standard of measurement, a quantifiable criterion, or a set of such criteria. (A technical use of “metric” in mathematics and physics dates from the 1920s.)

The earliest written example in the OED of the newer sense of the plural “metrics” is from a 1988 report on avian ecology: “Prediction of bird-community metrics in urban woodlots.”

The Oxford editors describe this sense of the word as colloquial—that is, more appropriate to speech or casual writing than to formal writing.

The example above, however, sounds pretty formal to us. And we see a lot of “metrics” now in all kinds of writing—too much of it, in our opinion. It’s tiresome.

Standard dictionaries have entries for the singular “metric” in its statistical sense, but most of them don’t yet list the new measurement sense of the plural “metrics.”

However, the newer usage is alive and well among English speakers, especially those who like techie talk.

Here’s an example from an Aug. 31, 2012, article on ZDNet about the use of statistics to evaluate information technology employees says:

“Although appearing beneficial, metrics can drive shortsighted behaviors at the expense of innovation and real business value.”

As for the earlier poetic sense of “metrics,” the first citation in the OED is from an 1892 issue of the journal Modern Language Notes: Metrics and aesthetics go hand in hand.”

And here’s a later citation, from a 1970 issue of the Journal of English and Germanic Philology: Rules for syntax and metrics in Beowulf.”

We won’t get into all the technical uses of the nouns “metric” and “metrics,” or the use of “metric” as an adjective in the metric system of measurement.

We’ll also skip the suffixes “-metric” (relating to measurement) and “-metrics” (applying statistics to a field of study), though we recently discussed “sabermetrics” on the blog.

Ultimately, all these metrical words are derived from ancient Greek terms for meter or measure.

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Etymology Usage

Coffee talk

Q: My husband and I were talking about the remainder of solid material after a pot of coffee has been consumed. I have always called it “coffee grinds,” but Starbucks offers free “coffee grounds” for your garden. So is it “grinds” or “grounds” or both?

A: Starbucks, in its Grounds for Your Garden program, offers gardeners free five-pound bags “of soil-enriching coffee grounds” to use in composting or as fertilizer.

Is Starbucks using the term correctly? Yes.

The noun “grounds” in its coffee sense refers to the gunk left over after making a pot of java.

The noun “grinds” refers to the different degrees of ground coffee; for example, there are fine, medium, and coarse “grinds.”

Although many people use “grinds” to mean “grounds,” we haven’t found any standard dictionary that includes this usage.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “grounds” in this sense as “the particles deposited by a liquid in the bottom of the vessel containing it; dregs, lees.”

The OED has published examples dating back to the 1300s for “grounds” used in reference to the sediment from beer, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and other liquids.

Here’s an 1860 citation from All the Year Round, a literary magazine founded, owned, and edited by Charles Dickens: “Cups of smoking black coffee (half grounds as the Turks drink it).”

The use of the noun “grind” to refer to the way coffee beans are ground is a much more recent usage, dating back to the mid-19th century, according to OED citations.

The dictionary defines “grind” in this sense as “the size of the particles of a powder, e.g. ground coffee.”

Oxford’s earliest citation for this usage is from All About Coffee, a 1922 book by William Harrison Ukers: “A progressive coffee-packing house may have … a pulverizer for making a really fine grind.”

The noun “grind,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, comes from the verb “grind,” which is ultimately derived from the Old English verbs grindan and forgrindan (“to destroy by crushing”).

The noun “ground,” though, is ultimately derived from the Old English noun grund (bottom, foundation, earth).

As we all know, the past tense of the verb “grind” is “ground.” But there’s an etymological as well as grammatical connection between the two words.

One early sense of  to “grind,” Chambers says,  is to put something in or on the “ground.”

Enough caffeinated language. We’re beginning to feel like Too Much Coffee Man!

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Etymology Usage

Refried English

Q: As a copyeditor and English-Spanish translator, I’m amused that so many Americans think Mexicans fry their beans twice. How did the Spanish frijoles refritos come to be “refried beans” in English?

A: You’re right, of course, that “refried beans” is a poor translation of frijoles refritos. A better translation of the Mexican and Tex-Mex dish would be “well-fried beans.”

The beans (traditionally pinto beans) are typically boiled, then mashed, and finally fried to make a thick paste.

However, the mistake in translation is understandable since the prefix “re-“ has several different meanings in English and Spanish.

Some of the senses, such as “again” and “back,” are similar in both languages. For example, “reconstruct” and reconstruir mean to “build again” while “replace” and reponer can mean to “put back.”

But the prefix is often used in Spanish (though not in English) as an intensifier. So buscar can mean to “search” while rebuscar means to “search thoroughly.” And, as you know, frito means “fried” while refrito means “well-fried” or “very fried.”

When the verb “refry” first showed up in English in the mid-19th century, it literally meant to fry something twice, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest citation is from an 1860 book of recipes. After slicing and frying pork, the book says, you can “take out what you wish and re-fry suitable for eating.”

Interestingly, the OED’s first example of the adjective “refried” used in the Mexican sense comes from New England, not the Southwest.

Here’s the citation, from the Dec. 4, 1897, issue of the Lowell (Mass.) Sun: “If I had my choice I should prefer them [frijoles] ‘re-fritos’, or refried, with all the pork fat fried into them.”

However, the OED’s earliest published reference for the phrase “refried beans” is from a list of various dishes cited in the Aug 12, 1911, issue of the Brownsville (Texas) Herald.

Later in the 20th century, according to the OED, the word “refried” took on a more general sense: “Merely reused or carried over with little or no change or improvement; rehashed.”

A 1916 citation from the Classical Journal says the classics will be read long after popular works have been “rehashed, refried, re-served, and finally consigned to the literary swill-can.”

However, the rest of the OED cites for “refried” used this way are from the second half of the 20th century.

The 1968 song “Canned Heat,” for example, refers to “refried boogie,” and a 1977 book about Bob Marley and reggae refers to “re-fried oldies.”

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Etymology Usage

Is “bimbo” a naughty word?

Q: I enjoyed the wordplay in Woe Is I, but I was offended by this example in the chapter on plurals: “Romeos who wear tattoos and invite bimbos to their studios to see their portfolios are likely to be gigolos.” I’m not a prude, but I found the word “bimbo” to be inappropriate in a book professing to teach better English. I most likely will not let my 10-year-old daughter use this book as a reference.

A: We’re sorry that you were offended by the word “bimbo” in the “Plurals Before Swine” chapter of Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.

But we’re surprised by your objection to “bimbo.” We looked it up in eight standard dictionaries and none of them label it offensive. It’s usually listed as slang but some dictionaries consider it standard English.

Although most of the dictionaries say a “bimbo” can be a man or a woman, it’s generally defined as an attractive, empty-headed woman. A couple of references add that the woman is loose or sexy.

Pat thought “bimbo” to be a mild, rather quaint term. It comes from the Italian word for “baby” (bimbo), and in its sexiest sense is roughly analogous to masculine terms like “Romeo” and “gigolo,” which are also used in the example that bothers you.

Interestingly, the word was originally applied to men, not women, when it entered English in the early 20th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word in its original sense this way: “A fellow, chap; usu. contemptuous.”

The earliest citation in the OED for this sense is from the November 1919 issue of the American Magazine: “Nothing but the most heroic measures will save the poor bimbo.”

Here’s a more recent masculine example, from Full Moon (1947), one of the few P. G. Wodehouse novels we haven’t read: “Bimbos who went about the place making passes at innocent girls after discarding their wives.”

Although the word “bimbo” has sometimes been used to mean a prostitute, the OED says it’s usually used now as a derogatory term for “a young woman considered to be sexually attractive but of limited intelligence.”

Here’s an example from The Whore of Mensa, a short story in Woody Allen’s 1976 collection Without Feathers: “Sure, a guy can meet all the bimbos he wants. But the really brainy women—they’re not so easy to find.”

By the way, the “whore” in that title is actually a grad student who charges to discuss Milton and Melville, not to have sex. If a client wants something kinkier, she’ll talk about Noam Chomsky and get him a picture of Dwight Macdonald.

Again, we’re sorry you found that example in Woe Is I offensive. As for your 10-year-old daughter, do you know that Pat has written a version of Woe Is I for children? It’s called Woe Is I Jr. No, it doesn’t mention Chomsky, but you can find a few boogers in it.

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Etymology Usage

Stilted and/or stuffy

Q: Years ago I was taught that it is not necessary to use “and/or” because “and” is implicit in “or.” Yet I find that very sophisticated professionals use it regularly. I appreciate any insight that you would lend.

A: Sorry, but you were taught wrong: “and” is not implicit in “or.”

Although both conjunctions are used in many different ways, “and” usually combines words, phrases, clauses, and sentences, while “or” usually sets them apart.

We don’t like the term “and/or” and generally don’t use it in our writing. We prefer less stilted ways of connecting terms when one or the other or both could do.

We’ve had several items on the blog about “and/or,” including a posting last year, but your question prompts us to give the subject another look.

Pat, in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I, describes the term as “an ugly wrinkle.” She suggests that a stuffy sentence such as “Tubby, would you like apple pie and/or ice cream?” would be better as “Tubby, would you like apple pie, ice cream, or both?”

But this is a matter of style, not grammar or usage. And stuffed shirts have a right to use stuffy language.

A usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) puts it this way: “And/or is widely used in legal and business writing. Its use in general writing to mean ‘one or the other or both’ is acceptable but often sounds stilted.”

Despite our stylistic objections, the formula “and/or” has been used in English since the mid-19th century.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, from an 1855 report in a law journal, refers to a cargo of “sugar, molasses, and/or other lawful produce.”

Although some citations use “and/or” in a legal or business sense, there are several exceptions, including this one (minus the slash) from Nigella Lawson’s 1999 book How to Eat: “Grate in a cooking apple and or a quince.”

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Clothed minded

Q: It occurs to me that the clothes we wear above the waist are generally singular and those we wear below the waist are generally plural. Is there something interesting to say about this language peculiarity?

A: Yes, it does seem peculiar that clothes with two legs (or leg holes) are considered more “plural” than garments with two arms (or arm holes).

The English words for leggy items of clothing are generally plural nouns—“pants,” “jeans,” “shorts,” “trousers,” “breeches,” “overalls,” “long johns,” “drawers,” “briefs,” “panties,” “jodhpurs,” etc.—and they’re accompanied by plural verbs.

And the words for garments accommodating the arms are usually singular: “blouse,” “shirt,” “jacket,” “vest,” “coat,” “tank top,” “sweater,” “T-shirt,” “cardigan,” “pullover,” “blazer,” “parka,” “turtleneck,” “shell,” “camisole,” and so on.

We can’t explain why this is. Perhaps it’s because covering the arms isn’t always the chief function of what we wear on top. But covering the legs (or what’s between them) is the chief function of what we wear below the waist.

We touched on this subject in our blog a few years ago when a reader asked why his wife puts on a pair of panties but not a pair of bras.

Apart from the closet, English has many plural words—all of them representing a single item—for things with a two-ness about them.

Think of the two blades in a pair of “scissors” or “shears,” the two lenses in a pair of “eyeglasses” or “spectacles,” the two pincers in a pair of “tongs” or “pliers” or “tweezers.” Each of those words is a plural noun for a single item, and each is used with a plural verb.

Notice how we often refer to each of those items as a “pair” (like a pair of trousers or shorts) because of its double nature. Each represents one thing consisting of two connected parts.

On the other hand (and foot), we have plural nouns for pieces of clothing that are used in pairs but aren’t connected: “gloves,” “mittens,” “slippers,” “shoes,” “boots,” etc. These are all words for two things, not one, and they have singular counterparts: “glove,” “mitten,” and so on.

It’s been our experience that the people who use singular counterparts for words like “trousers” are usually in the clothing business: “This pant is 20% off!” … “A fabulous jean with tummy control” … “Would you like to see something in a matching trouser?”

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Etymology Usage

Lede time

Q: In a new book I’m reading, the word “lede” is used twice to indicate the main idea being hidden (as in, “burying the lede”). Is this newspaper jargon, or should the main story on a page or an important fact be referred to as the “lead”?

A: The word “lede” (it rhymes with “speed”) is newspaper shop talk for the beginning of an article.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines it as “the introductory section of a news story that is intended to entice the reader to read the full story.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says “lede” is an “obsolete spelling of LEAD, revived in modern journalism to distinguish the word from LEAD, strip of metal separating lines of type.”

Merriam-Webster’s dates the usage to 1947, but doesn’t include a citation from that year. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary appeared four years later:

“Lead (Lede)—Opening of a news story, ordinarily summarizing the rest of it” (Pampa [Texas] Daily News, June 21, 1951).

As for the expression “burying the lede,” it refers to the supposed journalistic sin of not mentioning the most important or interesting part of a story in the opening paragraph.

In journalistic jargon, the term “lead” (though not “lede”) can also refer to the main story or a tip to a story that needs to be developed.

The noun “lead” was originally spelled “lede” when it entered English some time before 1300 with the meaning of “leading, direction, guidance,” according to the OED. The “lead” spelling showed up in the 1600s.

An earlier noun “lede” was used in Anglo-Saxon days and referred to a people, a nation, or a race,  but Oxford says this sense is now obsolete. At around the same time, the use of “lead” (rhymes with “sped”) for the base metal showed up in Old English.

Getting back to journalism, here’s an excerpt from A Field Guide for Science Writers (1998), by Deborah Blum and Mary Knudson:

“The lead (or lede if you were born before 1950) performs several important tasks. It sets the stage and tone, identifies the general nature of the topic, attempts to convey the message that something interesting will follow, and welcomes the reader to read on in a nonthreatening way.”

As two old newspaper hands who were born before 1950 (Pat barely), we’ve buried that definition of “lede.”

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