English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Doing the math on “aftermath”

Q: We were watching the news the other morning when the title card on the screen said “Sandy Aftermath.” My husband turned to me and asked: “Does the ‘math’ in ‘aftermath’ have anything to do with mathematics?” Could you enlighten us?

A: The “math” that’s part of “aftermath” is an entirely different noun from the one in “mathematics.” In fact, they came into English from two different routes—one from old Germanic sources and the other from Latin.

“Aftermath” got its start as an agricultural term associated with mowing. You might say its literal meaning is “after-mowing.”

The word entered the language in the 15th century as a compound of the prefix “after-” plus the noun “math,” which once meant a mowing or the portion of a crop that’s been mowed.

This sense of “math” is very old, dating back to Old English and beyond, to ancient Germanic sources.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the Old Saxon word maddag meant mowing day, and the Old High German mada is ultimately from the same Germanic base that gave us the word “mow.”

When first recorded in writing in the late 1400s, the OED says, “aftermath” meant “a second crop or new growth of grass (or occas. another plant used as feed) after the first has been mown or harvested.”

This example from 1601 is a good illustration of its use: “The grasse will be so high growne, that a man may cut it down and have a plentifull after-math for hay.” (From Philemon Holland’s translation of Pliny’s Natural History.)

The agricultural sense of “aftermath” has survived into modern times, as illustrated by this citation from Heather Smith Thomas’s book Getting Started With Beef and Dairy Cattle (2005): “They can’t graze cornfield aftermath where herbicides or pesticides were used.”

But today “aftermath” is more familiar in its figurative sense, defined by the OED as “a period or state of affairs following a significant event, esp. when that event is destructive or harmful.”

The figurative usage dates back to the mid-17th century. The OED’s earliest citation is from Robert Fletcher’s 1656 translation of Martial’s Ex Otio Negotium: “Rash Lover speak what pleasure hath Thy Spring in such an Aftermath?”

Here’s another figurative example, from the writer David Hartley Coleridge’s Essays and Marginalia (1851): “The aftermath of the great rebellion.”

We know you’re still wondering about the other “math,” the one that’s about numbers. This “math,” first recorded in 1847, is an American short form of “mathematics.” The British shortened form, “maths,” was first recorded in 1911.

The long form, “mathematics,” was first recorded in the mid-16th century, according to the OED, and developed from the earlier adjective “mathematic,” which dates from the 1300s.

Originally, as the OED says, “mathematics” was a collective term for “geometry, arithmetic, and certain physical sciences involving geometrical reasoning, such as astronomy and optics.”

Later it came to mean “the science of space, number, quantity, and arrangement, whose methods involve logical reasoning and usually the use of symbolic notation, and which includes geometry, arithmetic, algebra, and analysis.” To most of us, that means numbers.

We owe “mathematics” to Latin (mathematica), which got it from Greek (mathematikos). The Greek is derived from the noun mathema (science, learning, knowledge) which is related to the verb manthanein (to learn). The word “polymath” (a person of great and varied learning) has a similar Greek etymology.

As John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, etymologically the word “mathematics” means “something learned.” He points out that “from earliest times the notion of ‘science’”—mathema in Greek—“was bound up with that of ‘numerical reasoning.’”

The ultimate source of the Greek mathematikos, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, is an ancient Indo-European compound reconstructed as mens-dhe.

The first element means mind and the second means direct or toward, so the compound means “direct the mind (toward),” Chambers says.

This compound, the dictionary adds, has filtered down into many languages, including Sanskrit (medha, wisdom) and Avestan (mazda, memory). In case you’re wondering, Avestan is the language of Zoroastrian scripture.

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More about caring less

[Note: This post was updated on March 19, 2021.]

Q: How did “I could care less” (US) and “I couldn’t care less” (UK) come to mean the same thing? Is the American version a shortened form of something like “See if I could care less”? (I’m an emeritus professor of education at a British university.)

A: “I could care less,” which we’ve written about before on our blog, is an extremely common idiom—almost a cliché—even though many English speakers strenuously deplore it. And it wasn’t first recorded in the US, as we’ll show later.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “could care less” as a US colloquialism dating from the 1960s that means the same thing as “couldn’t care less” but omits the negative element. However, earlier examples have been spotted in Canadian and Australian newspapers of the 1940s.

The earliest example reported so far is from an article published in the Ottawa Evening Citizen, July 20, 1948:

“The idea is that because their frost comes earlier (if it does) the Gatineau goers are a more rugged, tougher breed than people who stick around in Ottawa. I could care less!” (Sightings were reported in separate, nearly simultaneous postings to the ADS-L, the mailing list of the American Dialect Society, by Ben Zimmer and Garson O’Toole on March 9, 2021.)

And your hosts at Grammarphobia found several examples in a letter written in February 1949 in Australia. Here are some excerpts from the letter, which was read in divorce court testimony in Perth:

“I did love you with all the passion and love that is possible of a man (if you can call me a man in your idea) and now I could care less.”  … “But at the present time I could care less.” … “I don’t care how you take it, I could care less.” … “I’m writing how I feel and I could car [sic] less. Goodnight Zoe and goodbye if you wish it—I could care less.” (The Mirror, Perth, June 28, 1952.)

The news article examines a case tried in 1950 in which a woman who lived near Melbourne and taught English was granted a divorce on grounds of desertion. The February 1949 letter, which her husband wrote after he’d left her, was entered into evidence.

In the 1950s and ’60s, published uses of “could care less” became more common. Here are two from the mid-’50s:

“He received the most indifferent treatment which a government department can hand out. He hasn’t heard from the department since. Apparently they could care less.” (The Chilliwack Progress, Chilliwack, B.C,  Jan. 6, 1954; the finding was first reported by Mark Liberman on the Language Log.)

“The National League clubs have always shied from pitching left-handers against the Dodgers, but Casey Stengel could care less about the Dodgers’ reputation for beating southpaws.” (The Washington Post, Sep. 25, 1955; the sighting was first reported by Ben Zimmer.)

This example, which we found in a 1960 issue of the Sourdough Crock, published by the California Folklore Society, shows just how familiar “could care less” had become by then:

“Dear Uncle Flabby: I get sick and tired of hearing people say, ‘I could care less,’ which doesn’t mean what they mean to mean at all. If they would only stop and think about it, they would know that what they are trying to say is, ‘I couldn’t care less,’ which means ‘I don’t care at all.’ ” (The comment appears in a column by the pseudonymous Flabby Van Boring.)

Here’s another California sighting from the same year: “People who ordinarily could care less about a symphony orchestra have been known to see him [Leonard Bernstein], if only out of curiosity. While they are there, they are exposed to music at its best.” (An article about a New York Philharmonic concert in San Diego, published in the Coronado Eagle and Journal, Sept. 8, 1960.)

The OED’s earliest citation is from a 1966 issue of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: “My husband is a lethargic, indecisive guy who drifts along from day to day. If a bill doesn’t get paid he could care less.”

We quoted so many earlier examples only to show that “could care less” was more widespread, both geographically and sociologically, than has been assumed.

But here we’d like to speculate a bit about its origins, if you don’t mind.

This common idiomatic phrase—amounting to a negative statement without a negative element—might have grown from an earlier usage in which the negation comes before the phrase. This earlier usage, which is quite literal, appears in both British and American writing.

In this mid-19th-century example, for instance, the negative “few” appears before the “could care less” part: “Few men in the diocese could care less who are the lucky recipients of Church gifts.” From an article in The Times by “S. G. O.” (the Rev. Lord Sydney Godolphin Osborne), London, July 30, 1862.

And in this American example, the negation is implied by an “if” used conditionally: “As to profits, if our farmers could care less for the comforts of themselves and their families … they could now with their present facilities, no doubt double their incomes.” From a letter by the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, published in The Caledonian (St. Johnsbury, Vt.), July 18, 1889, and widely reprinted.

Later examples are plentiful: “no man could care less” (1900); “few could care less” (1915); “no one could care less” (1917); “nobody could care less” (1925); “neither of them could care less” (1954); “I don’t believe they could care less” (1955), and so on.

Perhaps it’s not much of a jump from “nobody could care less” to “they could care less.” Just a thought. 

As for the fuller version of the phrase, “couldn’t (or could not) care less,” it apparently dates from the early 1940s.

The earliest example we know of was also found by the intrepid Ben Zimmer. It’s from a story, “The Coup of Mr. Marsland Faille,” by Marcel Wallenstein, printed in the Kansas City Star, Jan. 25, 1942:

“ ‘Why, Mr. Pennington, I think you’re funny.’ ‘I mean it. You see, I’ve lost.’ ‘Have you?’ she said, and poured herself another drink. ‘Yes, I have.’ ‘I couldn’t care less,’ responded Miss Mond lightly.”

The usage, both contracted and uncontracted, began showing up with great frequency in the later 1940s, in both the US and the UK.

The OED’s earliest example for either formcontracted or notis the title of a book, I Couldn’t Care Less (1946), by the English air transport pilot Anthony Phelps. We found one from the same year in an American newspaper: “the mayor’s campaign fund to preserve the G. O. P. in city hall is being given the bird by a number of city employees who couldn’t care less.” (The Indianapolis Times, March 21, 1946.)

You aren’t alone in suggesting that “I could care less” may be a shortened  form of something like “See if I could care less.” The usage has been discussed to death by academic linguists, and theories abound.

Some have analyzed the abbreviated idiom as deliberately ironic or sarcastic. Yet others disagree, pointing out that even if it did begin sarcastically, it’s certainly not sarcastic anymore.

And as the linguist Arika Okrent has written, the “could care less” / “couldn’t care less” partnership isn’t unique. Think of “you know squat” (which really means “you don’t know squat”),  and “that’ll teach you to mess with me” (meaning “that’ll teach you not to mess with me”).

Whatever its origins, we see nothing wrong with using “I could care less” as long as the user is aware that many fussbudgets still view it as an atrocity—or, as Steven Pinker has called it, “an alleged atrocity.”

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Election daze

Q: I was just reading your post about “lectititude” and I’m now determined to bring back the word “lectory.” I’m thinking of a reading room with a nice chair and a sign saying “Lectory.” Anyway, towards the end of your post you mention the obsolete word “lection,” which looks incredibly similar to “election.” Are they related?

A: We like the idea of a lectory too. We picture an oak-paneled room with a fireplace, a comfy overstuffed chair, a good reading lamp—and books, of course. A nice bottle of wine wouldn’t hurt, either.

As we wrote in our Oct. 26 post, the Latin verb legere (to read) has given us many words, including a couple that are now obsolete—“lectory” (a place for reading) and “lection” (the act of reading).

Yes, “lection” sounds a lot like “election.” But “election” has nothing to do with reading. It means the act of choosing, and it’s descended from the Latin verb eligere (to pick out or select).

Nevertheless, you’re right to suspect that there’s a link here.

As the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology and John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins explain, eligere is a compound verb, formed from ex- (out) and ligere, an alternate form of legere. And another meaning of legere, besides to read, is to gather or choose.

So eligere is a cousin of legere.

In fact, it’s not unknown for compound Latin verbs to be spelled both ways, ending in –ligere as well as –legere, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains.

For example, the OED says the compound Latin verb meaning to neglect has two spellings, negligere and neglegere. “The reason for preference for -ligere or -legere in compounds of legere is not always apparent,” the editors say.

Getting back to “lection” and “election,” it seems that they too have been conflated in the past.

According to the OED, “lection” was briefly used long ago as a version of “election” in the sense of “the formal choosing of a person for an office.”

Oxford has four examples of this usage, including one from the records of the Scottish burgh of Peebles (1462): “Ilke man be his awn vos gaf thair lectioun to the sayd Schyr John.” (“Each man by his own voice gave their lection to the said Sir John.”)

The usage seems to have died out in the 16th century, since the OED’s most recent citation is from 1535.

Besides “lection” and “election,” the Latin verbs legere and eligere are at the roots of many familiar English words, some to do with reading and some to do with being picky (or not).

These words include “lectern,” “lesson,” “lecture,” “legible,” “legend” (literally, something read), “elegant,” “eligible,” “elite,” “collect,” “neglect,” and “select.”

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Never forget! Never again!

Q: Since the Newtown tragedy, I’ve wanted to post “Never forget” on my Facebook page, but I couldn’t trace its origin. Can you help?

A: People have used the phrase “never forget” for hundreds of years. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, dates from 1647, and we expect that a thorough search would find examples that are centuries older.

But you’re obviously wondering about the use of the phrase as an interjection in reference to a mass killing. Many people believe “Never forget!” was first used this way in referring to the Holocaust.

We can’t confirm that, but we have found an example of that usage from soon after World War II. As part of Allied de-Nazification efforts, an exhibition entitled “Never Forget” opened on Sept. 14, 1946, in Vienna.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has a photo on its website from the brochure for the exhibition, with the words “Never forget!” in German: Niemals vergessen!

The website of the Austrian National Library says the exhibition, seen by 840,000 people, was organized by the graphic artist Victor Theodor Slama at the suggestion of the Soviet Union.

Also in 1946, the writer Howard Fast and the artist William Gropper published a book about the Holocaust entitled Never to Forget: The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Since then, the interjection “Never forget!” has been used often in reference to other genocides and mass killings, though most of the examples we’ve found date from the last couple of decades, especially since 9/11.

A June 25, 2005, headline in the New York Times, for example, describes the feelings of students who had to flee Stuyvesant High School as the nearby Twin Towers burned: “For This Class, ‘Remember When’ Mingles With ‘Never Forget.’ ”

“Never again!” is another phrase that’s often used in reference to the Holocaust and other atrocities. But when it was first used as an interjection in the 19th century, the phrase had nothing to do with genocides and massacres.

The OED’s earliest published reference to the phrase as an interjection is from The Pickwick Papers (1837), Charles Dickens’s first novel. The phrase appears twice in this exchange between a husband and his dying wife:

“Rouse yourself, my dear girl. Pray, pray do. You will revive yet.”

“Never again, George; never again.”

But when was the phrase first used in its genocidal sense?

The historian Raul Hilberg, a Holocaust scholar, has said prisoners at the Buchenwald concentration camp put up signs reading “never again” in many languages after they were freed by the Allies, but we’re not convinced.

Hilberg made his comments in an interview with the journal Logos shortly before his death in 2007, but he didn’t mention the signs in his three-volume history of the Holocaust, The Destruction of the European Jews (1961).

The earliest use of the phrase in reference to the Holocaust, according to the Yale Book of Quotations, is in Mein Kampf, a 1961 documentary about the Holocaust by the German-born Swedish director Erwin Leiser.

In the documentary, originally entitled Den Blodiga Tiden (Swedish for The Bloody Time), the narrator says at the end: “It must never happen again—never again.”

The phrase also became the slogan of the militant Jewish Defense League, which was founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1968. Kahane was shot to death in 1990.

The word “holocaust” has an interesting etymology. When it first showed up in English in the early 1300s, a “holocaust” was a “sacrifice wholly consumed by fire; a whole burnt offering,” according to the OED. The earliest citations were in reference to biblical sacrifices.

In the early 1700s, the word (from the Greek holokaustos, burnt whole) took on the sense of a great slaughter or massacre, initially by fire but later by war, rioting, and other means.

By the early 1940s, the word was being used to describe the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis.

It wasn’t until the 1950s, however, that the phrase “the Holocaust” (with the “H” capitalized) was used in reference to this Nazi genocide. Here’s how the OED describes the evolution of this new usage:

“The specific application was introduced by historians during the 1950s, probably as an equivalent to Hebrew hurban and shoah ‘catastrophe’ (used in the same sense); but it had been foreshadowed by contemporary references to the Nazi atrocities as a ‘holocaust.’ ”  

The earliest contemporary reference in the OED is from the Dec. 5, 1942, issue of the News Chronicle in London:

“Holocaust…. Nothing else in Hitler’s record is comparable to his treatment of the Jews. … The word has gone forth that … the Jewish peoples are to be exterminated. … The conscience of humanity stands aghast.”

We couldn’t find a more complete example of the News Chronicle citation elsewhere, but here’s an OED reference from a March 23, 1943, debate in the House of Lords:

“The Nazis go on killing …. If this rule could be relaxed, some hundreds, and possibly a few thousands, might be enabled to escape from this holocaust.”

The earliest Oxford examples of the phrase “the Holocaust” appear in 1957 issues of the Yad Vashem Journal. (Yad Vashem is a memorial, museum, and research center in Israel devoted to the Holocaust.)

A heading in the April 1957 issue of the journal refers to “Research on the Holocaust Period.” An article in the July issue says, “The Inquisition, for example, is not the same as the Holocaust.” (We’ve expanded on the second citation.)

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Does Santa have a gender issue?

Q: Santa Claus is male, so why isn’t he Saint instead of Santa? Does he have a gender issue?

A: In English the name of a canonized person, whether a man or a woman, is traditionally prefixed by the word “Saint” or its abbreviation.

Although a female saint has occasionally been called a “santa” in English, the Oxford English Dictionary describes this usage as obsolete.

The OED’s only written example is from The Book of the Knight of La Tour Landry, a 15th-century translation of a French guide to court etiquette:

“And for-yete not to praie to the blessed virgine Marie, that day and night praieth for us, and to recomaunde you to the seintes and santas.” (We’ve expanded on the OED citation.)

So why is Father Christmas or Saint Nicholas referred to as “Santa Claus”?

The OED says the usage originated in the US in the 18th century. Americans adopted it from the dialectal Dutch term Sante Klaas.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the dialectal term is derived from the Middle Dutch Sinter (Ni)klaas. In Modern Dutch, the short form of “Saint Nicholas” is Sinterklaas.

Chambers explains that Saint Nicholas “owes his position as Santa Claus to the legend that he provided three impoverished girls with dowries by throwing three purses of gold in their open window.”

“From this legend is said to derive the custom of placing gifts in the stockings of children on Saint Nicholas’ Eve (the night of December 6) and attributing the gifts to Santa Claus.”

In the US and some other countries, Chambers notes, the custom “has been transferred to Christmas Eve.”

We enjoyed reading this definition of “Santa Claus” in the OED:

“In nursery language, the name of an imaginary personage, who is supposed, in the night before Christmas day, to bring presents for children, a stocking being hung up to receive his gifts. Also, a person wearing a red cloak or suit and a white beard, to simulate the supposed Santa Claus to children, esp. in shops or on shopping streets.”

That pretty much sums it up. And here are the OED’s earliest two published references for the usage:

Dec. 26, 1773:  “Last Monday the Anniversary of St. Nicholas, otherwise called St. A Claus, was celebrated at Protestant-Hall.” (From the New York Gazette.)

Jan. 25, 1808: “The noted St. Nicholas, vulgarly called Santaclaus—of all the saints in the kalendar the most venerated by true hollanders, and their unsophisticated descendants.” (From the satirical periodical Salmagundi.)

Although the earliest citations in the OED are from American sources, the last three are from British publications. The latest is from a Dec. 24, 1977, issue of the Times of London:

“Santa must have been updated over the years. Presumably girls hang out their tights now, instead of a solitary stocking.”

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Making love, then and now

[Note: This post was updated on April 3, 2022.]

Q: I’ve been reading a lot of Agatha Christie stories lately, and I’ve noticed that she uses the phrase “make love” to denote the earliest stages of a relationship—perhaps kissing, hugging, and so on. Now, it means a sexual relationship. Comment?

A: Yes, the verbal phrase “make love” has evolved, along with social and cultural attitudes about lovemaking.

The noun “love” is very old, of course, dating back to the early days of Old English, when it was written lufo, lufu, or luuu, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED notes similar words in Old Frisian (luve), Old Saxon (luba), Old High German (luba), and other Germanic languages.

The British, as we’ve written before, have invented some whimsical ways of referring to  “love,” spelling it “lurve,” “luurve,” “lerv,” “lurv,” and “lurrve.” But that’s another story.

In its earliest days, the noun “love” referred to a feeling of affection or fondness or attachment.

The phrase “make love” first showed up in English in the late 16th century, according to published references in the OED, influenced by similar usages in Old Occitan (a Romance language) and Middle French.

Originally, the dictionary says, to “make love” meant to “pay amorous attention; to court, woo.” It’s frequently used with “to,” the OED adds.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from George Fenton’s 1567 translation of a discourse by Matteo Bandello: “The attire of a Cortisan [courtesan], or woman makynge loue [making love].” The passage refers to the sort of clothing worn by a flirtatious or amorous woman.

This old meaning was extremely common for many centuries and is still found today, though the OED labels it “Now somewhat archaic.” This is the meaning of “make love” that you’re seeing in those Agatha Christie stories.

The dictionary’s most recent example is from Sandra Cisneros’s story collection Woman Hollering Creek (1991): “Ay! To make love in Spanish, in a manner as intricate and devout as la Alhambra.”

The newer meaning of “make love”—to have sex—didn’t appear in writing until the 1920s. This sense of the phrase is defined in the OED as “to engage in sexual intercourse, esp. considered as an act of love.” It’s frequently accompanied by “to” or “with,” the dictionary says.

This usage was originally American, Oxford says, giving this as the earliest known example:

“Jimmy embraces Margie LaMont and goes through with her the business of making love to her by lying on top of her on a couch, each embracing the other.” (From a police detective’s 1927 court deposition in an obscenity trial. It’s quoted by Lillian Schlissel in a book she edited and wrote an introduction for, Three Plays by Mae West: Sex, The Drag, The Pleasure Man. All three plays, written by Mae West and staged on Broadway in 1926-28, were closed by the police.)

Nearly a century later, the new meaning has almost eclipsed the old one.

We’ll end with an OED citation from the Daily Telegraph (London, Jan. 15, 1971): “Couples who make love frequently are more likely to have sons than those who do so less often.”

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Flack attack

Q: Are flacks so named because they take flak for being such pests?

A: No, “flack” and “flak” aren’t related. While a “flack” (a promoter or publicist) often takes “flak” (criticism), the two words evolved independently.

It’s a common myth that “flack” is a misspelling of “flak.” In fact, it’s one of the myths about language that we discuss in our book Origins of the Specious. Here’s what we say:

“Ask almost anyone and you’ll hear that ‘flack’ is a misspelling of ‘flak,’ a term coined during World War II to describe enemy antiaircraft fire. (‘Flak’ was an acronym for fliegerabwehrkanone, a German antiaircraft gun.) After the war, ‘flak’ also came to mean a barrage of criticism or disapproval. It’s understandable, then, that the flacks who bombarded news hounds relentlessly with press releases got confused with flak. Even slang lexicographers have described ‘flack’ as a misspelling of ‘flak.’

“In the interest of giving credit where credit is due, let’s do some public relations on behalf of the now-obscure PR man who gave us ‘flack.’ His name was Gene Flack (yes, that was his real name), and in the 1920s and ’30s he was a movie publicist without peer. He was so good at his job that Variety, the showbiz weekly, starting calling all publicists ‘flacks.’ ”

One reason the origins of “flack” and “flak” have become confused is that the words emerged at about the same time.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that “flak,” an acronym of the German term described above, was first recorded in a 1938 edition of the naval reference book Jane’s Fighting Ships, which is published in Britain. “Flak” apparently remained a technical term for a couple of years and didn’t become current until wartime, since published usages didn’t appear again until 1940.

The OED says “flack,” which it defines as “a press agent” or “a publicity man,” is a “chiefly U.S.” slang term of unknown origin first recorded in 1946.

But “flack” is older than the OED indicates, and showed up at least a year before “flak” was recorded in Jane’s. Here are the two oldest citations given in Green’s Dictionary of Slang:

1939: “Variety which is trying to coin ‘flack’ as a synonym for press agent (without much luck) might like to know it was born in the offices of Gene Flack, a film publicist.” (From Walter Winchell’s syndicated newspaper column On Broadway.)

1937: “Whereupon Paramount elected to cash in on the publicity and the flack as Variety calls press agents, leaped to his typing machine.” (From the Oakland Tribune.)

Winchell’s column isn’t the only published source that connects “flack” with the press agent Gene Flack.

Fred R. Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, wrote in the journal American Speech in 1984 about another sighting:

“In the June, 1939 issue of the magazine Better English: A Monthly Guide for the Improvement of Speech and Writing, a small note on p. 28 reads: ‘That alert weekly, Variety, birthplace of numerous Americanisms, is trying to coin the word ‘flack’ as a synonym for publicity agent. The word is said to be derived from Gene Flack, a movie publicity agent. Something Variety may have overlooked, however, is that a Yiddish word similar in sound means ‘one who goes around talking about the other fellow’s business.’ ”

Shapiro went on to say: “Variety‘s eponymous etymology of flack, although questioned by Better English, is backed by the authority of the word’s apparent coiner, and must now replace the chronologically untenable flak theory as the probable derivation.”

You can disregard that suggestion about a Yiddish connection. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang mentions that 1939 quotation, but notes that the Yiddish word referred to is unknown and “the closest words available are unlikely on various grounds.”

So that’s the story to date. As we noted in Origins of the Specious, “it’s ironic that the press agent behind the word ‘flack’ should be all but forgotten today.”

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Is it “whiskey” or “whisky”?

Q: Your posting about Scotch-Irish got me to thinking about booze. I’ve always heard that Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky are both distilled in the same way, except that the Irish don’t use peat in the process. Is this true?

A: You’re right. Most Scotch whiskies are made from barley that’s dried over peat smoke. Most Irish whiskeys are distilled from barley that’s dried in kilns.

But our blog is about language, not booze. As you’ve noticed, there’s another difference between these libations—the spelling.

In Scotland, they make Scotch “whisky” (plural “whiskies”), but in Ireland they make Irish “whiskey” (plural “whiskeys”).

American and British dictionaries generally observe this distinction when referring to these two products. But then the dictionaries go their separate ways.

In referring to versions of the liquor manufactured in other countries, British dictionaries spell it “whisky.” Some US dictionaries prefer “whiskey” while others accept both spellings as standard.

Why the difference? We haven’t found a definitive answer.

“What determines the spelling is often arbitrary, based mostly on tradition rather than any claim to authenticity,” Kate Hopkins writes in her book 99 Drams of Whiskey: The Accidental Hedonist’s Quest for the Perfect Shot and the History of the Drink (2009).

But it seems possible that the spellings, which have become consistent relatively recently, merely serve to differentiate the products commercially.

As the Oxford English Dictionary says: “In modern trade usage, Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey are thus distinguished in spelling.”

With these two products, spelling is no small matter, and that’s the case with “whiskey”/“whisky.” The New York Times learned this the hard way.

In December 2008, a Times columnist writing about single malts from the Speyside region of the Scottish Highlands used the spelling “whiskey” throughout, as prescribed by the newspaper’s style guide.

He even went so far as to use the phrase “Scotch whiskey”! The Times was pelted with so many complaints that it changed its style.

A follow-up article in February 2009 noted the paper’s change in policy: “As of now, the spelling whisky will be used not only for Scotch but for Canadian liquor as well. The spelling whiskey will be used for all appropriate liquors from other sources.”

With or without the “e,” according to the OED, the word stands for “a spirituous liquor distilled originally in Ireland and Scotland, and in the British Isles still chiefly, from malted barley.” In the US, the OED adds, it’s made “chiefly from maize [corn] or rye.”

The word, Oxford notes, is short for earlier ones written as “usquebaugh,” “whiskybae,” “whisquy-beath,” and others recorded as far back as the 1500s.

They in turn were derived from “Irish and Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha,” which literally means “water of life,” according to the dictionary.

The fact that “water” is lurking in “whiskey” (etymologically speaking) is an interesting point.

A usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) explains that “the words water, whiskey, and vodka flow from a common source, the Indo-European root wed-,” which means “water” or “wet.”

This root “could appear in several guises, as wed-, wod-, or
ud-,” American Heritage says, adding: “Water is a native English word that goes back by way of prehistoric Common Germanic watar to the Indo-European suffixed form wod-or, with an o.”

It goes on to say that the Gaelic compounds uisce beatha and uisge beatha are derived “from Old Irish uisce, ‘water,’ and bethad, ‘of life,’ and meaning literally ‘water of life.’ (It thus meant the same thing as the name of another drink, aquavit, which comes from Latin aqua vitae, ‘water of life.’) Uisce comes from the Indo-European suffixed form ud-skio-.”

Finally, American Heritage says, “the name of another alcoholic drink, vodka, comes into English from Russian, where it means literally ‘little water,’ as it is a diminutive of voda, ‘water’—a euphemism if ever there was one. Voda comes from the same Indo-European form as English water, but has a different suffix: wod-a.”

After all that, we need a drink!

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Hear Pat live today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 PM Eastern time to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Today’s topic: quote magnets, people who are often credited with saying things they never said. If you miss the program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.

English English language Etymology Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Full time

Q: I’m curious (and I hope you are) about the expression “I’m full. ” It’s a funny way of saying “I’ve had enough to eat.” I wonder—do people in impoverished countries have such a usage or even the notion of being full?

A: It’s the holiday season, and the adjective “full” has been on a lot of lips lately. In fact, it’s been on the lips of English speakers since Anglo-Saxon days, though not always in reference to their stomachs.

When the word first showed up, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was used to describe a bowl or other object “having within its limits all it will hold; having no space empty; replete.”

The earliest written example in the OED is from the Old English poem “Judith,” which describes the beheading of the Assyrian general Holofernes in the Book of Judith:

“Thær wæron bollan steape boren æfter bencum gelome, swylce eac bunan ond orcas fulle fletsittendum.” (We’ve changed the runic letter thorn to “th.”) Here’s a modern English version of the citation, which describes a feast for warriors:

“There were goblets deep borne off to the benches, with bowls and beakers full, to the feasters.”

The date of the poem is uncertain, but it’s an appendage to the Nowell Codex, the manuscript that contains Beowulf, which may have been written as early as 725.

The adjective “full” took on its gastrointestinal sense around the year 1000, according to published references in the OED. The dictionary’s first citation is from the Paris Psalter, a Byzantine illuminated manuscript.

Here’s an example from an early (1382) version of the Wycliffe Bible: “Thei ben ful of must.” (The word “must” here refers to the juice of freshly pressed grapes in winemaking.)

We don’t agree with you that “I’m full” is a strange way of saying “I’ve had enough to eat.” It’s not much of an etymological leap from a full goblet to a full stomach.

Over the years, the adjective “full” has been used to describe, among other things, a pregnant animal, an emotional heart, a circular moon, a plump person, a sail filled with wind, a complete payment, a poker hand, a football player, etc.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the word “full” is ultimately derived from the Indo-European root ple-, which passed into prehistoric Germanic as the reconstructed words fulnaz and later fullaz.

The Indo-European root gave Latin the word plenus (full), which is the source of such English words as “plenary,” “plenty,” and “complete,” as well as plein and pieno, French and Italian words for full.

You’ve asked whether people in impoverished countries say things like “I’m full” at mealtime or even have the notion of being full.

Well, there are fat cats in poor countries as well as rich ones, and we’re pretty sure they feel full when they leave the dinner table.

Do they say things like “I’m full”? Some of them, apparently. We’ve read that in Swahili, which is spoken in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and other African nations, “Nimeshiba” means “I’m full.”

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The birth of a notion

Q: At the place I work, people are fond of using nonwords like “concepting,” “solutioning,” and “stakeholdering.” I find this practice pretentious. Do you agree, or am I witnessing the miracle of wording?

A: We checked eight standard dictionaries in the US and the UK, and none of them include “concept,” “solution,” or “stakeholder” as verbs.

[Note: Later posts on “concept” as a verb ran in April 2019 and June 2019.]

However, a bit of googling suggests that tens of thousands of people are happily concepting, solutioning, or stakeholdering, never mind the dictionaries.

We’re with you on this. We find these words (we wouldn’t call them “nonwords”) affected, stilted, and clunky.

The first two, though, have some history on their side, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED describes “concept” as an obsolete or rare verb meaning “to conceive (in the womb).”

The dictionary has only one published example of this usage, from a 1643 treatise by Richard Overton on the mortality of man: “It [the Soul] is concepted by the woman through the concurrance of the seed of both sexes.”

The OED has two late 19th-century examples for “solution” used as a verb meaning “to treat with, fasten or secure by, a solution”:

1891: A further improvement … will dispense with the need for solutioning the canvas,” from the Pall Mall Gazette.

1898: “They should preferably not be vulcanised but merely solutioned together,” from Cycling (now Cycling Weekly).

Of course the people using “concept” and “solution” as verbs today aren’t talking about wombs or fasteners. To them, “concept” means to develop a concept (that is, to give birth to a notion), and “solution” means to find a solution.

Oxford doesn’t have any examples of “stakeholder” used as a verb.

It says the word entered English in the early 18th century as a noun meaning “an independent person or organization with whom money is deposited, esp. when a number of people make a bet or other financial transaction.”

It wasn’t until the early 19th century that the word took on its usual modern meaning: “A person, company, etc., with a concern or (esp. financial) interest in ensuring the success of an organization, business, system, etc.”

The first OED citation, from an 1821 issue of the Times of London, refers to “stakeholders in one system of liberty, property, laws, morals, and national prosperity.”

The earliest clearly financial example is from a 1941 issue of The Journal of Political Economy:

“Trustees were released from nearly all liability through use of ‘exculpatory’ clauses in trust indentures and became virtually ‘custodians’ or ‘stakeholders’ rather than true ‘trustees.’ ”

Getting back to your question, we’ve got Excedrin headaches from plodding through business gobbledygook for instances of “stakeholder” used as a verb.

Here’s a typical example: “The use of Moody’s KMV data was stakeholdered and ultimately approved by FERC in CAISO’s 2006 Tariff change.”

As far as we can tell, this buzzword means to get the support of stockholders (or other interested parties) in a new idea or project.

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Nice and nasty

Q: We say things like “nice and short” and “nice and sweet” all the time, but what exactly is the meaning of “nice” in this context? Is it simply an intensifier? Or does it have something to do with “nicely”?

A: As you suggest, the adjective “nice” is indeed an intensifier—a word that adds emphasis—when used in a phrase like “nice and short.”

“Nice,” as the Oxford English Dictionary explains is “used as an intensifier with a predicative adjective or adverb in nice and—.”

Examples in writing date back to the late 18th century in OED citations, but the usage is undoubtedly older in ordinary speech. Here are the two earliest published examples Oxford gives:

1796: “Just read this little letter, do, Miss, do—it won’t take you much time, you reads so nice and fast.” (From Fanny Burney’s novel Camilla.)

1800: “Skipping … is a very healthful play in winter; it will make you nice and warm in frosty weather.” (From The Infant’s Library, a collection of miniature books for children.)

Sometimes “nice” is used ironically in such phrases, as the OED points out. Oxford gives examples from fiction for “nice and ill” and “nice and sick.”

“Nice” is heard so commonly these days—in this and other usages—that it almost escapes our radar. (When was the last time someone invited you to “Have a nice day”? Did you even register the word?)

“Nice” has done so many jobs over the centuries and meant so many things that it’s simply worn out.

English acquired the word around 1300 from Anglo-Norman and Old French. But its roots are in the Latin adjective nescius (ignorant, unknowing). We had a posting a couple of years ago that discussed the not-so-nice origins of “nice.”

Since it entered Middle English, “nice” has meant ignorant, foolish, cowardly, absurd, lazy, dissolute, lascivious, ostentatious, extravagant, elegant, precise, effeminate, meticulous, fussy, refined, strict, cultured, fastidious, virtuous, respectable, tasteful, proper, fragile, precise, pampered, strange, shy, modest, reluctant, complicated, subtle, exact, insubstantial, trivial, attentive, sensitive, dexterous, critical, risky, and attentive. And that’s only a summary!

Most of those meanings are now obsolete or rare, and for the last couple of centuries the word has meant what it does today: satisfactory, pleasant, attractive, good-natured, friendly, kind—in short, pleasing.

That’s a lot of work for such a small word!

As the OED says, “The semantic development of this word from ‘foolish, silly’ to ‘pleasing’ is unparalleled in Latin or in the Romance languages. The precise sense development in English is unclear.”

This may be an understatement. In fact, the OED notes, lexicographers have found that in some 16th- and 17th-century examples it’s hard to say what the writers meant by “nice.” That’s what happens when a word loses its specificity.

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Can a man be a hostess?

Q: I’ve been to several restaurants that have “Hostess Stand” signs, though I’ve noticed that sometimes the “hostess” turns out to be a man. I’ve always thought that “hostess” only applied to women, and that when you’re unsure of the gender you should use “host.” Have times changed?

A: “Hostess” is not an appropriate job title for a man, and we’d be very surprised if restaurants are extending the meaning of the word. No matter what those signs say, we’d bet that those men are called “hosts.”

The standard dictionaries that we use the most say a “hostess” is always a woman.

For example, every definition of “hostess” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) begins with either “a woman” or “a female employee.”

When the noun “hostess” entered English around the year 1290, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to a “woman who keeps a public place of lodging and entertainment; the mistress of an inn.”  

The OED says the noun “host,” which entered English around the same time, referred to, among other things, a “man who lodges and entertains for payment; a man who keeps a public place of lodging or entertainment; the landlord of an inn.”

In modern usage, however, “host” is unisex and can serve for either male or female.

Here are the relevant definitions of “host” in American Heritage:

(1) “One who receives or entertains guests in a social or official capacity.” (2) “A person who manages an inn or hotel.” (3) “One that furnishes facilities and resources for a function or event: the city chosen as host for the Olympic Games.” (4) “The emcee or interviewer on a radio or television program.”

The OED, however, still defines “host” as “a man who lodges and entertains” people, either as guests or for payment. But Oxford is obviously behind the times here; a note says, “This entry has not yet been fully updated.”

It’s probable that when the OED eventually updates its definitions for “host,” the term will apply to both sexes as well as host cities, organizations, and so on.

We can’t tell you exactly when “host” became a gender-neutral term. But our 1956 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition), defines it in a unisex way (“one who …”).

Many people seem to assume that if a feminine version of a noun exists, then the original can’t apply to women.

In this respect, “host” is similar to the “master” in “master of ceremonies,” which we’ve written about before on the blog.

Just as we aren’t compelled to use “hostess” in referring to a woman, there’s no law that says we must use “mistress of ceremonies,” though many people do.

Similarly, the terms “actor” and “comedian” are gender-neutral and appropriate for both men and women, as we discussed in a post a few years ago.

We aren’t saying that feminine titles like “hostess,” “mistress,” “actress,” and “comedienne” should be relegated to the junk heap. Sometimes they seem more appropriate than their neutral counterparts. And if a woman prefers a feminine title, then by all means she should have it.

But certainly feminine titles shouldn’t be extended to men. In fact, restaurants would do well to get rid of those “Hostess Stand” signs. Why name the furniture, anyway?

A simple sign reading “Host,” would be quite enough, posted on the desk or stand or station or whatever. And it wouldn’t have to be changed when a man takes over the job.

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Uppity language

Q: What’s up with “up”? Why is it used in so many phrases where it’s not necessary or doesn’t appear to add any information? Examples: “rise up” … “shut up” … “set up” … “clean up” … “give up” … and so on.

A: This is an interesting topic, and a much bigger one than you might think. In fact, you’ve opened (or “opened up”) a Pandora’s box here.

Let us say right away that we don’t agree that “up” is redundant when used in phrasal verbs like “shut up,” “clean up,” “give up,” and many others.

On the contrary, it often enhances verbs, not merely by adding emphasis but by contributing specific kinds of information. Telling someone to “shut” a door, for example, isn’t the same telling someone him to “shut up.”

As you probably know, “up” is an adverb as well as a preposition.

In phrasal verbs it’s an adverb, and it can have any number of functions.

The Oxford English Dictionary says it can mean “so as to raise a thing from the place in which it is lying, placed, or fixed.” This sense of “up” is illustrated in such familiar phrasal verbs as “take up,” “pick up,” “raise up,” and “lift up.”

Or it can add the sense of “from below the level of the earth, water, etc., to the surface,” as Oxford says. We see this sense of “up” in phrases like “dig up,” “grub up,” and “turn up” (as in turning earth with a spade).

“Up” can add the notion of “upon one’s feet from a recumbent or reclining posture; spec. out of bed,” the OED notes, or “so as to rise from a sitting, stooping, or kneeling posture and assume an erect attitude.”

This gives us such familiar phrases as “get up,” “sit up,” “rise up,” “stand up,” “help up,” and “leap up,” as well as the old expression “knock up,” meaning to wake someone by rapping on the door.

Figurative uses of the adverb are many and varied. For example, the OED says, “up” can mean “so as to sever or separate, esp. into many parts, fragments, or pieces.” We see this sense in “break up,” “cut up,” “chop up,” “tear up,” and so on.

And, Oxford says, “up” can imply “to or towards a state of completion or finality,” a sense that frequently serves “merely to emphasize the import of the verb.”

Consequently we have phrases like “eat up,” “sold up,” “done up,” and “swallow up.” (Certainly we could say simply that the whale swallowed Jonah, but how much more evocative to say it swallowed him up!)

In the sense of “denoting progress to or towards an end,” the OED says, we have phrase like “buy up,” “finish up,” “dry up,” “heal up,” “clear up,” “beat up,” “pay up,” “firm up,” and others.

Frequently, the OED says, “up” is used with verbs that have to do with “cleaning, putting in order, or fixing in place.”

Thus we have “clean up,” “polish up,” “brush up,” “do up,” “fix up,” “dress up,” “fit up,” “make up,” “rig up,” “trip up,” and a verb we’ve written about on our blog, “redd up.”

When used with some verbs, “up” can mean “by way of summation or enumeration,” the OED says. We see this in phrases like “add up,” “count up,” “reckon up,” “total up,” “sum up,” and “weigh up.”

In addition, “up” can mean “into a close or compact form or condition; so as to be confined or secured.” This usage is found in “truss up,” “bind up,” “bundle up,” “fold up,” “tie up,” “gird up,” “huddle up,” and “draw up.”

Yet another sense, “into a closed or enclosed state; so as to be shut or restrained,” is evident in phrase like “close up,” “shut up,” “dam up,” “pen up,” “pent up,” “nail up,” “seal up,” and so on.

“Up” can also mean “so as to bring together,” as the OED notes. We see this in “knit up,” “gather up,” “stitch up,” and others. And it can imply “toward,” as in “come up,” “bring up,” and “ride up.”

It can also mean something like “to completion,” as “fill up,” “top up,” “cloud up,” and other phrases.

In a post earlier this year, we wrote that there are many idiomatic phrases in which an uppity stickler might say the adverb is unnecessary: “face up,” “meet up,” “divide up,” “hurry up,” and others.

But as we said then, “There’s a fine line between an emphatic use and a redundancy.” And sometimes an apparent redundancy adds just the right emphasis.

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Shady language

Q: I recently heard a recording in which a doctor pronounces “atropine” as if it were spelled “atropin.” Is this legitimate?

A: Yes, there are two standard pronunciations of the organic compound that eye doctors use in solutions to dilate pupils: AT-ruh-peen and AT-ruh-pin.

In fact, “atropin” was the original spelling of this poisonous compound obtained from belladonna and other related plants. Several standard dictionaries still list that as a variant spelling.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, cites both spellings, with “atropine” pronounced AT-ruh-peen and “atropin” pronounced AT-ruh-pin.

However, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has only the “atropine” spelling and At-ruh-peen pronunciation.

In addition to being used in solutions to dilate eyes, the naturally occurring alkaloid atropine is used, among other things, in medicine to inhibit muscle spasms.

The earliest example of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Records of General Science, an 1836 collection of scientific knowledge:

“Atropin may be obtained in a crystalline state by dissolving it in the smallest possible quantity of boiling water.”

The word “atropine” comes from atropa belladonna, the scientific name of the perennial plant that’s also known as deadly nightshade.

English borrowed belladonna from the Italian name for the plant (it comes from the Italian words for “beautiful woman”).

However, the plant’s name is ultimately derived from Atropos, one of the three Greek Fates, according to the OED.

In Greek mythology, Atropos was the Fate responsible for deciding how people died and cutting their threads of life with her shears.

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Winsome evangelism

Q: I’ve noticed that preachers on television and the radio are using “winsome” in a new way—capable of winning people over to Christ. As a curmudgeon, especially about words, I find this new usage highly annoying. Have you encountered it?

A: We hadn’t noticed it before, but “winsome” does seem be used in evangelical circles to mean capable of spreading the Gospel and winning converts to Christ. This usage isn’t all that new, however.

Winsome Evangelism is the title of a book published in 1973 by Ponder W. Gilliland, the author of Witnessing to Win and other books about “multiplying discipleship”—that is, training people to spread the Gospel and gain converts.

Some evangelicals even use a play on words: be winsome to win some (or words to that effect). And many of them use “winsome” itself with a double meaning—one must be pleasant and gracious (that is, winsome) to win some souls.

Are you right to be annoyed by this evangelical usage? Well, it’s not standard English. Dictionaries recognize the first meaning (pleasant and gracious), but not the second (capable of winning).

However, we’re not annoyed. We like a clever play on words. And in this case the usage can even be defended on etymological grounds, if we go back far enough.

Let’s begin by being clear about one thing: the “win” in the adjective “winsome” is not derived from the verb “win”—or vice versa.

The two words—“win” and “winsome—have had separate family trees ever since they entered English. Despite a common prehistoric ancestor, “winsome” has never had anything to do with winning.

“Winsome” entered the language many centuries ago, when it was spelled wynsum. It’s found in Beowulf, which the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology dates to about 725.

In Old English and Middle English, “winsome” meant pleasant, delightful, kindly, or gracious, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But in general, the word’s modern meaning, which emerged in the 1600s, is pleasing or attractive in one’s appearance, character, disposition, or manners.

“Winsome” is derived from an extremely old noun, originally spelled wyn and later “win,” that first showed up in Beowulf with the meaning of pleasure or delight. (The suffix “-some” is used to create adjectives from nouns.)

That old noun is long dead now, but it survived into the 17th century, when it appeared in benedictory phrases like “God give thee win,” according to OED citations.

This defunct noun came into English from old Germanic sources. Its English relatives include “wish” and “wine,” an obsolete word for a friend or protector (it’s unrelated to the drink, and was an element in old names like Eadwine, now Edwin).

In Old English, wyn was also a word element in poetical compounds such as wynland (pleasant land) and wynbeam (tree of joy).

And the element wyn showed up briefly as a separate adjective in Middle English, where the OED says it appeared only in verse and meant delightful or pleasant.

As for the familiar verb “win” (to obtain, succeed, overcome, or gain a victory), it has a quite different history. It’s also Germanic in origin, and was first recorded in Old English (as wynnan) in the 800s.

Originally, to “win” was to work or labor, but it also meant to strive, contend, or fight, the OED says. Most of the modern meanings—to seize or obtain, to be victorious, to overcome an adversary, and others—emerged in the 12th through 14th centuries.

As we’ve said, “winsome” has never had anything to do with winning on a literal level. However, the verb “win” has had a touch of winsomeness.

In the 14th century, the OED says, the verb developed a new meaning: “to overcome the unwillingness or indifference of.”

The new sense, Oxford explains, was used “with various shades of meaning: to attract, allure, entice; to prevail upon, persuade, induce; to gain the affection or allegiance of; to bring over to one’s side, party, or cause, to convert.” (Note the mention of “convert”!)

This meaning of the verb “win” gave us the adjective “winning” in the late 16th century. It originally meant persuasive, the OED explains, but now means alluring or attractive. Not so very dissimilar from “winsome,” is it?

Here’s an example from Benjamin H. Malkin’s 1809 translation of Alain-René Lesage’s Adventures of Gil Blas: “You have very winning ways with you; you make me do just whatever you please.”

And this later example comes from Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad (1880): “There is a friendly something about the German character which is very winning.”

Taking all this into account, one would think that there has to be a connection between the adjective “winning” (from the verb “win”) and the adjective “winsome” (from the noun “win,” meaning pleasure or delight). And in fact there is, as we hinted above.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (2nd ed.) says the prehistoric ancestor of the verb “win” and of the “win” in “winsome” are the same—a root that’s been reconstructed as wen-.

This root also gave us “wish,” as we mentioned, as well as “wont” (custom or habit), “wean” (originally to accustom or train), and “ween” (an archaic verb meaning think or hope, which survives today in the adjective “overweening”).

American Heritage defines this root as meaning to desire or strive for, and the OED adds another definition: to love. All in all, a winning combination.

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Beyond the pale

Q: I’ve seen many examples of “beyond the pail” on the Internet. In fact, I googled the phrase and got many thousands of hits. I’d always thought the phrase was “beyond the pale,” a reference to the Russian Jewish ghetto.

A: You’re right that the correct phrase is “beyond the pale.” You’re also right that “beyond the pail” shows up a lot on the Internet.

However, many of the Google hits are from punsters or people pointing out the error.

The language writer Michael Quinion has a great quip about this on his website World Wide Words. When asked about the meaning of “beyond the pail,” he joked, “Isn’t that where you go when you kick the bucket?”

As for “beyond the pale,” it refers to something that’s improper or exceeds the limits of acceptability.

The other phrase you refer to, about the isolation of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, is the “Pale of Settlement.”

But the two expressions have little to do with one another, beyond their common use of the noun “pale” in the sense of a boundary or a limit.

“Beyond the pale” isn’t a reference to the other phrase, since it’s 170 years older. It was first recorded in 1720, while the first reference to the Pale of Settlement was recorded in 1890, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

We briefly discussed these expressions on our blog five years ago, but they’re worth another look.

When the noun “pale” was first recorded in the 1300s, it referred to a wooden stake meant to be driven into the ground.

At that time, “pale” was a doublet—that is, an etymological twin—of the much earlier word “pole,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Both “pale” and “pole” once had the same meaning and came from the same source, the Latin word palus.

As the OED explains, in classical Latin a palus was a stake or a “wooden post used by Roman soldiers to represent an opponent during fighting practice.”

In post-classical Latin, palus also meant a palisade (originally a fence or enclosure made with wooden stakes), or a stripe (as in heraldry).

The noun “pale” was first recorded in writing in the mid-14th century. Its original meaning, the OED says, was a stake or “a pointed piece of wood intended to be driven into the ground, esp. as used with others to form a fence.”

In the late 14th century, “pale” was also used to mean the fence itself.

In the following century, “pale” acquired a couple of new meanings.

It could be “an area enclosed by a fence,” or “any enclosed place,” to quote the OED. It could also mean “a district or territory within determined bounds, or subject to a particular jurisdiction.”

Here’s where our two expressions come in. “Beyond the pale” came first, as we said, dating from the early 18th century.

Originally the phrase was followed by “of” and it meant “outside or beyond the bounds of” something. For example, here are the OED’s three earliest citations:

“Acteon … suffer’d his Eye to rove at Pleasure, and beyond the Pale of Expedience.” (From Alexander Smith’s A Compleat History of Rogues, 1720.)

“Nature is thus wise in our construction, that, when we would be blessed beyond the pale of reason, we are blessed imperfectly.” (From Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of the World, 1773.)

“Without one overt act of hostility … he contrived to impress me momently with the conviction that I was put beyond the pale of his favour.” (From Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, 1847).

But late in the 19th century the prepositional phrase fell away, according to Oxford, and “beyond the pale” was used by itself to mean “outside the limits of acceptable behaviour; unacceptable or improper.”

That’s how it’s been used ever since, as in these two OED citations:

“Unknown, doubtful Americans, neither rich nor highly-placed are beyond the pale.” (From the 1885 novel At Bay, written by “Mrs. Alexander,” the pen name of Annie Hector.)

“If you pinched a penny of his pay you passed beyond the pale, you became an unmentionable.” (From a 1928 issue of Public Opinion.)

Now for our other “pale” expression. As we mentioned above, the use of “pale” to describe a region or territory subject to a certain control or jurisdiction dates from the mid-1400s.

When first used, the reference was to English jurisdiction, and over the centuries “the pale” (sometimes capitalized) has been used to refer to areas of Ireland, Scotland, and France (that is, the territory of Calais) when they were under England’s control.

But this sense of “pale” is perhaps most familiar in the phrase “Pale of Settlement,” which the OED says is modeled after the Russian certa osedlosti (literally, “boundary of settlement”).

Oxford defines the phrase as “a set of specified provinces and districts within which Jews in Russia and Russian-occupied Poland were required to reside between 1791 and 1917.”

The OED’s earliest citation for the use of the phrase in writing comes from Russia and the Jews: A Brief Sketch of Russian History and the Condition of Its Jewish Subjects (1890), written by an author identified as “A. Reader”:

“The Jews … as soon as the contract was completed … had to return within the ‘pale’ of settlement.”

This more contemporary example is from the Slavic and East European Journal (1999): “Deeply depressed by Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement, Gershenzon struggled to escape the ‘darkness’ and reach the light.”

As for the relationship between the two expressions, the OED has this to say:

“The theory that the origin of the phrase [‘beyond the pale’] relates to any of several specific regions, such as the area of Ireland formerly called the Pale … or the Pale of Settlement in Russia … is not supported by the early historical evidence and is likely to be a later rationalization.”

By the way, the adjective “pale,” dating from the early 1300s, has nothing to do with the noun. It comes from another source altogether, the classical Latin pallidum (pale or colorless), from which we also get the word “pallid.”

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Look out below!

[Note: This post was updated on Oct. 17, 2020.]

Q: Lately I’ve noticed that people are placing the word “below” in front of a noun or at the head of a sentence. Examples: “Click on the below link” instead of “Click on the link below” and “Below are the fixes” instead of “The fixes are below.” Is this at all proper?

A: Most authorities will tell you that “below” is not properly used as an adjective. So your first example (“the below link”) is not a universally accepted use. But the second (“Below are …”) is fine. Let’s look at them one at a time.

Nearly all standard dictionaries say that “below” functions exclusively as either an adverb (“they bought the apartment below”) or a preposition (“they bought the apartment below ours”). What’s the difference? They classify the word as an adverb if it doesn’t have an object, and as a preposition if it does.

In the sentence “Click on the below link,” the word “below” is an adjective modifying the noun “link.” While “above” is commonly used this way, “below” and “beneath” are not.

The usual order is “Click on the link below,” an arrangement in which “below” is traditionally classified as an adverb.

[Note: As we write in a later post, academic linguists have broken with tradition here. They consider “below” a preposition, whether it has an object (as in “click on the link below the picture”) or not (“click on the link below”). It’s a transitive preposition if it has an object, and intransitive if not. Dictionaries have not yet adopted this view.]

However, we can’t say the adjectival use is wrong. At least one publisher of standard dictionaries accepts it without comment.

Merriam-Webster classifies “below” as an adjective when it premodifies a noun and means “written or discussed lower on the same page or on a following page.” The example given is “the below list.” The more extensive Merriam-Webster Unabridged has a nearly identical definition and example. 

The adjectival usage is also found in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. And it’s similarly defined.

The OED’s earliest example is from an 1822 issue of the Philosophical Magazine: “According to the below observations, the thermometer falls one degree for every ascent of 224 feet.” (Oxford adds, however, that this use of “below” is rare in comparison with the similar use of “above.”)

However, aside from M-W, the standard dictionaries we usually consult do not recognize the use of “below” as an adjective. 

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, for example, has no such adjectival usage. It says “below” is an adverb when used, among other things, to indicate “farther down” or “in a later part of a given text: figures quoted below.”

The OED would agree with that classification of “below” as an adverb in the sense of “lower on a written sheet or page; hence, later in a book or writing; at the foot of the page.” Two OED citations for this usage are “Read what’s below” (1784) and “The forms subjoined in the note below” (1863).

The OED says that in cases like these (and this would also apply to the American Heritage example, “figures quoted below”), the adverb has no expressed object. In other words, the sentence doesn’t explicitly say below what.

As we mentioned above, when an object is present, “below” is traditionally classified as a preposition: “figures quoted below the dotted line” … “below zero” … “below par” … “below average,” and so on.

When “below” is used as an adverb, the word it modifies (whether adjective or verb) isn’t always implied.

All 10 standard dictionaries, as well as the OED, would classify “below” as an adverb in examples like “offices on the floor below” … “in the valley below” … “a grade below”… “a temperature of 40 below,” and so on.

We realize that in examples like those, “below” does not look like an adverb. In understanding the dictionaries’ rationale, it sometimes helps to imagine an unstated word like “located” or “positioned” in there somewhere: “the offices on the floor [located] below.”

Now let’s turn to your second example, “Below are the fixes.”

Here again, “below” would traditionally be classified as an adverb. The sentence is parallel to “The fixes are below.” (While we think “are below” at the end of the sentence is more graceful than “Below are” up front, the two versions are grammatically equivalent.)

One last point: the word “below” wasn’t either an adverb or a preposition when it first showed up in English in the 14th century. It was a verb meaning to make low or to humble.

William Langland used the verb in 1377 in Piers Plowman, his Middle English allegorical poem, but the OED says this usage is now obsolete or rare.

In case you’re wondering, the adverb first showed up around 1400 and the preposition around 1565, according to OED citations.  

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Donkey’s years

Q: Recently I read the phrase “donkey’s years” in one of Lawrence Block’s books. Given the context, I assume that he was referring to a long period of time. I’d never heard of this phrase and I hope you can shed some light on its history.

A: The mystery writer Lawrence Block has used the expression several times in his works, including this example from Telling Lies for Fun & Profit (1994), a book about writing fiction:

“I don’t write many short stories these days and I haven’t perpetrated a poem in donkey’s years.”

The phrase “donkey’s years,” meaning a long time, originated in the early 20th century, apparently as a pun on the long ears of a donkey.

In fact, the first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary uses the phrase “donkey’s ears.” Here’s the citation, from The Vermillion Box, a 1916 novel by E. V. Lucas:

“Now for my first bath for what the men call ‘Donkey’s ears,’ meaning years and years.”

It’s not certain, though, which came first: “donkey’s ears” or “donkey’s years.”

We found “donkey’s years” in another 1916 book, With Jellicoe in the North Sea, by Frank Hubert Shaw:

“This isn’t a battleship war at all; it’s a destroyer-submarine-light cruiser show. They’ll never come out in donkey’s years, not they. They know jolly well we shall scupper ’em if they so much as dare to show their noses outside the wet triangle.”

The OED defines “donkey’s years” (also “donkeys’ years”) as a colloquial usage meaning a very long time.

It describes the phrase as a “punning allusion to the length of a donkey’s ears and to the vulgar pronunciation of ears as years.”

Gary Martin’s Phrase Finder website speculates that the usage originated as rhyming slang.

In rhyming slang, the last word of a short phrase is rhymed with a word that the phrase stands for. So an expresson like “trouble and strife” (“trouble” for short) stands for “wife.”

The earliest OED citation for the actual phrase “donkey’s years” may indeed be, in the dictionary’s words, an example of “a vulgar pronunciation of ears as years.”

In Hugh Walpole’s 1927 novel Wintersmoon, Mrs. Beddoes tells Mr. Hignett about a wedding she attended:

“I was at the wedding, you know, Mr. ’Ignett, ’ad a special card all to myself, ’aving worked for Miss Janet and her sister donkey’s years.”

The most recent OED citation is from a March 19, 1961, article in the Observer: “American influence and financial participation have been strong here for donkeys’ years.”

Although we occasionally hear Americans use the expression, all of the OED citations are from British writers, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) describes the usage as chiefly British.

We recently sighted the “y”-less version, “donkey’s ears,” in Jutland Cottage, a 1953 novel by the British writer Angela Thirkell.

In the novel, one of Thirkell’s Barsetshire books, Mr. Wickham, an estate agent, interrupts a toast by asking a fellow naval veteran, Tubby (a k a Canon Fewling), for his first name:

”Well, here’s to Horatio Nelson coupled with the name of—what the hell is your name, Tubby? I’ve known you for donkey’s ears, but we always said Tubby.”

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Supporting language

Q: I’ve been hearing a new usage in Jersey City for things that support us. People are using “chair” for anything they sit on (seat, sofa, bench, stool, pew, etc.) and “floor” for anything they stand on (ground, pavement, street, sidewalk, lawn, etc.). Have you noticed this?

A: We haven’t encountered this general use of “chair” to mean any kind of seat—stool, bench, sofa, car seat, and so on.

The Oxford English Dictionary isn’t (yet) aware of this usage either. The OED’s general definition of “chair” is a seat for one person, a “movable four-legged seat with a rest for the back.”

Perhaps the wider use of “chair” that you’ve noticed is a regional usage peculiar to the Jersey City area. In that case, don’t assume it’s a sign of a change in the language.

Although there are exceptions, regional differences tend to stay regional and don’t necessarily influence English as a whole.

On the other hand, sometimes very old usages survive as regionalisms. This could be the case with “floor” as a general term for the ground, a subject we once discussed on our blog.

Back in 2009, we promised to write more if we found out anything new, but there isn’t a whole lot to add.

American dictionaries still don’t consider “floor” and “ground” interchangeable. Both are words for bottom surfaces, but usually a “floor” is inside and the “ground” is outside (except in phrases like “the ocean floor” and “the forest floor”).

But as we pointed out in our blog posting, “floor” was a word for “ground” centuries ago. And at least one modern British dictionary, the Collins English Dictionary, says that even today one definition of “floor” is “the earth; ground.”

However, the OED describes that usage as obsolete, except in dialects.

Here’s one of Oxford’s citations for the now obsolete usage. It comes from Morte Arthure, a Middle English romance written in the 1300s:

“With the drowghte of the daye alle drye ware thee flores!” (We’ve replaced the letter thorn with “th” in this example.)

Here’s another, from John Dryden’s 1697 translation of Virgil’s Pastorals (we’ve expanded the OED citation to give more of the context):

“Two Satyrs, on the ground, / Stretch’d at his Ease, their Syre Silenus found. … / His rosie Wreath was dropt not long before, / Born by the tide of Wine, and floating on the floor.”

But as we said, the OED describes the use of “floor” for “ground” as dialectal in modern usage. One of Oxford’s citations, from an 1865 issue of the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, reported that in the Cornish dialect “floor” was used to mean “a grass meadow.”

There’s a chance, we suppose, that the interchangeable use of “floor” and “ground” by some Americans could be a dialectal survival from days of old.

But this tendency among other Americans has nothing to do with Middle English.

In a 1959 article in the journal American Speech, George Yost Jr. noted that Syrian and Lebanese immigrants often confuse the words “floor” and “ground” because one Arabic noun (ard) serves for both.

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Sufferin’ succotash!

Q: Your posting about the difference between “quash” and “squash” raises another question: Is there a connection between the “squash” that means to crush and the “squash” that you eat?

A: This question came up recently during one of Pat’s appearances on Iowa Public Radio. The caller wondered what the two words had to do with each other.

The answer is nothing. The two “squashes” aren’t even remotely related.

As we wrote in that earlier post, the verb “squash” (to crush) ultimately comes from exquassare, a popular Latin derivative of quassare, one of the ancestors of “quash.”

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

But the “squash” that’s a gourd—the British would call it a “marrow”—is a short form of asquutasquash, a word in Narragansett, an Algonquian language spoken by native Americans in Rhode Island.

In the word asquutasquash, the OED explains, asq means “raw, uncooked,” and “-ash is a plural ending, as in succotash.”

Roger Williams, who is generally accepted as the founder of Rhode Island colony, was the first person to use this “squash” in writing.

The OED’s earliest citation is from A Key Into the Language of America (1643), Williams’s study of native American languages:

“Askutasquash, their Vine aples, which the English from them call Squashes, about the bignesse of Apples, of severall colours, sweet, light, wholesome, refreshing.”

To some early settlers, the Narragansett word asquutasquash sounded like “squanter-squash,” and that was an early name for the gourd, first recorded in 1634. It’s no longer used; the OED calls it obsolete and rare.

Now how’s this for confusing? The word “quash” was also sometimes used to mean a squash or pumpkin

The OED says that some examples of this usage “may be based on misunderstanding by early naturalists, others may represent misreadings of manuscripts by later editors.” OK, now let’s forget all about it.

One more thing. We probably shouldn’t let that fleeting reference to “succotash” pass without an explanation. After all, we’ve recently celebrated Thanksgiving and food, as well as our country’s Native American heritage, has been on everybody’s mind.

“Succotash” too is derived from a Narragansett word, msiquatash, a plural with “divergent explanations,” the OED says.

We do know what “succotash” meant to colonists in 18th-century New England. The OED defines the English word as “a dish of North American Indian origin, usually consisting of green maize and beans boiled together.”

Oxford’s earliest example of its use in writing comes from a letter written in 1751 by James MacSparran, a Church of England clergyman in early America:

“Mor dined with us upon Suckatash and Ham.” (The superscript “r” probably indicates that first word was an abbreviation.)

This later example is more redolent of the wilderness. It’s from Jonathan Carver’s Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America (1778):

“This [dish] is composed of their unripe corn … and beans in the same state, boiled together with bears flesh. … They call this food Succatosh.”

And here’s a literary example, from James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826): “The wise Huron is welcome … he is come to eat his ‘suc-ca-tush’ with his brothers of the lakes!”

We’ll conclude with an example from Sylvester the Cat: “Sufferin’ succotash!”

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