English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage

The grayness of they-ness

[Note: An updated post on this subject was published on May 22, 2017.]

Q: I insist that my college students refer to a singular noun (e.g., “student”) with a singular pronoun (e.g., “he” or “she”). They may use “they,” “their,” and “them” only with plural nouns, such as “students.” However, the professor in charge of our Writing Center disagrees. Please help me be sure I am giving my students the correct advice.

A: You’re technically right. But as far as common usage goes, there’s some room for dispute. What’s acceptable may depend on the kind of writing the students are doing and the audience they’re writing for.

What’s indisputably true is that anyone who uses “they,” “them,” or “their” to refer to an indefinite someone is using English that’s considered informal, at least as of today. (Stay tuned for further developments.)

In formal English, these are third-person plural pronouns. And students in any writing program should be aware of that.

We’ve written about this subject in a column in the New York Times Magazine. We’ve also discussed it many times on our blog, including postings in May and August of 2011.

Historically, there’s a case to be made for using “they” and company as indefinite singulars. People used them that way centuries ago without getting their knuckles rapped. But for the past 200 years or so, they’ve generally been considered plural.

This is a usage that’s in transition. In the meantime, anyone who wants to be grammatically as well as politically correct without resorting to “he/she” or some variant can always recast the sentence and make the antecedent plural.

Instead of “Every parent loves his or her (or their) child,” make it “All parents love their children.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) labels “they” as a “usage problem” when “used to refer to the one previously mentioned or implied, especially as a substitute for generic he.

The dictionary gives this sentence as an example: “Every person has rights under the law, but they don’t always know them.”

American Heritage explains further in an extensive usage note, which we’ll break up into paragraphs to make it easier to read:

“The use of an ostensibly plural pronoun such as they, them, themselves, or their with a singular antecedent dates back at least to 1300, and over the years such constructions have been used by many admired writers, including William Makepeace Thackeray (‘A person can’t help their birth’), George Bernard Shaw (‘To do a person in means to kill them’), and Anne Morrow Lindbergh (‘When you love someone you do not love them all the time’).

“The practice is so widespread both in print and in speech that it generally passes unnoticed. Forms of they are useful as gender-neutral substitutes for generic he and for coordinate forms like his/her or his or her (which can sound clumsy, especially when repeated frequently).

“Nevertheless, many people avoid using forms of they with a singular antecedent out of respect for traditional pronoun agreement. Most of the Usage Panel still upholds the practice of traditional pronoun agreement, but in decreasing numbers.

“In our 1996 survey, 80 percent rejected the use of they in the sentence A person at that level should not have to keep track of the hours they put in. In 2008, however, only 62 percent of the Panel still held this view, and by 2011, just 55 percent disapproved of the sentence Each student must have their pencil sharpened.

“Moreover, in 2008, a majority of the Panel accepted the use of they with antecedents such as anyone and everyone, pronouns that are grammatically singular but carry a plural meaning. Some 56 percent accepted the sentence If anyone calls, tell them I can’t come to the phone, and 59 percent accepted Everyone returned to their seats.

“The trend, then, is clear. Writers who choose to use they with a singular antecedent should rest assured that they are in good company—even if a fair number of traditionalists still wince at the usage.

“For those who wish to adhere to the traditional rule, one good solution is to recast the sentence in the plural: People at that level should not have to keep track of the hours they put in.

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Are you bored to flinders?

Q: Any idea of the origins of the phrase “bored to flinders”? I looked up the word “flinders,” but can’t reason out a connection with boredom!

A: Someone who’s “bored to flinders” is bored to pieces. The word “flinders” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning “fragments, pieces, splinters.”

So in the phrase “bored to flinders,” the word is used in a figurative way.

The word was first recorded in English, according to the OED, in Golagros and Gawane, a Scottish poem published in a pamphlet in 1508:

“Thair speris in the feild in flendris gart ga.” (“Their spears went to flinders in the field.”)

This seems to echo a line from the 12th-century French epic poem La Chanson de Roland, usually translated as “Right to the hilt, his spear in flinders flew.”

The word “flinders” may be Scandinavian in origin, since according to the OED, it’s similar to the modern Norwegian word flindra, meaning a thin chip or splinter.

But it’s often used figuratively, as in this line from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Poganuc People (1878): “Parson Cushing could knock that air all to flinders.”

(When the speaker here says “that air,” he’s referring to a sermon by another minister, one who “don’t weigh much ’longside o’ Parson Cushing.”)

Though it’s not cited in the OED, there’s another reference to “flinders” in Stowe’s novel. In the chapter “Election Day in Poganuc,” a character says, “Well, Doctor, we’re smashed. Democrats beat us all to flinders.”

It’s a colorful word, and it’s still sometimes used to good effect. The OED has some modern citations, including this one from the novel Speed (1970), by William S. Burroughs Jr.:

“About noon, the transmission went all to flinders and the car would only run in first.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation a bit.)

Green’s Dictionary of Slang records another form of the word, “flindereens,” apparently a slang variant that combines “flinders” and “smithereens.”

We found an example in Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s novel Seasoned Timber (1939), which is set in Vermont: “Ezry, d’y remember the time they busted the Ashley town snowplow t’flindereens?”

The specific phrase “bored to flinders” doesn’t appear in the OED. But we’ve read it in many books, including David Mamet in Conversation (2001), an anthology edited by Leslie Kane.

In an interview conducted in 1994, the critic John Lahr asked Mamet whether he was a bad student in school. The playwright replied: “I was a nonstudent. No interest, just bored to flinders.”

As we all know, there are many others ways of expressing ennui: “bored to pieces,” “bored to death,” “bored to tears,” “bored to distraction,” “bored stiff,” “bored rigid,” “bored silly,” and so on.

If you’re not bored yet, you might be interested in a recent post of ours that discusses whether the word “bore” that refers to tedium is related to the much older word “bore” that refers to making a hole.

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We’re on safari

Q: I have a memory of my mother pronouncing “safari” as suh-FAIR-ee instead of suh-FAR-ee. Is this a correct pronunciation? Where does it come from?

A: Either pronunciation of “safari” is correct. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives both as standard.

Merriam-Webster’s says the second vowel can be pronounced like the vowel in “mop” or in “ash.” So you can be justified in using either.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), on the other hand, gives only one pronunciation, with the second vowel pronounced like the broad “a” in “father.”

English borrowed the word “safari” in the 19th century from Swahili, in which it means journey or expedition, the Oxford English Dictionary says.

The Swahili word, Oxford adds, ultimately comes from Arabic, where the noun safar means a journey or tour and the verb safara means to travel, depart, or go on a journey.

In English, “safari” originally meant “a party or caravan undertaking an extensive cross-country expedition on foot for hunting or scientific research, typically in an African country (originally in East Africa),” the OED explains.

Later, the word came to mean other kinds of forays, including “a party travelling, usually in vehicles, into unspoiled or wild areas for tourism or game viewing.” And many extended meanings of the term developed later.

The word was first recorded in English by the explorer Sir Richard F. Burton in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London in 1859:

“These Safari are neither starved like the trading parties of Wanyamwezi nor pampered like those directed by the Arabs.”

This later example is from an 1871 journal entry by the explorer and missionary David Livingstone: “A safari, under Hassani and Ebed, arrived with news of great mortality by cholera … at Zanzibar.”

A historical note: This was the ailing Dr. Livingstone who had lost contact with the rest of the world and was eventually tracked down by the journalist Henry Morton Stanley after a two-year search. Stanley later claimed to have greeted him with the words “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

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All or nothing at all

Q: One of my pet peeves is the misuse of “all,” as in this example from a Washington Post column: “All of the Nats’ decisions won’t be correct.” Newspaper headline writers botch the use of this construction on a regular basis. Perhaps you could offer your readers some guidance in this area.

A: A fuller version of that passage from the Aug. 14, 2012, issue of the Washington Post reads: “All of the Nats’ decisions won’t be correct. But every call they make is now based on one standard—what they think is best for the Nats.”

Readers undoubtedly knew what the writer meant, but he committed a common usage mistake: He began a negative statement with “All.” A strictly literal reading of that sentence would leave the impression that none of the Nats’ decisions will be correct.

Negative statements that put “all” ahead of “not” can be ambiguous and even misleading. Pat addresses this problem in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

ALL . . . NOT/NOT ALL. Many sentences that are built around all . . . not face backward. Use not all instead: Not all Swedes are blond. To say, All Swedes are not blond, is to say that not a single Swede has golden hair.”

The editors of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage also discuss this problem.

When a sentence in conversation has “all” and “not,” M-W says, the “negative element is often postponed so that it follows the verb, instead of preceding all.”

The usage guide notes that such sentences go back at least as far as Shakespeare: “All that glisters is not gold” (The Merchant of Venice, 1597). The verb “glister” here is an archaic version of “glitter.” 

While these sentences present no problem in speech, says M-W, they can be ambiguous in writing. It cites this example from the Washington Post: “… all seventy-four hospitals did not report every month.”

The ambiguity is obvious. “Did none of the hospitals report?” says M-W. “Or did only some fail to report?”

The conclusion: Writers can avoid the confusion by simply placing the “not” before the “all.”

The M-W editors also note that the same problem crops up in negative sentences that put “every,” “everyone,” and “everything” in front of the negative element. They cite this example: “Everyone in San Francisco is not gay.”

Here, too, “Putting the not first will remove the ambiguity: ‘Not everyone in San Francisco is gay.’ This is a point worth keeping in mind when you write.”

By the way, we recently answered another question concerning “all”—whether it’s singular or plural when part of a noun phrase.

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Since Christ left Chicago

Q: As my retired physician father was perusing the ancient black bag he used to take on house calls, a doctor friend stopped by and said he hadn’t seen such medicines and paraphernalia “since Christ left Chicago.” I was wondering if you know the origin of that vivid expression.

A: The expression “since Christ left Chicago” is a variation on a theme. Other—and much more popular—versions include “since Christ was a corporal” and “since “Christ was a cowboy.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says the phrase “since Christ was a corporal” means “since time immemorial.”

We don’t see an entry for “since Christ left Chicago” in Random House or any of our other reference works, but we can safely assume from reading a few dozen examples online that it also means for a very long time or since ages ago.

The earliest published example of the “Chicago” version, as far as we can tell, appeared in Life magazine in June 1959.

An article on labor unrest quoted a dissident New York Teamster as calling the attorney Edward Bennett Williams “the biggest liar the world has ever seen. He ain’t told the truth since Christ left Chicago!”

More recently, the writer Nick Tosches has used the expression a couple of times.

He wrote in Spin magazine in 1988: “My brother asks me if Island is one of the dumb-ass companies that still sends me free records even though I haven’t reviewed a record since Christ left Chicago.”

And Tosches used it in his first novel, Cut Numbers (1988): “Someday, if they’re lucky, they’ll look up and see that co-op roof cavin’ in and they’ll realize they been carryin’ thirty-year paper to live in some shit-hole that’s been fallin’ apart since Christ left Chicago.”

The older version, “since Christ was a corporal,” was a favorite of John Dos Passos. Though many people have used the phrase since World War II, most of the earliest examples we’ve found, from 1921 to 1944, are from his works.

Dos Passos used it twice in his World War I novel Three Soldiers (1921), even putting it in the mouths of different characters.

In one section, a character remarks: “Ain’t had any pay since Christ was a corporal. I’ve forgotten what it looks like.” And later a soldier asks, “How long have you been here?” The reply: “Since Christ was a corporal.”

Dos Passos used the same expression in his play The Garbage Man (1926) and in his novel Adventures of a Young Man (1939).

It also turned up in State of the Nation, a book of reportage by Dos Passos that was excerpted in a 1944 issue of Life magazine.

In the book, he quotes an anonymous returning soldier as saying, “Ain’t seen a woman since Christ was a corporal.” (We can’t help wondering whether the reporter enlivened some of the quotes with words of his own.)

As Random House points out, variations on the “corporal” version exist too: “since George Washington was a ‘lance
jack’ ” (from Ira L. Reeves’s Bamboo Tales, 1900), and “since ‘Christ was a lance corporal,’ as the men said” (from Charles L. Clifford’s novel Too Many Boats, 1933).

As for the Wild West version, “since Christ was a cowboy,” the earliest example we’ve found is from a bit of dialogue in Leila Hadley’s travel book Give Me the World (1958), about a trip aboard a cargo ship:

“I haven’t felt such a wind since Christ was a cowboy. Must have been hitting fifty knots for a while back there.”

This “cowboy” version—sometimes the protagonist is “Jesus” instead of “Christ”—has appeared many times since then.

The word sleuth Barry Popik has found several examples in books and newspapers from 1973 to 2007, and notes on his Big Apple website that the phrase is especially popular in Texas.

But phrases like this have been around since Shakespeare’s time. Random House quotes Twelfth Night (circa 1595): “They haue beene grand Iury men, since before Noah was a Saylor.”

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Read us in Smithsonian magazine

Pat and Stewart’s article in the February 2013 issue of Smithsonian discusses the origins of popular grammar myths.

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How credible is “incredible”?

Q: When somebody tries to sell me a car and says, “Our prices are incredibly low,” he’s literally telling me that I shouldn’t believe him. Wouldn’t it make more sense to say, “Our prices are credibly low”?

A: The adjective “incredible” meant not credible when it entered English in the early 1400s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

And the adverb “incredibly” meant in an incredible manner—that is, not credibly—when it showed up around 1500.

The two words still have those clearly negative meanings today, but people began using them loosely—“in a weakened sense,” as the OED says—almost from the start.

In this sense, Oxford says, the adjective means, among other things, exceedingly great, and the adverb means exceedingly, extremely, and so on.

Those car dealers you mention are using “incredibly” to mean exceedingly or extremely or (we’d add) astonishingly.

The two words are derived from the Latin incredibilis (unbelievable), made up of the negative prefix –in and credibilis (worthy to be believed). The ultimate Latin source is the verb credere (to believe).

Here’s how The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines the two modern meanings of “incredible”:

“1. So implausible as to elicit disbelief; unbelievable: gave an incredible explanation of the cause of the accident.

“2. Astonishing, extraordinary, or extreme: dressed with incredible speed.

The OED’s earliest citation for the adjective is from John Lydgate’s Hystorye, Sege, and Destruccyon of Troye (1412-1420).

In his Middle English poem, Lydgate describes as “incredible” (that is, not credible) an account of the Greeks put to flight during the Trojan War.

The dictionary’s first citation for the adjective used in its looser sense is from The Revelation of the Monk of Evesham (1482): “An inestymable and incredibulle swetenes of ioyfull conforte.”

The earliest OED citation for the adverb is from The Three Kings’ Sons (circa 1500), an English translation of a work by the French calligrapher David Aubert: “He had seen hem do in armes that day yncredibly.” The adverb here seems to be used in the looser sense.

An even clearer example of the adverb used loosely is from The Itinerary of John Leland, written sometime before 1552. In writing of his travels, the English poet and antiquary describes a church “adorned it with Gould and Sylver incredibly.”

We’ll end with the OED’s most recent example for the adverb used in its looser sense.

We’ve gone to the original to expand on this citation from English Traits, an 1856 book in which Ralph Waldo Emerson describes a meeting with Thomas Carlyle in Scotland:

“He took despairing or satirical views of literature at this moment; recounted the incredible sums paid in one year by the great booksellers for puffing. Hence it comes that no newspaper is trusted now, no books are bought, and the booksellers are on the eve of bankruptcy.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

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Passive distribution

Q: What is your “ruling” on “passive distribution”? An allowable oxymoron?

A: We don’t think the two elements in the phrase “passive distribution” are necessarily contradictory. And in our opinion, the term pretty well describes the various processes it refers to.

We couldn’t find the phrase in any of the references we usually consult. We looked for it in the Oxford English Dictionary as well as in eight standard American or British dictionaries.

However, we did find thousands of examples of the phrase on the Internet—in both technical and nontechnical usages.

In the technical sense, the term often refers to an electrical junction device, like a cable TV splitter, that lets one line feed a signal into two or more lines.

We found several other technical senses, including the natural diffusion of fluids in body tissue, human and animal migrations, the movement of heat and cold, and the dispersion of seeds in nature.

The earliest use of the term that we found in Google Books is from “The Darwinian Theory and the Law of the Migration,” an 1873 English translation of an 1868 paper by the German explorer Moritz Wagner:

“Even the passive distribution of seeds has not a little diminished in comparison with earlier times. In garden, meadow, and field, man wages eternal warfare against all intruders, and where extirpation is impossible, he at all events limits their number, and checks their distribution.”

We assume, however, that you’re referring to a nontechnical usage that apparently showed up in the 1990s: letting outsiders into schools to place religious material on tables for students to take.

For example, members of a conservative group, World Changers, come into schools in two Florida counties, Orange and Collier, to distribute Bibles.

Under a Nov. 2, 2010, consent decree filed in US District Court in Fort Myers, the group has the right to distribute Bibles at the schools one day a year.

The decree stipulates that the Bibles have to be placed on an unattended table, the visitors can’t have contact with students, and a sign must say the event isn’t sponsored or endorsed by the school board.

The document, signed by Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell, refers to the practice as “the passive distribution of literature.”

A brief online search found this earlier example of the usage in a January 1999 report in which the American Association of School Administrators discusses the distribution of religious material in schools:

“Only passive distribution is permitted, however, and no outside adult should be allowed to come onto campus and hand out the materials.”

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Wigs, bigwigs, and big Whigs

Q: A recent headline in the Salt Lake Tribune: “GOP big-whigs suggest Romney quietly go away.” I initially assumed that “big-whigs” was an error (albeit an amusing one), but a quick look on the Internet suggests that there might be a historical basis for this mistake. Can you enlighten me?

A: The headline writer for that post-election article no doubt meant “bigwigs,” not “big-whigs.” The chances are pretty slim that the writer intended a pun on the Whig political parties in Britain or the United States.

Even if a pun was intended, it wouldn’t have been appropriate, since the Whigs—at least in Britain—were known for being liberal.

But a few years ago another headline writer did manage such a pun. In 2007, the Telegraph of London used this headline on a review of a book about the 18th-century British prime minister Robert Walpole: “First of the big Whigs.”

There were Whigs in Britain in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and in the United States in the 19th century. The last Whig president was Millard Fillmore, who left office in 1853.

Certainly many big Whigs in 17th-century England wore big wigs (probably curled and powdered), but etymologically “Whig” and “wig” are not related.

The origin of “Whig” has never been pinned down. It might possibly be from “whiggamer” or “whiggamore,” one of a group of Scottish rebels who marched on Edinburgh in 1648, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word “wig,” for the hairpiece, was first recorded in the 1600s as a short form of “periwig,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Two words for a hairpiece, “periwig” and “peruke,” came into English in the 1500s, and both were derived from a Middle French word spelled perrucque or perruque, the OED says.

The French terms originally referred to a natural head of long hair, but “periwig” and for most of its history “peruke” have meant artificial hairpieces.

They’re not heard much these days, but here’s a 19th-century example of “peruke.” It comes from a primer on Shakespeare written in 1875 by Edward Dowden:

“That a most Christian king should each morning receive his peruke inserted upon a cane through an aperture of his bed-curtains is entirely correct; for the valet cannot retain faith in a perukeless grand monarch.”

And “bigwig”? We call important people “bigwigs,” according to the OED, because “of the large wigs formerly worn by men of distinction or importance.”

The term “bigwig” was first recorded in 1703 in a weekly journal called English Spy: “Be unto him ever ready to promote his wishes … against dun or don—nob or big-wig—so may you never want a bumper of bishop.”

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Inaugural pronunciations

Q: Please comment on the pronunciation of “inauguration” as
in-aw-guh-RAY-shun. When did this pronunciation become so ubiquitous, even among NPR news readers? Is it “wrong”?

A: Times change, and the pronunciation of “inauguration” is a good example.

When we discussed this subject three years ago on our blog, we said the only pronunciations of “inaugurate,” “inauguration,” and “inaugural” we’d ever heard had a “y” sound in the third syllable: in-AW-gyuh-rate … in-aw-gyuh-RAY-shun … in-AW-gyuh-rel.

And we said those were the only pronunciations given in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

But we also noted that one dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), included the non-“y” pronunciations as equal variants: in-AW-guh-rate … in-aw-guh-RAY-shun … in-AW-guh-rel. (As we said in 2010, that last one sounds to us like “doggerel.”)

But apparently the flatter pronunciations are taking hold. Since we wrote that post, a fifth edition of American Heritage has been published, and that dictionary now accepts the pronunciations minus the “y” sound.

A pronunciation can’t be considered “wrong” if even one standard dictionary accepts it. And certainly the evidence of two dictionaries means the “y”-less pronunciations of “inaugurate,” “inauguration,” and “inaugural” are now entrenched in standard English.

We still believe that most people pronounce “inauguration” and its derivatives with a “y” sound. But the people have a choice!

Inaugurations, of course, augur new beginnings. In 2011 we wrote about the etymology of “augur,” the word at the root of “inauguration.”

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English lit or British lit?

Q: Which is correct: English literature or British literature? I studied “English literature” during my schooldays in England. We read the works of authors and poets born in England, Wales, and Scotland. “British literature” sounds strange to me.

A: This is a somewhat sensitive subject, one that seems to change along with ideas about national identity.

When the two of us were in college, in the 1960s and ’70s, the term “English literature” loosely meant works by writers from the British Isles (a term not popular in the Republic of Ireland).

The problem with “English” is that it can refer either to the people of England or to the language, which is spoken in many other nations.

That makes the term “English literature” a little ambiguous. It could mean works written in English, or works written by English authors.

Today, “English literature” is often defined simply as literature written in the English language.

“British literature,” on the other hand, usually refers to works by authors from the United Kingdom (comprising England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland), and sometimes from the Republic of Ireland.

The choice of terms can be difficult. A case in point is the five-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, which includes entries for authors and works from the UK and the Republic of Ireland, an independent nation.

The editor in chief, David Scott Kastan, says in the preface that the choice of an adjective for the title was “vexing,” and explains why “British” was chosen instead of “English”:

“ ‘English’ would either limit the field too narrowly (that is, by restricting the focus to the writers of England) or not enough (that is, by opening it up to all writers writing in English),” Kastan writes.

The adjective “British,” he says, “accurately if sometimes uneasily accommodates the Welsh and Scottish entries. The Irish entries less comfortably fit under the rubric.”

So the term “British literature,” Kastan writes, “is admittedly a compromise,” and is intended “largely as a geographical rather than a political term.”

Consequently, Irish writers like Seamus Heaney, Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, and others are included in the encyclopedia as writers “participating in and substantially contributing to a common linguistic and cultural history with writers who with greater terminological precision are labeled ‘British.’ ”

As we hinted above, you’ll find that opinions on such terminology often differ. It’s been our experience, for example, that some people from England resent being referred to as “British” and insist on being called “English.” And we’ve heard from some Scots who don’t care to be referred to as “British” either.

We will leave all that for them to sort out. Meanwhile, a little etymology might be in order.

The short version of the story is that the word “English” is Germanic in origin and “British” is from Latin or Celtic or both.

“English” and “England” are derived from an ancient and long dead noun, Engle, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Engle was used in early Old English as a collective plural. It referred both to the Angles—a Germanic tribe that invaded Roman-occupied Britain in the fifth century and settled the region north of the Thames—and to the people of England.

The Angles were originally from Angeln, a region now known as Schleswig and located in northern Germany and southern Denmark.

The words “British” and “Britain” are derived from Latin by way of Celtic (or vice versa), and can trace their roots to the Roman occupation or even further back. The occupation extended into the southern part of what is now Scotland and lasted from the first through the fifth centuries.

“Britain” is from the classical Latin adjective Britannus, which the OED says is “perhaps ultimately [from] the Celtic base of Welsh pryd,” meaning “countenance, image, beauty, form.” (The Old Welsh for “Britain” was Priten.) 

Why, you’re probably asking, can’t we be more precise about the ultimate origin of  “British” and “Britain”? Did their ancestors come into Old English from Latin or from Celtic? Here’s what the OED has to say on the subject:

“At the time of contact with the Anglo-Saxons, south-eastern Britain was heavily Romanized and bilingualism with Latin must have been common. Therefore, although post-classical Latin Brittus (as well as classical Latin Britto and Brittannus ) appears ultimately to have a Celtic base …, it is unclear whether Latin or British forms (or both) were borrowed into Old English.”

The name “Britain” has been used since the Old English period, the OED says, “to denote the geographical area comprising England, Wales, and Scotland, with their dependencies (more fully called Great Britain).” More recently, the term is “also used for the British state or empire as a whole.”

We mentioned the term “British Isles” above, so let’s not keep it dangling.

It’s defined in the OED as “a group of islands, including Britain, Ireland (Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland), the Isle of Man, the Hebrides, the Orkney Islands, the Shetland Islands, the Scilly Isles, and the Channel Islands, lying off the coast of northwestern Europe, from which they are separated by the North Sea and the English Channel.”

The OED says the phrase “British Isles” is “generally regarded as a geographical or territorial description, rather than as one which designates a political entity.” The term, the OED adds, “is deprecated by some speakers in the Republic of Ireland.”

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We hope you’re not bored

Q: At the risk of being thought priggish, but prompted by your discussion of the proper prepositions for use with “squeamish,” what are your thoughts on the current popularity of the phrase “bored of”? Example: “I’m bored of this—let’s change the channel.”

A: When a preposition follows “bored,” it has traditionally been “with” or “by.” So the traditional construction would be “I’m bored with this” or “I’m bored by this.”

In standard usage, we generally haven’t been bored “of” or “over” or “about” or “from” something.

However, the phrase “bored of” has become very common lately, and it may very well be considered standard one of these days. In fact, “bored from” is seen a lot too, and it may also be accepted as standard at some point.

The Oxford Dictionaries Online says “bored of” is a more recent construction than “bored with” and “bored by,” but “it’s become extremely common.”

“In fact, the Oxford English Corpus contains almost twice as many instances of bored of than bored by,” Oxford  says. (The corpus is a database of written or spoken English.)

The Oxford website says the popularity of “bored of” represents “a perfectly logical development of the language, and was probably formed on the pattern of expressions such as tired of or weary of.”

“Nevertheless, some people dislike it and it’s not fully accepted in standard English. It’s best to avoid using it in formal writing,” Oxford adds.

Our Google searches have found that both “bored of” and “bored from” are extremely popular these days. Here’s the scorecard: “bored of,” 4.86 million hits; “bored with,” 4.26 million; “bored from,” 1.25 million, and “bored by,” 913,000.

The verb “bore,” the noun “bore,” and the adjective “bored” showed up in English in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED describes the etymologies of these three words as unknown.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the noun (meaning tiresomeness) suddenly appeared “on the scene as a sort of buzzword of the 1760s, from no known source.”

Ayto adds that “the explanation most commonly offered for its origin” is that the word “bore” that refers to tedium is derived from the much older word “bore” that refers to making  a hole.

The newer word, according to this theory, refers to being pierced with ennui, an explanation that Ayto describes as “not terribly convincing.”

Getting  back to your question, here are a couple of 18th-century examples from the OED in which “bored” is used with  prepositions:

“I pity my Newmarket friends, who are to be bored by these Frenchmen,” from a letter written in 1768 by the Earl of Carlisle.

“I have bored you sadly with this catastrophe,” from a letter written in 1764 by the first Lord Malmesbury.

No prepositions other than “with” or “by” appear in any of the OED’s citations.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), in its entry for “bored,” says: “The normal constructions are with with or with by.” However, Fowler’s notes the usage that has caught your attention:

“A regrettable tendency has emerged in recent years, esp. in non-standard English in Britain and abroad, to construe the verb with of.”

Regrettable or not, “bored of” may be here to stay.

[Note: This post was updated on Nov. 14, 2013.]

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Behind the Iron Curtain

Q: A recent article in the New York Times Book Review says Winston Churchill coined the term “Iron Curtain.” Churchill, as you’ve written, is a notorious quote magnet, which prompts my question: Did he actually come up with the metaphor or is this another ersatz Churchillism?

A: Max Frankel, in a Nov. 25, 2012, review of Anne Applebaum’s book Iron Curtain, says Churchill “coined the metaphor in a message to President Truman a full year before he used it in public in Fulton, Mo.”

Frankel was referring to a May 12, 1945, telegram from Churchill to Truman, and a March 5, 1946, address by the British Prime Minister at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo.

You’re right that Churchill is a notorious quotation magnet, as we noted in a posting earlier this month.

An oft-quoted example (in one form or another) is the mythological response to a pedant who dared tinker with his writing: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

Did Churchill coin “Iron Curtain”? No, but his speech at Westminster College helped popularize the term as a metaphor for the divide between the former Soviet bloc and the rest of the world.

As it turns out, the phrase “iron curtain” first showed up in English more than a century before the Russian Revolution, in a much different context. But first let’s look at the figurative usage you’ve asked about.

The earliest example of the usage in The Yale Book of Quotations is by the English reformer Ethel Snowden, though she used the term two years before the Soviet Union was officially established.

In her 1920 book Through Bolshevik Russia, Snowden writes: “We were behind the ‘iron curtain’ at last!”

The Yale reference, edited by Fred R. Shapiro (who coined the term “quotation magnet”), cites two other early examples of the usage, and one of them preceded Churchill’s:

“At present an iron curtain of silence has descended, cutting off the Russian zone from the Western Allies.” (T. St. Vincent Trowbridge, a British army officer, quoted in the Oct. 21, 1945, issue of the Sunday Empire News.)

“Over all this territory, which with the Soviet Union included, would be of enormous extent, an iron curtain would at once descend.” (Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief, in the Feb. 25, 1945, issue of Das Reich.)

The Oxford English Dictionary cites another Goebbels example in which the German word vorhang is translated by the Times of London as “screen” instead of “curtain.” (Our two German dictionaries translate it as “curtain.”)

In the Feb. 23, 1945, issue of the Times, Goebbels is quoted as saying: “If the German people lay down their arms, the whole of eastern and south-eastern Europe, together with the Reich, would come under Russian occupation. Behind an iron screen [ein eiserner Vorhang] mass butcheries of peoples would begin.”

A letter to the editor of the New York Times Times Book Review, commenting on the review you asked about, noted on Dec. 16 that the Nazi propaganda magazine Signal used the phrase in a May 1943 article entitled Hinter dem Eisernen Vorhang (“Behind the Iron Curtain”).

As we mentioned above, the phrase “iron curtain” was around for more than a century before the Russian Revolution. In fact, it first showed up in English before Karl Marx was a gleam in his mother’s eye.

In the late 18th century, it was a theatrical term for a literal iron curtain that could be lowered between the stage and the auditorium.

A citation from the March 13, 1794, issue of the Times of London says “an iron curtain has been contrived, which, on such occasion [of fire], would compleatly prevent all communication between the audience and stage.”

By the early 19th century, the phrase was being used figuratively to refer to any impenetrable barrier, according to published references in the OED.

Here’s an example from the Earl of Munster’s 1819 journal of a trip across India: On the 19th November we crossed the river Betwah, and as if an iron curtain had dropt between us and the avenging angel, the deaths diminished.”

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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: the language of Watergate, 40 years later. If you miss the program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.

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Meantime, back at the ranch

Q: Since when has “meantime” become acceptable by itself? I’ve heard several news commentators begin sentences with “Meantime” instead of “In the meantime” or “Meanwhile.” I’ve also seen “meantime” instead of “meanwhile” on news tickers. I was taught in high school that this is incorrect. What happened?

A: The words “meantime” and “meanwhile” have identical meanings and can be used interchangeably, but most of the time we use them for different purposes.

Both are nouns as well as adverbs. When used as adverbs they appear alone, but when used as nouns they’re part of an adverbial phrase beginning “in the …” or “for the ….”

So all of these sentences are correct:

(1) “In the meantime, Herbie did his laundry.” (Here, “meantime” is a noun.)

(2) “In the meanwhile, Herbie did his laundry.” (Here, “meanwhile” is a noun.)

(3) “Meantime, Herbie did his laundry.” (“Meantime” is an adverb here.)

(4) “Meanwhile, Herbie did his laundry.” (“Meanwhile” is an adverb here.)

However, most people use #1 and #4 much more often than #2 and #3. For most of us, the preference is to use the noun “meantime” in the adverbial phrase (#1) and to use “meanwhile” when we want a stand-alone adverb (#4).

While those are the customary idiomatic usages, it’s not incorrect to go the other way—to use “meantime” all by itself and “meanwhile” as part of a phrase (“in the meanwhile,” “for the meanwhile”).

We’re not alone in saying this, by the way. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage comments: “The evidence shows that meantime and meanwhile have been used interchangeably as nouns since the 14th century and as adverbs since the 16th century.” (And that, we might add, is as long as they’ve been in the language.)

“The general observation that meantime is now the more common noun and meanwhile the more common adverb is undoubtedly true,” M-W continues, “but the adverb meantime and the noun meanwhile have been in continuous use for hundreds of year, and their use in current English is not rare.”

The usage guide’s advice: “There is no need to make a point of avoiding such usage.”

Another authority, R. W. Burchfield, writes in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.): “The phrases in the meantime and in the meanwhile are still to some extent interchangeable, though the former is the more usual.”

As we said above, the definitions of “meantime” and “meanwhile” are identical.

The nouns mean “the time intervening between one particular period or event and another,” the OED says, while the adverbs mean “during the intervening time between one particular period or event and another; while or until a particular event occurs; at the same time; for the present.”

Their parallel histories are interesting to trace. Both words originally showed up as parts of longer phrases.

In its earliest uses, “meantime” was part of the phrase “in the meantime,” which the OED defines as “during or within the time intervening between a particular period or event and a subsequent one; while or until a (specified) period or event occurs.”

OED citations for the phrase date back to 1340, and it appears (as “in the mene tyme”) in a circa 1384 edition of the Wycliffe Bible.

This modern example is from Muriel Spark’s novel A Far Cry From Kensington (1988): “We thought … we would soon have to find another job. In the meantime we got on with the job we had.”

“For the meantime” was first recorded in 1480 (as “for the mene tyme”), and means “so long as a period of (intervening) time lasts; for the interim,” the OED says.

The OED’s most recent example is from a 1990 issue of the journal Modern Railways: “For the meantime he has a tremendous task, compounded by the managerial and organisational changes racking BR as it attempts to meld the Sectors and production.”

But “meantime” has been used as a stand-alone adverb since the late 16th century. Oxford’s earliest example is from Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II, written sometime before 1593: “Mean time my lord of Penbrooke and my selfe Will to Newcastell heere, and gather head.”

The dictionary’s examples continue into modern times. The most recent is from BBC Top Gear Magazine (1999): “Ferrari is readying a fully convertible version of the fab 360 Modena…. Meantime, the 360 comes with a removable-panel sunshine roof option.”

Like “meantime,” the noun “meanwhile” first appeared as part of a phrase: “in the meanwhile” (dating to before 1375) and “for the meanwhile” (circa 1390).

This modern example is from a 1986 issue of the Daily Telegraph (London): “In the meanwhile, the Government is effectively admitting that state spending is out of control.”

And this one is from a 1993 novel, Will Self’s My Idea of Fun: “I didn’t know who or where to turn to. So for the meanwhile I continued with my ritualised observances.”

But like you, most people are more comfortable with “meanwhile” used solo as an adverb, a usage first recorded (as “mene whyle”) in 1440.

This elegant example is from D. H. Lawrence’s novel The Rainbow (1915): “Meanwhile the brook slid on coldly, chuckling to itself.”

And here’s one from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender Is the Night (1934): “He … took a small beer on the terrace of the station buffet, meanwhile watching the little bug crawl down the eighty-degree slope of the hill.”

As you can see from all the examples, sometimes these adverbs and adverbial phrases appear at the beginning of sentences and sometimes later; sometimes they’re set off by commas and sometimes they’re not.

We can’t sign off without mentioning the phrase “meanwhile, back at the ranch,” which the OED says was “originally used in western stories and films, introducing a subsidiary plot; now chiefly humorous and in extended use.”

In Oxford’s earliest example, the phrase is in its infancy and lacks the word “back.” It’s from a classic of the genre, Zane Grey’s novel Riders of the Purple Sage (1912):

“Meantime, at the ranch, when Judkins’s news had sent Venters on the trail of the rustlers, Jane Withersteen led the injured man to her house.”

Fowler’s says the complete phrase (“Meanwhile, back at the ranch”) originally appeared as a subtitle in silent Western films and was later “promoted from caption to voice-over.”

The OED’s first published example of the complete phrase is from a 1940 issue of the Oakland Tribune: “Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Sandy’s dog, Pat, began to whine.”

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Quote magnets

Q: I enjoyed hearing Pat discuss quote magnets last month on WNYC. I have a favorite Mark Twain quote, and I’d like to know whether it’s genuine: “If you always tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

A: We can’t find any evidence that Mark Twain ever wrote this. We can’t find it in any of his works, and the Internet websites that say he wrote it don’t say where.

If you can’t look something up to verify it at the source, it’s probably not true. And as Pat said on that WNYC program, Twain never said a lot of the things attributed to him.

In fact, Twain is a good example of a quotation magnet, a term coined by Fred Shapiro, author of The Yale Book of Quotations, for people often credited with saying things they never said.

When a quote is catchy but of unknown or obscure origin, it tends to attach itself to some famous person, like Twain, Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Lincoln, or Dorothy Parker.

In an article in the July-August 2011 issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine, Shapiro calls Twain “the great American quotation magnet” because “any folksy or mildly satiric line tends to be pinned on him.”

The quote you mention is found in many different versions and has been attributed to more than one person, which leads us to think that it should be chalked up to that great fount of platitudes, Anonymous.

We found an early version—“If you always tell the truth, you will never have to fix up excuses”—among a list of anonymous “Ironical Ifs” printed in the Bay City (Michigan) Times-Press on Nov. 19, 1898. The same list was reprinted the following year in the Muskegon (Michigan) Chronicle.

Twain was alive and kicking then and was wildly popular. If those newspapers had been quoting him, they no doubt would have said so.

Over the years, the quotation morphed into many different forms. One version showed up in an African-American newspaper, the Negro Star, of Wichita, Kansas, on Feb. 8, 1952.

In an opinion column devoted to the importance of accuracy, the writer, Ruth Taylor, quoted “a machinist friend” of hers as saying, “If you always tell the truth, then you never have to remember what you said before.”

Similar versions of the quote have been posthumously attributed to Sam Rayburn, the longtime Speaker of the House of Representatives, who died in 1961.

According to a United Press International dispatch that ran in the Chicago Tribune in July 1967, Rayburn “was fond of saying: ‘If you always tell the truth, you never have to remember what you said.’ ”

And in 1978, the Washingtonian magazine quoted Rayburn as saying, “Son, always tell the truth. Then you’ll never have to remember what you said the last time.”

George McGovern apparently made a similar observation. In a New Yorker article in May 1972, when McGovern was running for president, Shirley MacLaine is quoted as saying that McGovern “never gets tired.”

“I asked him how he did it,” MacLaine says, “and he told me that the secret is telling the truth. If you always tell the truth you don’t have to use up energy trying to remember what you said in other places.”

Yet another version appears in David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross (1982). In Act Two, the character Roma is giving advice on how to talk to the police: “Always tell the truth. It’s the easiest thing to remember.”

Yet other versions appear on the Internet, some attributed to Twain, some to Rayburn, and some to “legend.” Versions differ, to the effect that if you tell the truth, you won’t have to remember “your words,” or “what you said,” or “your lies.”

As for Twain, he did write, “When in doubt, tell the truth,” according to The Yale Book of Quotations. The quote is from Following the Equator, chapter 2, “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar” (1897).

If Twain was the “great American quotation magnet,” then Churchill was the great British one. The tendency for wisecracks to attach themselves to Churchill is so common that it’s been given a name of its own: “Churchillian drift.”

As Pat mentioned on the program, Lady Astor supposedly told Churchill at a dinner party, “If I were married to you, I’d put poison in your coffee.” Churchill’s alleged reply: “If I were married to you, I’d drink it.”

According to legend that exchange took place in the 1920s, but Shapiro has traced it to a joke line from a 1900 edition of The Chicago Tribune.

Similarly, there’s no truth to the old story about someone who wanted to “fix” one of Churchill’s sentences because it ended with a preposition.

There are many versions of what Churchill is supposed to have written in a marginal note. The most common: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

While we’re at it, Churchill never described Britain and the United States as “two nations divided by a common language.” We’ve written about these last two legends in our book about language myths, Origins of the Specious.

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Can a fruit be a vegetable?

Q: You pushed one of my buttons when you made the claim that squash is a fruit, not a vegetable. I hear the same thing about tomatoes, usually accompanied by some level of know-it-all smugness. Simply put, the words “fruit” and “vegetable” are not mutually exclusive.

A: You’re right, and we’ve fixed our posting, which discusses whether the “squash” that means to crush is related to the “squash” that one eats.

As you say, something can be a fruit in the botanical sense as well as a vegetable in the culinary sense. It all depends on whether one is using the vocabulary of the kitchen or of the garden.

In the garden, a fruit is the edible reproductive part of a seed plant, while a vegetable is any edible part of a plant.

In the kitchen, a fruit is any edible part of a plant with a sweet flavor, while a vegetable is any edible part of a plant that’s spicy, salty, or otherwise pungent.

Interestingly, the word “fruit” referred to edible “vegetable products in general” when it entered English in the 12th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED citation is from the Lambeth Homilies, a collection of sermons dating from around 1175: Me saweth sed on ane time and gedereth thet frut on other time.” (In this and subsequent quotations, we’ve changed the letters eth and thorn to “th.”)

It wasn’t until the 13th century that the word “fruit” took on its reproductive sense, which the OED defines as the “edible product of a plant or tree, consisting of the seed and its envelope.”

The earliest Oxford citation for this new meaning is from the Ancrene Riwle (circa 1225), which refers to a tree that “bereth swete frut.”

Although the Old French noun fruit is the immediate source of our English word, the term is ultimately derived from the Latin verb frui (to enjoy).

The noun “vegetable” (from the post-classical Latin vegetabilia) first showed up in English in the late 15th century, according to OED citations.

The word initially referred to “any living organism that is not an animal,” Oxford says, but it has come to mean “one belonging to the plant kingdom.”

The first OED citation is in a translation from around 1484 of Secretum Secretorium, a medieval treatise on, among other things, astrology, alchemy, and magic:

“Euiry thyng wantyng lyght of the nombyr of vegetabyllis is attribute to Saturne.”

Thanks for catching our mistake and keeping us on our toes. And thanks for giving us a chance to write about these sweet and savory edibles.

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All for one, and one for all


Q: I’m editing a magazine piece and I’m stuck on whether to change “is” to “are” in these two sentences: “All we have is our bodies. All we own is ourselves.” I feel as if it should be “are,” but it sounds awkward to have “our” follow “are.” I feel sound is more important than grammar here. Is a singular verb absolutely wrong?

A: The short answer is that the verb “be” in both those sentences should be singular: “All we have is our bodies. All we own is ourselves.”

In this kind of sentence, “all” is a collective pronoun that means “the only thing” or “everything”. And when it’s used with a form of the verb “be,” the verb is always singular—“is,” not “are.”

This is true even if the verb is followed by a plural complement like “bodies.” Or like “teeth,” as in “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth.”

We’re not talking about the adjective “all,” which can be used in either a singular or a plural construction (“all boys are” … “all food is”). And we’re not talking about another use of “all”—the pronoun that can be either singular or plural (“all of the boys are” … “all the food is”).

Here we’re talking about the pronoun “all” in a different construction: it’s not followed by “of” or “the,” and it stands for a totality of something.

Theodore M. Bernstein wrote about this use of “all” in The Careful Writer (1965):

All is an adjective that sometimes becomes a pronoun, as in, ‘All I know is what I read in the newspapers,’ or as in the line from the one-time popular song, ‘All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth.’ In both these instances the word is singular.”

As he explains, “When all is equivalent to the only thing or everything, it takes a singular verb.”

Other authorities agree. Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) says this use of “all” as “a collective abstraction” requires a singular verb.

Garner’s gives this sentence from a newspaper as an example: “All she wants is people to be touched by the gifts she believes God has given her.”

The usage guide adds: “Writers sometimes err, especially when a collective all has a plural complement in the predicate—e.g., ‘All she needs are [read is] the open-house listings in the Sunday Real Estate section.”

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) puts it this way: “When all is the subject of the verb to be followed by a plural complement, the linking verb is expressed in the singular.”

Fowler’s gives these examples: “All I saw was fields” and “In some sense, all we have is the scores.”

We briefly touched on the subject of “all is” versus “all are” in 2006, but back then we were discussing a different use of “all”—as part of a noun phrase for something concrete, as in “all the milk” or “all the cookies.”

As we mentioned above, such “all” phrases can be either singular or plural, as in “All the milk is fresh but all the cookies are stale.” In that example, “all” is part of two noun phrases, one clearly singular (“all the milk”) and one clearly plural (“all the cookies”).

So when “all” is part of a noun phrase for something concrete, there’s no problem determining whether the phrase as a whole is singular or plural.

Even when “all” isn’t part of a phrase, it often implies either a singular noun or a plural one, as in “all [of the dinner] was delightful” or “all [of the children] are well.”

But again, if “all” stands for “everything” or “the only thing,” then it’s singular, as in “All he ever wants is meat and potatoes.” It might help to remember the familiar expression “All is well.”

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When the past is present

Q: Why do authors, when quoting an important but long-dead figure, usually say things like “Tolstoy writes” and “Jesus says” instead of “Tolstoy wrote” and “Jesus said”?

 A: When authors quote someone else’s words, they often use the present tense. This convention is sometimes called the “literary present,” and it’s not confined to long-dead figures.

You’ll see it in contemporary literary criticism and in other writing about authors both living and dead: “As Tacitus says …” or “In his earlier novels, Roth writes …” or “Here’s how Alan Furst describes ….”

The literary present is especially common in writings about literature, but the literature need not be fictional.

For example, the works of a historian can be referred to in the same way: “In The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman writes …” or “Robert Caro portrays Johnson as ….”

Why the present tense? Because a literary work—no matter when it was created—presents itself to the reader in an unchanging present, as if it were being written as we read.

In other words, such a work is eternally alive to us as we experience it. And an author who writes about the work may use the literary present to convey this sense of immediacy.

However, when putting a literary work in a specific historical time, the past tense is generally used. “When Shakespeare wrote The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Elizabeth’s court was ….”

We’ve written previously on the blog about a similar convention, the “historical present,” where the present tense is used to narrate events in the past.

We invented this example to illustrate the historical present in action: “Napoleon’s armies are starving. Snow blankets Moscow. The generals are wondering: Is retreat worse than annihilation?”

Both the literary present and the historical present are available to writers who want to create a feeling of immediacy. These devices aren’t mandatory though; they’re simply tools a good writer should know how to use.

An author might want to create a different effect altogether by using the past tense: “Hemingway really knew the score when he wrote …” or “Napoleon made a grave mistaken when he ….”

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The whole six yards?

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

Once more, we interrupt our regular programming for an update on “the whole nine yards,” an expression whose origin has eluded etymologists for decades.

In our last bulletin, just four months ago, we said that word sleuths had traced the expression back to the mid-1950s, when it appeared in two articles in a Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife publication.

But the references—“So that’s the whole nine-yards” and “These guys go the whole nine yards”—provided no clue to the phrase’s origin. Even the author of the articles said he had no inside information.

Now Fred R. Shapiro, author of the Yale Book of Quotations, has announced new findings. In the January-February issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine, he says several references to “the whole six yards” (yes six, not nine) have turned up in print from 1912 to 1921.

And the six-yard version of the expression meant exactly what the nine-yard version does—the whole extent of something. What this suggests, Shapiro says, is that “the whole six yards” eventually became “the whole nine yards.”

As he explains: “Anyone who studies quotations and phraseology often sees a phenomenon I hereby dub ‘phrase inflation’: in expressions that use a number meant to be impressive, that number is likely to grow over time.”

He cites the example of “cloud nine,” a phrase that originally appeared as “cloud seven” and “cloud eight.” Likewise, the expression “Let a hundred flowers bloom” now usually appears as “Let a thousand flowers bloom.”

His research was also reported in an article in the New York Times.

So what about the phrase’s original meaning? As Shapiro writes in his article, “Still, we have no explanation of why something six or nine yards long is being alluded to—of what was originally six or nine yards long.”

“Perhaps,” he adds, “the reference was never a specific length of a specific thing, but only a colorful locution vaguely signifying something very long. We can now at least trace the inflation that apparently led to the final formulation.”

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What kind of abbreviation is K-9?

Q: I’m curious about the term “K-9” that appears on the doors of LAPD patrol cars that carry dogs. Is there a proper term for this type of word shortening?

A: “K-9” is obviously an abbreviation, because it’s a short form of a longer word, “canine.” But what kind of abbreviation is it?

Two common kinds of abbreviations are the “acronym” and the “initialism,” which differ in the way they’re spoken.

Since acronyms are pronounced as words and initialisms are pronounced as letters, it would appear that “K-9” could be either one. It sounds just like “canine,” and just like the individual characters “K” and 9.”

But in our opinion, it’s technically neither acronym nor initialism.

An acronym, as we’ve written on our blog, is a word formed from elements of a longer word or phrase. But “canine” doesn’t include a “K” or a “9.”

And an initialism, as we’ve also written, is a series of letters formed from a longer word of phrase. But again, “K” and “9” aren’t part of the unabbreviated word.

We seem to be in a special category here. The “K” and the “9” merely echo sounds found in the word “canine” but don’t stand for anything resembling the longer word.

We’ve at times come across the term “pseudo-acronym,” and “K-9” might be one of those.

No dictionaries that we’ve found define “pseudo-acronym,” and there are conflicting definitions on websites. Here’s one from a paper on acronyms published by the US Department of Homeland Security:

“Pseudo-acronym: A catchall for variations and embellishments, such as creating an acronym from other acronyms (IT Acquisition Center—ITAC) or mixing abbreviations and acronyms (deoxyribonucleic acid—DNA) and ignoring words in a series just to make a pronounceable word (Princeton University Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials–PRISM), or pronouncing vowels that are not there (Guantanamo—GTMO, pronounced Gitmo) to coin a word.”

So, according to Homeland Security, you’d be on safe ground if you called “K-9” a pseudo-acronym. It’s definitely a variation or embellishment, and certainly the canines themselves won’t object.

By the way, we usually see “K-9” with a hyphen, but not always. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, hyphenates the term on patrol cars, but usually drops the hyphen on the home page of its canine unit.

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have an entry for “K-9,” but it includes the term in a citation for the noun “superintelligence.”

A Sept. 7, 1950, article in the Olean (NY) Times Herald uses the term in describing military dogs: “Super-intelligence, willingness and reliability under gunfire are requirements for the K-9 Corps.”

We found a similar use of the term in the New York Times. A Jan. 31, 1943, article describes a demonstration at the Westminster Kennel Club’s dog show “by members of the K-9 Corps—dogs now at work with the Army and Coast Guard.”

The Army’s War Dog Program, started by the Quartermaster Corps on March 13, 1942, was popularly referred to as the “K-9 Corps.”

The K-9 Corps undoubtedly helped popularize the term, though the usage was around long before the War Dog Program began.

A search of Google Books, for example, found an 1876 issue of Hallberger’s Illustrated Magazine that refers to “the various ways of rendering ‘Canine Castle,’ such as ‘K-nine Castle,’ and, better still, ‘K.9 Castle.’ ”

(Canine Castle was a kennel in London owned by Bill George, a celebrated 19th-century breeder of bulldogs.)

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English English language Etymology Politics Usage Word origin

A humbling victory?

Q: Amid the spate of post-election coverage, a lot of politicians have described their victories as “humbling” experiences. My dictionary doesn’t support this use of “humble.” Is the usage correct?

A: To be “humble” is to be lowered. The word comes down to us from Latin, in which humilem means lowly or insignificant and humus means the ground or earth.

So one is “humbled,” or has a “humbling” experience, when reminded of one’s insignificance or lowliness.

And you’re right—we hear “humble” a lot at the end of election cycles. “Humble” is the opposite of proud, and many successful candidates say they’re “humbled” by the experience, or “proud yet humble” to find they’ve been elected.

This isn’t necessarily a misuse of the word “humble.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines the adjective “humble” this way:

“1. Marked by meekness or modesty in behavior, attitude, or spirit; not arrogant or prideful. 2. Showing deferential or submissive respect: a humble apology. 3. Low in rank, quality, or station; unpretentious or lowly: a humble cottage.”

So the use of “humble” by a victorious politician isn’t incorrect, if he means he’s proud of winning yet humbled by the responsibilities of office. But we have to say there’s something disingenuous about this “proud yet humble” formula.

It’s all too easy to call yourself “humble” when you’re on top. In fact, it’s really the loser who’s lowered or humbled, not the winner. But rarely does the loser say he’s been “humbled” by his loss. Such is politics.

The adjective “humble” has been around since about 1250, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. As we said, it means the opposite of proud or exalted—lowly, modest, unpretentious, of low esteem.

It’s often applied to people, as in phrases like “humble folk,” “humble suitor,” and “humble servant.” But it’s applied to things too, as in “humble thanks,” “my humble opinion,” “humble bed,” “humble origins,” “humble abode,” and so on.

The adjective gave rise to the verb “humble,” first recorded in the late 1300s.

The verb first meant “to render oneself humble” or “to assume a humble attitude,” as in bowing or doing obeisance, the OED says.

Later the verb came to mean “to render humble or meek in spirit” or “to cause to think more lowly of oneself,” the OED says.

An example is this passage from Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona (early 1590s): “Love’s a mighty Lord, / And hath so humbled me.”

Another meaning of the verb is “to lower in dignity, position, condition, or degree; to bring low, abase.”

The OED’s first citation for this sense of the word comes from William Caxton’s 1484 translation of Aesop’s Fables: “The prowde shall be allway humbled.”

Another example is from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (1594): “All humbled on your knees.”

If the word “humiliate” occurs to you here, there’s a reason. It has the same Latin ancestry as “humble”—the Latin humilis, which is also derived from humus.

“Humiliate,” first recorded in the 1500s, means to humble or make low, and originally also meant to abase or prostrate oneself.

The earlier noun “humility” (circa 1315) originally meant the quality of being humble, “the opposite of pride or haughtiness,” says the OED.

No winning candidate wants to appear haughty or full of pride—unless of course the pride is leavened by “humility” or a sense of being “humbled.”

But one point is worth making. You can’t feel humbled—that is, brought low—unless you have a rather high opinion of yourself in the first place. This reminds us of an anecdote.

In 1969, the Israeli politician Simcha Dinitz spoke to the New York Times about Golda Meir, who had just become Israel’s Prime Minister: “She is always telling people: ‘Don’t be so humble—you’re not that great.’ ”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Thanks for collocating!

Q: I’m taking an online course in emergency management and I’ve come across the word “collocate” used to mean share, as in, “a Unified Command to collocate facilities.” When I looked the word up, however, this usage seems incorrect. Please educate me!

A: The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb “collocate” as to set in a place, place side by side, or arrange.

The verb entered English in the 16th century (first recorded in 1548, according to the OED), but its ultimate source is the Latin col- (together) plus locare (to place).

Oxford says a specialized meaning in linguistics showed up in the mid-20th century: “To place (a word) with (another word) so as to form a collocation.”

A “collocation” is a group of two or more words that often appear together: “green” and “envy,” for example, or “blond” and “hair.”

The definitions in the two standard dictionaries we use the most—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.)—agree with those in the OED.

It would appear that the language used in your emergency management course stretches the meaning a bit.

However, this isn’t all that unusual in the academic world, where educators often prefer a bureaucratic-sounding word like “collocate” to a simple one like “share.”

Thanks for sharing this—or, as the people teaching that course might say, collocating this!

[Note: We’ve written a new post that updates and expands on this item.]

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Hypercritical vs. hypocritical

Q: I was reading a posting on the religious blog Patheos about critics who are both “hypercritical” and “hypocritical,” which got me to thinking about those two words. They look like antonyms, but being “hypercritical” isn’t the opposite of being “hypocritical.” Are these terms related?

A: You’re right. The two adjectives aren’t antonyms. Someone who’s “hypercritical” is excessively critical while someone who’s “hypocritical” is insincere. But as that posting suggests, a “hypercritical” person can be “hypocritical.”

Are the words “hypercritical” and “hypocritical” related? Yes, if you go back far enough.

The English prefixes “hyper” and “hypo” are derived from the Greek prepositions hyper (over) and hypo (under). The “critical” part of these words ultimately comes from the classical Greek verb krinein (to judge, decide, etc.).

So someone who’s “hypercritical” is overly judgmental. But why, you’re probably wondering, is a “hypocritical” person insincere?

In ancient Greek, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, hypokrinesthai meant to play a part, hypokrisis was acting on the stage, and hypokrites was an actor.

How did the classical terms hypo (under) and krinein (to judge) give the Greeks the terms for act, acting, and actor?

The etymology is fuzzy here, but one possibility is that the Greeks recognized that actors had to subordinate their own judgment to play a role.

Now how did hypokrisis, the Greek term for acting, give English “hypocrisy,” a negative word for professing beliefs you don’t really have?

It turns out that in classical times hypokrisis also had an unpleasant odor to it, according to Chambers. In addition to meaning acting, the term referred to pretense and dissimulation—that is, insincerity.

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