English English language Grammar Usage

The well-coordinated modifier

Q: What do you call a string of noun phrases that share the same noun? Example: “The English, French, and math teachers all have lunch together.”

A: A construction like “English, French, and math teachers” is simply a noun (“teachers”) modified by several adjectives (“English,” “French,” “math”).

Grammatically, it’s not regarded as a string of noun phrases (“English teachers,” “French teachers,” “math teachers”) from which the repetition has been removed.

What, you ask, is a construction like this called?

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language would describe it as a head noun (“teachers”) with coordinate modifiers (“English,” “French,” and “math”).

In discussing this kind of construction, Cambridge uses the examples “new and used cars” and “London and Oxford colleges.” In each phrase, two “coordinate modifiers” apply to a single noun.

Coordination works the other way too. You can have two or more “coordinate nouns” with a single modifier. Cambridge illustrates this with the examples “new cars and trucks,” and “London schools and colleges.”

The principle here is clear, even if the terminology is a bit dense.

When a modifier plus a noun form what Cambridge calls “a composite nominal”—like “used cars”—the authors say that “the component parts can enter separately into relations of coordination.”

This means that the modifier can be joined by other modifiers, or the noun can be joined by other nouns.

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English English language Etymology Expression Linguistics Phrase origin Slang Usage Word origin

On the lam

Q: Some time ago I wrote you to recommend an essential book for someone in your trade: How the Irish Invented Slang, by Daniel Cassidy. There you will find, among many hundred entries, his view of the derivation of “lam” from the Irish word leim. Alas, Danny has since died, and his extraordinary achievement has not been properly recognized. I feel sure that if you look through his book you will be inspired to extend at least his scholarly life.

A: You won’t like what we have to say. This book sounds like a lot of fun, but perhaps there’s more fun in it than truth.

Cassidy’s book, which won an American Book Award for nonfiction in 2007, maintains that American slang is teeming with words of Irish origin—“jazz,” “spiel,” “baloney,” “nincompoop,” “babe,” and “bunkum,” to mention only a few.

But many of his claims have been disputed by linguists and lexicographers because they’re based merely on phonetic similarities.

The critics include Grant Barrett, a lexicographer and dictionary editor who specializes in slang, and Mark Liberman, a linguist who has called Cassidy’s book an “exercise in creative etymology.”

Cassidy himself has acknowledged that he based his etymologies on phonetic similarities. A New York Times interviewer wrote in 2007 about the inspiration that led to the book:

 “Mr. Cassidy’s curiosity about the working-class Irish vernacular he grew up with kept growing. Some years back, leafing through a pocket Gaelic dictionary, he began looking for phonetic equivalents of the terms, which English dictionaries described as having ‘unknown origin.’ ”

 The article continues: “He began finding one word after another that seemed to derive from the strain of Gaelic spoken in Ireland, known as Irish. The word ‘gimmick’ seemed to come from ‘camag,’ meaning trick or deceit, or a hook or crooked stick.”

 “Buddy,” as Cassidy told the interviewer, sounded like bodach (Irish for a strong, lusty youth); “geezer” resembled gaosmhar (wise person); “dude” was like duid (foolish-looking fellow), and so on. He thus compiled lists of American slang words that sounded as if they came from Irish, and based his book on them.

But in doing serious etymology, one has to do more than show that words in one language sound or look like those in another. A superficial resemblance might provide a starting point, but it shouldn’t be the conclusion.

A more authoritative approach would be to apply the academic standards that a lexicographer or a comparative linguist would use, supporting one’s case with documented evidence from written records. 

Let’s focus on the phrase you mention—“on the lam.”

Cassidy suggests an etymology of “lam” in a passage about an Irish-American gambler named Benny Binion: “Benny went on the lam (leim, jump), scramming to Vegas with two million dollars in the trunk of his maroon Cadillac.”

So Cassidy is proposing that “lam” in this sense is derived from the Irish leim. But other than that parenthetical note, he offers no evidence for the suggested etymology.

It’s true that leim (pronounced LAY-im) is Irish Gaelic for “jump” or “leap.” It’s similar to nouns with the same meaning in other Celtic languages (llam in Welsh, lam in Breton and Cornish, lheim in Manx Gaelic, leum in Scottish Gaelic), and it shows up in many Irish place names.

But we haven’t found a single other source that connects the Irish leim with the American slang term “lam,” meaning to run away. Not one.

If there were any truth in Cassidy’s assertion, etymologists and lexicographers would have picked up on it by now. 

Slang scholars still describe the origin of the “lam” in “on the lam” as unknown, and they would be only too happy to discover it.

Several theories have been proposed over the years: (1) that “lam” is short for “slam”; (2) that it’s from “lammas,” a mid-19th century British slang word meaning to run off; and (3) that it’s from the verb “lam” (to beat), used like “beat” in the older phrase “beat it.”

The last theory is the most commonly proposed—that the slang “lam” comes from the verb meaning to beat.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “lam” has had this meaning (to “beat soundly” or “thrash”) since Shakespeare’s day. The earliest citations in writing come from the 1590s.

In the late 19th century, the OED says, this verb “lam” acquired a new meaning in American slang—“to run off, to escape, to ‘beat it.’ ”

Oxford’s earliest citation for the slang verb is from Allan Pinkerton’s book Thirty Years a Detective (1886), in a reference to a pickpocket:

“After he has secured the wallet he will … utter the word ‘lam!’ This means to let the man go, and to get out of the way as soon as possible.”

The following year, the OED says, the word started appearing as a noun to mean “escape” or “flight.” Oxford’s earliest example here is from an 1897 issue of Appleton’s Popular Science Monthly: “To do a lam, meaning to run.”

Over the next few decades, according to slang dictionaries, to run or escape was to “lam,” “do a lam,” “make a lam,” “lam it,” “go on the lam,” “take a lam,” “take it on the lam,” and “be on the lam.”

Similarly, the OED says, a fugitive or somebody on the run was called a “lamster” (1904; also spelled “lamaster” and “lammister”).

It’s not hard to see how the “lam” that means to beat it might have descended from the “lam” that means to beat.

Since Old English, as the OED says, to “beat” has been “said of the action of the feet upon the ground in walking or running.”

This use of “beat,” according to Oxford, has given us phrases like “beat the streets,” “beat a path,” “beat a track,” and so on. In the 17th century, to “beat the hoof,” or “beat it on the hoof,” was to go on foot. 

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says the phrase “beat it” (to clear out, go in a hurry), was first recorded in 1878, when it appeared in A. F. Mulford’s Fighting Indians in the 7th United States Cavalry:

“The Gatling guns sang rapidly for a few seconds, and how those reds, so boastful at their war dance the night before, did ‘beat it!’ ”

So the slang use of “beat it” was around before “lam” (to beat) acquired its extended slang meaning (to run or beat it).

But we haven’t discussed where the earlier “lam” came from. Etymologists believe it’s derived from the Old Norse lemja (to flog or to cripple by beating). However, an even earlier source has been suggested, one that’s older than writing.

The linguist Calvert Watkins, writing in The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, identifies the source of “lam” and “lame” (both verb and adjective) as an Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as lem-, meaning “to break in pieces, broken, soft, with derivatives meaning ‘crippled.’ ”

This Indo-European root developed into prehistoric Proto-Germanic words that have been reconstructed as lamon (weak limbed, lame) and lamjan (to flog, beat, cripple), according to Watkins and to the lexicographer John Ayto in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

Other authorities, including the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, say the Indo-European lem– also has descendants outside the Germanic languages, including an adjective in Old Irish and Middle Irish, lem (“foolish, insipid”).

The modern Irish equivalent, leamh, is similarly defined (“foolish, insipid, importunate”) in An Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, by Alexander McBain. 

This is a different word entirely from the Irish leim (jump), which McBain says was leimm in Old Irish.

We mentioned above that leim can be found in many Irish place names.

To mention just a few, there are Limavady (the Irish name is Leim an Mhadaidh, or “leap of the dog”); Lemnaroy (Leim an Eich Ruaidh, “leap of the reddish horse”); and Leixlip (Leim an Bhradain, “leap of the salmon”).

This last one is an interesting case. Leixlip is on the river Liffey, which is rich in salmon. The town’s original name came from Old Norse, lax hlaup (“salmon leap”).

In the 1890s, when Leixlip adopted an Irish name, it chose Leim an Bhradain (“leap of the salmon”), a direct translation of the Old Norse. Of course, the Vikings who settled there in the Dark Ages may have used a Norse translation from Irish. Who knows?

Some etymological questions may never be settled for sure. That doesn’t mean scholarly methods can’t be used to make an educated guess. Still, uneducated guesses are made all the time because people are so eager to know.

Woody Allen once satirized this desperate need to know. In a humorous essay called “Slang Origins,” from his book Without Feathers (1972), he wrote:

“How many of you have ever wondered where certain slang expressions come from? Like ‘She’s the cat’s pajamas,’ or to ‘take it on the lam.’ Neither have I. And yet for those who are interested in this sort of thing I have provided a brief guide to a few of the more interesting origins. …

“ ‘Take it on the lam’ is English in origin. Years ago, in England, ‘lamming’ was a game played with dice and a large tube of ointment. Each player in turn threw dice and then skipped around the room until he hemorrhaged. If a person threw seven or under he would say the word ‘quintz’ and proceed to twirl in a frenzy. If he threw over seven, he was forced to give every player a portion of his feathers and was given a good ‘lamming.’ Three ‘lammings’ and a player was ‘kwirled’ or declared a moral bankrupt. Gradually any game with feathers was called ‘lamming’ and feathers became ‘lams.’ To ‘take it on the lam’ meant to put on feathers and later, to escape, although the transition is unclear.

“Incidentally, if two of the players disagreed on the rules, we might say they ‘got into a beef.’ This term goes back to the Renaissance when a man would court a woman by stroking the side of her head with a slab of meat. If she pulled away, it meant she was spoken for. If, however, she assisted by clamping the meat to her face and pushing it all over her head, it meant she would marry him. The meat was kept by the bride’s parents and worn as a hat on special occasions. If, however, the husband took another lover, the wife could end the marriage by running with the meat to the town square and yelling, ‘With thine own beef, I do reject thee. Aroo! Aroo!’ If a couple ‘took to the beef’ or ‘had a beef’ it meant they were quarreling.”

We think there’s a lesson here—and some lessons come with a laugh. The human mind abhors a vacuum. When the most advanced methods of scholarship can’t (or haven’t yet) come up with definitive answers, then answers will be invented. 

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English English language Grammar Usage

Myself abuse

[Note: An updated post about “myself” and other “-self” words appeared on Aug. 27, 2018.]

Q: One of my favorite books on English, A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, says “myself” may always be used where the rules of grammar require “I” but people traditionally prefer “me.” However, another of my favorite books, Woe Is I, says one should not use “myself” if either “I” or “me” will work. Your thoughts?

A: A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, by Bergen and Cornelia Evans, is a favorite with us, too, and over all it holds up remarkably well for a usage guide written in the ’50s. But in its entry on the use of “myself,” it begins to show its age.

We agree (and so does Pat’s book Woe Is I) with much of what the Evanses say about “myself.” But we disagree with them that “myself” may always be used instead of “I” or “me” after “than” and the verb “be.”

The issue here is what to do when there’s a conflict between the formal rules of English grammar and the usual practice of it.

In the 1950s, many usage authorities looked askance at a sentence like “She’s prettier than me” and insisted on “She’s prettier than I,” never mind that most speakers of English used “me” rather than “I” in that construction.

Similarly, many usage authorities of the ’50s condemned a sentence like “It’s me,” and insisted on “It’s I” or “It is I,” even though English speakers generally preferred “me.”

Torn between the formal rules and common practice, the Evanses offer this advice: “Myself may always be used where the formal rules of grammar require I but me is the traditionally preferred form.”

But times have changed. Usage authorities these days generally accept “me” in the examples above, making it unnecessary to substitute “myself.”

As we wrote on the blog back in 2008, most lexicographers and grammarians treat “than” as a legitimate preposition in constructions like “no man was more qualified than me” or “I’m taller than her.”

We’ve seen a similar evolution in the use of object pronouns after linking verbs, as in constructions like “it’s me” and “that’s him.”

In a posting written two years ago, we say the belief that a nominative pronoun (like “I”) should be used after the verb “be” came from a convention of Latin grammar. Today the choice between “I” and “me” in this situation is regarded as one of style—formality versus informality—rather than one of correctness.

In short, you can now confidently use the more natural “me” without apologetically resorting to “myself.” And that’s what we recommend.

As we say in another blog entry, reflexive pronouns like “myself” are normally used for emphasis (“I offered to do it myself”) or to refer to a subject already named (“He feels good about himself”).

But in our opinion, many people rely on “myself” for another purpose. They substitute it for “I” or “me” simply because they’re not sure which is right.

When this is the case, the speaker’s confusion generally shows, as in “Wendy and myself will plan the party” or “The bank sold the house to my husband and myself.”

Sentences like those reveal a weak grasp of English. “Wendy and I” is a better subject, and “my husband and me” is a better object.

Reflexive pronouns are best used for emphasis or to refer back to a subject. Otherwise, “I” or “me” is almost always better than “myself.”

So if you’re using “myself” merely because you’re inclined toward “me” but think that it’s wrong, or that “myself” is more elegant, think again. Have a little more faith in “me.”

We’re not saying that “myself” is never a good alternative to “I” or “me.” 

For example, you might use “myself” deep into a sentence when an ordinary pronoun would seem to get lost. Example: “There were a hundred people at the lecture—half the English class, a dozen friends of the speaker, most of the faculty, and myself.” 

Or you might use a reflexive to add a specific and more emphatic reference to a general subject, as in “An old fuddy-duddy and inveterate nit-picker like myself.”

But before using “myself,” one should at least know what the traditional alternative is, then decide which is preferred for reasons of style, euphony, and the intended degree of formality.

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Are the cohorts in cahoots?

Q: Can one use the word “cohorts” to describe the individuals in a “cohort”?

A: The noun “cohort” can refer either to a group or to an individual within the group, as we wrote on our blog back in 2007.

So “the gang leader and his cohorts” would be a correct usage.

As we noted in that post, the English noun “cohort” originally meant a band of soldiers. It has a long etymological history as a military term dating back to Roman times.

In Caesar’s day, a “century” (centuria in Latin) was a unit of 100 Roman soldiers, commanded by a “centurion.”

Six centuries, or 600 soldiers (the exact numbers varied at different times in antiquity), constituted a “cohort” (cohors in Latin).

And 100 cohorts, or 6,000 men, made up a “legion” (from the Latin verb legere, to gather).

So “century,” “cohort,” and “legion” corresponded roughly to our modern “company,” “battalion,” and “regiment” (our regiments are not so large).

But in English, “cohort” has pretty much lost its military meaning and gone civilian. It’s used loosely to mean either a group or an individual.

Some sticklers still insist, though, that “cohort” should refer only to a group because of the word’s classical origins.

However, a usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says “the use of cohort in reference to individuals has become so common, especially in the plural, as to overshadow the use in the singular to refer to a group.”

More than two-thirds of the dictionary’s usage panel accept this sentence: “The cashiered dictator and his cohorts have all written their memoirs.”

In a post a couple of years ago, we discussed a theory (though an unlikely one) that “cohort” is the source of the word “cahoots,”  as in “the thieves were in cahoots.”

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Hat tricks

Q: Have you ever answered this question: Where does “hat trick” come from? It’s really common and yet no one I know, not even my husband (a huge sports fan and an English major!), can tell me the origin of the phrase.

A: No, to our great surprise, we haven’t answered that question. So here goes.

The term “hat trick” originated among cricket players in 19th-century England, according to the Oxford English Dictionary and other sources.

A bowler was said to score a “hat trick” for taking “three wickets by three successive balls,” the OED says. 

Supposedly, this feat was called a “hat trick” because it entitled the bowler “to be presented by his club with a new hat or some equivalent,” Oxford explains.

The term first appeared in print, the OED says, in a sporting annual called John Lillywhite’s Cricketers’ Companion (1877):

“Having on one occasion taken six wickets in seven balls, thus performing the hat-trick successfully.”

This later example is from an 1882 issue of a London newspaper, the Daily Telegraph: “He thus accomplished the feat known as the ‘hat trick,’ and was warmly applauded.”

The use of the term spread in the early 1900s—first to horseracing, where a jockey scored a “hat trick” for riding three winners, sometimes in a day and sometimes in succession.

The usage then spread to sports in which three goals could be scored in a single game.

Oxford’s first non-cricketing sports example is from a racing story in the Daily Chronicle of London (1909):

“It is seldom that an apprentice does the ‘hat trick,’ but the feat was accomplished by … an apprentice.” (The young jockey won races on horses named Soldier, Lady Carlton, and Hawkweed.)

Here in the US, “hat trick” is perhaps most familiar in hockey. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang quotes a 1949 sports dictionary that defined the phrase this way: 

Hat trick. … In ice hockey it is achieved by a player scoring three goals in a game, and the term is used similarly in goal games such as soccer and lacrosse.”

But “hat trick” has occasionally been used in baseball as well. A 1950 sports story in the New York Times, quoted by Random House, included this definition: “In baseball, hitting a single, double, triple and home run in one game.”

The term is by no means confined to sports, however. By mid-century, it was being used to apply to any kind of three-fold victory.

The OED cites this 1958 quotation from the Economist: “The Tories are excited because it looks as if they may flout all precedents and complete a hat-trick of wins.”

Random House includes quotations dating from 1951 for “hat trick” used to describe triple feats in politics, book publishing, the auto industry, and classical music.

But to the best of our knowledge, the old custom of awarding a new hat to the happy victor is no longer observed.

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English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Phrase origin Usage

Should we watch our language?

Q: My question concerns your recent article about the origins of “Johnny-come-lately.” How is this grammar? You should watch your language!

A: As the banner on our website indicates, we answer questions on “grammar, etymology, usage, and more.”

Many of our readers write in to ask about the origins of various expressions and slang terms.

Others ask about problems in grammatical structure—sequence of tenses, problems with pronoun case, and so on.

Still others write us with questions about spelling, pronunciation, punctuation, and plural formation, and ask about how such usages developed.

A reader of the blog once asked us why we use the term “grammarphobia,” not “grammarphilia,” in the name of our website.

As we said in a posting six years ago, the name of the website comes from the subtitle of Pat’s 1996 book, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.

The website, like the book, tries to explain grammar (and other language issues) in terms that won’t intimidate grammarphobes, and won’t turn off grammarphiles.

By the way, we can’t take credit for coining either “grammarphobe” or “grammarphobia.”

Steven Pinker uses “grammarphobe” in his 1994 book The Language Instinct: “And who can blame the grammarphobe, when a typical passage from one of Chomsky’s technical works reads as follows?”

(The passage that follows includes terms like “L-markers,” “chain coindexing,” and “head-head agreement.”)

As for “grammarphobia,” we’ve found examples of the usage in two words (“grammar phobia”) or hyphenated (“grammar-phobia”) dating back to the 1920s and ’30s.

The single-word version (“grammarphobia”) showed up in print in the mid-1990s, about 10 years before we began using it on our website.

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English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage

Is there a “their” there?

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

Q: I love your Language Myths page. It’s so refreshing to see language mavens allow English some wiggle room! However, I still cringe at some current trends, like the use of the plural pronoun “they” with a singular subject. I don’t have the heart to recalibrate my internal editor to accept this change. I’d love to hear what you think about it.

A: This is a tough one, but you shouldn’t recalibrate your inner editor just yet (but stay tuned).

Almost everyone it seems (especially in speech, if not in writing) uses “they/them/their” at some time or another in reference to a singular, indefinite someone. We occasionally catch ourselves in the act.

What’s indisputably true is that anyone who uses these plurals in this way is using at best casual, informal English. In formal, grammatically correct English, these are third-person plural pronouns, inappropriate in reference to a singular. 

We’ve written about this subject many times on our blog, including a post in 2008 and another in 2011. We’ve also written an article about it for the New York Times.

The plural pronouns “they,” “them,” and “their” were often used as indefinite singulars centuries ago, and are quite commonly used that way today in informal (some would say substandard) English. But in formal English, they’re restricted to the plural.

And anyone who wants to be 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.”

In an excellent usage note, American Heritage explains that the “use of an ostensibly plural pronoun such as they, them, themselves, or their with a singular antecedent dates back at least to 1300.”

Over the years, the dictionary says, “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,” AH continues. “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.”

The dictionary says most of its 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,” AH adds. “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.

In 2008, the dictionary notes, 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.

American Heritage’s conclusion:

“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.

In other words, write around the problem. We hope this helps, though it’s probably not as clear-cut an answer as you’d like.

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Let’s play ball

Q: Given the start of the baseball season, it occurs to me that “play ball” is a rather interesting expression. Your thoughts?

A: Now that you mention it, the expression “play ball” is interesting. The “ball” is what’s being batted around, and “ball” here also happens to be the clipped name of the game.

In the US, “play ball” generally means “play baseball,” though the usage is often heard in connection with football, basketball, and other sports.

In fact, the phrase or various versions of it had been around for hundreds of years before any American stepped on the mound and threw the ball toward home plate.

In the early days, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the expression simply referred to a game played with a ball.

But you asked about baseball, so let’s consult Paul Dickson, who (in the words of a Washington Times book review) “may be baseball’s answer to Noah Webster or, at the very least, William Safire.”

The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3rd ed.) defines “play ball!” as “the command issued by the plate umpire to start a game or to resume action. It’s sometimes abbreviated to a simple order of ‘play!’ ”

Dickson quotes (from the Boston Globe on May 13, 1886) what may be the first use of the baseball phrase in newsprint:

“McKeever held a long discussion with Pitcher Harmon about signs. The crowd got impatient; one man yelled ‘Get a telephone!’ while the umpire ordered them to ‘play ball.’ ”

The phrase certainly caught on, showing up a few years later in James Maitland’s The American Slang Dictionary (1891): “Play ball (Am.), go on with what you are about.”

The expression appeared more colorfully in a poem, “The Umpire,” in the July 27, 1893, issue of the Atchison (Kan.) Daily Globe:

“With features rigid as a block of stone, / He cries, ‘Play ball!’ ”

But apart from its use by umpires, Dickson says, “play ball” has a special meaning to baseball fans. It’s the “emblematic phrase for the start of any baseball game, from Opening Day to the opener of the World Series.”

The dictionary credits the pitcher Cy Young with the first use of the term in this sense, in 1905. It adds this quotation by a former baseball commissioner, Peter Ueberroth, some 80 years later:

“The best words—the most fun words—in our language are ‘play ball.’ Those words conjure up home runs and strikeouts, extra innings and double plays. … ‘Play ball’ is what baseball is all about—its call to arms—and there isn’t a baseball fan … who isn’t a little excited over the beginning of a new season.” (From USA Today, 1986.)

The OED says the word “ball” in “play ball” is a noun meaning “a game played with a ball (esp. thrown or pitched with the hand).”

Today in the US, as we’ve said, the phrase refers to baseball, but it predates baseball by several centuries.

The expression was first recorded in the Middle Ages as “play at the ball,” which was later clipped to “play at ball” and finally to “play ball.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from a description of St. Cuthbert in a medieval manuscript (circa 1300):

“With younge children he pleide atthe bal.” (Here we’ve changed two Middle English characters to “y” and “th.”)

An abbreviated version of the phrase first appeared in Nicholas Breton’s poem A Floorish Upon Fancie (1577):

“And let him learne to daunce, to shoote, and play at ball, / And any other sporte, but put him to his booke withall.”

During the 17th century, both “play at the ball” and “play at ball” were used. The modern form, “play ball,” finally emerged in the mid-18th century.

The OED cites an example from John Brickell’s The Natural History of North Carolina (1737). In a passage describing Native American games, Brickell writes: “Their manner of playing Ball is after this manner.”

The expression “to play ball” acquired another meaning in the early 20th century—to act fairly or cooperate.

The OED’s first example is from a 1903 novel, Back to the Woods, by Hugh McHugh (pen name of George Hobart): “Well, if Bunch should refuse to play ball I could send the check back to Uncle Peter.”

But the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has a citation from a slightly earlier novel, Edward Waterman Townsend’s Chimmie Fadden & Mr. Paul (1902):

“He’ll give him de time of his life if he’ll sign up to play ball wit him whenever he’s wanted.”

Today, many of our most familiar expressions (or clichés, if you prefer), come from ball games of one kind or another. Here’s a sampling of figurative uses of sports terms, with their earliest recorded appearances, all from either the OED or Random House.

● “keep the ball rolling”—to maintain a momentum, 1770

● “keep (or have) one’s eye on the ball”—to be careful or alert, 1907

● “home run”—a great success, 1913

● “have something (or a lot) on the ball”—to be capable, 1936 (a reference to throwing a speedy or deceptive pitch, a sense first recorded in 1911)

● “carry the ball”—to assume responsibility, 1924

● “run with the ball” or “take the ball and run with it”—to take control, 1926

● “from out in left field”—from out of nowhere, 1930s (a subject we discuss on the blog)

● “on the ball”—accurate or alert, 1939

● “drop the ball”—to fail at something, 1940

● “curveball”—something tricky and unexpected, 1944

● “throw a curve”—to do something tricky and unexpected, 1953

● “that’s the way the ball bounces”—that’s life, 1952

● “ballpark”—approximate (adjective), 1957

● “there goes the ballgame”—it’s all over (1930)

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And now, on to our question of the day, about the phrase “Play ball!”

Pat and Stewart

English English language Etymology Grammar Usage

Whodunit? Oscar Wilde!

Q: This one throws me for a loop: “Who else was there for me to talk to?” My gut tells me that “who” is correct, but I have a nagging feeling that “whom” may be. Can you set me straight?

A: Go with your gut!

“Who” is the right word here. It not only sounds and feels natural, but it just happens to be grammatically correct as well.

(This is generally the case. As we’ve said before, any usage that sounds stiff and unnatural to an educated ear is probably a mistake.)

The sentence you’ve asked about (“Who else was there for me to talk to?”) has an interesting history, which we’ll get to later. For now, let’s look at why it’s right.

The main clause in this sentence—“Who else was there”—is an interrogative clause with “who” as its subject. The additional information afterward doesn’t change that. 

Often when we’re puzzled by a “who/whom” problem, it helps to substitute another set of pronouns. So let’s recast the sentence with “he/him.”

It’s easy to see that “He was there for me to talk to” is right, and that “Him was there for me to talk to” is wrong. “He” is a subject pronoun (like “who”), while “him” is an object (like “whom”).

Simplifying a problem sentence also helps to clarify it. We can simplify the question, and its answer, like this: “Who was there to talk to? … He was there to talk to.”

In fact, we can simplify it even further by dropping the ending, since it doesn’t affect the subject: “Who was there? … He was there.”

We can invent a number of sentences with the same grammatical construction: “Who else was there for her to dream of  … for them to worry aboutfor mom to cook forfor the children to play withfor him to prey upon .. for me to learn from?” 

The fact that the underlined passages end in prepositions doesn’t change the case of the subject, “who.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language regards passages like those as “to-infinitivals containing a subject,” and says these “are always introduced by the subordinator for.” (Note that while Cambridge uses the term “subject” here, the pronouns used are object pronouns.) 

Now for a brief footnote. The sentence you used as an example has a literary history. It appears in The Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis and published in 1962.

Here’s the passage, from a letter Wilde wrote in 1891 to a young actor of his acquaintance:

“Has Gerald Gurney forgiven me yet for talking to no one but you that afternoon? I suppose not. But who else was there for me to talk to?”

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I got this

Q: My question is about the ubiquitous “I got this,” as in the title of Jennifer Hudson’s memoir. I thought this was a fairly recent usage, but I’ve heard it used on two different current TV shows set in the ’80s.  When did this expression come into the language?

A: Jennifer Hudson, a Grammy Award-winning singer and Academy Award-winning actress, uses those words in the title of a 2011 song as well as her 2012 memoir.

The construction “I got this” is often used (as Hudson uses it) in a slangy, idiomatic way to mean “I can take care of this” or “I have this under control.”

Strictly speaking, “I got this” is a past-tense construction (as in “I got a new car last spring”). The technically correct form in reference to the present would be either “I’ve got this” or “I have this.”

But let’s not get technical about idiomatic English. Baseball outfielders, for example, aren’t stopping to check their grammar as they run to catch a fly ball (“I got it!”).

We can’t find any scholarly discussion of the history of “I got this” used in the sense Jennifer Hudson is using it, so we can’t give you a lot of exact citations from the 1980s.

But we did find a few close examples in Google Book searches, including this  exchange from Nam, an oral history of the Vietnam War that was published in 1983:

“ ‘This one is mine.’

“ ‘Nah, I got this one. You got the last one.’ ”

Of course, there’s a difference between “I got this,” which refers to a general situation, and the more specific “I got this one,” which refers to a particular object. But they’re close.

We’ll end with a few lines from Hudson’s song:

(I got this)
Ain’t no stopping me, come on, follow me if you feel the need
(I got this)
Better believe I got this, believe I got this

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage

High on the hog

Q: During Pat’s last appearance on WNYC, she said living “high on the hog” refers to the choicest cuts of pork. I disagree. The sow has several pairs of teats starting at the chest area and continuing down the body. The teats at the top have the richest milk. The strongest piglets feed at the top, or high on the hog.

 A: We’re sorry to disappoint you, but your explanation is one of several dubious “high on the hog” etymologies involving the suckling of piglets.

The most common is that the piglets who suckle on the top row of teats when the sow is lying on its side fare better, perhaps because the top row is easier to reach.

Gary Martin, writing on his Phrase Finder website, notes that this supposed etymology didn’t show up until the late 20th century, many years after “high on the hog” first appeared in print.

 (The earliest published references that we’ve been able to find linking a sow’s teats and the expression “high on the hog” are from the 1960s.)

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, by Christine Ammer, dates the idiomatic phrase to “live [or eat] high off [or on] the hog” to the late 19th century. (The first examples we could find were from the early 20th century.)

“It alludes to the choicest cuts of meat, which are found on a pig’s upper flanks,” Ammer writes in the American Heritage book of idioms.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “to live (also eat) high off (also (up) on) the hog” as “to live in an extravagant or luxurious style.” It describes the usage as “orig. and chiefly U.S.

The earliest citation in the OED is from the Nov. 28, 1919, issue of the Kansas City  Times: “ ‘Dese days I’se eatin’ furder up on de hog!’ ‘We’re all eating too high up on the hog,’ Mr. Clyne concluded.”

An article in the March 4, 1920, issue of the New York Times clearly indicates that the expression refers to the choice cuts of meat from a hog:

“Southern laborers who are ‘eating too high up on the hog’ (pork chops and ham) and American housewives who ‘eat too far back on the beef’ (porterhouse and round steak) are to blame for the continued high cost of living, the American Institute of Meat Packers announced today.”

Now, of course, some pricey restaurants serve such “low on the hog” delicacies as caramelized pork belly and grilled trotters.

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English English language Etymology Expression Linguistics Phrase origin Usage

Just sayin’

Q: Do you have any comment as to why so many people add “Just sayin’ ” at the end of a comment, especially a nasty one? Is it just a little cutesy thing like kids’ saying “just kidding” after a snide remark?

 A: As you’ve noticed, the expression “Just sayin’ ” follows an irritating or annoying or otherwise unpleasant observation. The speaker seems to imply that simply adding “Just sayin’ ” makes everything all right.

Well, it doesn’t.

We briefly referred to this stand-alone expression in a post we wrote a year ago on a similar usage sometimes referred to as a “false front,” “wishwasher,” “but head,” or “lying qualifier.”

This is a qualifying statement that comes BEFORE an unwelcome remark. Examples are all too familiar: “Nothing personal, but …,”  “Don’t take this the wrong way, but …,” “No offense, but….”

When someone opens a conversation that way, look out! What’s coming isn’t something you want to hear. The speaker is anticipating your response and trying to head it off at the beginning.

“Just sayin’ ” is the same kind of rhetorical device, but it comes at the other end, AFTER the bomb has landed. (We suggested in our post that it might be called “postcatalepsis.”)

An example would be “You really shouldn’t wear that color. It makes you look dead. Just sayin’.” The speaker seems to mean, “Don’t blame me—I’m merely stating the obvious.”

In 2009, a CNN news segment called “Just Sayin’ ” was widely criticized (notably by Jon Stewart of the Daily Show.

In the segment, the anchor Carol Costello inserted the expression into the network’s coverage of a news event or important issue.  An example: “Are we too wired? Just sayin’.”

(CNN likes contemporary slang so much that it also initiated segments called “Are you Kidding Me?” and “What the …?”)

How old is the stand-alone expression “Just sayin’ ” or “I’m just saying”? (It sometimes appears with “only” instead of “just.”)

Well, it’s a difficult question to research, since so many literal examples get in the way. But the usage we’re talking about has a German cousin dating from at least as far back as the 19th century. And a longer version was known a century ago in Irish English. 

The Oxford English Dictionary says that “just saying” and “only saying” originated as clipped versions of fuller phrases that are used in the same way: “I was just saying,” “I am only saying,” etc.

The dictionary says these expressionsboth the originals and the shorter “just saying, only saying”are “used to indicate that a previous statement or assertion is not intended to be combative or provoking, or should not be taken too personally or seriously.”

It suggests a comparison with the German ich sag’ ja nur  (“I’m just sayin’ ”), which it dates from the “late 19th cent. or earlier.”

The dictionary’s first English example is from Juno and the Paycock (1925), by the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey: “Sure, I know—I was only sayin’.”

And this “just” version is also found in dialogue: “I’m not knocking. I’m just saying” (Tucker’s People, a 1943 novel by Ira Wolfert).

But the clipped versions are more recent. We’ve mentioned a few examples from the early 2000s. Oxford’s earliest is a quotation in an Illinois newspaper: “It’d be a hard pill for Boehner to swallow. … Just sayin’ ” (The Pantagraph, Bloomington, June 30, 2013.)

As we recently noted in a posting to our blog, “Just sayin’ ” was spotted in an episode of the period drama Downton Abbey.

That was clearly an anachronism, since the clipped version would have been “out of place in 1916,” according to the linguist Ben Zimmer.

Another linguist, Mark Liberman, has written on the Language Log that “I haven’t seen any clear examples from before WWII.”

[Note: This post was updated on Dec. 12, 2022.]

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English English language Etymology Expression Usage

The next name I’m going to call

Q: On America’s Next Top Model, Tyra Banks announces the girls who are staying by saying, “The next name I’m going to call is … [name of model].”  Shouldn’t she then repeat the name? If you say you’re going to do something, in this case call a certain name, shouldn’t you then call the name?

A: You’re not the only person who’s bugged by this. We’ve noticed several other complaints online about the way Tyra Banks announces the names of the contestants who survive each elimination round of the reality television show.

Are the objections legitimate? Not in our opinion. We think a lot about English, but one can think too much about it.

Banks’s meaning is perfectly clear. No one would be confused. And you’d see many more complaints if she repeated the name of each model who’d escaped elimination.

Idiomatic English doesn’t have to make literal sense. It just has to make sense.

We’ve discussed idioms many times on the blog, including a post two years ago about these interesting peculiarities of language.

Your question reminds us of this famous, though mythological, exchange between George Burns and Gracie Allen at the end of their TV show in the 1950s:

George: “Say goodnight, Gracie.”

Gracie: “Goodnight, Gracie.”

It’s a funny bit, but Gracie never said it. Her actual reply: “Goodnight.”

In his 1988 book Gracie: A Love Story, Burns describes the longer response as a show-business myth.

The Yale Book of Quotations, edited by Fred R. Shapiro, speculates that the myth may have been reinforced by this actual exchange on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a TV series from the late 1960s and early ’70s

Dan Martin: “Say goodnight, Dick.”

Dick Rowan: “Goodnight, Dick.”

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English English language Etymology Pronunciation Usage Word origin

A chasm in pronunciation

Q: During Gwen Ifill’s interview with Sonia Sotomayor earlier this year, the Supreme Court justice pronounced “chasms” with the “ch” of “chat.” Has this pronunciation always been around and I’m just noticing it now?

A: In the Feb. 20, 2013, interview on PBS, Ifill asked about the associate justice’s comment in her memoir, My Beloved World, that she sees “bridges where other people see chasms.”

Sotomayor responded that one of “the lessons that I share in the book” is that you can accomplish more “if you build bridges and not chasms.”

In asking her question, Ifill pronounced “chasms” with the “ch” of “choir.” In answering her, Sotomayor pronounced it with the “ch” of “child.”

Who’s right? Well, the standard English pronunciation for “chasm” is KA-zum. The word starts with a hard “k” sound.

But the justice’s pronunciation may have been influenced by her Hispanic heritage. In Spanish, words beginning with ch are pronounced with a soft, sibilant sound, as in cheque, chico, and chocolate.

In English,  however, the consonant cluster “ch” is pronounced as a “k” in some words (like “chaos,” “Christ,” “school,” and “chemist”), and as a sibilant in others (“church,” “cheer,” “touch,” “chip”).

“Chasm” is in the first category—the “k” words. And despite the justice’s sibilant usage, the standard pronunciation hasn’t changed.

We’ve checked every source that’s available to us, from the Oxford English Dictionary  to a dozen or more standard British and American dictionaries, and the answer is always the same.

As the OED explains, English borrowed “chasm” in the 16th century from the Latin chasma, which in turn came from the Greek khasma (a yawning hollow).

In both Latin and Greek, the word starts with a “k” sound, and that pronunciation was preserved when the word was adopted into English.

Early on, the word was written in English as “chasma,” an exact reproduction of the Latin spelling. But by the 18th century, the spelling stabilized as “chasm.”

In its earliest uses, the word meant “a yawning or gaping, as of the sea, or of the earth in an earthquake,” the OED says.

Oxford’s earliest citation is from Charles Fitz-Geffrey’s biography Sir Francis Drake (1596): “Earth-gaping Chasma’s, that mishap aboades.”

By the early 1600s, the modern geological meaning had  become established. Here’s the OED’s definition:

“A large and deep rent, cleft, or fissure in the surface of the earth or other cosmical body. In later times extended to a fissure or gap, not referred to the earth as a whole, e.g. in a mountain, rock, glacier, between two precipices, etc.”

At about the same time, looser meanings were also being recorded, and a “chasm” could be a cleft in any structure (like a building).

Figurative uses also appeared in the 17th century, the OED says, so a “chasm” could mean “a break marking a divergence, or a wide and profound difference,” and in fact it could mean a breach or gap in almost anything.

In her interview on PBS NewsHour,  Sotomayor used the word figuratively when she talked about building “bridges and not chasms.” (In her book, we should note, she actually writes of “bridges” and “walls,” not “bridges” and “chasms.”)

In short, the various meanings of “chasm” are well established, and so is its pronunciation.


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English English language Grammar Punctuation Usage


Q: I turn to you to resolve a matter of some debate at the office. The question of the day: Which of the following is correct when it comes to proper use of hyphens? (1) “The project will create an estimated 300 full- and part-time jobs.” (2) “The project will create an estimated 300 full and part-time jobs.” Please help before we hyperventilate over hyphens.

A: We vote for option 1: “full- and part-time jobs.” The second part of the compound adjective “full-time” has been dropped, but the hyphen remains.

Keep in mind, though, that this is a matter of style, not grammar, and we’re talking about the commonly observed convention in published writing.

We’ll quote The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.): “When the second part of a hyphenated expression is omitted, the hyphen is retained, followed by a space.”

The Chicago Manual gives these examples: “fifteen- and twenty-year mortgages” … “Chicago- or Milwaukee-bound passengers.”

Hyphenated terms for ages are treated similarly, as the manual notes. It gives the example “a group of eight- to ten-year-olds.”

But when the two hyphenated expressions form “a single entity,” the manual notes, there’s no intervening space, as in “a five-by-eight-foot rug.”

If you think your readers might find it odd or even confusing to see a hyphen hanging out at the end of a word, you could always write “full-time and part-time jobs.” There’s no crime in using “time” twice in one sentence.

Going  back to your example, note that hyphens are always used in the compound adjectives “full-time” and “part-time” (as in “She gets a full-time salary for part-time work”).

However, “full time” and “part time” aren’t generally hyphenated as adverbs (“She works full time, not part time”), though you’ll find differing opinions here.

If you use the unhyphenated forms, don’t insert a hyphen just because a part has been omitted. Example: “She doesn’t know whether she works full or part time.”

We answered a similar question about hyphenation a few years ago on our blog. In that case, a part was omitted from a solid (not a hyphenated) compound.

The Chicago Manual’s example for a case like this is “both under- and overfed cats.” This works, however, only when the second part of the compound (“fed” in this case) is the same in both words.

We’ve had many other posts about hyphenation, including one about why Spider-Man has a hyphen and another about hyphenated Americans. We also had a brief summary a few years ago about the use of hyphens.

In case you’re curious, English adopted “hyphen” from late Latin in the early 1600s,  but the word is ultimately derived from a cup-shaped Greek symbol placed under a compound to show that it should be read as one word, not two. (In Greek, “hyphen” means “under one.”)

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Plenary session

Q: I’m puzzled by the use of “plenaried” in David Brooks’s column last month about little-known oil, gas, and farming capitalists who are transforming the world. Can you assist with a definition?

A: In his March 12, 2013, Op-Ed column in the New York Times, Brooks says the fashionable entrepreneurs who make fantastic presentations at conferences “have turned out to be marginal to history.”

On the other hand, he writes, “the people who are too boring and unfashionable to get invited to the conferences in the first place have actually changed the world under our noses.”

He says these “anonymous drudges” are responsible for a “revolution” in oil, gas, and agricultural production that has “transformed the global balance of power.”

Brooks ends his column with the sentence that puzzled you: “This revolution will not be plenaried.”

So what does “plenaried” mean here?

Well, you won’t find “plenaried” in your dictionary. It’s not in the nine standard American or British dictionaries we checked. It’s not even among the roughly quarter of a million words in the Oxford English Dictionary.

We thought at first that “plenaried” was a nonce word (one coined for a specific occasion), and that Brooks was using it here to mean “discussed at a plenary session.”

But a bit of googling indicates that the usage, though relatively new, has been a around for a while in one form or another.

For example, Michael Kinsley, writing in Slate on Jan. 31, 2002, uses the term to mean “attended a plenary session.”

In discussing a guide for newcomers to the annual World Economic Forum at Davos,  Switzerland, Kinsley refers to media fellows who “have plenaried their little hearts out year after year to improve the state of the world.”

The phrase “plenary session” refers to a conference attended by all the participants, rather than one broken up into small groups.

The adjective “plenary” is derived from plenarius, a post-classical Latin word that means fully attended. In classical Latin, plenus means full.

When “plenary” entered English in the early 1400s, according to the OED, it meant “full, complete, or perfect; not deficient in any element or respect; absolute.”

The first citation for “plenary session” in the dictionary is from an 1878 English translation of Johann Baptist Alzog’s Handbuch der Universal-Kirchengeschichte (1841), an exposition of Roman Catholic views:

“The subjects brought forward for deliberation … were first distributed to eight Committees and discussed in sixty Plenary Sessions.”

Now we wouldn’t be at all surprised if a few of the people who participated in those 60 plenary sessions felt a bit plenaried at the end.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Slang Usage Word origin

Plumb loco

Q: Am I right in believing that the phrase “plumb loco” is derived from the plumb used to determine the depth of water and a true vertical line? In other words, someone who’s plumb loco would be askew.

A: You’re right that the adverb “plumb” used in this sense is related to the lead plumb bob that’s hung from a line to determine water depth or verticality. But the relationship isn’t quite as straight as a plumb line.

English adopted the noun “plumb” in the 14th century from Anglo-Norman and Old French, but the word is ultimately derived from plumbum, the Latin term for lead, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Interestingly, the word “plumber” is a relative. It originally referred to a worker in lead, but came to mean someone who installs water pipes, which were once made of lead.

Getting back to your question, the Oxford English Dictionary says the adverb “plumb,” meaning vertically, first showed up in English in the early 15th century.

In the early 16th century, the adverb took on the sense of “exactly in a particular direction, position, or alignment; directly, precisely,” according to the OED.

By the end of the century, the adverb was being used in the sense you’re asking about—as an intensifier meaning completely, absolutely, and quite.

The OED’s earliest citation for this usage (with “plumb” spelled “plum”) is from The Misfortunes of Arthur, a 1588 play by Thomas Hughes based on the Arthurian legend:

“The mounting minde that climes the hauty cliftes … Intoxicats the braine with guiddy drifts, Then rowles, and reeles, and falles at length plum ripe.”

Here’s an example, with the modern spelling, from Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 novel Captains Courageous: “You’ve turned up, plain, plumb providential for all concerned.”

Although the OED has many British examples of “plumb” used as an intensifier well into the 20th century, the dictionary describes the usage as “Now chiefly N. Amer. colloq.

Oxford doesn’t have an entry for “plumb loco,” but it includes the phrase in an 1887 citation for the adjective “loco,” from Outing, an American monthly magazine: “You won’t be able to do nuthin’ with ’em, sir; they’ll go plumb loco.”

The OED says English borrowed the adjective “loco” in the mid-19th century directly from Spanish. It means mad, insane, or crazy in both languages. The dictionary describes the term as “colloq. orig. U.S. regional (west.).”

Oxford traces the adjective to earlier nouns in Spanish and Portuguese meaning madness, but the editors say the etymology is “uncertain and disputed” beyond that.

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Cop talk

Q: In Lyndsay Faye’s novel The Gods of Gotham, the words “cop” and “copper” are said to be derived from copper stars worn by New York City policemen in the 1840s. I always thought “cop” comes from “constable on patrol.”

A: We haven’t read The Gods of Gotham, a historical thriller set in 1845—the year the New York City Police Department was founded. And we could find only snippets of it online.

So we can’t comment on what Faye has—or hasn’t—written about the etymology of “cop” and “copper.”

But we can say that the noun “cop,” for a police officer, isn’t an acronym. And it’s not about copper buttons or badges, either.

As we wrote on our blog back in 2006, “cop” is short for an earlier noun, “copper,” meaning a person who seizes or nabs.

Both this word “copper” and its predecessor, the verb “cop” (to nab or capture), are thought to be derived from an Old French verb, caper, from the Latin capere, meaning to seize or take.

We also wrote about “cop” in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths. Here’s an excerpt:

“The most popular myth about the word is that it comes from the copper buttons on police uniforms. Another is that it comes from the copper badges worn by New York City police in the nineteenth century. Yet another suggests that ‘cop’ is an acronym for ‘constable on patrol’ or ‘chief of police’ or ‘custodian of the peace’ or some such phrase.

“In fact, cops were walking beats long before any of those phony acronyms arrived on the scene. And ‘cop’ has nothing to do with any metals, copper or otherwise, whether in buttons or badges. Metal buttons on police uniforms have tended to be brass, and relatively few badges have been copper.

“The best evidence, according to word detectives who have worked the case, is that the noun ‘cop’ comes from the verb ‘cop,’ which has meant to seize or nab since at least 1704. The verb in turn may be a variation of an even earlier one, ‘cap,’ which meant to arrest as far back as 1589 (think of the word ‘capture’).

“Etymologists say the noun ‘cop’ is short for ‘copper’ (one who cops criminals), which first appeared in an 1846 British court document. The clipped version, ‘cop,’ appeared thirteen years later in an American book about underworld slang.”

In the transcript of a May 11, 1846, criminal trial at the Old Bailey in London, a police sergeant testifies that “a woman screamed very load, ‘Jim, Jim, here comes the b—coppers,’ and at that moment the money was thrown out—I have heard the police called coppers before.”

As it turns out, the slang word “copper” apparently didn’t cross the Atlantic and appear in print in the US until 1859, 14 years after the establishment of the NYPD.

The earliest citations for “copper” and “cop” in the Oxford English Dictionary are from George Washington Matsell’s 1859 slang dictionary Vocabulum, or, The Rogue’s Lexicon.

We looked through the dictionary in Google Books and didn’t find separate entries for either “cop” or “copper.” But the two words showed up many times in the entries for other words. Here’s a typical example:

“COPPED. Arrested. ‘The knuck was copped to rights, a skin full of honey was found in his kick’s poke by the copper when he frisked him,’ [meaning that] the pickpocket was arrested, and when searched by the officer, a purse was found in his pantaloons pocket full of money.”

By the way, we’ve noticed from reviews of The Gods of Gotham that members of the NYPD are repeatedly referred to as “copper stars”—a usage that apparently didn’t exist at the time the book was set.

In searches of Google Books and Google News, we couldn’t find any 19th-century examples of the term being used for police officers.

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English English language Etymology Usage

How false are false titles?

Q: In your Lex Appeal post, you refer to “The linguist David Crystal ….” I often see this construction, but it strikes me as strange. Is “the” really needed here? An NPR book review last year referred to him simply as “Linguist David Crystal ….”

A: Our old boss, the New York Times, would call the word “Linguist” in that NPR example a “false title.” Here’s an explanation from the Times style manual:

“Do not make titles out of mere descriptions, as in harpsichordist Dale S. Yagyonak. If in doubt, try the ‘good morning’ test. If it is not possible to imagine saying, ‘Good morning, Harpsichordist Yagyonak,’ the title is false.”

The dropping of “the” in phrases like “convicted felon so-and-so” and “award-winning author what’s-his-name” is especially common in the news media, and the usage is often criticized as journalese.

The usage authority Theodore M. Bernstein says in The Careful Writer that these “coined titles” were apparently “inspired by Time magazine and abetted by news agencies.”

Bryan A. Garner, in the “Titular Tomfoolery” section of Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), says the acceptance of these article-free titles is “partly attributable to their sanction by the Associated Press.”

(The AP stylebook includes these examples of “titles serving as occupational descriptions: astronaut John Glenn, movie star John Wayne, peanut farmer Jimmy Carter.”)

Garner notes that the use of such descriptive titles “originated in the understandable desire for economy in both words and punctuation, since most appositives require articles (a or the) and commas.” (An appositive is a descriptive equivalent.)

However, Garner says “the result is often a breeziness that hardly seems worth the effort of repositioning the words from their traditional placement.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says “the practice seems to show no signs of waning,” though “it presents no problems of understanding to the reader.”

The linguist Charles F. Myer, in “Pseudo-Titles in the Press Genre of Various Components of the International Corpus of English Writing,” reports that descriptive titles are spreading to English-language news media outside the US.

Although the usage tends to be limited in Britain to tabloids, he writes, it’s more common in New Zealand and the Philippines. He also cites inroads in Jamaica, East Africa, and Singapore.

So what do we think of all this? As you’ve noticed, we add “the” to turn these descriptive titles into actual descriptions, but it’s a personal choice.

In other words, this is a matter of style, not grammar. If you’re not a journalist following Times style or the like, the choice is up to you.

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Waxing Rothschild

Q: You’ve written about quote magnets, famous people cited for saying things they never said. I suspect that these supposed Rothschild quotes are examples of such magnetism: (1) “Give me control of a nation’s money and I care not who makes its laws.” (2) “Buy when there’s blood running in the streets.”

A: We’ve looked into those purported Rothschild quotations, and they’re not genuine.

Let’s look at the first one first—“Give me control of a nation’s money, and I care not who makes its laws.”

As the word sleuth Barry Popik writes on his Big Apple website, the earliest versions of this quote weren’t attributed to anybody in particular.

His research, which is still in progress, shows that in 1908 the quote appeared as “Let us control the money of a country and we care not who makes its laws.” At the time, the quote was vaguely identified as a maxim of “the money lenders of the Old World.”

But it was probably a variation on an English proverb that was a couple of centuries older. The gist of the proverb is “Let me make the songs [or ballads] of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.”

The “money” version of the quote (which varies a lot in its wording) was attributed to Mayer Rothschild, the founder of the Rothschild banking empire, in 1935, more than a century after his death.

Rothschild was first named as the author of the quote in Gertrude M. Coogan’s book Money Creators (1935), which claims that “the World is ruled by the International Money Masters.” Here’s the relevant passage:

“Meyer [sic] Amschel Rothschild, who founded the great international banking house of Rothschild which, through its affiliation with the European Central Banks, still dominates the financial policies of practically every country in the world, said: ‘Permit me to issue and control the money of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.’ ”

Coogan didn’t provide a source or a date for the quotation, but those who have subsequently repeated it have given dates ranging from 1790 to 1863 (Mayer Rothschild died in 1812).

The quote appears in many different forms, a sure sign that there’s no original source.

Sometimes it begins with “Give me control of a nation’s money” and sometimes with “Give me control of a nation’s money supply.” Sometimes it ends with “who write the laws,” sometimes with “who makes the laws,” and sometimes with “who governs it.”

We’ve tried mightily to find an original source—a diary, letter, speech, newspaper clipping, a passage from an old book, or whatnot—but unsuccessfully.

As for the second quote—“Buy when there’s blood in the streets”—it’s apocryphal too.

Its supposed authors include “Baron Guy de Rothschild,” “Baron Nathan Mayer Rothschild,” “Bernard Rothschild,” “old man Rothschild,” or simply “Rothschild.”

It’s most often attributed to “Baron Rothschild, an 18th-century English nobleman,” but there was no such person. (No Rothschild was made a British peer until late in the 19th century.)

The quote has also been attributed to Bernard Baruch and John D. Rockefeller Sr. And it has sometimes been referred to merely as “an old stock market proverb.”

This quotation varies wildly too. You might come across it as “Real men only buy when there’s blood in the streets,” or “I invest only when I hear the sound of cannon fire and see blood running in the streets,” or “When there is blood in the streets, buy property.”

Here again, an original source is nowhere to be found. There’s no evidence—only hearsay.

Barry Popik has looked into this one too, and he’s traced its development back to an 1894 article in the Chicago Daily Tribune. Here’s the passage from his website:

“It is related that in the old days of the Commune in Paris a panic-stricken investor turned up in the office of M. de Rothschild and exclaimed: ‘You advise me to buy securities now. You are my enemy. The streets of Paris run with blood.’ And Rothschild’s answer was this: ‘My dear friend, if the streets of Paris were not running with blood do you think you would be able to buy at the present prices?’ ”

So even in its original incarnation, the story was merely anecdotal. The Paris Commune was in 1871, but this story didn’t appear until 23 years later, and with no better sourcing that “It is related ….”

Until we find solid evidence pointing to their original sources (if any), we’ll assume that both of these are fake quotations.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that many of the Internet repetitions of these quotes appear on anti-Semitic or “global conspiracy” websites.

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On “i.e.” versus “viz.”

Q: I came across the following on your blog: But they had one obvious difference, i.e., their ears.” In my opinion, “i.e.” is not correct here—it should be “viz.” They are, admittedly, close in meaning, but as Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) says, “Care should be taken to distinguish viz. from i.e.

A: Here we must disagree with you and, to some extent, with R. W. Burchfield, author of the latest edition of Fowler’s.

These abbreviations may not be identical, but the difference between them is so slight that it nearly vanishes on close examination. And the use of “viz.” in nonscholarly writing would stop readers in their tracks.

In fact, better writers don’t use either of these scholarly abbreviations, though we’ve occasionally slipped up on our blog. We used “i.e.” in that posting to explain how it differs from “e.g.”

As we wrote, “i.e.” is an abbreviation of “id est” (in Latin id est means “that is”).

In English, the Oxford English Dictionary says, the term means “that is to say” or “that is,” and is “used to introduce an explanation of a word or phrase.”

In the sentence you mention—“But they had one obvious difference, i.e., their ears”—the abbreviation is correctly used, according to the OED definition. It introduces an explanation of a phrase, “one obvious difference.”

The two standard dictionaries we rely on the most—Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.)—say “i.e.” means simply “that is.”

That other scholarly abbreviation, “viz.,” is short for “videlicet” (in Latin videlicet means “it may be seen”).

The original Latin word is composed of the stem of videre (“see”), plus licet (“it is permissible”). In medieval Latin, “z” was the usual contraction for et or -et, which explains the presence of “z” in the abbreviation “viz.”

In English, the OED says, “videlicet” (and its abbreviation “viz.”) means “that is to say,” “namely,” or “to wit.”

The term is used, Oxford adds, “to introduce an amplification, or more precise or explicit explanation, of a previous statement or word.”

The standard dictionaries give similar definitions for “viz.” Merriam-Webster’s gives “that is to say” or “namely,” while American Heritage gives “that is” or “namely.”

It seems to us that the difference between “i.e.” and “viz.” is extremely small, if it exists at all.

Judging from the OED descriptions, it would appear that “i.e.” further explicates a preceding word or phrase, while “viz.” is broader in that it can also explicate a preceding statement.

As you say, Fowler’s advises that care should be taken in distinguishing between them.

But Fowler’s itself doesn’t clearly distinguish between them. And its explanations don’t agree with those in the OED. Here’s what Fowler’s has to say on the subject:

● “i.e. means ‘that is to say,’ and introduces another way (more comprehensible to the reader, driving home the reader’s point better, or otherwise preferable) of putting what has already been said.” [Burchfield no doubt meant “the writer’s point.”]

● “As is suggested by its usual spoken substitute namely, viz. introduces especially the items that compose what has been expressed as a whole (For three good reasons, viz. 1 …, 2 …, 3 …) or a more particular statement of what has been vaguely described (My only means of earning, viz. my fiddle).”

As we said before, these abbreviations aren’t seen in the best writing.

Often no such introduction is needed (beyond perhaps a simple colon), and “i.e.” or “viz.” would merely add hot air.

If an introduction is needed, why not use plain English: “namely,” “that is,” “in other words,” or whatever else makes sense?

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) lists both “i.e.” and “viz.” among abbreviations and symbols “that are normally confined to bibliographic references, glossaries, and other scholarly apparatus.”

It’s been our experience that “i.e.” is sometimes seen in ordinary text or what the Chicago Manual calls “running text.”

But “viz.” is very uncommon in ordinary text; it would certainly startle the general reader.

In fact, it’s not even listed in the most recent printing of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (7th ed.).

Besides its scholarly applications, “viz.” is found in judicial writing. It’s used in legal pleadings to mean “namely,” “that is,” “as follows,” and “to wit,” according to the Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute.

As for general writing, here’s what Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) says about “viz.”:

“The English-language equivalents are namely and that is, either of which is preferable. … How does one pronounce viz.? Preferably by saying ‘namely.’ ”

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. A University of Iowa professor will join Pat to discuss how Watergate changed our language and our culture.

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The silo syndrome

Q: A recent article in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle mentioned Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to “break down the silos” that have led to abuses in the New York State government. How is “silos” being used here?

A: Everyone, it seems, is blaming silos for management screw-ups these days, and we don’t mean the silos found on farms. In this case, “silo” is a business term that refers to a blinkered kind of management style.

Managers who work in a “silo” (or a “siloed” environment) operate in isolation, focusing strictly on their own narrow concerns and not sharing ideas with their peers.

Not many standard dictionaries have caught up with this use of “silo.” One of the few is the Compact Oxford English Dictionary Online, which defines the noun “silo” this way:

“A system, process, department, etc. that operates in isolation from others.” The example given: “It’s vital that team members step out of their silos and start working together.”

The dictionary also describes the use of “silo” as a modifier, using this example: “We have made significant strides in breaking down that silo mentality.”

Two very different articles that appeared early last month are excellent illustrations of how “silo” is being used these days.

An article in Billboard magazine, “7 Ways to Leverage Facebook,” contained this advice from Geoffrey Colon of Ogilvy & Mather:

“Whenever you can, always try to cross over to the physical realm. … Don’t silo yourself into building content just for Facebook. Use Facebook as a springboard to drive business results in the real world.”

And an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education includes this quote by Emilie M. Townes, the new dean of Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School:

“At Yale, every professional school is in its own silo, but at Vanderbilt they’ve broken down the silos, and I have more conversation partners not only internal to the divinity school but throughout the university.”

As you might suspect, this is a relatively young usage. The earliest example we’ve been able to find in online databases was published 21 years ago.

Both the noun and the adjective appeared in a long article in the journal Training & Development on Aug. 1, 1992. A management consultant, Geary Rummler, is quoted as saying this:

“The classic way to picture an organization is to show many independent functions, usually a hierarchy of boxes or circles. … The problem is that with this view, management begins to evolve as a set of independent functions. … All that, of course, leads to the phenomenon that Douglas Aircraft company calls ‘functional silos.’”

Later, the piece refers to the “silo syndrome.” Rummler himself uses the words “turfdom” and “vertical mindset” to refer to this management style.

He adds that what Douglas Aircraft called “silos” are called “chimneys,” “towers,” or “foxholes” by some of his other client companies. As we know by now, “silos” is the term that’s survived.

We found a scattering of usages in 1994, then the term began appearing with greater frequency. By 2000 this use of “silo” had gone mainstream. An article in Time magazine in December of that year included this sentence:

“As a result, isolated in their intellectual silos, scientists and their technological sidekicks literally ‘reduced’ human knowledge to myriad, mutually incomprehensible pinpoints of niche expertise.”

Now it looks as if non-agricultural “silos” are here to stay.

Our noun “silo” (the farmyard kind) was first recorded in writing in 1835. It originally meant “a pit or underground chamber used for the storage of grain, roots, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Later in the 19th century, “silo” also became a verb meaning to store in a silo. And silos became the familiar cylindrical structures that are so much a part of rural landscapes.  Here are some illustrative OED citations:

1904: “The first silos were simply pits dug in the ground…. Since about 1875 silos of stone, brick and wood have come into use.” (From the Farmer’s Cyclopedia of  Agriculture by Earley V. Wilcox & Clarence B. Smith.)

1948: “The silos stood up tall and straight, grey against the dazzling sky. A line of wheat-laden vehicles moved slowly up towards the hopper.” (From the periodical Coast to Coast: Australian Stories.)

In the 1950s, “silo” acquired another (and less bucolic) meaning—the underground housing for a guided missile.

The OED’s earliest example is from a 1958 issue of the New York Times: “The system will be protected against neutralization in an enemy attack because the missiles will be installed in concrete-lined underground silos.”

English adopted “silo” from the Spanish silo in the 19th century. But there’s some disagreement about its earlier etymology.

The OED says the Spanish silo originally came from classical words meaning a pit for storing grain—sirus in Latin and siros in Greek.

But the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology doubts that origin, since “the change from r to l in Spanish is phonetically abnormal.”

Furthermore, Chambers says, the Greek siros was “a rare foreign term” peculiar to Asia Minor and “not likely to emerge in Castilian Spain.”

Instead, the dictionary says the Spanish silo is “probably of pre-Roman origin and from the same source as Basque zilo, zulo dugout, with the basic meaning of a cave or shelter for keeping grain.”

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