English English language Etymology Expression Linguistics Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Is the present a gift?

Q: A friend posted this on Facebook: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a GIFT. That’s why they call it the present.” Is there a connection between “the present” and “a present”?

A: That saying, which is often mistakenly attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, A. A. Milne, and others, is merely a play on words.

The “present” that means now and the “present” that means a gift are two separate nouns, though they have a common source.

Both of them originated in the notion of presence—of being at hand or on the spot. They can be traced to the Latin noun praesens (presence) and adjective praesentem (present or at hand, not absent).

In these Latin words we find the prefix prae- (before, in front of) and a participial form of the verb esse (be). So the original notion was of being before (in the presence of) a person or thing.

Derivatives of the Latin words came into English in the Middle Ages by way of Anglo-Norman and Old French.

And it was in Old French that the noun present first came to mean a gift, a sense that was passed along into English.

As John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “The use of the related word present for ‘gift’ originated in Old French in the concept of ‘bringing something into someone’s presence,’ and hence of giving it to them.”

The other sense of the noun “present”—the time at hand—was also influenced by French, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But it developed separately from the “gift” sense.

And the English adjective “present” is from French as well, in its usual senses related to place (here) and time (now).

It’s difficult to sort out which English words came first.

For example, the OED says the English adjective “present” was first recorded in writing in 1340, but that it may have influenced various noun usages, some of which were recorded more than a century earlier.

The etymology of these words helps explain why the English verb “present” has so many meanings.

The OED says that when first recorded, around 1300, to “present” meant “to bring or place (a person) before or into the presence of; to bring to the notice of another; to introduce, esp. formally or ceremonially; spec. to introduce at court or to society, or before a sovereign or other distinguished person.”

Today “present” can mean, among other things, to introduce someone or something (like a person, a product, a performer); to put before the public (a play, exhibition, etc.); to hold vertically in salute (as in the phrase “present arms”); or to lay before a court or other authority (as a lawyer offers documents to a judge).

That last meaning explains the use of the term “these presents” in legal language, a usage the OED says dates back to 1379. In the legal sense, “presents” means the  present documents, writings, words, or statements. (No, they’re not gift-wrapped.)

Here’s an example from the preamble to the Articles of Confederation (1781): “To all to whom these Presents shall come, we the undersigned Delegates of the States affixed to our Names send greeting.”

As you’ve probably gathered, the verb “present” is almost always transitive—that is, it has a direct object, the something that’s being presented.

But as we noted in a blog posting a few years ago, there’s an exception. In medicine, to “present” means to appear before a doctor. It’s one of the rare cases in which the verb is intransitive and doesn’t have an object.

The examples we used: “The patient presented in my office with symptoms of fibromyalgiaThe head of the fetus is presenting.

The OED has examples of this medical usage going back to 1719. So it may be odd, but it’s presentable.

As for that saying your friend posted on Facebook, it’s been cited in print in one form or another since at least the 1990s, and it may have originated in a Hallmark greeting card, according to the language sleuth Barry Popik.

In an entry on his Big Apple website, Popik traces the saying to an Aug. 31, 1994, installment of “The Family Circus,” a comic strip by Bill Keane: “Yesterday’s the past, tomorrow’s the future, but today is a GIFT. That’s why it’s called the present.”

Popik, who had help on his posting from the lexicographer Jonathan Lighter, says an earlier version of the saying that doesn’t connect the two senses of “present” appeared in the July 11, 1967, issue of the Altoona (PA) Mirror:

“You must forget the past. Yesterday is history, tomorrow’s a mystery. Follow the AA philosophy of quitting one day at a time and seeking divine guidance.”

A partial version of the saying showed up in the Aug. 2, 1993, issue of the Galveston (TX) Daily News, in a typo-ridden ad that suggested a greeting-card connection:

“Today is a gift, thats why its called the present

A citation from The Ten Habits of Naturally Slim People, a 1998 book by by Jill H. Podjasek with Jennifer Carney, also suggests a greeting-card origin of the saying:

“I read the following wisdom in a greeting card years ago: ‘Yesterday is history; tomorrow is mystery; today is a gift; that is why they call it the present.’ ”

If any readers of the blog have one of the greeting cards up in the attic, please send us a photo of it!

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

If we had our druthers

Q: What does “if I had my druthers” mean and from where did the phrase originate?

A: The expression “if I had my druthers” means “if I had a choice” or “if I had a preference.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) describes “druthers” here as an informal plural noun meaning a choice or a preference.

American Heritage gives this example from the columnist George Will: “Given their druthers, these hell-for-leather free marketeers might sell the post office.”

The noun “druthers” actually began life as a verb in 19th-century America. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a US dialectal alteration of the verb phrase “would rather.”

The OED’s only two examples of the verb are in the writings of Mark Twain. Here’s the earliest, from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876): “I’d druther they was devils a dern sight.”

The noun “druthers” showed up a couple of decades later. Oxford has this example from an 1895 issue of the American Dialect Society’s journal Dialect Notes:

“Bein’s I caint have my druthers an’ set still, I cal’late I’d better pearten up an’ go ‘long.”

The OED says the usage is also seen as “druther,” “ruther,” and “ruthers.” Here’s an example with “ruthers,” from William Alexander Percy’s 1941 autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee:

“ ‘Your ruthers is my ruthers’ (what you would rather is what I would rather). Certainly the most amiable and appeasing phrase in any language, the language used being not English but deep Southern.”

If we had our druther, ruther, druthers, or ruthers, we’d take a break now. And so we will. See you tomorrow.

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage

Turning the tables

Q: What do you think is the origin of the expression “turn the tables”? Does it have anything to do with a table supposedly moving around at a séance?

A: No, the verb phrase “turn the tables” has nothing to do with séances. It originated with the playing of board games in the 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It means “to reverse one’s position relative to someone else,” the OED says, especially “by turning a position of disadvantage into one of advantage; to cause a complete reversal of the state of affairs.”

In its literal meaning, the phrase referred “to the position of the board in a board game being reversed, hence reversing the situation of each player in the game,” Oxford adds. But apparently it was used figuratively from the very beginning.

The expression first appeared in writing, the OED says, in The Widdowes Teares, a 1612 comedy by the poet and playwright George Chapman: “You doe well Sir to take your pleasure of me, (I may turne tables with you ere long).”

It showed up a few decades later in a sermon delivered by Bishop Robert Sanderson in 1648: “Whosoever thou art that dost another wrong, do but turn the tables: imagine thy neighbour were now playing thy game, and thou his.”

This more contemporary example is from Cynthia Freeland’s But Is It Art? (2001): “The images … celebrate the female artist’s ability to turn the tables on the men.”

Imagine that!

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Punctuation Style Usage

The story behind the headlines

Q: I have been trying to find the point in time, and the reason why, the period was dropped from the end of newspaper headlines. Around Lincoln’s time, you would see something like “Man Steals Horse.” as a newspaper headline.

A: Periods began disappearing from the ends of major headlines in the late 19th century, according to our informal survey of historical newspaper databases.

That’s about the time when big-city newspapers began using periods only in smaller headlines and in “decks”—the smaller, descending headlines that appeared beneath major ones and in different typefaces.

In the 1930s the periods on such lesser headlines, too, began to disappear, and they had pretty much vanished by the end of World War II.

That’s the short answer. But in asking two former newspaper editors this question, you’ll get more than you’ve asked for. We can’t resist passing along the story behind the headlines.

When newspapers first began appearing regularly in America and in Britain, around 1700, headlines didn’t exist.

During the course of the 18th century, they appeared only rarely, according to David A. Copeland, the author of Debating the Issues in Colonial Newspapers (2000).

This meant that the news might change abruptly from paragraph to paragraph. Often a new article was marked only by the place and date where the report originated (as in “Paris, April 21—”).

This so-called “dateline” convention came about because “most of the early news reports were based on letters,” according to Kristina Schneider, whose study of headlines appears in the book English Media Texts—Past and Present (2000).

Finally headlines, as we know them, “started appearing quite numerously around 1800,” Schneider writes. (This must have been a great relief to the readers of the time!)

For most of the 19th century, headlines had periods at the end, as we found when we explored newspaper databases. These are some of the examples we collected—and brace yourself for lots of capital letters:

“OVERWHELMING CALAMITY.” (from the New-York Gazette, 1812);  “FUNERAL SERVICE OF NAPOLEON.” (from the Daily National Intelligencer, Washington, 1821); “REJECTION OF THE REFORM BILL.” (from the Detroit Free Press & Michigan Intelligencer, 1831);  “Shortest India Passage.” (from the New York Daily Times, 1853); “The Fall of Atlanta.” (from the New York Times, 1864).

The practice of ending headlines with periods wasn’t limited to newspapers, however. We found that 19th-century magazines and journals, in both the US and Britain, also used final periods in headlines.

A couple of examples: “RECENT DISCOVERIES OF WORKS OF ART IN ROME.” (from the Century Magazine, 1887); and “A COCKNEY ON A FOX-HUNT.” (from Punch, 1860).

Then in the late 19th century, periods began to drop out of major headlines. 

In the 1899 issues of the New York Times, for example, there are no periods at the ends of important headlines. But the headlines on decks, as well as on lesser stories (like “New Honor for Andrew Carnegie.”), still had periods.

Apparently, the policy was to omit periods in headlines (and accompanying decks) that were printed in capital letters. But lesser headlines, as well as decks printed in upper- and lowercase letters, ended in periods. This policy continued for several decades.

Here, for example, is a headline from the Times of Jan. 1, 1935. (In giving examples of headlines, we won’t try to reproduce the various typefaces and indents.)




Hauptmann Tosses on His Cot

in Cell After First Day of

His Trial for Life.




Wife, Sitting Near Him at the

Defense Counsel Table, Makes

No Effort to See Him in Jail.

Note the periods on those upper- and lowercase decks. But by 1937, even those periods had disappeared from the Times, as in this headline from Dec. 19, 1937:




Leader Named by Hitler Works

Openly in Known Offices

Despite Ban on Party




Get Money From Fund Set Up

by Ex-Governor—Hitlerites

Smash Jews’ Shop Windows

We found somewhat similar results in the Chicago Tribune, though the periods on decks stuck around for several years longer. Here’s a headline from the newspaper’s issue of Oct. 8, 1937:





She Buys Less Lavishly to

Please Husband.

The Tribune continued using periods in this manner throughout 1944, but stopped in early 1945. Here’s a headline from Dec. 6, 1945:





Hanna Reitsch Tells of

Scene in Bunker

We can’t vouch for the evolution of headline style at every major metropolitan daily. But we think it’s safe to say that periods disappeared at mid-century, and that they vanished because there was no need for them.

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Etymology Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Is “refer back” redundant?

Q: I often hear folks (even on the news) “refer back” to something. Do they need to add “back” here? Is it not enough to “refer” to something?

A: You’re not alone in considering this usage redundant. Some usage writers have criticized the verb phrase “refer back” since at least as far back as the 1920s.

George Philip Krapp, for instance, condemned it in The English Language in America (1927) as “a crude pleonasm for refer.” (A pleonasm is a redundancy.)

We disagree with Krapp, and we’re not alone. Many other language writers have pooh-poohed the belief that it’s redundant to “refer back” to something.

Theodore M. Bernstein, for example, points out in Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins (1971) that the word “back” here “may in some instances be superfluous, but it is not normally redundant.”

“The notion of back is not at all prominent or even necessarily present in the word refer, which has as its primary reason to direct attention to,” Bernstein writes.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage agrees: “Back may seldom be necessary with refer, but the ‘backward’ connotations of refer are usually not strong, and back can be useful in reinforcing them.”

Merriam-Webster’s gives several examples of the usage by respectable writers, including this one from George Orwell’s 1946 book Politics and the English Language: “I number them so that I can refer back to them when necessary.”

A usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says some people “consider the phrase refer back to be redundant, since refer contains the prefix re–, which was brought into English from Latin and originally meant ‘back.’ ”

“But such an argument is based on what linguists call the ‘etymological fallacy’—the assumption that the meaning of a word should always reflect the meanings of the words, roots, and affixes from which it was derived,” American Heritage says.

The dictionary adds that “most words change their meanings over time, often to the point where their historical roots are completely obscured. Such change is natural and usually goes unnoticed except by scholars.”

“We conduct inaugurations without consulting soothsayers (augurs), and we don’t necessarily share bread (panis in Latin) with our companions,” the usage note says.

As for “refer,” American Heritage says it’s “quite often used in contexts that don’t involve the meaning ‘back’ at all, as in The doctor referred her patient to a specialist or Please refer to this menu of our daily specials.

The dictionary says the position of its Usage Panel on “refer back” has shifted dramatically over the years:

“In 1995, 65 percent of the Panel disapproved of this construction, but by 2011, 81 percent accepted it in the sentence To answer your question it is necessary to refer back to the minutes of the previous meeting.”

With a word like “refer,” AH says, “where the ‘back’ meaning of re– has largely disappeared, adding back can provide useful semantic information, indicating that the person or thing being referred to has been mentioned or consulted before.”

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

A case in point

Q: I am gradually becoming obsessed with the phrase “a case in point.” Does anyone know its origin? It looks like a clumsy translation from another language (French, perhaps) but is it?

A: You’re onto something. The phrase at the heart of your obsession, “in point,” does indeed come from French—or, rather, Anglo-Norman, a dialect of Old French used by England’s Norman conquerors.

In the Anglo-Norman phrase en point, the word point refers to a state or condition, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the word “point” showed up in English in the early 1200s with the sense of a condition, state, situation, or plight, though that meaning is now considered historic.

In the early 1600s, according to Oxford, “point” took on another sense—appropriate or pertinent—a sense that’s now chiefly seen in the expression “case in point,” meaning an example that illustrates the point.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the expression is from Money and the Mechanism of Exchange (1875) by William Stanley Jevons:

“The wampumpeag of the North American Indians is a case in point, as it certainly served as jewellery.”

The most recent citation is from the January 1996 issue of Scientific American:

Much of the ecological evidence about sex is open to sharply differing interpretations. A case in point concerns the ‘haplodipoid’ sex-determining system of ants, bees and wasps.”

And with that, we’ll buzz off.

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Etymology Phrase origin Usage Word origin

In pretty good company

Q: Whence comes “pretty,” the spoken dialectal equivalent to “rather,” as in, “We made it pretty far before we turned back”? Do you know if it’s common in a specific region? I live in Southern California, and I use it pretty often. I frequently hear it from others, too.

A: You’ll be surprised by our answer. The word “pretty” used in this sense isn’t dialectal, regional, or confined to speech. It’s been standard English since the 1500s.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this adverbial use of “pretty” as “to a considerable extent; fairly, moderately; rather, quite. In later use also: very.”

The earliest citation for the usage in the OED is from Thomas Cooper’s Thesaurus Linguae Romanae & Britannicae (1565): “Audaculus, a pretie hardie felow: vsed in derision.”
(Shakespeare is believed to have used Cooper’s work as a reference.)

Oxford says the Cooper citation may have represented an adjectival use, but it has no doubts about its next example, from The Workes of a Young Wyt (1577), a collection of poetry by Nicholas Breton:

“Berlady tis prety good meate.” (“Berlady,” an oath or expletive, is a contraction of “by our Lady.”)

Here’s one more 16th-century example, from A Worlde of Wordes (1598), an Italian-English dictionary by John Florio: “Boccace is prettie hard, yet understood: Petrarche harder but explaned.”

The OED says the expression “pretty much” dates from 1682, and means “almost, very nearly; more or less; (also, in early use) very much, considerably.”

You didn’t ask, but the adjective “pretty” has been around since Anglo-Saxon times (spelled pæti, pætig, or prættig). In Old English, according to Oxford, it meant cunning or crafty at first, then clever, skillful, or able.

The adjective didn’t come to mean attractive until the 1400s. Here’s an example from Sir Walter Scott’s 1821 novel Kenilworth: “Having a cellar of sound liquor, a ready wit, and a pretty daughter.”

Getting back to your question, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) notes that some usage guides “complain that pretty is overworked” as an adverb and recommend restricting the usage “to informal or colloquial contexts.”

However, Merriam-Webster’s says in its usage note that “pretty” in this sense “is in wide use across the whole spectrum of English.”

“It is common in informal speech and writing,” the dictionary says, “but is neither rare nor wrong in serious discourse.”

M-W includes examples from George Bernard Shaw (“he may, if he be pretty well off or clever, qualify himself as a doctor”), Henry Steele Commager (“a return to those traditions of American foreign policy which worked pretty well for over a century”), and the Times Literary Supplement (“the arguments for buying expensive books have to be pretty cogent”).

So you’re in pretty good company.

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Rental telepathy

Q: I live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and listen to Pat on WNYC, but I couldn’t get through on the phone to ask her this question: What do you call someone who subleases an apartment FROM somebody, and someone who subleases an apartment TO somebody? I’ve seen so many variations that I’m going mental.

A: It’s not surprising that you’ve noticed some confusion in these terms, since your neighborhood is a hot spot in a fevered urban real estate market.

To begin with, let’s imagine the classic rental relationship—landlord and tenant. The “lessor” is the one who grants the lease (the landlord). The “lessee” is the one who’s granted the lease (the tenant).

Now if this primary tenant (or “lessee”) then subleases his apartment to someone else, he becomes a “sublessor.” And the person who’s granted the sublease is the “sublessee” (also called a subtenant).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “sublease” as “a lease granted by a person who is himself or herself a lessee of the property in question.”

A “sublessor,” in the OED’s definition, is “a person who grants a sublease,” and a “sublessee” is “a person to whom a sublease is granted.”

An all-purpose term, “subletter,” can refer to either a “sublessor” or a “sublessee,” according to the OED, but you won’t find it in most standard dictionaries, so we’d be hesitant to recommend it. (Besides, it’s ambiguous.)

By the way, the terms “sublease” and “sublet” (both as nouns and as verbs) mean the same thing and can be used interchangeably.

All these terms naturally feel very contemporary. But in fact they’ve been around for quite a while.

“Lease,” in the sense we’re talking about, first appeared in writing as a noun in 1483 and as a verb in 1570.

Both came into English from Anglo-Norman and are traceable to an Old French verb, lesser or laissier, meaning “to let, let go.” (The modern French equivalent is laisser.

The ultimate source, however, is Latin—the verb laxare (to loosen), derived  from the adjective laxus (loose).

Here are some related terms, along with the dates they first appeared in writing, according to OED citations:

“Lessor” 1487; “lessee” 1495; “sublease” 1758 (noun), 1824 (verb); “let” 909 (verb meaning to rent); “sublet” 1766 (verb), 1834 (noun); “sublessee” 1651; “sublessor” 1813; “subletter” 1825.

One final note. Like “rent,” the verbs “lease,” “sublease,” and “sublet” work both ways—they can mean either to grant a rental contract or to assume one.

In other words, you can lease or sublease or sublet property to someone or from someone. 

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Etymology Grammar Usage Word origin

Is it “is”? Or is it “are”?

Q: I recently wrote this sentence: “Is celebrities sending prayers newsworthy?” I went back and forth between “is” and “are.” Neither sounded totally right, nor totally wrong. What do you think?

A: Your choice was correct: “Is celebrities’ sending prayers newsworthy?” Note that we’ve added a possessive apostrophe to “celebrities.”

The noun “celebrity” has an interesting history, which we’ll get to later, but let’s first look at the sentence you’ve asked about.

In this sentence, “celebrities’ sending prayers” is a noun phrase. “Sending” is a gerund here—a verb form that functions as a noun—so the possessive apostrophe is called for.

“Sending” (not “celebrities”) is the subject of the verb, which should be “is.” In fact, “celebrities’” functions as a modifier; drop it and you have “Is sending prayers newsworthy?”

A parallel case would be “Is mom’s cooking newsworthy?” The gerund “cooking” is the subject of the verb. Drop the modifier (the possessive adjective “mom’s”) and you have “Is cooking newsworthy?”

Still, correct or not, the phraseology of that “celebrities” sentence is awkward enough to deserve a rewrite: “Is it newsworthy that celebrities send prayers?”

If you’d like to read more about gerunds, we’ve discussed them several times on our blog, including posts in 2011 and 2012

Now, let’s look at the word “celebrity,” which meant fame or notoriety when it entered English sometime before 1600. By the early 1600s, it could also refer to a solemn rite, a ceremony, or a celebration.

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that “celebrity” took on the sense used in your question: a celebrated person or public figure.

The earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Ogilvies, an 1849 novel by the English writer Dinah Maria Mulock Craik: Did you see any of those ‘celebrities,’ as you call them?”

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Are cowpokes poky?

Q: In your write-up on “slowpoke,” you suggest that the “poke” part is derived from an old verb meaning to potter about or dawdle. I think working cowpokes might bristle at that suggestion.

A: Yes, we speculated in that post that the “poke” in “slowpoke” may be derived from the adjective “poky,” which can mean slow, and the verb “poke,” which can mean to dawdle.

And, as you may recall, the singing cowboy Jimmy Wakely does indeed suggest pokiness in the 1948 movie Range Renegades when he sings, “I’m an old cowpoke just a-pokin’ along.”

But cowpokes don’t usually dawdle. The “poke” in “cowpoke”—an early 20th-century American word for a cowboy—is probably a “poke” of a different color.

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests two possible origins of this “poke.” It may be the name for a native plant used as a smoking material (the same one mentioned in our earlier post). Or it may be from the verb “poke,” meaning to jab or prod.

Since cowboys poke cattle (literally or figuratively) to move them along, that last explanation seems convincing.

There’s been a bit of confusion about the age of the term “cowpoke” because of some mistaken research years ago.

The OED says the earliest written use of “cowpoke” is an 1881 citation in Harold Wentworth’s American Dialect Dictionary, which was published in 1944. But that 19th-century citation was wrong.

Jonathan Lighter, in his Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, says that Wentworth, “and hence all other standard sources, erroneously cites Croffutt Grip-Sack Guide to Colorado (1881); the word cowpoke is not found in that work.”

Lighter’s oldest examples of “cowpoke” are from the 1920s. Although we’ve found earlier ones for “cow poke” or “cow-poke, they referred to agricultural devices, not to cowboys. 

A Google search turns up many patent applications, dating back to the 1870s, for devices described as “animal pokes” or “cow-pokes.”

These “pokes” are yoke-like contraptions for securing and controlling an animal’s head, for example when it’s grazing.

A 1907 issue of the Farm Implement News Buyer’s Guide lists an enterprise called Wichita Cow Poke Manufacturing Company, a Kansas firm whose business is making “cow pokes.” Among other businesses making “animal pokes,” the buyer’s guide lists the American Animal Poke Company, of Kansas City, Mo.

The use of “poke” in this sense reflects a broader meaning—“a thing that pokes,” in the words of the OED.

Oxford says this use of the word dates from early America, where a “poke” was “a yoke or collar (often with a pole attached, which projects forward and downward) put round the neck of an animal to prevent it from breaking through or jumping over fences.”

The earliest example in writing for this “poke” dates from 1809. The first example that mentions a cow is from Josiah G. Holland’s Gold Foil Hammered from Popular Proverbs (1859): “We put a poke upon a vicious cow.”

There are even older examples of a verb “poke,” meaning to put a poke on an animal. It was first recorded in the 1780s and is now obsolete.

The OED doesn’t make any direct connection between these livestock uses of “poke” and the cowboy term “cowpoke.” 

But we do know that the livestock meanings of “poke” (both noun and verb) derive from the sense of something that pokes. Perhaps the cowboy term does too, and is a reference to poking or prodding cattle.

The OED has a tantalizing citation from a 1928 issue of Lariat Magazine, a journal that published poetry and stories of the Old West: “I camped there once, and a cowpoke told me why they were named that.”

Unfortunately, that’s all there is to the citation! And we couldn’t find a digitized version of the Lariat issue online. If you happen to own a tattered copy of the January 1928 issue, let us know.

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Etymology Linguistics Usage Word origin

Mistresses and other women

Q: I’m surprised that the term “mistress” is still used in the New York Times, as in this recent example: “Jimmy Goldsmith was an inveterate keeper of mistresses.” It’s a very antiquated notion. Care to weigh in?

A: You’re right that the word “mistress” shows up a lot in the Times. A search of the newspaper’s archive turns up nearly 70,000 examples since 1851, including almost 1,500 over the last 12 months.

Many of the older examples refer to a woman who has power, authority, or ownership (a schoolmistress, postmistress, pet’s mistress, mistress of a household, and so on).

However, nearly all the newer examples refer to the sense you’re asking about—a woman who has a sexual relationship with a married man who’s not her husband, often involving material support.

When “mistress” entered English around 1330, derived from words in Anglo-Norman and Middle French, it referred to a governess, but that sense is now obsolete.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “mistress” soon came to mean either “the female head of a family, household, or other establishment” or “a woman holding such a position in conjunction with a male counterpart.”

By the end of the 1300s, according to OED citations, the term could also refer to “a woman who employs others in her service” or “a woman who has authority over servants, attendants, or slaves.”

We’ll skip the many other senses of “mistress” and get to the one that strikes you as antiquated.

When “mistress” took a disreputable turn in the 1400s, it initially referred to “a woman notorious for some act,” but the OED describes this sense of the word as obsolete.

By the 1600s, according to the dictionary, it was being used to mean “a woman other than his wife with whom a man has a long-lasting sexual relationship.”

Here’s an early example from a sermon (written sometime before 1631) by John Donne: “Those women, whom the Kings were to take for their Wives, and not for Mistresses, (which is but a later name for Concubines).”

Getting back to your question, we don’t find “mistress” a particularly “antiquated notion.” Yes, the word has been around for quite a while, but so have mistresses.

Is there a better term for them? We can’t think of one. “Girlfriend”? “Concubine”? “Paramour”? “”Other woman”? “Fancy woman”? We’ll stick with “mistress.”

A more interesting subject may be the disparity in the number of pejorative sexual words for women and men.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language discusses this subject in a  usage note in its fourth edition (the usage note doesn’t appear to the fifth edition).

“English has no shortage of terms for women whose behavior is viewed as licentious,” the dictionary says, “but it is difficult to come up with a list of comparable terms used of men.”

AH notes that Julia Penelope, a language researcher, “stopped counting after she reached 220 such labels for women, both current and historical, but managed to locate only 20 names for promiscuous men.”

Another researcher, Murial R. Schultz, “found more than 500 slang terms for prostitute but could find just 65 for the male terms whoremonger and pimp,” the dictionary adds.

“A further imbalance appears in the connotations of many of these terms,” AH says. “While the terms generally applying only to women, like tramp and slut, are almost always strongly negative, corresponding terms used for men, such as stud and Casanova, often carry positive associations.”

The usage note points out that “many of the negative terms used for women derive from words that once had neutral or even positive associations.”

“For instance, the word mistress, now mainly used to refer to a woman who is involved in an extramarital sexual relationship, originally served simply as a neutral counterpart to mister or master,” AH says. “The term madam, while still a respectful form of address, has had sexual connotations since the early 1700s and has been used to refer to the owner of a brothel since the early 1900s.”

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Etymology Linguistics Pronunciation Usage

Wooder, wooder, everywhere?

Q: I’ve noticed that the word “water” is pronounced wooder in Central Jersey, but not in South Jersey or North Jersey. Are you familiar with this pronunciation? Is it heard elsewhere?

A: In areas of New Jersey and Pennsylvania that are part of the Delaware Valley region—particularly in Philadelphia—the word “water” often sounds like wooder or wooter (the first vowel is pronounced as in “put”).

This may be the best-known feature of what’s sometimes called “Philly-speak.” There are many others: “towel” may sound like tal, “bagel” like beggle, “dentist” like dennis, and “go” like gow.

But the familiar sounds of this dialect are changing as the years go by, according to language scholars. Some features—like wooder—are weakening while others are getting stronger.

In an interview with the Associated Press in April, the linguist William Labov said the first syllable of the Philly-ism wooder is moving toward an ah sound. A similar evolution is happening with the Philly version of “coffee.”

“That sound is moving toward ‘ah’ so instead of ‘cawfee’ more Philadelphians are saying ‘coffee,’ ‘wooder’ becomes ‘water,”’ Labov said. “As people become aware … they tend to reverse them. They say, ‘Oh we shouldn’t talk that way.’ ”

As for another feature of Philadelphia speech, pronouncing “go” as gow, Labov said that “it got stronger and stronger, until people born around 1950, 1960, when it turned around and it went the other way.”

Labov, who has been studying Mid-Atlantic accents for 40 years, published a paper in the March 2013 issue of the journal Language about changes in Philadelphia speech.

In the paper, “One Hundred Years of Sound Change in Philadelphia,” Labov and two colleagues, Ingrid Rosenfelder and Josef Fruehwald, discuss the speech patterns of 379 Philadelphians who were born between 1888 and 1991.

The three University of Pennsylvania linguists turned decades of recordings into computerized voice spectrographs that let them track sound changes over time.

The paper can be hard going for a non-linguist, but the University of Pennsylvania issued a news release that summarizes the findings in simpler English.

The paper, according to Penn News, attributes many of the changes to the linguistic “Northernization” of the Philadelphia region:

“The traditional Southern inflections associated with Philadelphia native-born speakers are increasingly being displaced by Northern influences.”

The news release says the three linguists looked for an explanation of the changes “in the relation of Philadelphia to its geographic neighbors.” Here’s a brief description of the paper’s conclusions:

“In the earlier period, many Philadelphia features resembled those found in Southern dialects, and these are the changes that have reversed direction.

“Those that have not are movements towards patterns heard in the Northern dialects of western New England, New York state and the Great Lakes Region.”

Check out our books about the English language

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

Bilingual education

Q: My Danish stepmother is completely bilingual, with one exception: she uses the phrase “not that I know to” instead of “not that I know of” when speaking English. It would be interesting to understand where this usage comes from.

A: There’s a verbal phrase in Danish, kende til, that means to “know about.”

But someone attempting a literal translation into English might render kende til as “know to.” That’s because the Danish verb kende means to “know” and the preposition til frequently means “to.”

Louise Møhl, a cultural officer with the Danish Consulate in New York, provided us with a couple of Danish-to-English examples of these terms used in the first-person singular:

Jeg kender ham fra mit arbejde. = “I know him from work.”

Det kender jeg ikke noget til. = “I don’t know anything about that.”

As for til, Ms. Møhl said, it “has many meanings in Danish depending on the situation.”

When it’s not part of the expression kende til, the preposition til can mean “to” (perhaps its most frequent sense), “of,” “for,” “about,” “toward,” “from,” or “at.”

Incidentally, the Danish til has a similar-sounding cousin in English, “till.” The Old Norse preposition til (“to”) is the ancestor of both the Danish til and the English prepositions “till” and “to.”

We’ve written on our blog about the English words “till” and “until” (you may be surprised to learn which came first).

Sorry that we can’t be more definite about why your Danish stepmother says “know to” instead of “know of,” but here’s a suggestion: ask her why she does it.

You might as well get it straight from the horse’s mouth. Or, as a Dane would put it, lige fra hestens mund.

Why a horse’s mouth? We had a brief posting back in 2006 that says there are two theories about the origin of the English expression, one involving horse racing and the other horse trading.

The most likely explanation is that it originated in the early 20th century in reference to inside information from a racing tipster that was supposedly as good as if it came straight from the horse itself.

We’ll end with an example from “The Reverent Wooing of Archibald,” a 1928 short story by one of our favorite writers, P. G. Wodehouse. The wooer (and eavesdropper) here is Archibald Mulliner:

“It might be an ignoble thing to eavesdrop, but it was apparent that Aurelia Cammarleigh was about to reveal her candid opinion of him: and the prospect of getting the true facts—straight, as it were, from the horse’s mouth—held him so fascinated that he could not move.”

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Style Usage

A capital offense?

Q: I’m a New Yorker working in China. I recently began studying Mandarin via the video series “Growing up with Chinese.” Now, I’m a bit confused about something. Shouldn’t the “up” in the title be capitalized?

A: The capitalizing of words in titles is a matter of style, not grammar or usage. Different newspapers, magazines, book publishers, news blogs, TV shows, and other media organizations often have different styles for titles.

The two most common styles for titles, both online and off, are sentence style and headline style. We use sentence style for the titles of our posts while our old boss, the New York Times, uses headline style for the titles of most articles.

In sentence style, according to The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), “only the first word in a title … and any proper names are capitalized.”

In headline style, Chicago says, the conventions of capitalization “are governed mainly by emphasis and grammar.” The style guide’s rules for headline-style titles include:

● capitalize the first and last words, and all major words;

● lowercase “a,” “an,” and “the”;

● lowercase all prepositions except when used as adjectives or adverbs;

● lowercase “and,” “but,” “for,” “or,” and “nor.”

The manual acknowledges that its rules are “occasionally arbitrary,” and many media organizations differ with Chicago on one point or another. The New York Times, for instance, uppercases all words over four letters, including prepositions.

Getting back to your question, the title of the video series (“Growing up with Chinese”) is properly capitalized if judged by the Chicago Manual’s principles for sentence-style titles., the English-language website of China Central Television, usually uses sentence-style headlines.

In headline style, according to the Chicago rules, the title of that educational video series would be “Growing Up with Chinese.”

There are two good arguments for capitalizing “up” in a title like this.

First, the word “up” is an adverb here, not a preposition. In headline style, major words like adverbs (including little ones) are capitalized.

Second, “grow up” is a phrasal verb, and all parts of a phrasal verb are uppercased in headline-style capitalization. “Growing up” is a form (the present participle) of “grow up.”

A phrasal verb consists of a verb plus another word—usually an adverb or preposition—that function together as a single unit. The two words together mean something different from the combined meanings of the individual words.

Common examples are “log off,” “back down,” “wear out,” and “give up.” 

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), labels “grow up” a phrasal verb, while Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and the Oxford English Dictionary simply call it an intransitive verb. (An intransitive verb doesn’t have a direct object.)

The OED says the verb “grow up” means “to advance to or towards maturity.”

Oxford’s citations include an example in the participial form. It comes from an 1875 translation of Plato’s Dialogues: “His children, one of whom is growing up.”

If you’d like to read more, we wrote a post a few years ago (“Ups and downs in titles”) about headline and sentence style.

 Check out our books about the English language

English English language Etymology Expression Linguistics Phrase origin Usage

The rhubarb phenomenon

Q: Is there a term for the phenomenon of a word sounding completely nonsensical when you say it over and over again? That happens for me with the word “only.” I’d be interested if you folks have had the same experience.

A: Yes, we too have had this experience. After we repeatedly think, speak, or look at a word—say, “rhubarb”—it becomes gibberish.

This phenomenon isn’t new. James Boswell wrote about it in the 18th century, Edgar Allan Poe in the 19th, and James Thurber in the 20th.

In his memoir My Life and Hard Times (1933), Thurber recalls lying in bed, racking his brain in an attempt to remember the name Perth Amboy, the city in New Jersey:

“I fell to repeating the word ‘Jersey’ over and over again, until it became idiotic and meaningless. If you have ever lain awake at night and repeated one word over and over, thousands and millions and hundreds of thousands of millions of times, you know the disturbing mental state you can get into.”

A common term for this experience is “semantic satiation,” a phrase used by the psychologist Leon Jakobovits James in his 1962 doctoral dissertation. Other terms are “semantic saturation” and “verbal satiation.” (We might add “the rhubarb phenomenon.”)  

In his paper,  “Effects of Repeated Stimulation on Cognitive Aspects of Behavior: Some Experiments on the Phenomenon of Semantic Satiation,” James describes experiments testing subjects’ responses to repeated words, numbers, concepts, and so on.

He concludes, among other things, that “Repeated presentation of verbal stimuli results in a decrease of their meaning.”

What this means is that with enough repetition, “rhubarb”  becomes a meaningless collection of letters or sounds.

In 2010, many years after writing his dissertation, James contributed a few comments to a discussion of semantic satiation on the website Language Hat.

James wrote that his dissertation “was the first objective demonstration of a measurement of the intensity of reduction of meaning with repetition.”

“I demonstrated that this meaning reduction was a general cognitive and perceptual and temporary process, e.g., it slowed down our computing time for simple arithmetic when numbers were repeated first,” he said.

He said the paper also showed “that this meaning reduction process occurs at the macro or societal level, e.g., reduction of popularity of hit songs as a function of the number of times they were played on the radio.”

“I note from a Google search that the phrase and idea of semantic satiation has been applied to new areas in the past forty years (e.g., advertising, music, neurosemantics, etc.),” he added. “Today I still think that semantic satiation operates at several levels: universal, general, specific, and particular.”

He predicted that research “in the next forty years will uncover many of these effects produced by cumulative repetition or exposure (words, topics, issues, objects, tastes, experiences, colors, etc.).”

“Further,” he said, “there will be connection made to personality traits which I discuss in my dissertation as ‘semantic satiability’—people who for instance like to hear the same song over and over again (movie, etc.), vs. people who vary their way home because they get bored, etc.”

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Pronunciation Punctuation Spelling Style Usage

A classical education

Q: My question for you has to do with my son, Thales, who’s named after the ancient Greek philosopher. Is the plural possessive of his name Thales’ (like Achilles’) or Thales’s (like James’s)? Also, do you pronounce it with two syllables or three.

A: This is a complicated question, since Thales is a classical name being used by someone living now.

Ordinarily, as we’ve written on our blog, a name ending in “s” is made possessive with the addition of an apostrophe and a final “s,” as in “James’s sailboat.”

In the past, classical and biblical names were an exception. Those ending in “s” were customarily made possessive without the extra “s” (as in “Achilles’ armor” and “Jesus’ disciples”).

In modern usage, however, this custom is no longer universally followed, as we wrote in a posting last year.

Today, classical and biblical names ending in “s” are frequently made possessive just like other names—with the extra “s.” And they’re pronounced, as one would expect, with an extra syllable.

That’s the word from the Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.). Although some other guides recommend skipping the final “s,” the Chicago Manual says “such usage disregards pronunciation and is therefore not recommended by Chicago.”

Among the examples in the Chicago Manual are “Jesus’s adherents,” “Jesus’s sake,” “Tacitus’s Histories,” “Euripides’s tragedies,” and “Xerxes’s armies.”

This would seem to indicate that the name Thales, which has two syllables (THAY-leez), would become possessive as Thales’s, pronounced with three syllables (THAY-leez-ez).

But there’s a fly in the ointment. Chicago says possessive forms of classical and biblical names that end in an “eez” sound (like Thales and Hercules) are generally NOT pronounced with an extra syllable, even when spelled with an extra “s.”

So if you followed the Chicago Manual guidelines, you’d end up writing the possessive as Thales’s but not pronouncing the extra syllable, which seems silly to us. If that extra syllable is indicated in the spelling, it ought to be pronounced, in our opinion.

At bottom, of course, this is an issue of style, not correctness. In the end, the choice is really up to you (and to your son!).

Here’s what we advise. First, decide how you want to SAY the possessive form of his name, since you’ll be pronouncing it more often than you write it.

If you prefer to say “THAY-leez sailboat,” then spell it Thales’. But if you prefer to say “THAY-leez-ez sailboat,” with the extra syllable, then write the possessive form as Thales’s.

That’s the best advice we can come up with. If anyone questions your choice, you can argue reasonably for either one.

After all, your son isn’t a classical figure—he’s simply named for one: Thales of Miletus, one of the Seven Sages of ancient Greece.

People are entitled to decide how their names are pronounced, as we noted in a blog item a few years ago. So why can’t Thales decide how the possessive of his name should sound?

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Spelling Style Usage


Q: While editing narratives, I encounter words that use extra letters to show that a character stretches out the word, as in “Waaaiiit!” I’ve suggested a hyphenated alternative, but “W-a-i-t!” looks bad to me in print. Another recurring problem is spelling a stretched-out sound like “VVRRROOOOOM.” Is there a style guide for such usages?

 A: You’re asking how to write out stretchy words that are used as interjections or exclamations, and there’s not much guidance around for this problem.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) has this to say about interjections of the usual kind—those inarticulate noises we all make at times:

Webster’s lists such interjections as ugh, er, um, and sh. For those not found in the dictionary—or where a different emphasis is required—plausible spellings should be sought in literature or invented.” The examples given are “atchoo!” and “shhh!”

Note the triple “h” in that last one, which has extra letters (not separated by hyphens) added to the usual spelling.

We think this advice can be extended to the kind of usage you’re asking about—an elongated word or sound used as an interjection or exclamation.

Consequently, the repetition of letters, without hyphens, can show that an ordinary word is being used as an interjection (“Waaaiiit!” …  “Heeelllp!”). The use of hyphens (“W-a-i-t!” … “H-e-l-p!”) looks (to us, at least) as if the speaker is spelling the word instead of shouting it.

Like ordinary words, many that represent sounds—whether human or mechanical—are found in dictionaries. So there’s no mystery about their spelling.

Common examples include “ah,” “ugh,” “huh,” “uh-oh,” “uh-huh,” and “vroom.” Many that aren’t in dictionaries (or not in every dictionary) appear often in literature, like “eek!” and “hmm.”

If you’d like to emphasize that the word is being shouted or is particularly loud, you might simply capitalize it (“EEK!” … “VROOM!” … “UGH!”).

And if you’d like to elongate it to show that it’s drawn out, just repeat letters (with no extra hyphens): “ahhhh.” “hmmmm,” “uuhh-oohh,” and “eeeeeeeek!”

As we said, there are no hard-and-fast rules here. But we’ve tried to suggest what we think is the most reasonable—and readable—approach.

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage

Since Pluto was a pup

Q: Somehow, 175 older blog posts appeared on my Grammarphobia feed – which gave me a chance to do some review.  The Jan. 25, 2013, post about the expression “since Christ left Chicago” reminded me of “since Pluto was a pup.” A great phrase.

A: The phrase “since Pluto was a pup” is a variation of an earlier, 19th-century expression, “since Hector was a pup.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the “Hector” version (which it labels as an American colloquialism) and its variants as meaning “for a very long time” or “since a long time ago.”

So was there once a grizzled old dog named Hector? Maybe, or maybe not. Here’s how the OED explains the name:

Hector may refer to the Trojan hero who lived around 1200 b.c. and whose mother Hecuba was, according to Euripides, turned into a dog (hence Hector could be regarded as her pup); it may also reflect the popularity at various times of Hector as a dog’s name.”

We’re inclined to think the latter explanation is more likely to be the origin of a 19th-century colloquialism. The literature of the 19th century—both fiction and nonfiction—is full of dogs named Hector.

The OED’s earliest citation for the “Hector” expression is from an 1895 issue of the Washington Post: “[They] have been scrapping with each other in this neighborhood ‘since long before Hector was a pup.’ ”  

But thanks to Google Books, we’ve located a slightly earlier version. It’s from George Parsons Lathrop’s novel Gold of Pleasure (1891):

“I hain’t been so hungry and thirsty as I am this minute, since Hector was pupp’d.” (To “pup” means to give birth to pups, and to be “pupped” means to be born or whelped.)

The “Pluto” version of the expression came along in the mid-20th century.

The OED’s earliest example is from 1959, but we found this earlier one in Armine Von Tempski’s novel Bright Spurs (1946): “Schultz and Yarrow have been taking people up Haleakala since Pluto was a pup.”

Who was the “Pluto” in the expression? We’re guessing that he could have been the Walt Disney cartoon character, who first appeared under that name in 1931. He was also sometimes called Pluto the Pup.

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage

Like the back of one’s hand

Q: From a Canadian television commercial: “The monks of Oka, Quebec, knew how to make cheese like the back of their hand.” What do you think? It doesn’t sound right to me.

A: We agree that the Canadian commercial is oddly phrased. It’s odd for several reasons.

First, the expression “like the back of one’s hand” is more familiar when used in the singular—“like the back of my (or his or her) hand.”

The imagery is out of kilter in the plural “backs of their hands”—and even more out of it in the illogical mixing of singular and plural in “back of their hand,” the version on Canadian TV.

Second, a person generally knows something—not how to do something—“like the back of his hand.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the verb “know” in the expression refers to “a thing, place, or person.”

So we’d say, “He knows French like the back of his hand,” not “He knows how to speak French like the back of his hand.”

Finally, a literal-minded person might interpret the commercial to be saying the monks knew how to make cheese that resembled the backs of their hands. Or, as one viewer of the commercial commented online, “old, wrinkly, and smelly.”

The OED says that “to know (something) like the back of one’s hand” means “to be thoroughly familiar or conversant with.”

While the expression sounds venerable, Oxford has no published examples older than the mid-20th century. Here are the OED’s citations, all from mystery or suspense novels.

“I know him as well as I know the back of my hand.” (From Margaret Millar’s Wall of Eyes, 1943.) 

“I know that book like the back of my hand.” (From Michael Innes’s The Weight of Evidence, 1944.)  

“I know the district like the back of my hand.” (From Mary Stewart’s Wildfire at Midnight, 1956.)

“I know that photograph like the back of my hand.” (From Catherine Aird’s Henrietta Who? 1968.)

We’ve spotted a few earlier examples, though.

For instance the expression appears twice in John Collis Snaith’s novel The Sailor, first published in 1916:

“So much had he knocked about the world that he knew men and cities like the back of his hand” … “his native city of Blackhampton, certain parts of which he knew like the back of his hand.”

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

In a jiffy

Q: I was packing my latest manuscript in a Jiffy bag when I thought of a question for my go-to word guys. What is a jiffy?

A: It’s an instant or a moment, which doesn’t describe the amount of time we’ve taken to get to your question. Sorry, but our in-box has been overflowing lately.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “jiffy” as a colloquial noun of “origin unascertained,” and defines it as “a very short space of time.”

The OED says the word is seen “only in such phrases as in a jiffy,” but it later notes the use of “jiffy” in the names of padded bags and other products.

The first Oxford citation is from Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of His Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (1785), by Rudolf Erich Raspe: “In six jiffies I found myself and all my retinue … at the rock of Gibralter.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology speculates that the word might have been “spontaneously coined” by Raspe, a German librarian, writer, and scientist.

The full phrase “in a jiffy” was first recorded (with the spelling jeffy) in Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1796): “It will be done in a jeffy: it will be done in a short space of time, in an instant.”

In the 1950s, “Jiffy” showed up in trademarked names for a padded envelope, a book bag, and a peat pot for sowing seeds. The first Jiffy Lube opened in Ogden, Utah, in the 1970s, and franchises followed … in a jiffy.

Check out our books about the English language