English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

The whole troop

Q: In your language Q&A, you say, “One soldier does not a troop make.” This would have surprised the training cadre of P Company, 2nd Training Regiment, Fort Dix, NJ, in the summer of 1959, when I (a trainee) was repeatedly addressed as “troop.”

A: Yes, it’s true that “troop” is used colloquially in the military to mean an individual soldier.  And quite a few civilians use “troop” that way too.

But this meaning of the word isn’t yet in standard dictionaries, which still define the singular word “troop” in the military sense as a unit of service members.

We wrote a post about “troop” in 2006 and updated it in 2009. We’ve now checked to see whether the standard usage has changed since then, and it hasn’t.

In its military sense, the noun “troop” refers to a unit or a body of soldiers, especially an air or armored cavalry unit corresponding to an infantry company. Used in the plural, though, “troops” means soldiers or military units.

None of the standard dictionaries we checked accept the use of the singular “troop” to mean an individual service member.

But the Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for what it labels an “irregular” usage—the singular “troop,” used to mean one person.

The OED defines “troop” in this sense as “a member of a troop of soldiers (or other servicemen); a soldier, a trooper.”

This usage, Oxford says, is an “irregular” one derived from the use of “troop” as a collective plural, or “in some cases perhaps abbrev. of trooper.”  It describes this as a colloquialism used “chiefly” in the military.

Here are the dictionary’s citations, which begin in the 19th century, for this colloquial meaning of “troop”:

“The monkey stowed himself away … till the same marine passed … and laid hold of him by the calf of the leg. … As the wounded ‘troop’ was not much hurt, a sort of truce was proclaimed.” (From an 1832 volume of a travel memoir, Fragments of Voyages and Travels, by the naval officer Basil Hall. The “troop” here is a royal marine bitten by the ship’s monkey.)

“Can you spare a bite for a front-line troop?” (From a 1947 story collection, The Gorse Blooms Pale, by the New Zealand author Dan Davin.)

“ ‘You don’t smoke dope, do you, troop?’ ‘No, no sir!’ ” (From Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, 1973.)

We discussed the etymology of “troop” in our earlier post. We’ll just mention here that the term was borrowed in the 16th century from French, which got it from troppus, late Latin for flock. (Some etymologists believe troppus in turn may have Germanic roots.) 

Getting back to your question, a trainee at Fort Dix may often be addressed as “troop,” but this usage hasn’t made the leap into civilian life as standard English—at least not yet. Stay tuned!

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

Let’s do “do”

Q: I’m wondering how “do” has universally replaced almost all specific verbs: “do Italy,” “do quiche,” “do tennis,” “do the mail,” and on. I was in a diner with a friend who asked the Greek waiter, “Did you do the broccoli yet?” He had no idea what she meant. I interceded, “Did you cook the broccoli?” I’m an English teacher and it drives me crazy.

A: You might as well make peace with this usage. It may be overdone, but it’s not new, and it’s not likely to go away.

We’ve all heard it for years now, from “Let’s do lunch” to the eternal refrain of cleaning people everywhere: “I don’t do windows.”

In fact, from a historical standpoint, this kind of construction—“do” followed by a noun as direct object—isn’t unusual.  For more than a thousand years, English speakers have used it to mean achieve, perform, bring about, carry out, accomplish, and so on.  

We still use “do” this way, as in “do honor to one’s country,” “do the work,” “do nothing,” “do one’s duty,” “do justice,” “do evil,” “do penance,” “do your best,” etc.

We also use “do” plus an object to mean prepare, arrange, clean, put in order, deal with, work on, or make ready.

Your example “do the mail” falls into this category, and it’s not unusual. Similar examples include “do the flowers,” “do the room,” “do housework,” “do one’s hair [or makeup],” “do his homework,” “do the accounts,” “do your taxes,” and so forth.

“Do” is extremely useful in this way. As the Oxford English Dictionary remarks, “Since every kind of action may be viewed as a particular form of doing, the uses of the verb are as numerous as the classes of objects which it may govern.”

We’ve written before on the blog about usages like “do a burger,” “do lunch,” and so on. As we noted, “do” has been used to mean consume (as in “do a couple of pints” or “do a chop”) since the mid-19th century.

A related sense, “to eat or drink, esp. habitually,” dates from the 1970s, Oxford says. The dictionary’s citations include “do booze” (1970), “do sushi” (1987), “do coffee” (1989), and “do alcohol” (1994). We might add your example “do quiche” (as in “Does he do quiche?”). 

As we also mentioned in that earlier post, “do lunch” is vintage 1970s. This expression (sometimes it’s “do dinner”), was first recorded in Ladies’ Man (1978), a novel by Richard Price:

“ ‘Kenny, whata you doin’ now?’ ‘Now? I was gonna do lunch; you wanna do lunch?’ ”

The OED defines the phrase as meaning “to meet for the specified meal, esp. with a view to conducting business.”

This more businesslike exchange of pleasantries is from Marc Blake’s novel 24 Karat Schmooze (2001): “ ‘And if you come up with something more, do get in touch.’ ‘I will.’ ‘We must do lunch.’ ”

Let’s look at the other usages you mention: “do Italy,” “do tennis,” and “do the broccoli.”

It was 19th-century tourists, the OED says, who began using “do” to mean to visit a site.

Oxford’s citations include “do the Rhine” (1817), “done North and South America” (1830), “ ‘did’ a bit of continent” (1844), and “ ‘do’ Cologne Cathedral” (1854).

The fact that the writers sometimes used quotation marks or italics probably indicates that they considered  this usage a colloquialism.

Phrases like “do tennis” are more recent. The OED has citations since 1990 for “do” used to mean “to (be able to) partake of or engage in,” mostly in negative constructions.

The dictionary’s examples include “he didn’t ‘do’ relationships” (1990), “can ‘do intimacy’ ” (1994), “he doesn’t do boyfriends” (1999), and “doesn’t do small talk.”

As for “do the broccoli,” the OED says that since the 1600s “do” has been used to mean “to prepare or make ready as food; to cook.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Samuel Pepys’s Diary (1660): “We had … a carp and some other fishes, as well done as ever I eat any.” (He’s using “well done” here in the sense of “well prepared.”)

In another citation for the usage, an advertisement from the 1890s seeks a young woman “capable of doing pastry.”

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of the verb “do” in our language.

For example, we use “do” with a pronoun as object, in both questions and statements: “What has Jack done?” … “That does it!” … “What does your brother-in-law do?” … “This just isn’t done.” 

As auxiliary forms, “do”/”do not” and “did”/”did not” are especially handy.

We use the auxiliary “do” plus an infinitive to form an emphatic imperative, as in “Do tell!” … “Do be quiet” … “Do stay.”

In addition, the auxiliary “do” is often used with an infinitive to form a question: “Do you smoke?” … “Did they drive?” … “Does he love her?” Without this flexibility, we’d have to resort to the clumsy “Smoke you?” … “Drove they?” …”Loves he her?”

And in negative sentences, as Oxford points out, “do not” and “did not” allow “the negative to come after the auxiliary, instead of following the principal verb: e.g., ‘We did not recognize him’ instead of ‘We recognized him not.’ ”

In short, forms of “do” have helped English no end! We could go on, but for now this will do.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Slang Usage Word origin

Why is a hick town a jerkwater?

Q: The two citations for “jerkwater” in my dictionary refer to remote, unimportant towns. Are there other uses for the word? And does it refer to pulling down the arm of a water tank or some other kind of jerking?

A: The term “jerkwater” was originally an adjective that described a stagecoach, train, or other conveyance serving a remote provincial area, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

The earliest example of the usage in Random House is from the March 1869 issue of the Overland Monthly, a California-based magazine published by Bret Harte.

The citation describes mules and oxen carrying mining supplies as “ ‘jerkwater’ stages, which had been three or four days making the trip of one hundred and ten miles.”

The dictionary’s next example of the adjectival usage—from the May 15, 1909, issue of the Saturday Evening Post—uses the word to describe a railroad train:

“The farther along Flagg got in the list the more disgusted he became with the prospect of living on jerk-water trains.” (We’ve gone to the original to expand the Random House citation.)

The slang dictionary also has examples of “jerkwater” used as a noun for a stagecoach or train serving a rural area. The first citation for the noun is from The Sazerac Lying Club, an 1878 book by Fred H. Hart:

“I wish I may be runned over by a two-horse jerk-water if there was a sage-hen in sight.”

And here’s a 1905 example—from Dialect Notes, a publication of the American Dialect Society—of the noun used for a train: “Jerkwater (train), n. Train on a branch railway. ‘Has the jerkwater come in yet?’ ”

Why was a train serving a remote area called a “jerkwater”? The Oxford English Dictionary points the reader to this explanation in Santa Fe: The Railroad That Built an Empire, a 1945 book by James Marshall:

“The Santa Fe was the Jerkwater Line—because train crews, when the water got low, often had to stop by a creek, form a bucket brigade and jerk water from the stream to fill the tender tank.”

By the late 19th century, the term “jerkwater” was also being used as an adjective to describe something provincial or insignificant, according to Random House.

The dictionary’s first citation for this usage is from the July 25, 1897, issue of the Chicago Tribune: “John J. Ingalls regards the Swiss mission as a jerkwater job, and would not take it if it were offered to him.”

The first Random House example of the adjective used to describe a small town is from “Above the Law,” a 1918 short story by Max Brand: “A jerk-water shanty village like Three Rivers.”

Interestingly, the dictionary’s earliest example of “jerkwater” used as a noun for a small town (from a June 1927 issue of the journal American Speech) suggests the usage was already on the way out:

“The advent of gasoline … has brought the expression filling-station to take the place of tank town or jerkwater.”

You’ve also asked about other uses for the word. Random House has many examples of the term used broadly to mean insignificant: “jerkwater hotels” (1936), “jerkwater cowcollege” (1938-39), “jerk water country” (1953), “jerkwater paper” (1983), and so on.

By the way, the word “hick” in the title of this post is derived from an old nickname for someone called Richard.

In the mid-1500s, according to the OED, the nickname came to mean “an ignorant countryman; a silly fellow, booby.” By the early 20th century, the term was being used adjectivally to mean unsophisticated or provincial.

Although the provincial sense of “hick” originated in Britain, Oxford says, it’s now chiefly an American usage. 

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English English language Etymology Style Usage Word origin

Cardinal college

Q: I have a question about cardinals, not the baseball kind, but the Roman Catholic. Their title used to be inserted between a given name and a surname, as in “Francis, Cardinal Spellman.” But listening to coverage of the recent papal election, I realized that the custom seems to be about as extinct as people old enough to remember who Cardinal Spellman was. Is this usage just plain outmoded?

A: Well, the usage isn’t quite extinct, but it’s on the endangered list. For example, an article on the National Catholic Reporter website about the pope’s current trip to Brazil refers to the archbishop of Aparecida as “Cardinal Raymundo Damasceno Assis.”

 When we arrived at the New York Times in the early 1980s, more than a dozen years after Cardinal Spellman’s death, the newspaper followed the style you’re asking about, minus the comma.

But in 1999, after we’d left the paper to write books full time, the Times style manual updated the usage and recommended putting the title in front of a cardinal’s given name.

Typically, the Times was late to accept this new usage. We have an old 1977 Associated Press stylebook that calls for putting the title first. It describes the old practice even then as archaic except in formal documents.

Today US news organizations generally put the title before a cardinal’s given name. And that includes the Catholic News Service. Here’s the beginning of a March 13, 2013, article by the CNS about the last papal election:

“VATICAN CITY (CNS)— Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, the leader of a large urban archdiocese in Latin America, was elected the 266th pope and took the name Francis.”

However, the Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), which is widely used in book publishing, is still sticking with tradition. Chicago’s entry for religious titles includes this item: “Francis Cardinal George or, less formally, Cardinal George.”

As for the cardinals themselves, some put their titles at the beginning of their names and others put the titles between their given names and surnames. Most American cardinals still follow the old style, though there are exceptions.

The website of the Archdiocese of New York, for example, refers to its archbishop as Timothy Cardinal Dolan while the Archdiocese of Boston’s site refers to its archbishop as Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley.

The Archdiocese of Washington uses both styles on its Web pages. In the archbishop’s biography, for example, the heading refers to “Donald Cardinal Wuerl” and the text to “Cardinal Donald Wuerl.”

The English language pages of the Vatican website generally use the newer style, though the older usage is sometimes seen in headings.

In biographical notes for the College of Cardinals, for example, the archbishop of New York is referred to as “Cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan” under the heading “DOLAN Card. Timothy Michael.” (The Vatican often abbreviates “cardinal” as “card.”)

The Vatican Information Service and L’Osservatore Romano, the semiofficial newspaper of the Vatican, also use the newer style in referring to cardinals.

So does the website of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. On a page listing the cardinals leading American dioceses, the archbishop of New York is “Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan.”

As for the word “cardinal” itself, the ultimate source is cardo, Latin for “hinge.” But what in heaven’s name could a hinge have to do with a cardinal?

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins explains that the “underlying idea is that something of particular, or ‘cardinal,’ importance is like a hinge on which all else depends.”

Ayto says the English word is derived from the ecclesiastical Latin term cardinalis, “which in the early church denoted simply a clergyman attached to a church, as a door is attached to hinges.”

The Latin term, he writes, “gradually rose in dignity” through the Middle Ages as it was applied to the “princes of the Roman Catholic church.”

The earliest example of the English noun in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1125 entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, a collection of Old English writings that date back as far as the ninth century:

On thes ilces gæres sende se papa of Rome to thise lande an cardinal Johan of Crème.” (Modern English: “In the same year, the Pope of Rome sent to this land Cardinal Johan of Crème.” We changed the Old English letters thorn and eth to “th.”)

In this first OED citation for “cardinal,” the title appears before the given name. So how did it get between the given name and the surname?

Merrill Perlman, a former colleague of ours at the Times and a language maven for the Columbia Journalism Review, traces the practice to the naming customs of the aristocracy.

In her Feb. 21, 2012, Language Corner column, she writes that as the cardinals consolidated their power, “they were often referred to the way the nobility was.”

“Just as Alfred Lord Tennyson had ‘Lord’ as his middle name, so did the cardinals have ‘Cardinal’ as theirs,” she says. “And just as Tennyson was sometimes referred to as ‘Alfred, Lord Tennyson,’ so were Cardinals sometimes called ‘John, Cardinal Smith.’ ”

As part of the changes that began with the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, she adds, Popes John XXIII and Paul VI “started to refer to cardinals in less-formal proceedings as ‘Cardinal John Smith.’ ”

It was left to the individual cardinals, however, to choose how to refer to themselves. In a way, the ones who chose the new terminology were oiling a squeaky hinge and returning to a simpler past.

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Is “many” missing in action?

Q: Have you noticed that the word MANY seems to have vanished from general usage? In place of this vigorous Anglo-Saxon adjective one usually hears or reads the longer word NUMEROUS. How can one account for this phenomenon?

A: We like “many” too, but we don’t think it’s in danger of vanishing anytime soon. Although numerous authors overuse “numerous,” many more apparently prefer “many.”

Searches of Google News for the last month turned up a billion and a half hits for “many” compared with a million and a half for “numerous.”

Why do some writers prefer “numerous” to “many”? We can think of two reasons.

First, “numerous” is longer, and longer words seem to carry more weight with some people than shorter ones. 

You’ve hinted at the second reason.

“Many” dates back to early Old English, while the much younger “numerous” is from Latin. And for centuries, English-speaking pedants have considered Latin borrowings more respectable or “educated” than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts.

As we’ve said before, phooey.

There’s nothing wrong with “numerous” per se. And it’s good to use if you want to avoid too many repetitions of “many.” But there’s nothing wrong with “many” either.

The shorter, older word was spelled monig in Beowulf and other early writings, but it ultimately goes back to the Indo-European root monogho- or menogho-.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the modern pronunciation of “many” dates from the 13th century and “perhaps arose from association with the unrelated any.”

English acquired the adjective “numerous” by way of the classical Latin numerosus, derived from the noun numerus (“number”).

“Numerous” might have been used in writing as early as 1425, though that usage—from a translation—is questionable, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first certain documentation in the OED dates from 1567, when the naturalist John Maplet described the female tiger’s brood or litter as “numerouse.”

Originally, “numerous” meant “consisting of many individuals,” the OED says, so it was used in phrases like “a numerous family,” “a numerous brigade,” “a numerous assembly,” “a numerous and powerful force,” and so on.

Then early in the 17th century, “numerous” acquired a new sense, the principal one it has today: to modify a plural noun and mean “many” or “great in number.”

The word was first recorded in this sense in 1622, in The Virgin Martir a Tragedie, by Thomas Dekker and Philip Massinger: “To be parted in their numerous shares.” (Here, “to be parted” means to be made a partner or given a part.) 

This entry from Samuel Pepys’s Diary (1666) is a little easier to follow: “Contriving presses to put my books up in; they now growing numerous.”

Many centuries later, the word is still used in place of “many.” This OED citation is from  Edith Templeton’s novel The Island of Desire (1952): “His reputation was enormous …. Numerous books had been written about him.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Is there a bee in your bonnet?

Q: It can be difficult putting up with a bee in one’s bonnet—and where did THAT one come from?

A: Persistent (and perhaps crazy) ideas have reminded people of bees buzzing about the head for 500 years.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that “to have bees in the head or the brains,” or “a bee in one’s bonnet,” means to have “a fantasy, an eccentric whim, a craze on some point, a ‘screw loose.’ ”

However, standard dictionaries generally say you don’t have to be nutty to have a bee in your bonnet. The expression can refer to having an idea, a notion, or a fancy as well as an obsession.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, defines “a bee in one’s bonnet” as an impulse, a notion, or an obsession. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines it as an eccentric notion or a fancy.

The earliest recorded example in the OED is from Virgil’s Eneados, Gavin Douglas’s Middle Scots version of the Aeneid:

“Quhat berne be thou in bed, with hede full of beis?” (“What, man, rot thou in bed with thy head full of bees?”)

The OED dates this citation from 1553, but scholars say Douglas finished his translation in 1513.

In a comic play written around the early 1550s, Nicholas Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister, we find the same image: “Who so hath suche bees as your maister in hys head.”

A century later, bees began invading brains. Here’s a line from Samuel Colville’s Mock Poem (1751): “Which comes from brains which have a bee.”

Bonnets entered the picture in the mid-19th century. The OED cites an essay Thomas De Quincey wrote for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (1845):

“John Hunter, notwithstanding he had a bee in his bonnet, was really a great man.”

Here’s a 1935 example, from Oliver Wendell Holmes, cited in the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged: “He has the presidential bee in his bonnet.”

And in case you’re inspired to ask, we’ve written blog posts before on the phrases “bee’s knees” and “spelling bee.”

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English English language Grammar Linguistics Usage

Sentence interruptus

Q: Is there a word for making a habit of finishing someone else’s sentences?

A: Annoying? Bothersome? Irritating? Exasperating? We’ve known people who do this, and it bugs us mightily.  Before we can finish a sentence, they break in and finish it for us.

Is there a word for this? Not that we know of. But sociolinguists who specialize in conversational analysis have used various phrases to describe the phenomenon.

Some phrases we’ve seen are “interruptive conversational transitions,” “interruptive turns in talk-in interaction,” “aberration from the turn-taking rules,” “relaxation of turn-taking practices,” and “anticipatory completion of a speaking turn by another speaker.”

Language scholars who study the organization of conversation have offered various explanations for what a lay person would consider violations in the accepted turn-taking rules.

Gene Lerner, a sociologist who studies conversational analysis at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says one reason listeners break in and finish sentences is to guide conversations in a desirable direction.

In “Finding ‘Face’ in the Preference Structures of Talk-in-Interaction,” a 1996 paper in Social Psychology Quarterly, Lerner puts it this way:

“The anticipatory completion of a speaking turn by another speaker can be used to preempt an emerging dispreferred action and change it into the alternative preferred action.”

Deborah Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University, sees two kinds of interruptions in conversation: dominating and supportive.

In an introduction to “Interpreting Interruption in Conversation,” an essay in her 1994 book Gender and Discourse, Tannen distinguishes between interrupting and overlapping in conversation.

She says “high involvement style” conversation involves a lot of “cooperative overlap,” which she describes as “a listener talking along with a speaker not in order to interrupt but to show enthusiastic listenership and participation.”

Tannen says men often interrupt and dominate women in conversation, but she’s reluctant “to jump on the ‘men dominate women by interrupting them’ bandwagon.”

She writes that her research into the workings of conversation has shown that “one cannot simply count overlaps in a conversation, call them interruptions, and assign blame to the speaker whose voice prevails.”

We’ve seen many explanations for the finishing of another person’s sentence. Some language commentators believe that it’s a sign of intimacy; others that it’s a putdown.

And some chronic interrupters believe they have psychic powers that give them an uncanny ability to finish other people’s sentences.  

We find that finishing someone else’s sentences often involves impatience. The listener simply wants to hurry a slow talker along.

That reminds us of an old Bob and Ray routine in which Ray Goulding interviews Bob Elliot in the role of president and recording secretary of the Slow Talkers of America.

As Bob pauses between words, Ray jumps in with the next word, but Bob then changes his responses to make Ray’s guesses wrong.

We’ll finish this now before someone with psychic powers finishes it for us.

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English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage Word origin


Q: In your post last May about “who” and “which,” you use (deliberately?) a “who”-related word for things (“clauses whose information”). If “who” is used exclusively for people, why is “whose” used for both people and things?

A: Yes, we deliberately used “whose” to refer to things. It’s a myth that “whose” shouldn’t be used in reference to inanimate things, as in “a company whose CEO is 22 years old,” or “an idea whose time has come.”

For more than a thousand years, “whose” has been used—and quite properly—for both people and things. Yet the belief that “whose” is only for people is one of the most stubborn misconceptions about English grammar.

We’ve referred to this hoary old myth before on our blog, but we’ve never devoted an entire post to it. 

The fiction persists because many people associate “whose” with “who.” They assume that because “who” applies to people and not things, the same must be true of “whose.”

But as dictionaries and usage guides will tell you, “whose” is the genitive (or possessive) case of both “who” and “which.”

(The genitive case, as we’ve written before, is for relationships much wider than simple possession or ownership. It indicates “of or relating to” as well as “belonging to.”)

So “whose” can apply to a person or a thing; it can mean “of whom” or “of which.” 

“Whose” was first recorded in the late 800s, when it was written in Old English as hwæs, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In those times, it was the genitive case of both “who” (hwa) and “what” (hwæt), the OED says.

During the Middle English period (roughly 1100-1500), the spelling of “whose” shifted a lot, from hwas to the later hwos and whos. During this same period—in the 1300s—people began using “whose” as the genitive form of “which” as well as “who.”

That’s how it’s been used ever since, and that’s how standard dictionaries define it. Yet because of its similarity to “who,” many people think its use for things is taboo.

In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), Henry Fowler vigorously condemned the taboo against using “whose” for things:

“Let us, in the name of common sense, prohibit the prohibition of whose inanimate; good writing is surely difficult enough without the forbidding of things that have historical grammar, & present intelligibility, & obvious convenience, on their side, & lack only—starch.”

The current Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), by R. W. Burchfield, says the notion that “whose” is limited to people is a “folk-belief.”

The editors of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage use even stronger language: “The notion that whose may not properly be used of anything except persons is a superstition.”

“The force that has always worked against acceptance of whose used of inanimate things is its inevitable association with who,” the usage guide says.

But “whose,” Merriam-Webster’s adds, is commonly used in reference to things, even in writing characterized by “formality and solemnity.”

The OED says that “in reference to a thing or things (inanimate or abstract),” the pronoun “whose” was “originally the genitive of the neuter what … in later use serving as the genitive of which.”

And as the OED’s citations prove, “whose” has been used this way for centuries by the best of writers. Here are some examples:

“I would a tale vnfold, whose lightest word / Would harrow vp thy soule.” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1603.)

“Mountains on whose barren brest / The labouring clouds do often rest.” (John Milton, L’Allegro, 1645.)

 “A newspaper of sound principles, but whose staff will persist in ‘casting’ anchors.” (Joseph Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea, 1906.)

“She looked down … and saw a little house, with a blue door whose colour delighted her.” (Elizabeth Bowen, The Hotel, 1927.)

“Toby … marvelled at this light which is no light … and whose strength is seen only in the sharpness of cast shadows.” (Iris Murdoch, The Bell, 1958.)

“There were pictures whose context she understood immediately.” (Ian McEwan, The Comfort of Strangers, 1981.)

Merriam-Webster’s has many more examples, from the Bible, Milton (Paradise Lost), Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, Stephen Spender, Lewis Mumford, and John Updike.  

Yet, some people still doubt the propriety of “whose” in cases like these. They’d rather substitute “of which,” though the result is often a clumsy monstrosity.

Take the examples we used in our opening sentence: “a company whose CEO is 22 years old,” and “an idea whose time has come.”

Without “whose,” they’re stiff and ungainly: “a company the CEO of which is 22 years old,” and “an idea the time of which has come.”

“Of which” isn’t wrong here—just starchy, as Fowler would say. But “whose” isn’t wrong either, so why avoid a perfectly good usage?

We’ll let the Merriam-Webster’s editors have the final word: “The misinformation that passes for gospel wisdom about English usage is sometimes astounding.”

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English English language Grammar Usage

See Spot run!

Q: I teach ESL at LaGuardia Community College in NY. One of the lessons compares two sentences: “I saw Mary get off the bus” and “I saw Mary getting off the bus.” The lesson plan says “get” here is in the simple present and indicates a longer action than “getting,” the continuous form of the verb. This seems backward. Please help.

A: We’ll answer your larger question first and get to the terminology later.

To begin with, in the first sentence (“I saw Mary get off the bus”), the speaker saw Mary perform a complete action.

But in the second (“I saw Mary getting off the bus”), the speaker saw an act in progress—perhaps only part of it.

That’s probably what the lesson plan means by saying the action in the first sentence is “longer.” By implication, it’s more complete.

But “longer” is a misleading choice of words because the actual length of time involved is irrelevant.

The difference in meaning between the two sentences is a matter of the observer’s  vantage point—is he talking about a completed action or about a process? Is he speaking after the fact, or seemingly placing himself in the midst of the action?

We can see why the description of the first sentence as “longer” seems backward to you. In fact, the “getting off” may be quite stretched out!

Now for the terminology.

(1) “I saw Mary get off the bus.” Here, the phrasal verb “get off” is an infinitive. It is not in the present tense.

The simple infinitive (without “to”) is often used after verbs of perception like “see,” “hear,” and “feel.”

A familiar example from the old “Dick and Jane” readers is “See Spot run,” in which “run” is an infinitive.

We’ve written several times on our blog about simple, or bare, infinitives, including posts in 2010 and 2013.

(2) “I saw Mary getting off the bus.” Here, “getting off” is a present participle. It’s not an example of “the continuous form” (often called the “progressive”).

The two are similar, since both include verbs ending in “-ing.” But a progressive verb has something extra—a form of the verb “be,” as in “am getting off,” “is getting off,” “was getting off,” “are getting off,” “will be getting off,” and so forth.

So in this sentence, “getting off” is not a progressive (or continuous) form but a present participle.

This present participle is part of a noun phrase—“Mary getting off the bus”—that’s the direct object of the verb “saw.” What did the speaker see? “Mary getting off the bus.”

So don’t assume that a verb ending in “-ing” is necessarily in the progressive form.

It could be a present participle or a gerund, verbal forms we’ve written about before, including posts in 2011 and 2012.

In summary, with a verb of perception like “see,” you can talk about completed acts or acts in progress. (We’ll illustrate with a different sentence.)

This example uses a verb in the infinitive to express a completed action: “We saw him go.”

This one uses a present participle to express an act in progress: “We saw him going.”

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Human resources?

Q: I am an HR manager. Am I a Human Resources Manager or a Human Resource Manager?  I’ve heard that one or the other is correct. I’ve also heard that both are correct. Which is it?

A: The usual term is “human resources manager,” though “human resource manager” is often seen. Both are correct.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the usual term is “human resources,” whether the phrase is used as a noun (“She’s in charge of human resources”) or as an adjective (She’s our human resources manager”).

The OED describes the adjectival use of “human resource” as occasional, but we think the dictionary may be underestimating the usage.

Here’s the Google scorecard: “human resources manager,” 10.3 million hits; “human resource manager,” 3.6 million.

The use of “human resources” to refer to people isn’t as modern as you might think.

The OED says it was first recorded in Britain in World War I, when it meant “people (esp. personnel or workers) regarded as an asset of a business or other organization (as contrasted with material or financial resources).”

Oxford’s earliest published example is from a 1915 issue of the Times of London:

“Side by side with the committees that have been set up to deal with the production of material there should be an organization to take stock of the human resources still at the disposal of the nation.”

The usage soon spread to the US. The OED has this 1920 example from the American Journal of Sociology, which was (and still is) published in Chicago:

“Federalism would have saved the Balkans from devastation and appalling waste of human resources.”

The phrase added a new meaning in corporate America in the mid-1960s, the OED says.

In American usage, “human resources” came to mean “the department in an organization dealing with the administration, management, training, etc., of staff; the personnel department.”

This additional, and more specialized, sense of the term was first recorded in an advertisement that ran in The New York Times in 1965: “Forward complete resume of education, experience, history and salary requirement to: Director Human Resources.”

The OED has an example of the specific usage you ask about. It’s from Business Week (1975): “Results of the experiment, which ended in mid-1974, are still being analyzed, says human resources manager Charles J. Sherrard.”

This corporate meaning of the phrase is now current in Britain too, according to OED citations.

An example of the adjectival usage in the less common singular form appeared in the British magazine Accountancy (1994): “Part of the background to all of this is the growing tendency for the human resource function itself to shrink in size.”

And this example of the noun phrase comes from Turning Thirty (2000), by the young British novelist Mike Gayle: “I would be free to leave as soon as I told Human Resources where I wanted to go.”

The two of us are old enough to remember when companies had “personnel managers” and “personnel departments.” And for a time we regarded “human resources” as jargon. But we’re human and resourceful, so we’ve come to terms with it.

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The language of gay marriage

Q: Have you noticed the new usage (even on … or especially on … NPR) that “husbands” can be female and “wives” can be male in gay marriages? I support the gay desire for legal marriage, but this reversal of gender seems offensive to common sense.

A: The language and the law are changing concerning marriage, and some people are offended by the changes. But you may be confused about what is actually happening with the language.

From what we’ve observed, women in same-sex marriages generally refer to each other as wives or spouses, and men in same-sex marriages generally refer to each other as husbands or spouses.

It would be extremely rare in a gay marriage for a man to be called a “wife” or a woman to be called a “husband,” except perhaps humorously.

We should mention here that the meanings of “husband” and “wife” have changed dramatically over the years. In fact, the two words had nothing to do with marriage when they entered English more than a thousand years ago. We’ll have more on this later, but let’s get back to your question now.

What you’ve probably heard on NPR and elsewhere is reporting or commentary prompted by a Feb. 21, 2013, announcement of the following addition to the AP Stylebook Online:

husband, wife Regardless of sexual orientation, husband or wife is acceptable in all references to individuals in any legally recognized marriage. Spouse or partner may be used if requested.”

Mike Oreskes, AP senior managing editor, said the new entry “lays down clear and simple usage,” but some people found it confusing and wondered if it meant the Associated Press might refer to a woman as a “husband” and a man as a “wife.”

James Joyner, writing in the blog Outside the Beltway, said AP “seems to imply that ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ are interchangeable terms when they’re in fact gender-specific.”

“The entry seems to suggest that one of the dudes in a gay marriage is the husband and the other the wife when, in fact, they’re both husbands,” Joyner wrote.

As we’ve said, this isn’t the usual practice. And such a usage contradicts the latest, inclusive definitions of “husband” and “wife” in the two standard dictionaries we consult the most.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines “husband” as a “man joined to another person in marriage; a male spouse.” It defines “wife” as a “woman joined to another person in marriage; a female spouse.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) similarly defines “husband” as “a male partner in a marriage,” and “wife” as “a female partner in a marriage.”

So, according to American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s, two men married to each other would both be “husbands,” and two women married to each other would both be “wives.”

Of course a husband or a wife could be referred to in a lot of other ways. Here some alternative terms, along with the dates they first appeared in the spousal sense, according to the OED: “spouse” (circa 1200); “partner” (1577); “helpmate” (1815); “better half” (early 1580s); “ball and chain” (1921), and so on.

Steve Kleinedler, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, brought a personal as well as a lexical perspective to a March 29, 2013, NPR report entitled “Gay Marriage and the Evolving Language of Love.”

Kleinedler spoke about the linguistic confusion that resulted in 2009 when his husband died in an accident after five years of marriage:

“The funeral director very innocently and not meaning to offend at all—she was an older woman and she was extremely helpful—was stunned by the form. She turned to me and says, ‘Well, which one of you is the wife?’ And you know, I kindly explained, ‘No, we’re both husbands.’ ”

A few months earlier, Kleinedler had been involved in updating American Heritage’s definitions of “marriage,” “husband,” and “widower” to encompass same-sex couples.

We imagine that the funeral director’s confusion isn’t all that unusual these days. More than a few people may be startled to hear a man refer to his husband or a woman refer to her wife. Will this usage seem ordinary one day?

Former Congressman Barney Frank, who married his husband last year, thinks so. The Democrat from Massachusetts said on the NPR program that the usage was already losing its novelty.

The 73-year-old Frank said he hadn’t noticed much linguistic confusion over husband-husband marriages: “Even among people my own age, I have not found that very widespread.”

“The whole point of this is that we are not subject to the same gender roles,” he said.

As we noted earlier, the words “husband” and “wife” didn’t have anything to do with marriage when they first showed up in English.

We pointed out in a posting a few years ago that the noun “husband” meant a “male head of a household” when it appeared around the year 1000. The man could have been married, widowed, or single.

It took nearly 300 years for “husband” to evolve into its modern sense of a married man, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

And as we said in another post, a wif or wifman was a woman, whether single or married, in Anglo-Saxon times.

By the year 900 or so, wifman began to lose its f. Over the next five hundred years, it went through many spellings until it settled down as our modern word “woman.”

Meanwhile, wif went through various spellings until it emerged as “wife” in the 1400s, when it could mean a married woman or a woman (single or married) involved in a humble trade: “fishwife,” “alewife,” and so on.

In case you’re wondering, a man was a wer or a waepman (literally a “weapon-person”) in Old English. The term manna and other early versions of “man” referred to a person regardless of sex.

By the 1400s, manna had become our modern word “man,” while wer and waepman had fallen out of use.

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Hear Pat live today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 PM Eastern time to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Andy Borowitz is filling in for Leonard. Today’s topic: What would Jane say? Jane Austen’s contributions to the English language. If you miss the program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.
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Predominately speaking

Q: I’m so tired of reading books that say something is “predominately” (followed by an adjective), when they mean “predominantly.” The writers seem to think “predominant” and “predominate” are synonyms, and both are adjectives that can be made into adverbs. Thank you!

A: We’re sorry to disappoint you, but the adjective “predominate” does indeed mean “predominant,” and the adverb “predominately” means “predominantly.”

The isn’t a new thing, either. The two adjectives and the two adverbs have had these meanings for hundreds of years, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

So why do we have this pair of similar-looking adverbs with the same meaning? Because English got one from Latin and the other from French, and kept them both.

The OED defines “predominantly” as “in a predominant manner; to a predominant degree; (in later use) esp. primarily, largely, chiefly, for the most part.”

The dictionary defines “predominately” with an equal sign and the word “predominantly.” In other words, the meanings of the two adverbs are identical.

In fact, “predominately” is the older of the adverbs; it first showed up in English in the late 1500s.

The OED’s earliest citation (spelled “predominatly”) is from The Examination of Mens Wits (1594), Richard Carew’s English translation of a treatise on physiology and psychology by the Spanish physician Juan Huarte:

“Likewise the womb in a woman cannot be predominatly hot.” (Carew was translating the Spanish a predominio.)

Oxford says “predominately” is derived from the adjective “predominate,” which showed up in English three years before the adverb.

The source of the adjective “predominate” (defined by the OED as “= predominant”) is the post-classical Latin praedominatus, which is the past participle of praedominari (to rule before).

The adverb “predominantly” appeared in the early 1600s. The first OED citation is from A Comparative Discourse of the Bodies Natural and Politique (1606), a defense of monarchism by the English writer Edward Forset:

“Where any affection predominantly reigneth, it draweth thither such humors of the bodie, as are likest and best consorteth to it selfe.” (We’ve gone to the original to expand the citation.)

The adverb is derived from the adjective “predominant” (1575), which comes directly from the Middle French predominant.

The OED defines the adjective as “having ascendancy, supremacy, or prevailing influence over others; superior, predominating.”

If you still have doubts, we should mention that we’ve found four standard dictionaries in the US and the UK with definitions of “predominately,” and all of them define it as “predominantly.”

In other words, lexicographers predominantly (or predominately) feel that the two adverbs mean the same thing.

A final note: we ran a post on the blog a couple of years ago on a related subject, the use of “predominantly” instead of “mainly” in business-speak.

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Is a clunker used or pre-owned?

Q: It seems to me that illiterate used-car salesmen have introduced the term “pre-owned” into the language to avoid advertising what they actually sell: USED CARS! This is driving me nuts. Please tell me that it’s incorrect and that you’ll help me stamp it out.

A: We don’t like this euphemism either, and we don’t use it ourselves, but the usage has been around for dozens of years and it’s in many standard dictionaries, including the two we consult the most.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines “preowned” (it doesn’t use the hyphen) as “previously owned or used; secondhand: a preowned car.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines the hyphenated version as “secondhand, used.”

All six American or British dictionaries we checked list the term, with or without the hyphen, as standard English.

The usage first showed up in the 1930s, according to published examples in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED citation is from a May 27, 1934, advertisement in the Syracuse (NY) Herald: “Factory branch close out sale—floor sample and pre-owned washers.”

We’re generally more amused than irritated by euphemisms. We’re sorry that this one is driving you nuts. We suspect, though, that it’s here to stay. All you can do to stamp out a usage that bugs you is avoid using it yourself.

If you’re bothered by a “pre-owned” car, you’ll probably be bothered even more by a similar usage— a “pre-need” funeral—that is, a prepaid one. We had a brief post about it a few years ago.

The first citation for this usage in the OED is from a March 5, 1945, ad in the Waterloo (Iowa) Daily Courier: “Who will pay the Funeral Bill? … Ask us today for details of our pre-need plan. No obligation.”

By the way, the term “euphemism,” which entered English in the mid-1600s, is derived from the Greek compound euphemismos (speaking with good words), according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto says the term “originally denoted the avoidance of words of ill omen at religious ceremonies, but it was subsequently taken up by grammarians to signify the substitution of a less for a more offensive word.”

He notes that the opposite of a “euphemism” is a “dysphemism” (the use of a more offensive word), which he describes as a late 19th-century coinage based on the Greek prefix dus- (bad, difficult) instead of the Greek prefix eu- (good).

Although the term “dysphemism” is a relative latecomer, the usage itself has been around a lot longer.

Shakespeare, for example, uses it in All’s Well That Ends Well (circa 1605), when Mariana describes the advances of Count Rousillon as “engines of lust.”

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That’s all, folks!

Q: In the past few weeks, I’ve heard TV anchors refer to Edward Snowden as being in “that transit lounge” and in “that Moscow airport.” The use of “that” instead of “the” sounds odd to my ear. Is this a trend? A coincidence? Or maybe some journalistic usage? Perhaps anchors have always spoken this way and I never noticed.

A: This isn’t a new usage, though it seems to have become popular lately among TV anchors or commentators trying to convey a casual, familiar tone on the air. 

An anchor who uses “that” instead of an article—as in “that transit lounge” instead of “the transit lounge” or “a transit lounge”—assumes the audience knows the story already.

The use of “that” here implies the transit lounge has been mentioned before, and suggests the anchor and the audience have just been discussing it.

Everybody’s on the same page—or that’s the assumption—and the listener won’t respond by thinking, “What transit lounge? What Moscow airport? What’s this person talking about?”

As you can see, this use of “that” conveys a looser, more familiar tone than would be appropriate in straight news coverage—especially in newspaper reporting, where a professional distance is generally maintained between journalist and reader.

But network anchors, as well as many broadcast and print commentators, allow themselves a more personal tone.

In constructions like “that transit lounge” and “that Moscow airport,” the word “that” is a demonstrative adjective.

In explaining the use of “that” in such constructions, the Oxford English Dictionary says the demonstrative adjective is being used “in concord with a n. which is the antecedent to a relative (expressed or understood).”

In plain English, this means “that” is being used with a noun to introduce a relative clause that’s actually present (“that transit lounge, which we were just talking about”) or merely understood (“that transit lounge”).

The OED says the use of “that” in such constructions is “often interchangeable with the … but usually more emphatic.”

In a 1532 Oxford’ citation for this usage, Thomas More illustrates how “that” may be more emphatic than “the” by contrasting two examples:

“A manne may saye ‘the man that we spake of was here,’ or ‘that man that we spake of was here.’ ”

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Architectural criticism

Q: Do you think it’s acceptable to use “architect” as a verb, as in “The administrator should architect the software with users in mind”? In his blog, the author Seth Godin feels that it’s a valid term.

A: Yes, “architect” is a legitimate verb, though it’s one that we consider somewhat clunky and that only a few standard dictionaries recognize.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says it’s a transitive verb (one that requires a direct object) and means “to plan, organize, and bring to fruition.”

American Heritage describes the usage as informal, which means it’s generally seen in conversation or casual writing. The dictionary gives this example: “architected a web-based application.”

Seth Godin, an author of many marketing books and a founder of the community-website platform Squidoo, has used “architect” as a verb and has defended the usage on his blog.

In a 2006 post entitled “Is architect a verb?” Godin writes that he prefers “architect” to “design” when he wants “to describe the intentional arrangement of design elements to get a certain result.”

“Architecture, for me anyway, involves intention, game theory, systems thinking and relentless testing and improvement,” he says.

For example, he writes, “you can architect a business model or a pricing structure to make it far more effective at generating the behavior you’re looking for.”

That may be what the verb “architect” means to him, but a lot of other people don’t use it in that exact way.

Isn’t the whole point of language to communicate? We’ll stick with “design” or “create” or “build” or “conceive” or “develop” or … well … you get the idea.

Over the years, readers of the blog have complained to us about uses of “architect” that they found objectionable, but we haven’t written about the subject until now. The complaints fall roughly into three categories:

(1) The word is sometimes used loosely to refer to somebody who’s responsible for something bad: “Goebbels was the architect of the Nazi propaganda machine.” (Architects have grumbled to us about  this, but they might as well get used to it.)

(2) It’s often used in confusing ways: “We agree that conceptual development is incomplete without skill development, and we architected this experience accordingly.” Huh?

(3) It’s used as a verb, as in “Let’s architect a plan and present it next week.” But as we said above, “architect” is a legitimate verb.

We should add that the use of “architect” as a verb isn’t a recent phenomenon. The Oxford English Dictionary has written examples going back to the early 1800s.

The earliest example in the OED is from a July 23, 1818, letter that the poet John Keats wrote to his brother Thomas after visiting Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland.

Here’s how a poem in the letter describes the cave and its distinctive basalt columns: “This was architected thus / By the great Oceanus.”

When Keats published the poem as “Staffa” sometime before 1821, he altered the spelling and punctuation: “This was architectur’d thus / By the great Oceanus!”

As you can imagine, the verb “architect” is derived from the noun, which ultimately comes from the Latin architectus and the Greek arkhitekton, classical terms for a principal builder or craftsman.

The Greek roots are arkhi (first or superior) + tekton (builder).

When the noun entered English in the mid-1500s, the OED says, it referred to “a skilled professor of the art of building, whose business it is to prepare the plans of edifices, and exercise a general superintendence over the course of their erection.”

By the end of the 1500s, the noun was being used loosely or figuratively for someone who plans or contrives or constructs something.

We’ll end with a figurative example in which the Moor in Shakespeare’s 1594 tragedy Titus Andronicus is referred to as “Chiefe architect and plotter of these woes.”

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How illegal is unlawful?

Q: In British law there seems to be a difference between “illegal” and “unlawful.” Is there the same distinction in the US, and if so, what is the difference for you?

A: Bryan A. Garner, a lexicographer, lawyer, and teacher, writes in A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage (2nd ed.) that the two terms “are fundamentally synonymous.”

However, Black’s Law Dictionary (8th ed.), edited by Garner, has somewhat different definitions of “illegal” and “unlawful.”

The primary meanings of the two words are almost identical: “illegal” is defined as “forbidden by law; unlawful,” and “unlawful” is defined as “not authorized by law; illegal.”

But the “unlawful” entry in Black’s includes two additional senses: “criminally punishable” and “involving moral turpitude.”

Garner comments in A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage that the additional senses “so complicate matters in using this term that they lessen its utility.”

That sounds to us as if he’s suggesting that lawyers avoid “unlawful” and use “illegal” when referring to something that’s “forbidden by law” or “not authorized by law.”

The early editions of Black’s Law Dictionary, edited by Henry Campbell Black, made more of the distinction between “illegal” and “unlawful.” The 1910 second edition, for example, describes the two terms this way:

 “ ‘Unlawful’ and ‘illegal’ are frequently used as synonymous terms, but, in the proper sense of the word, ‘unlawful,’ as applied to promises, agreements, considerations, and the like, denotes that they are ineffectual in law because they involve acts which, although not illegal, i.e., positively forbidden, are disapproved of by the law, and are therefore not recognized as the ground of legal rights, either because they are immoral or because they are against public policy. It is on this ground that contracts in restraint of marriage or of trade are generally void.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has nearly identical definitions of the two terms: “illegal” is defined as “not legal or lawful; contrary to, or forbidden by, law,” and “unlawful” as “contrary to law; prohibited by law; illegal.”

OED citations indicate that the older term, “unlawful,” showed up in English sometime before 1300, while “illegal” appeared in the early 1600s.

Interestingly, “unlawful” arrived on the scene about a century before “lawful,” according to the dictionary’s citations. “Illegal” arrived a century after “legal.”

Oxford says “illegal” comes from the French illégal or the medieval Latin illegalis, while the three parts of “unlawful” are derived from Old English. 

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Much ado about texting

Q: How do you pronounce the past tense of “text” (a word, mind you, that is yet to be recognized by the Oxford Dictionary)? The two-syllable pronunciation, TEXT-ed, sounds too juvenile to me. I prefer one syllable, along the lines of “ask” and “asked.” Please advise.

A: The verb “text” does indeed appear in the Oxford English Dictionary as well as in the Oxford Dictionaries online.

It’s also in many standard dictionaries, including the two we consult the most: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

Dictionaries don’t generally provide pronunciation guides for past tenses unless there’s something unusual about them.  However, the dictionaries sometimes use dots to show that a past tense is divided into separate syllables.

American Heritage, for example, lists the past tense of “text” as “text·ed,” indicating that the word has two syllables.

As for us, we pronounce “texted” as TEXT-ed, and we’ve never heard it pronounced otherwise.

The linguist Arnold Zwicky shed some light on “texted” in a blog post he wrote on the subject in 2008.

“The big point,” Zwicky says in his article, “is that novel verbs—verbed nouns in particular—are almost invariably entirely regular in their inflection.”

Thus a noun like “text,” when it becomes a verb, will ordinarily form its past tense and past participle with the addition of “-ed.”

He notes that a small number of very old, mostly monosyllabic verbs ending in “-t” and “-d” (like “hit” and “bid”) don’t add “-ed.” He calls these “bare past” verbs. And of course there are the well-known irregular verbs like “shrink,” “run,” “sing,” and so on.

“But, generally,” he says, “when a new verb enters English—by borrowing from another language, by verbing a noun or adjective, or whatever—it’s entirely regular.”

And that’s what would make a past-tense form like “text” unusual. “In the case of the verb text (in its recent, electronic, sense), the lexicographers and other authorities go for texted,” Zwicky says.

He notes, for example, that the linguist David Crystal’s book Txtng (2008) has “texted” as the past tense.

Yet, as we said above, “texted” may not appear in a particular dictionary—at least not in an obvious way.

“As a general practice,” Zwicky says, “most dictionaries don’t list most inflected forms, because listing perfectly regular inflected forms would just be a waste of precious space. So absence of a listing is evidence of regularity.”

By the way, we see online that some people are still complaining about the use of “text” as a verb. They insist on “send a text message.”

We once felt the same way and wrote about it on the blog, but times change, and so does language.

Merriam-Webster’s, for instance, gives these three examples of how the verb “text” is used: “I texted her a little while ago” … “I texted a message to her” … “She just texted me back.”

A March 2004 draft edition to the online OED defines the verb “text” as “to send (a text message) to a person, mobile phone, etc.” and “to communicate by sending text messages.”

The earliest Oxford citation for the usage is in a March 14, 1998, message on the Usenet newsgroup alt.cellular.gsm: “We still keep in touch … ‘texting’ each other jokes, quotes, stories, questions, etc.”

However, the word “text” has been used as a verb since the late 1500s, according to written examples in the OED.

When the verb first appeared, it meant “to inscribe, write, or print in a text-hand or in capital or large letters,” but the dictionary describes that sense as obsolete.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing (1600): “Yea and text vnder-neath, here dwells Benedick the married man.”

The OED has citations from the 1500s and 1600s for another obsolete sense: “to cite a text at or against (a person).”

And it has citations up until the late 1800s for the verb used to mean “to write in text-hand.”

The dictionary’s latest citation for the verb is from the July 31, 2001, electronic edition of a British newspaper, the Leicester Mercury: “I texted my mother and my friends when I got my results.”

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It’s a gas

Q: Does the expression “It’s a gas” (meaning “It’s a lot of fun”) come from the use of laughing gas?

A: It’s possible that the use of “a gas” to mean a lot of fun may somehow be connected with the common name for nitrous oxide, but we haven’t found any solid evidence to support this.

Eric Partridge, in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, speculates about such a connection, but he doesn’t come to any conclusion.

In writing about the Irish English use of “gas” to mean fun, Partridge adds this brief notation: “Ex ‘laughing gas’?”

The use of “gas” to mean a vapor was coined in the mid-1600s by the Flemish physician and chemist J. B. van Helmont, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the Dutch word used by van Helmont was probably an alteration of chaos, the ancient Greek word for empty space.

Chambers says the letter “g” in Dutch “represents a sound somewhat like the modern Greek sound transliterated as ch.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that van Helmont used a Dutch version of the Greek chaos “to denote an occult principle, supposedly an ultra-refined form of water, which he postulated as existing in all matter.” 

The first use of “gas” in English, according to OED citations, was in a 1662 translation of van Helmont’s 1648 work Ortus Medicinæ: “for want of a name, I have called that vapour, Gas, being not far severed from the Chaos of the Auntients.”

The word’s modern sense of a shapeless substance that “expands freely to fill the whole of a container” dates from the late 17th century, according to Oxford citations.

As for nitrous oxide, the gas was first synthesized by the English chemist Joseph Priestly in 1772, and first used to anesthetize a dental patient in 1844.

The OED’s earliest example of “laughing gas” used for nitrous oxide is from a June 23, 1819, issue of the Times of London that refers to the “chymical experiments on gas at 9, when the laughing gas will be exhibited.”

“Laughing gas is so called from the euphoric intoxication it causes when inhaled at low concentrations,” the OED says. “It has been used as a general anaesthetic in dentistry and surgery, and also illicitly as a recreational drug.”

It wasn’t until the 20th century that the word “gas” took on the sense of “enjoyment, amusement, fun” in Irish English.

The OED’s first citation for the usage is from Dubliners, James Joyce’s 1914 story collection. In “An Encounter,” a story about two boys who skip school, Mahony tells the narrator that he’s brought along a slingshot “to have some gas with the birds.”

However, the usage you’re asking about (the use of “it’s a gas” or variants to mean it’s a lot of fun) didn’t show up in print until the mid-20th century, according to written examples in the dictionary.

The earliest citation in the OED is from “Sonny’s Blues,” a 1957 short story by James Baldwin in The Partisan Review: “Brand-new pianos certainly were a gas.”

Here’s a more recent example from Paul Auster’s 1990 novel The Music of Chance: “ I’m looking forward to it immensely.’ ‘Me too, Bill,’ Pozzi said. ‘It’s going to be a gas.’ ”

The OED doesn’t speculate about the origins of this sense of “gas,” but it points the reader to a related slang word, “gasser,” which it says originated as a jazz term. 

The earliest Oxford citation is from “The Hepsters Dictionary” (1944), a brief glossary by Cab Calloway: “When it comes to dancing, she’s a gasser.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang also links this use of “gas” to jazz. It cites several jazz examples, including one from Corner Boy, a 1957 novel by Herbert Simmons, in which a group of teen-agers discuss the jazz singer Nellie Lutcher:

“Man, don’t Nellie kill you?”

“She’s a gas, man, a natural petrol.”

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How cool is coolth?

Q: My late mother’s family lived in suburban Philadelphia long before air conditioning. She and her relatives had a word, “coolth,” to describe the opposite of “warmth.” Did they make this up or has it existed before?

A: No, your mother’s family didn’t make it up. The word “coolth” (meaning coolness) has been around since the 1500s. And the high point of its popularity, according to Google’s Ngram viewer, was in the mid-20th century.

Interestingly, it’s been having a bit of a revival lately, according to Google searches, often in a newer, colloquial sense of the word.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “coolth” was formed “chiefly after warmth,” which first showed up in the 1100s. The OED points out a similar word in Old Dutch, cuolitha.

The earliest Oxford citation for “coolth” is from a 1547 Welsh-English dictionary in which oerfel, Welsh for cold, is defined as “coulthe” in English.

The OED, which describes “coolth” as chiefly literary, archaic, or humorous now, has examples of the usage from the 16th to the 21st century, including citations from Rudyard Kipling, J. R. R. Tolkien, Ezra Pound, and Seamus Heaney.

Here’s a literary example from Heaney’s 2001 poetry collection Electric Light: “The older I get, the quicker and the closer I hear those labouring breaths and feel the coolth.”

In recent decades, “coolth” has taken on a colloquial sense that the OED defines as the “quality of being relaxed, assured, or sophisticated in demeanour or style.”

The earliest example of this newer usage, which the dictionary describes as chiefly humorous, is from the May 26, 1966, issue of the San Antonio (Texas) Express: “In this marathon role she has wit, poise, warmth and a very taking coolth.”

The most recent citation is from Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker (2003), James McManus’s book about the poker championship in Las Vegas:

“My albeit progressive-bifocal shades suggest not feeble nearsightedness but its opposite—penetrating 20/20 vision to go with impenetrable coolth.”

We’ve found “coolth” in only a few standard dictionaries, defined as a pleasantly cool temperature or the quality of being fashionable.

We couldn’t tell from the OED examples of “coolth” in the thermometer sense whether the writers were using the word humorously or seriously.

However, Philip Durkin, writing in The Oxford Guide to Etymology, feels that some of these citations “are self-consciously humorous, especially from the late nineteenth century onwards.”

Although “coolth” has been used since the 16th century, Durkin says, the record of the usage is “rather patchy” and may be the result of repeated inventions of the word.

“There is probably not a continuous history of the usage, but rather a succession of separate formations of the word,” he writes.

R. Harald Baayen, in his 2003 paper “Linguistic Approaches to Morphology,” discusses “coolth” in writing about whether the English word ending “-th” is alive, dead, or something in between as an affix to form new words.

Baayen, whose paper was published in the book Probabilistic Linguistics, writes that the use of the affix “-th” in “coolth” points out the difficulty in judging whether a word element is, in linguistic terminology, productive, nonproductive, or semiproductive.

He says “coolth,” a term that was “once a nonce word made on analogy with warmth,” is now alive and well in both jocular and literal senses, “even though -th is one of the well-worn examples of a supposedly completely unproductive suffix in English.”

And if you’d like to read about a popular cousin of “coolth,” check out our “Birth of the cool” posting from 2010.

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Just supposing …

Q: Where did “supposably” come from? It’s not in my dictionary and I find it annoying to hear. Am I wrong? Is it acceptable usage?

A: Most people assume that “supposably” is a mangled version of “supposedly.” And it almost always is, in our experience. 

But there’s more to the story.

Both “supposedly” and “supposably” are legitimate adverbs. Although they were used rather loosely in the past, they now have separate meanings.

Current dictionaries will tell you that “supposedly” is the adverbial counterpart of “supposed,” an adjective that can mean presumed, believed, understood, or imagined.

The less common “supposably” is the adverbial counterpart of “supposable,” an adjective that means conceivable—that is, capable of being supposed.

We’ll invent a couple of examples to illustrate the difference in accepted modern usage:

(1) “Supposedly he didn’t know the gun was loaded.” Here the adverb means “it is supposed (presumed, imagined) that he….” Note the skeptical overtone, because “supposedly” often implies an element of doubt.

(2) “Supposably he didn’t know the gun was loaded.” Here the adverb means “it is conceivable that he….” No skepticism is implied. Instead, the speaker seems to suggest,  “Let us imagine that he ….”

We’ve described these adverbs as they’re defined today in standard dictionaries, which assign them separate meanings. But as you’ve probably noticed, people who use “supposably” seldom mean it in the current dictionary sense. They almost always mean “supposedly.”

That’s reason enough to stay away from “supposably.” In the dictionary sense of the word, alternatives like “conceivably” do the job better, and no one will assume you made a mistake.   

But as we said, there’s more to the story.

A century or more ago, “supposably” was seen more often in respectable writing. And its meaning varied a lot, as we found in Google searches.

In this passage from Henry James’s novel The Tragic Muse (1890), “supposably” means something like “presumably”:

“If … Percy had an heir (others, moreover, would supposably come), Nick should have to regard himself as still more moneyless than before.”

Here it is again in William Dean Howells’s novel A Foregone Conclusion (1886): “But I’m not supposably the kind of priest you mean, and I don’t think just such a priest supposable.” The character seems to be saying, “You cannot suppose me to be … (etc.).”

And in this passage from Mark Twain’s novel Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), “supposably” is used in the sense of “supposedly”:

“Over in the vacant lots was Jasper … sitting on a wheelbarrow in the pelting sun—at work, supposably, whereas he was in fact only preparing for it by taking an hour’s rest before beginning.”

Twain used “supposably” in a similar way in his essay “Is Shakespeare Dead?” (1909). This passage comes after several paragraphs describing what historians “suppose” (the skeptical Twain uses quotation marks) about Shakespeare’s childhood:

“If he began to slaughter calves, and poach deer, and rollick around, and learn English, at the earliest likely moment—say at thirteen, when he was supposably wrenched from that school where he was supposably storing up Latin for future literary use—he had his youthful hands full, and much more than full.”

It can be difficult to tell what a writer of the past meant by “supposably.” This ambiguous example is from a paper by Karl P. Harrington, published in the Classical Journal in 1920:

“So far, indeed, as the recurrence of literary motifs is concerned, the apparent identity of ideas supposably far removed from each other in character and setting tempts the scoffer to give credence to Mark Twain’s famous remark, that, after all, there are but two extant jokes.”

In short, “supposably” has a history of ambiguity. And the Oxford English Dictionary still accepts this mixed usage without comment.

The OED currently says that  “supposably” means “as may be supposed; imaginably; presumably; supposedly.” But it notes that the word is now used “chiefly” in the United States.

The OED’s first citation for “supposably” is from 1739 (the older “supposedly” dates from 1597). And in the earlier quotations, the apparent meaning of “supposably” is “as may be supposed.”

But in contemporary usage, “supposably” isn’t seen much in good writing, except when used for effect.

For example, the OED’s most recent citation is this bit of dialogue from Sue Grafton’s novel L Is for Lawless (1995):

“ ‘Did they call the police?’ ‘Uhn-hun, and they’re on their way. Supposably,’ she added with disdain.”

We took a look at Grafton’s novel. The second speaker, Babe, consistently uses uneducated English, like “the window was broke, all this glass laying on the steps.” So Grafton no doubt chose “supposably” as an example of poor usage.

As the OED says, “supposably” is now used chiefly in the US. With its history of ambiguity, perhaps Americans would be wise to drop it.

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Repeat offenders

Q: I’m driving my wife nuts from pointing out double speech on the air—two bites at the same meaning. A Fresh Air guest on NPR: “Take precautions about events before they happen.” A guest on Charlie Rose: “Playing solitaire by himself.”

 A: Yes, those are examples of redundancies, but we should mention a mitigating circumstance.

In speaking, it’s difficult to plan a sentence on the spot. We’re not all Bill Buckleys. If those sentences had been written, the redundancies might have been edited out.

But there’s something more at work here, we think.

On the radio, some speakers don’t seem to trust that people are really listening. (Maybe they can’t believe that anybody’s actually out there!) So they double up on their meaning.

One speaker thinks the phrase “playing solitaire” doesn’t adequately convey the image of a lonely person playing cards by himself. So he adds “by himself.”

Another speaker thinks taking “precautions” isn’t good enough. He has to emphasize that he’s preparing for the events “before they happen.”

However, there are redundancies and then there are redundancies. Repeating ourselves isn’t always a bad thing.

Many common (and often irritating) expressions that we hear every day are out-and-out redundancies—“plan in advance,” “major milestone,” and “free gift” come to mind. It would be nice if they disappeared, but don’t count on it.

Then there are constructions that are technically redundant—like “chase after,” “four different trips,” “first time ever”—but can be justified as emphatic usages, as we  wrote in a 2012 posting.

And, as we said in 2008, “there’s a kind of expression (the writer Ben Yagoda calls it ‘the salutarily emphatic redundancy’) that is memorable chiefly because of its apparent repetition. A good example is ‘Raid kills bugs dead.’ ”

We won’t expand on those two blog items here. We don’t want to repeat ourselves!

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In a pickle

Q: I was eating a half-sour the other day, which inspired this question: Where does the expression “in a pickle,” meaning in trouble, come from?

A: We’ll be in an etymological pickle if we try to explain the origin of “in a pickle” without first discussing the history of “pickle” itself. Here’s the story.

When it first showed up in English in the 1300s or 1400s, the noun “pickle” referred to a spicy sauce served with meat or fowl.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says English probably borrowed the word “pickle” from Middle Dutch, where pekel referred to brine.

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the ultimate source of pekel may have been the Germanic base of another Middle Dutch word, peken, meaning to prick or pierce.

With the -el suffix added, the OED says, the original sense of pekel was “something that pricks or is piquant.”

The English “pickle,” according to the OED and Chambers, was first recorded in the alliterative Morte Arthure, an anonymous Middle English poem that appeared in writing around 1440 but is thought by many scholars to date from the 1300s.

(The alliterative Morte Arthure, the stanzaic Morte Arthure, and several other Arthurian sources influenced the better-known Le Morte d’Arthure, 1470-85, attributed to Sir Thomas Mallory.)

The word “pickle” (pekill in Middle English) appears in the alliterative Morte Arthure in this gruesome description of a giant’s diet:

“He sowppes all this seson with seuen knaue childre, / Choppid in a chargour of chalke-whytt syluer, / With pekill and powdyre of precious spycez.” (He sups all this season on seven knavish children, chopped in a bowl of chalk-white silver, with pickle and powder of precious spices.)

Here “pickle” refers to a sauce, but by the early 1500s the word had taken on a new meaning: the brine, vinegar, or other solution in which food is preserved.

The earliest citation in the OED for this new sense is from an entry, written around 1503, in a chronicle of the London merchant Richard Arnold: “To make a pigell to kepe freshe sturgen in.”

By the late 1500s, “pickle” was being used in an extended figurative sense to mean a disagreeable or troubling condition—the sense found in the expression “in a pickle.”

The first two OED citations for this new usage are somewhat ambiguous, but here’s a clear 1585 example from the writings of the Protestant clergyman and historian John Foxe:

“In this pickle lyeth man by nature, that is, all wee that be Adams children.”

And here’s an example of the usage from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (circa 1610-11).

Alonso: “How cam’st thou in this pickle?”
Trinculo: “I haue bin in such a pickle since I saw you last.”

Why is someone in a disagreeable predicament described as “in a pickle”? The OED and Chambers don’t explain, but it seems clear to us that the usage alludes to the sour state of being in a pickling solution.

And where does the expression come from? “The usage is common and natural enough to English to be formed therein,” Chambers says, “but may have been reinforced by Dutch.”

The dictionary cites two Dutch phrases: in de pekel zijn (to be in a pickle) and iemand in de pekel zijn laten, or zitten (to get someone in a pickle).

Chambers says both Dutch phrases were common in the 1500s when the troublesome sense of “pickle” was first recorded in English.

It wasn’t until the late 1600s that the word “pickle” was used to refer to “a whole vegetable, or a piece of one, that has been preserved in vinegar, brine, etc.,” according to citations in the OED.

Oxford describes the use of the term “pickle” for a pickled cucumber as chiefly North American.

In Britain, the usual term is a dill cucumber or a pickled cucumber, according to Lynne Murphy, an American linguist at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England.

In a post on her blog Separated by a Common Language, Murphy says the British use “pickle” or “sweet pickle” for a condiment of chopped vegetables or fruit preserved in vinegar and a sweetener. Americans would refer to such a condiment as relish.

We’ll end with a half-sour comment from the Aug. 29, 2004, issue of the Montreal Gazette: “Today’s studs would sooner immerse themselves in a vat of pickles than spray themselves with Aqua Velva or Old Spice.”

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