English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Who’s zori now?

Q: My words for “flip-flops” are “zories” and “go-aheads.” My daughter cringes if I call them “thong sandals”—what could she be thinking of? I’ve lived in Iowa for 40 years now, but I grew up in the ’50s on Navy bases in California. Sailors brought the term “zories” back from Okinawa.

A: We’ve saved your question for the Labor Day weekend, summer’s last hurrah. We hope you and our other readers get in one last fling before putting away the flip-flops.

Pat used to call them simply “thongs” when she was growing up in Iowa in the ’50s and ’60s, but some sensitive folks (like you know who) may find the usage cringe-worthy today.

As for your terms for those floppy, usually rubber sandals, you may have picked up “go-aheads” as well as “zories” on those naval bases in California.

The Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines “go-aheads” this way: “Chiefly Hawaii and California. A sandal held on the foot by a strap between the big toe and the next toe.”

And an item entitled “Marine Corps Slang” in the December 1962 issue of the journal American Speech has this definition: “GO-AHEADS, n. Japanese zori, or the American adaptation, thong sandals.”

Doris E. Thompson, a University of Nebraska contributor who wrote the item, said she’d heard the “go-aheads” usage as a civilian employee at the Marine Corps schools at Quantico, VA.

You’ll be surprised to hear this, but the use of the term “zori” (or “sori”) for those sandals first showed up in English nearly two centuries ago.

The earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a book called Japan, an 1822 collection of writings edited by the English journalist Frederic Shoberl:

“The shoes of the Japanese consist of straw soles or slips of wood. Those in common use are called sori.”

The OED describes “zori” as a plural noun, and defines it as “Japanese thonged sandals with straw (or leather, wood, etc.) soles.” The word is derived from two Japanese terms: so (grass or straw) and ri (footwear or sole), according to Oxford.

(Geta, similar Japanese sandals, are on elevated wooden platforms and worn with kimonos and other traditional clothing.)

Although most of the OED examples cite the use of “zori” in Japan, the most recent is from a 1984 awards manual issued by the British Judo Association:

“Zori (flip-flops) are compulsory wear at BJA events and should be worn off the mat in Clubs, Schools, etc.”

All six Oxford citations for the usage have “zori,” not “zoris” or “zories,” as the plural.

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list “zori” or “zoris” as the plural.

Our Google searches indicate that when an “s” plural is used, the spelling “zoris” is preferred over “zories” two to one.

The Dictionary of American Regional English has citations for “zori” going back to the late 1950s, and says the usage appears most often in the West and Hawaii. The DARE examples include “zori,” “zoris,” and “zories” as plurals.

The earliest DARE citation is from a Sept. 30, 1958, ad in the Idaho State Journal: “ ‘Zoris’ Thong Sandals—Ideal Shower Shoes … 77¢.” (The newspaper is in Pocatello.)

The most recent citation is from Our Lady of the Forest, a 2003 novel by David Guterson (author of the bestseller Snow Falling on Cedars):

“Was there really something called Florida Priest Week? A coterie of priests in bathing suits and zoris, discussing, say, the communion of saints?”

The term “flip-flop,” by the way, is quite old too, first showing up in English in the 1600s, when it referred to the sound of a footfall. However, the OED describes this appearance as a “nonce-use,” one coined for a specific occasion.

In the late 1800s, the term showed up in American political lingo to mean “a change of mind or position on something; a reversal,” according to Oxford.

The dictionary’s first citation for this usage is from the July 13,1890, issue of the Chicago Tribune: Mr. Ericksen’s friends in the twenty-third executed a flip-flop, and … went over to Michael Francis in a body.”

The use of the word in reference to “a plastic or rubber sandal consisting of a flat sole and straps” showed up in the 1950s, according to OED citations.

Interestingly, the first citation for the usage in the dictionary is from a British customs form filled out in 1958 by the novelist P. D. James: “Maps, 1 pair of ‘flip-flops’, 1 shirt (white), 1 shirt (coloured) [etc.].”

As for “thong,” it’s not just quite old, it’s very, very old, with prehistoric roots in the days before writing.

“Etymologically, a thong is something that ‘binds’ up,” John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

The word, according to Ayto, is derived from thwangg-, a term reconstructed from prehistoric Germanic term.

“In the Old English period,” he says, “it was thwong; it began to lose its w in the 13th century.”

When it first showed up in Old English sometime before 950, according to the OED, it meant a “narrow strip of hide or leather, for use as a lace, cord, band, strap, or the like.” In the early days, it generally referred to a shoe lace.

The earliest written examples in the OED of “thongs” or “thong sandals” used to mean footwear date from the mid-1960s.

However, we’ve found many examples of “thong sandals” from the 1940s and ’50s in searches of Google Books. Here’s one from A Charmed Life, a 1955 novel by Mary McCarthy:

“They seemed utterly different from the other New Leeds people—a thing Jane often pondered on, aloud, in a dreamy reverie, studying her bare toes in her Mexican thong sandals and half-wondering whether she was getting a callous.”

And we’ve found examples dating from the ’50s of  “thongs” used alone. Here’s one from a July 11, 1958, ad in the Los Angeles Tribune for a leather version of the familiar flip-flops:

“GENUINE ALL / LEATHER THONGS / Glove leather wrapped / Full Foam / cushion construction / $5.00 value … $1.”

Finally, we get to the “thong” your daughter has in mind. It’s described by American Heritage as a “garment for the lower body that exposes the buttocks, consisting of a narrow strip of fabric that passes between the thighs supported by a waistband.”

The earliest citation for what the OED calls a “skimpy garment (similar to a G-string)” is from the April 22, 1975, issue of the Times of London: “Rudi Gernreich[’s] … new bathing suit, also available as an item of lingerie … is called the Thong.”

The dictionary’s latest example is from a Feb. 17, 1988, article in the Chicago Tribune: “Cindy Crawford … wears a little lacey swimdress with golden Lycra thong in Sports Illustrated’s annual T-and-A swimsuit issue.”

Again, enjoy the Labor Day weekend, and thongs for the memories!

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Let’s play it by ear

Q: If I ask a friend to an art exhibit and she’s not sure when she’ll be in town, I respond, “OK, let’s play it by ear.” But can you suggest an alternative for “play it by ear”? The few I’ve found are also clichés or don’t have the meaning I’m looking for.

A: We can suggest a few alternatives—“wing it,” “ad-lib,” “improvise”—but what’s wrong with “play it by ear”? Yes, the expression is used a lot, but it probably says what you want to say better than any other.

Pat includes “play it by ear” in “Death Sentence,” the chapter on clichés in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I. But she says there’s nothing wrong with using a cliché once in a while, especially if nothing else will do the job as well.

“There’s no way to eliminate all clichés,” she writes. “It would take a roomful of Shakespeares to replace them with fresh figures of speech, and before long those would become clichés too.”

On the other hand, in a formal essay we might go to great lengths to avoid a cliché that we’d use without a thought in speech or casual writing.

The verb phrase “play it by ear” has its roots in the 16th-century use of the noun “ear” to mean the ability to recognize sounds and musical intervals, as in “have a good ear,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED of “ear” used this way is from Pylgrimage of Perfection, a 1526 treatise on English by the monk William Bonde: “In the psalmody … haue a good eare.”

A little over a century later, people began using “play by ear” (or a close facsimile) to mean play an instrument without the aid of written music.

The OED’s first citation for the newer usage is from A Breif Introduction to the Skill of Musick (1658), by John Playford: “To learn to play by rote or ear without book.”

Interestingly, an example from the July 1839 issue of the Edinburgh Review uses “play by ear” in the musical sense, while hinting at the figurative modern sense of dealing with something without a plan.

To add context, we’ll expand on the OED citation, which comes from a review of Harriet Martineau’s novel Deerbrook:

“Miss Austen is like one who plays by ear, while Miss Martineau understands the science. Miss Austen has the air of being led to right conclusions by an intuitive tact—Miss Martineau unfolds her knowledge of the principles on which her correct judgment is founded.”

We’d like to compare that comment with Mary Shelley’s remarks that same year about Deerbrook:

“Without Miss Austen’s humour she has all her vividness & correctness. To compensate for the absence of humour, she has higher philosophical views.”

We haven’t read Deerbrook, but we suspect that we’d prefer Jane Austen’s humor to Martineau’s philosophy.

But back to business. It wasn’t until the 1930s, according to a search of book and news databases, that the expression “play by ear” (or “play it by ear”) developed its modern sense of doing something without a definite plan in mind.

In an Oct. 24, 1935, sports story in the New York Times, for example, Mike Mikulak, a fullback with the Chicago Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals), says his family came from Russia and he understands the language, but “I play it by ear only.”

And here’s an example from The Twisted Claw, a 1939 Hardy Boys mystery by Franklin W. Dixon (a k a John Button), in which Frank and Joe are locked in a dark storeroom and can’t get out:

“I guess we’ll just have to wait until someone comes down again, and then play it by ear,” Joe muttered.

Should you use the expression “play it by ear” the next time you want to meet your friend? It’s up to you. You’ll have to wing it.

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English English language Etymology Spelling Usage Word origin

Collocation colocation co-location

Q: In the architectural industry, two or more firms or agencies often work together in a shared office. Depending on who is doing the writing, the firms are “collocated,” “colocated,” or
“co-located.” Which is correct?

 A: We can see why you’re confused. We were too a few months ago when we answered a similar question. But we’ve looked into this more closely since then.

What’s going on here is the messy birth of a new usage among technocrats, bureaucrats, and other crats who prefer insider language to plain English.

You’re witnessing the appearance of either a new sense of “collocate,” an old verb that means to set in place, or a relatively new word spelled “colocate” or “co-locate” that means to share a location.

Although you won’t find the new usage in the Oxford English Dictionary, four standard dictionaries—two American and two British—already have entries for a new verb, but they don’t agree on how to spell it.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (11th ed.) describes “colocate” as a transitive verb (one with a direct object) that primarily means “to place (two or more units) close together so as to share common facilities.”

But The Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, which has a similar definition, lists “colocate” as the principal spelling and “co-locate” as a variant, and it says the verb can be either transitive or intransitive (without a direct object).

The Collins English Dictionary, a British reference, agrees with Merriam-Webster’s that the verb is transitive and spelled “colocate.”

But the Oxford Dictionaries website spells it “colocate” in American English and “co-locate” in British English. For Yanks, the sharing of a location is “with someone (or something) else.” For Brits, it’s only “with something else.” The verb is intransitive, though, on both sides of the Atlantic, according to Oxford.

Is your head swimming yet? Wait, there’s more.

A bit of googling finds that all three words (“collocate,” “colocate,” and “co-locate”) are being used in the new sense of several people or things sharing a site, sometimes transitively and sometimes intransitively.

Although “collocate” is the most popular overall in searches that include both the old and new meanings, “colocate” and
“co-locate” seem to be used more often in the new sharing sense.

Our Google searches suggest that the new usage is especially popular at data centers, where it’s used to refer to the housing of multiple servers at one site.

Here’s an example from the website of Mosaic Data Services: “When downtime is not an option, Mosaic’s fully redundant Datacenter facilities are the perfect place to colocate and host your business’ critical servers and related server hardware.”

But this usage is also widely seen in the military and the business world in reference to sharing a site.

Here’s an example from the website of the US Navy’s Military Sealift Command: “MSC relocated to Singapore in order to collocate with Commander, Task Force 73.”

And here are a few recent business examples:

An article in the July 2013 issue of Vending Times says the Healthy Beverage Expo in Las Vegas “was collocated with the World Tea Expo, and the combined conferences attracted nearly 5,000 participants from more than 50 countries.”

A July 15, 2013, headline on describes the decision of two Florida fire departments to share space: “Brevard County, Palm Bay Fire Departments Co-Locate.”  

And a July 24, 2013, item in Security Systems News reports that DTT Surveillance has hundreds of customers “in places where a convenience store is colocated with a McDonalds or other fast food stores.”

We don’t like this jargony term. We’d prefer “So-and-so shared a space (or site or facility) with XYZ Co.” But if you need to use it to communicate at work, you don’t have a choice.

So which spelling is correct? You’ll have to check back in a few years for a definitive answer. This new usage is a work in progress.

For the time being, though, you might as well go along with whatever spelling is preferred in your place of work. If there’s no preference, go with “colocate,” the most common spelling in standard dictionaries.

You didn’t ask, but dictionaries say “colocate” and “co-locate” are pronounced coh-LOW-cate, while the older “collocate” is pronounced CAHL-uh-cate. We imagine, however, that people using “collocate” in the new sense pronounce it coh-LOW-cate too, as if to stress the notion of a “co-” (together) prefix.

We should mention here that the ultimate source of all these words is the Latin col- (together) plus locare (to place).

The verb “collocate,” which first showed up in English in the 16th century, is transitive and usually means to set in place, place side by side, or arrange, according to the OED.

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

What, you may ask, is a linguistic collocation? It’s two or more words that often appear together: “green” and “envy” … “horse” and “sense” … “addled” and “brain.”

And with that, we’ll call it quits before our brains get any more addled.

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The right proportions

Q: I have done some googling, but I am still unsure of the difference, if any, between the words “proportional” and “proportionate.” My gut tells me you will respond that, outside of a mathematics discussion, the words are interchangeable.

A: Your gut is right. Aside from a few specialized meanings, these adjectives are so alike that any differentiation between them would be hair-splitting. They both mean in proportion.

“Proportional” and “proportionate” come from corresponding Latin adjectives, proportionalis and proportionatus. The chief difference is the suffixes, “-al” (-alis) and “-ate” (-atus), which can be used to form adjectives from nouns.

The natural question is, Why do we—and why did the Romans—need two such words?

As it happens, the ancient Romans had only one, the classical Latin proportionalis, which is the source of “proportional,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

English acquired the other word, “proportionate,” from the late Latin adjective proportionatus (proportioned, corresponding), which the OED dates from around 1250.

It seems likely that “proportionate” never would have entered English if medieval Latin scholars hadn’t invented proportionatus

Interestingly, the English adjectives first appeared in writing at the same time—around 1397—and in the same work. 

The OED’s earliest citations for both words are from John Trevisa’s Middle English translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Properties of Things”), an encyclopedia  written in Latin in the mid-1200s by a Franciscan monk, Bartholomaeus Anglicus.

Here’s “proportional,” from a section on the grafting of trees: “Among all graffynge of trees, the best is whan the graffe and the stok beth yliche … other of trees that haueth humour proporcional and acordynge either to other.”

And here’s “proportionate,” from a section about fingernails: “The nailes growen in lengthe & brede in quantite proporcionat to the fyngres.” (We’ve replaced the runic letter thorn with “th” throughout.)

The OED defines “proportional” here as meaning “that is in proportion, or in due proportion; related proportionately to something; corresponding, esp. in degree or amount.”

And it defines “proportionate” as meaning “proportioned, adjusted in proportion; that is in (due) proportion, proportional (to); appropriate in respect of quantity, extent, degree, etc.”

Apart from some specialized meanings, the definitions haven’t changed much since the 14th century. The words are as similar today as they were then—in the OED and in standard dictionaries.

For instance, both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) define “proportionate” as meaning “proportional.” American Heritages adds “being in due proportion.”

The two dictionaries give “proportional” these meanings (we’ll paraphrase): (1) being in proportion; (2) corresponding or properly related in size, degree, etc.; (3) having the same or a constant ratio.

So which is the better one to use? That’s up to you. Use the one that sounds better to you in context. That’s what people have been doing for 600 years.

The same is true for the negative versions—“disproportional” versus “disproportionate,” which mean out of proportion. Although “disproportionate” is vastly more popular than “disproportional,” they’re equally legitimate and virtually interchangeable.

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Never-never land

Q: Is “never” accepted as standard English in a sentence like “He never saw the world that way”? If not, why not? And what are some informal and formal ways to use “never,” as well as more borderline ways if there are any?

A: Yes, the use of “never” in your example (“He never saw the world that way”) is standard English.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says the adverb “never” has these standard meanings:

“1. Not ever; on no occasion; at no time: He had never been there before. You never can be sure.

“2. Not at all; in no way; absolutely not: Never fear. That will never do.

In the sentence you cite, the adverb “never” is being used as in #1 (“not ever; on no occasion; at no time”).

A few usage guides, beginning with Edward S. Gould’s Good English (1867), have objected to the use of “never” as in #2: “not at all; in no way; absolutely not.”

But Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out that the critics don’t explain “just what is wrong” with these usages. “Such uses are standard,” Merriam-Webster’s says, citing examples going back to Shakespeare.

American Heritage also includes several meanings of the phrase “never mind”:

“1. Don’t bother: I was hoping for some help, but never mind, I’ll do it alone.

“2. Not to mention; and certainly not: I can’t tread water, never mind swim.

AH labels “never mind” as an “idiom,” which it explains is “an expression consisting of two or more words having a meaning that cannot be deduced from the meanings of its constituent parts.”

The Oxford English Dictionary lists sense #1 of “never mind” without reservation, but it describes sense #2 as colloquial—that is, characteristic of spoken English or informal writing.

However, the question of whether a usage is formal or informal is very subjective. Dictionaries often disagree about this. In fact, the two of us often disagree with each other about the formality of a usage.

And formal English, mind you, isn’t necessarily better than informal English. We try to keep our writing as informal as possible, whether we’re writing an email to an old friend or a book about the English language.

The OED describes a half-dozen common uses of “never” as colloquial. We don’t necessarily agree with the dictionary’s editors about all of them, but we’ll list them here (with our examples) and let you decide:

● With “ever” as an intensifier: “She’ll never ever do it.”

● With the verb omitted, expressing emphatic denial: “Did you steal it?” “I never!”

● Without the verb, expressing disbelief: “He was caught sexting.” “He never!”

● Using “never mind” to mean “not to mention”: “She hates spiders, worms, beetles, never mind slugs.”

● Without a verb, expressing surprise or indignation: “Well, I never!”

● Using “never again” to emphasize that an experience won’t be repeated: “Every time I get smashed I say, ‘Never again.’ ”

As for the history of the word itself, “never” dates back to the early days of Old English, when it was generally spelled næfre. It’s a compound of ne (not) and ǽfre (ever).

In Old English, according to the OED, næfre meant “at no time or moment; on no occasion; not ever.”

Here’s an example from Beowulf, which may have been written as far back as the year 725: “Næfre ic maran geseah eorla ofer eorthan.” Modern English: “I never saw greater warriors in the world.” (We’ve changed the letter thorn here to “th.”)

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

“This this” and “that that”

Q: What do you call those constructions where the same word is repeated? Specifically: “I can see that that is going to be a problem” or “I received this this morning.” I’ve used a few in writing recently, but I’m puzzled at whether they require punctuation to make the reader realize they aren’t typos.

A: When a sentence has two words back to back, like “that that” or “this this,” we hear an echo. But there’s not necessarily anything wrong. Unless it’s a typo (as when we type “the the”), the words are doing different jobs.

If there’s a special term for back-to-back words used legitimately, we haven’t been able to find it. But your sentences are good examples; both are grammatically correct and neither requires any special punctuation.

Let’s look at them one at a time.

(1) “I can see that that is going to be a problem.”

Here we have two clauses (a clause is part of a sentence and includes both a subject and its verb). The first “that” is a conjunction—it introduces a subordinate clause that’s the object of the main clause (“I can see”). The second “that” is a demonstrative pronoun and the subject of the subordinate clause (“that is going to be a problem”).

(2) “I received this this morning.”

Here the first “this” is a demonstrative pronoun and the direct object of the verb (“received”). The second “this” modifies the noun “morning,” and you can call it a demonstrative adjective or (as many grammarians prefer) a “demonstrative determiner.” The phrase “this morning” is adverbial because it tells when.

Examples of back-to-back repetition—especially with “that”—are not uncommon, even in great literature.

For instance, you can find them in the King James Version of the Bible: “for that that is determined shall be done” … “What is that that hath been done?”

And they’re abundant in Shakespeare: “Pursuing that that flies, and flying what pursues” (Merry Wives of Windsor); “Who is that that spake?” (The Two Gentlemen of Verona); “Who’s that that bears the sceptre?” (King Henry VIII).

Finally, here’s another, in a passage from Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler (1653): “it is that that makes an angler: it is diligence, and observation, and practice, and an ambition to be the best in the art.”

As we said, such repetitions are perfectly good English. But if the echo bothers you, the repetition can easily be avoided.

Going back to sentence #1, the first “that” could be deleted (“I can see that’s going to be a problem”). Or the second one could be replaced with another pronoun (“I can see that this [or it] is going to be a problem”).

In sentence #2, either “this” could be replaced: “I received it this morning” … “I received this in the morning.”

We’ve written before about another kind of repetition—the double “is.” This formation is sometimes grammatical (“What this is is an enigma”), and sometimes not (“The problem is is he’s too young”).

The nongrammatical usage does indeed have a name—actually, several names. The two most common are “double copula” and “reduplicate copula.” (A copula is a linking verb that joins the subject and predicate of a sentence.)

And just in case one “that” after another isn’t enough for you, we’ve written about a sentence with five of them in a row.  

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Religion Usage Word origin

For land’s sake!

Q: My grandmother used to say “Good land!” to express surprise or astonishment. Can you enlighten me about this expression?

A: The word “land” in the exclamation “Good land!” is a euphemism for “Lord.”

Some other examples of the usage, which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as an Americanism, are “Land’s sake!” and “My land!” and “The land knows!”

The earliest OED example of “land” used this way is from an 1846 issue of the Knickerbocker, a New York literary magazine: “Jedediah, for the land’s sake, does my mouth blaze?”

However, Green’s Dictionary of Slang , which describes the usage as a “mild oath,” has an earlier one, from Letters of J. Downing, Major (1833), a satirical work actually written by the humorist Charles A. Davis: “ ‘For the land’s sake,’ says I, ‘jist look at it.’ ”

Green’s doesn’t have a citation for “Good land!” The OED’s first example is from Mark Twain’s 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: “Good land! a man can’t keep his functions regular on spring chickens thirteen hundred years old.”

The word “land” dates back to Anglo-Saxon times and has roots in landam, a prehistoric Germanic root that apparently referred to an enclosed area, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

In Old English, Ayto says, “land” branched out to mean the solid surface of the earth, as opposed to the oceans, lakes, rivers, and so on.

Here’s an example from Beowulf, which may have been written as far back as 725: “Com tha to lande lidmanna helm swithmod swymman.” In modern English, “The leader of the sailors swam toward land.” (We changed the runic letters thorn and eth to “th.”)

The use of “land” as a euphemistic oath is part of a long tradition of mild swearing. In previous blog entries we’ve written about the many phrases people use to avoid outright profanity, including “doggone it,” “dag nab it,” “gosh a’mighty,” “for Pete’s sake,” and “by cracky!”

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English English language Grammar Usage

Idiomatic transmission

Q: Do you have any tips for determining when to use “to” and when to use “of” in a sentence? For example, why do English speakers use different prepositions in these sentences: “There are many disadvantages to pet ownership” and “The disadvantages of pet ownership are many.”

A: There’s no formula for how to choose the proper preposition. In English, the use of prepositions is largely idiomatic, and people who use them correctly do so because they’ve “absorbed” them through long exposure to idiomatic usage.

For example, in the plural we may correctly say, “There are many disadvantages to pet ownership,” or “The disadvantages of pet ownership are many,” or  “You can’t get around the disadvantages of pet ownership.”

In the singular we can say, “One disadvantage of pet ownership is …” or  “The biggest disadvantage of pet ownership is …” or “If there’s a disadvantage to pet ownership, it’s …”

You might use either “in” or “with” when the phrase is split: “In [or With] pet ownership, there are many disadvantages.”

There are even more idiomatic usages when the noun is the object of the preposition: 

“He had me at a disadvantage” … “The terms of the contract were to my disadvantage” … “He labored under a disadvantage”  … “I can’t see beyond the disadvantages” … “We could live with the disadvantages” … “They disagreed about the disadvantages.”

This is why we say there’s no formula here.

We’ve written several times on our blog about the oddities of prepositions, including a posting in 2008.

We wish we could be more definitive. There’s a very handy book, Words Into Type, that has an extensive list (many pages long) of words together with the prepositions they usually take.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t list “disadvantage.” It does list “advantage,” which it advises using with “of” or “over.”

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Is a side dish garnish?

Q: I believe a garnish on a plate of food is something like a sprig of parsley or a mint leaf.  But Jacques Pépin, on his show Essential Pépin, refers to vegetables (what I would call side dishes) as garnish for a meat dish. What’s up with this?

A: We checked eight standard dictionaries—three American and five British—and all of them define the culinary noun “garnish” the way you do, as a tidbit of food added for decoration or flavor.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, says garnish is an “ornamentation or embellishment, especially one added to a prepared food or drink for decoration or added flavor.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines the verb “garnish” as “to add decorative or savory touches to (food or drink).” M-W defines the noun as “something (as lemon wedges or parsley) used to garnish food or drink.”

We haven’t watched the public-television series Essential Pépin, but if Jacques Pépin is using the word “garnish” to refer to a side dish, he’s using it in a way that’s not customary today.

However, the word “garnish” may have once referred to a side dish, though that usage is now considered obsolete.

The Oxford English Dictionary, in its entry for the noun “garnish,” lists three citations from the mid-1600s under the subheading “? Side-dishes.”

Why the question mark? Well, the sense of “garnish” in all three citations isn’t all that clear. Here’s an example from Ovatio Carolina, an account of the lavish welcome that Charles I received on Nov. 25, 1641, from the Lord Mayor and other officials in London:

“At the South end whereof (two yards distance from the Table), was a Table of Garnish, of three yards square.” (That would be a lot of parsley, but maybe people were big on Petroselinum crispum in those days.)

When the noun “garnish” entered English in the 1400s, it referred to pewter vessels set out on a table, but that meaning is now obsolete.

In the early 1600s, it took on the sense of an embellishment or a decoration, as in this 1615 citation in the OED from The English House-Wife, Gervase Markham’s book about womanly virtues: “Adorn the person altogether without toyish garnishes, or the gloss of light colours.”

By the late 1600s, according to the dictionary, the word “garnish” was being used for “things placed round or added to a dish to improve its appearance at table.”

Here’s an example from Richard Leigh’s The Transproser Rehears’d (1673): “Your Text is all Margent, and not only all your Dishes, but your Garnish too is Pork.” (“Margent” is an obsolete version of “margin.”)

The noun “garnish,” as you may suspect, is derived from the verb “garnish,” which English adapted from Old French in the 1300s.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the earlier word “was originally a fairly utilitarian verb, meaning simply ‘fit out, equip, supply’ or ‘adorn.’ ”

Ayto says the verb is derived from the Old French word garnir (to equip or adorn), but its ultimate source is “presumably” an Indo-European base that also gave English the verb “warn.”

“The notion of ‘warning’ is preserved in the legal term garnishee, applied to someone who is served with a judicial warning not to pay their debt to anyone other than the person who is seeking repayment,” he adds.

Note: We wrote a post a few years ago about “garnishee” and the legal sense of the verb “garnish.”

Update (August 21, 2013): A reader has written to say that the French noun garniture can mean either “garnish” or “side dish,” which may explain Pépin’s usage.

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Who’s killing organic search?

Q: You’ve written before about the evolution of “organic,” and I wonder if you’re aware of its further morphing to mean something like relevant, as in this blog heading: “How Google is killing organic search.”

A: That heading is on a July 1, 2013, post by Aaron Harris, a co-founder of the website, that looks at “the amount of real estate given to true organic results” in a screenful of Google hits.

In a Google search for “auto mechanic,” Harris says, only 13 percent of the results on the first page are organic. The rest of the page, he adds, is taken up by ads and Google products.

Our 2008 post about “organic” notes that the word has changed radically since it entered the language. In fact, as you point out, it’s still changing. 

A recent sense of the word, and one that standard dictionaries haven’t yet caught up with, involves the use of “organic” in reference to search engine results.

In this sense, “organic” results are those that pop up naturally because they’re relevant to a keyword query. The “inorganic” results are the those that are paid for (Harris, in his post, also includes Google maps, navigation bars, and so on).

Another way to look at this is that “organic” hits are the ones you’re actually looking for. “Inorganic” hits (otherwise known as “sponsored” or “featured” links) are what you have to slog through to get there.

This technical use of “organic” has been familiar for about a decade among people involved in web marketing and search engine optimization. But as of now, it hasn’t made its way into standard dictionaries.

The only dictionary we’ve found that recognizes this use of “organic” is the online Wiktionary. Its entry for “organic” includes this definition: “Generated according to the ranking algorithms of a search engine, as opposed to paid placement by advertisers.”

And it provides this example from a book published in 2008: “According to a recent survey by Jupiter Research, 80 percent of Web users get information from organic search results.” (From Changing the Channel: 12 Easy Ways to Make Millions for Your Business, by Michael Masterson and MaryEllen Tribby.)

As you might expect, the term has also made its way into technical glossaries. The Computer Desktop Encyclopedia defines “organic search results” this way:

“A results list from querying a search engine that is ranked entirely by the search engine’s algorithms rather than due to being paid advertisements. … Also called a ‘natural search.’ ”

 As we say in our earlier posting, when “organic” made its debut in English in the 1300s, it was an anatomical term referring to the jugular vein.

Over the centuries it gradually developed new meanings, having to do with the organs of the body, with living organisms, with things derived from living matter, with things developed continuously or naturally, with chemical-free farming methods and foods, and so on.

It’s often used these days in the sense of natural or “green.” Within its definitions of “organic,” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has this: “simple, healthful, and close to nature: an organic lifestyle.”

The web-marketing sense of the word is just one more in a widening pool of meanings for “organic.”

So when did the search-engine sense of the word first appear?

The earliest example we’ve been able to find is from the March 11, 2002, issue of the marketing journal B to B. An article entitled “Marketers report high ROI with paid listings” has this paragraph:

“Lee Mills, director of online promotions for SiteLab, a San Diego-based interactive marketing agency, said, ‘Standard, organic optimization provides a high ROI over time in most categories, but paid listings can be one of the most cost-efficient methods.” (“ROI” means return on investment.)

This sense began to appear more frequently in 2003, when a Business Wire press release said a new service by WebTrends would help clients “distinguish pay-for-performance versus organic search listings,” and answer questions like these:

“How much of my traffic is coming from paid search versus organic search, by each search engine? Do paid search listings generate a higher return than organic search listings?”

Two months later, in August 2003, PC cited a study saying consumers found it difficult to tell these paid ads from “organic” search results.

PC World said the study—by Consumer WebWatch, a service of Consumers Union—found that the Federal Trade Commission’s voluntary guidelines “may have even made it more difficult to tell paid-for search results from free or ‘organic’ ones.”

“It seems,” the website reported, “that searchers don’t know the meaning of such recommended but ambiguous terms as ‘sponsored’ and ‘featured’ that are used to identify paid-placement listings.”

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On mayors and mayoresses

Q: Do you think that using the word “mayoress” is offensive nowadays? Should I use “mayor” whether the leader of the group who governs a town is male or female?

A: We’d describe the use of “mayoress” today for a female mayor as dated, but some people might describe it as offensive, sexist, or politically incorrect.

We’ve checked five standard dictionaries and none of them find fault with the usage. However, we wouldn’t use it ourselves, and we wouldn’t recommend that you do either.

We discussed this issue briefly back in 2006 when we answered a question about whether a woman is an “actor” or an “actress.”

“We seem to be getting away from ‘ess’ and ‘ix’ endings to differentiate women from men,” we wrote then. “We no longer use ‘aviatrix,’ ‘executrix,’ ‘stewardess,’ and so on.”

We noted that this tendency may have something to do with linguistic simplification as well as gender sensitivity.

“Languages have a tendency to simplify and drop syllables or letters,” we wrote. “In this case, though, the advent of the women’s movement has certainly speeded up the process.”

When “mayoress” first showed up in English the mid-1400s, it referred to “a woman holding high office,” but that sense of the word died out, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the early 1500s, the word came to mean “the wife of a mayor” or “a woman nominated to fulfil the ceremonial duties of a mayor’s wife.”

The earliest example in the OED, from Robert Fabyan’s New Cronycles of Englande and of Fraunce  (1516), refers to a “Mayresse and her Susters Aldermennes wyfes.” (The citation itself is dated from sometime before 1513.)

The latest example—from Fairs, Feasts and Frolics, a 1989 book by Julia Smith about customs in Yorkshire—refers to “the dean and chapter, the mayor and mayoress and the city council.”

A similar term, “lady mayoress,” meaning “the spouse of a Lord Mayor” or “a person who accompanies a Lord Mayor on official occasions,” also showed up in the 1500s.

The dictionary’s first citation for this term is from a 1537 entry in the Privy Purse Expenses Princess Mary: “Bonetts bought of my Lady meyres of london for new yers gyfts.”

The most recent citation is from a July 26, 2002, issue of the Times of London: “Every Lady Mayoress of London does charity work.”

It wasn’t until the late 1800s, the OED says, that the term “mayoress” was used to mean “a woman holding mayoral office; a female mayor.”

Oxford says the new sense of the word originated in the US and is “not in official use in England and Wales and certain other countries.”

The first example of the new usage in the OED is from The Employments of Women: A Cyclopædia of Woman’s Work (1863), by Virginia Penny:

“Mrs. N. Smith was recently elected mayoress in Oskaloosa, Iowa, the first time that office was ever filled by a lady.”

As for “mayor,” English adopted it from Anglo-Norman and Old French, but the ultimate source is maior, Latin for greater, which also gave us “major.”

By the way, we live in a small town in New England and our “mayor” is a “first selectman,” a title she prefers to “first selectwoman.” If we had mayors in our neck of the woods, she’d undoubtedly be a “mayor,” not a “mayoress.”

[Update, Aug. 21, 2013: A reader of the blog, and a fellow admirer of E. F. Benson’s hilarious “Lucia” novels, writes to remind us that in Trouble for Lucia (1939), the heroine has been elected mayor of Tilling, and her archrival, Miss Mapp, gets herself appointed mayoress.  Tilling, by the way, was based on Rye, in East Sussex, where Benson lived and where he served as mayor in the 1930s.]

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How did news become copy?

Q: A journalist who writes “copy” would never call herself a “copywriter,” yet the journalist who edits her is a “copy editor.” Can you shed any light on the history of “copy” and its use in journalism and advertising?

A: “Copy” is an interesting noun that has, in the words of John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, “a very devious semantic history.”

When the word entered English in the 1300s, it could mean either an abundance of something or a written account of something.

English got the word via Old French, Ayto says, but the ultimate source is copia, a Latin noun whose primary meaning is abundance. (Copia is also the source of the English word “copious.”)

How did a Latin word for abundance give English a word for a written account?

Ayto explains that the Latin word had a secondary meaning, right or power, and this sense “led to its application to ‘right of reproduction’ and ultimately to simply ‘reproduction.’ ”

The Oxford English Dictionary traces this sense to such Latin phrases as dare vel habere copiam legendi (to give, or have, the power of reading) and facere copiam describendi (to give the power of transcription, to allow a transcript to be made).

In the Middle Ages, the OED notes, such phrases apparently influenced the evolution of the Latin term copia, which came to mean “transcript” in medieval Latin.

By the 1500s, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the English word “copy” had evolved in turn to mean any example of writing, and figuratively any reproduction.

However, Chambers doesn’t indicate when the term “copy” began being used in the newspaper sense—that is, for a draft of a news story that hasn’t yet been edited.

The OED doesn’t have a listing for “copy” used in this sense, but the dictionary does include the word in the sense of grist, or material, for a news story.

The earliest example is from George Bernard Shaw’s Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889): “Those Socialist speeches which make what the newspapers call ‘good copy.’ ”

In a search of Google Books, the earliest example we’ve found of “copy” used to mean a draft of a news story dates from the mid-1800s.

In Saunterings In and About London (1853), Max Schlesinger describes an editor as he “hurries to the Times’ office to read, shorten, and edit the copy sent in by the reporters.”

The term wasn’t used in an advertising sense until the early 20th century, according to OED citations. The first example of this use is from The Art of Modern Advertising (1905), by Earnest Elmo Calkins and Ralph Holden:

“The design and ‘copy’ used in the four-inch advertisement may involve just as much time.” (The quotation marks around “copy” suggest that the usage was relatively new then.)

The earliest citation for “copywriter” (originally “copy-writer”) is from a 1911 work about advertising and publicity that describes copywriters as “professional writers of advertisements.” (All the OED’s examples use the word in the advertising sense.)

Here are some journalistic “copy” compounds and the dates of their first OED citations: “copy-boy” (1888), “copy-reader” (1892), “copy editor” (1899), “copy-paper” (1902), and “copy desk” (1929).

Why, you wonder, isn’t someone who writes copy for a newspaper called a “copywriter”?

Well, it’s possible that newspaper writers simply don’t want to be identified by a word associated with advertising. But a more likely explanation is that the writers don’t need another word to identify them.

Terms like “newsman” (1650), “news writer” (1692), “correspondent” (1771), and “reporter” (1776) were well established long before “copywriter” showed up. (The OED’s first citation for “newswoman” in this sense is from 1953.)

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Blood, toil, tears, and quotes

Q: In your article for Smithsonian earlier in the year, you say it’s a myth that Winston Churchill responded to a pedant by scribbling, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” I’ve always thought that clever and so obviously Churchillian. The American Heritage Book of blah blah blah says he said it. The Oxford Companion to blah blah blah says he said it. You call it a myth, so is this a fact?

A: We’ve seen umpteen versions of the quotation and just as many descriptions of the incident that prompted  it.

In the most common version, Churchill scribbled the remark in the margin of a document after a pedant dared to tinker with the great man’s writing to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition.

However, no such document has ever surfaced. And there’s no solid evidence that one ever existed. You can believe what you want. We’ll believe it when someone comes up with the document, complete with Churchillian scribbles.

Word sleuths have searched high and low for proof that Churchill wrote or said something of the sort, using all the research tools of the digital age. So far, that proof hasn’t been found. And what little evidence there is suggests that someone else said it.

We’re not sure which references you mean when you refer to the American Heritage Book of blah blah blah and the Oxford Companion to blah blah blah.

Although the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations does attribute the remark to Churchill, its source is quite iffy—a half-hearted citation by Sir Ernest Gowers.

In his 1948 book Plain Words, Gowers qualified his remarks: “It is said that Mr. Winston Churchill once made this marginal comment.”

Because of space limitations, we didn’t have a chance to go into detail about this questionable quote in our Smithsonian article. However, we discussed it extensively in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths. Here’s an excerpt:

“Over the years, numerous versions of the quote and the incident that provoked it have circulated on both sides of the Atlantic, all of them claiming to be the genuine article. In various incarnations of the story, Churchill blusters not only at ‘the sort of English,’ but also at the ‘stilted English,’ ‘arrant pedantry,’ ‘errant pedantry,’ ‘errant criticism,’ ‘offensive impertinence,’ ‘insubordination,’ ‘bloody nonsense,’ ‘tedious nonsense,’ ‘pedantic nonsense,’ and … you get the idea. As for the end of the quote, it can be ‘up with which I will not put,’ ‘up with which I shall not put,’ ‘with which I will not put up,’ or ‘which I will not put up with.’

“The provocation that supposedly got Churchill so worked up? It’s sometimes a government document clumsily written by someone else, and at other times it’s clumsy editing of the great man’s own writing— here a book, there a speech, perhaps a memo or whatever. With so many genuine articles to choose from, it would take a linguistic anthropologist to track down the real story. Fortunately, one has. Benjamin G. Zimmer has traced the quotation to a 1942 article in The Wall Street Journal, citing an earlier mention in The Strand Magazine. The ‘offensive impertinence’ version of the quote is there, but (surprise!) Churchill is missing. The witticism is attributed to an unnamed writer in ‘a certain Government department.’

“It wasn’t until two years later that the quote (this time it’s the ‘tedious nonsense’ version) was pinned on Churchill. On February 27, 1944, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times all ran brief items from London saying Churchill had scrawled the remark on a ‘long, rambling’ government document— and that he’d done it only the week before.”

Is it a fact, you ask, that the attribution of the quotation to Churchill is a myth? In Origins of the Specious, we say it’s probably apocryphal. That’s perhaps a more accurate way of describing it.

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Falling in love again

Q: Why do we “fall” in love, “fall” into sin, “fall” apart, “fall” asleep, “fall” ill, “fall” in or out with someone? In other words, what’s with all the falling?

A: “Fall” is an ancient verb that’s been used figuratively for many centuries, often with the sense of sinking into some condition or state. And if we didn’t have these less literal uses of the word, English would be a poorer language.

The original and literal meaning of the verb, which has been recorded in writing since the 800s, is to “descend freely” or “drop from a high or relatively high position,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

One of the OED’s earliest examples is from Crist III, the third part of an anonymous Old English religious poem about the Second Coming. The reference here is to the Last Judgment: “Sceolon rathe feallan on grimne grund” (“They shall fall rapidly into the grim abyss”). 

But later, people began using “fall” in more inventive ways. Often these new meanings involved wrongdoing—that is, descending into evil.

In the 1100s, to “fall” could mean to sin or yield to temptation. This sense of the word was also used in phrases, like “fall into sin,” which was soon followed by “fall into error,” “fall into idolatry,” “fall into mistakes,” and “fall among thieves.”

In the 1200s and 1300s, writers began using “fall” to describe the destruction of walls, buildings, and cities, as in “is falle Babilon” (Babylon is fallen).

The later expression “fall to pieces” (1600s) came to mean “break into fragments” or disintegrate. And a couple of centuries after that, an overthrown empire or government was said to “fall.” 

You’ve probably noticed that negative senses of the word outnumber positive ones.

Since the 1300s, to “fall on” an enemy has meant to attack. Fear, death, disease, vengeance, and misfortune have been “falling” on people since the Middle Ages.

Not surprisingly, disappointment or sadness makes a person’s face “fall,” a usage traceable to the 1300s and one that the OED says was “originally a Hebraism.”

And it was around the 1600s that English speakers adopted the notion that a duty, a burden, an expense, a responsibility, or a loss (less frequently, a gain) could “fall on” or “fall to” a person. 

But other figurative meanings aren’t quite as grim—they’re either positive or neutral. And there are so many that we won’t even try to mention them all.

Since around 1000, meteorological events like rain, hail, lightning, and thunder have been said to “fall” from the heavens. A bit later, people began speaking of evening, night, seasons, and shadows as “falling.”

Sometimes to “fall” means merely to lessen or subside, as with the volume of music (1500s), the price of something (1500s), or the temperature (1800s). 

Some figurative uses of “fall” have to do with the senses. Sounds “fall” upon the ear, just as sights “fall” upon the eye (both 1800s). And when people speak, we say that words “fall” from their lips or tongues (1700s).

All kinds of figurative usages have to do with passing, perhaps suddenly or accidentally, into a certain state or condition.

This is how we got “fall to sleep” (1200s) and “fall asleep” (1300s); “fall sick” (1400s); “fall into favor,” “fall in love,” and “fall into trouble,” meaning to get pregnant (all 1500s); “fall lame,” “fall ill,” and “fall back,” meaning to retreat (all 1600s); “fall vacant,” “fall silent,” and “fall flat,” meaning to prove uninteresting or ineffective (all 1800s).

To “fall out” (also “fall out with”) has meant to quarrel or disagree since the 1500s. And a century or so later, people began using “fall in with” to mean agree, concur, or share the views of.

To “fall short of” has meant to fail in some objective since the 1500s, the OED says. And “fall in,” meaning to get into line in a military sense, came into use in the 18th century.

More recently, “to fall for” has meant to be taken in or carried away by, a usage the OED dates from 1903.

“Fall apart” has been used since the 1600s in the sense of “to separate” or “to go separate ways,” the OED says.

But the use of “fall apart” to mean “break up” or “collapse” was first recorded in the mid-1700s, and a still newer meaning—to have a nervous breakdown, more or less—is from the 1930s.

And we’ll stop here, before we “fall behind” (1500s) in our other work! But if you want to read more, we had a post some time ago about why Americans have two words for “autumn” while the British have only one.

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A disappearing act

Q: I’m writing about the use of “disappear” in this Huffington Post headline: “How to Disappear the Unemployed (See North Carolina).” What do you make of this post-Argentina transitive use of an intransitive verb?

A: Yes, that usage does recall a dark time in the history of Argentina. Stewart was a foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires during the early days of the conflict that gave us the usage behind that headline.

But before discussing the Huffington Post language, let’s go back a few hundred years to the early days of the verb “disappear,” which was influenced by disparaître, the French verb for disappearing.

When “disappear” entered English back in the early 1500s, it was an intransitive verb, one that doesn’t have a direct object. Here’s an example from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667): “She disappear’d, and left me dark.”

But the verb has been used transitively (that is, with an object) since the late 19th century in reference to inanimate objects. Until recently, though, this usage has been rare.

The Oxford English Dictionary has only two isolated examples of the transitive usage.

One is from Chemical News in 1897: “We progressively disappear the faces of the dodecahedron.”

The other is from a 1949 article in American Speech about the lingo of magicians: “The magician may speak of disappearing or vanishing a card.”

But this inanimate use of the verb has had a renaissance in recent years, primarily in techie talk: “disappear the data,” “disappear the ‘run script’ dialogue,” “disappear the mouse cursor,” and so on.

Although the techie usage hasn’t made it into standard dictionaries, another transitive sense of “disappear” showed up in the 1970s and has been accepted by lexicographers as standard English.

This sense of the verb—to “disappear” someone—surfaced in news reports about the Argentine military government’s battle against insurgents and its suppression of dissidents in the 1970s.

The earliest example in the OED is from a 1979 article in the New York Times Magazine about people who vanished after being detained by the Argentine military:

“While Miss Iglesias ‘was disappeared,’ her family’s writ of habeas corpus, filed on her behalf, was rejected by the courts.”

The recent incarnation of “disappear” on the Huffington Post website represents a milder, more figurative form of the Argentine-inspired usage.

It appeared above a July 10, 2013, article by George Wentworth about states where unemployment programs are under attack. Wentworth, an attorney for the National Employment Law Project, a labor-advocacy group, wrote:

“Unfortunately, some state lawmakers are not much interested in understanding or solving the continuing unemployment problem; they just want it to go away. So in an increasing number of states, the perceived ‘problem’ is no longer ‘unemployment’—it’s the ‘unemployed.’ And the most convenient and politically facile way to attack the unemployed is to attack unemployment insurance.”

Together, the article and its headline implied that some states are trying to “disappear” jobless people—at least statistically—by reducing the number of people receiving unemployment insurance.

Should this looser transitive use of “disappear” be disappeared? Well, some sticklers are annoyed by it. One reader of the Huffington Post article, for example, posted this tart response: “How to disappear an intransitive verb.”

However, we like this eye-catching use of language. “Disappear” here is an attention-getter, and attention is what headlines are supposed to get.

Although you won’t find the usage in standard dictionaries, it’s an extension of the dark transitive sense from Argentina, which is in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

American Heritage says the transitive “disappear” means “to cause (someone) to disappear, especially by kidnapping or murder.” Merriam-Webster’s defines it as “to cause the disappearance of.” Neither dictionary has any lexical reservations about the usage.

The OED defines this sense of the verb as “to abduct or arrest (a person), esp. for political reasons, and subsequently to kill or detain as a prisoner, without making his or her fate known.”

Oxford adds that the word is frequently used “with reference to Latin America,” and that it developed “originally and chiefly after American Spanish desaparecido,” a noun meaning “a disappeared, missing person.”

The Times Magazine article cited above provides some insight into the Argentine usage. The authors write:

Desaparecido is one of the more familiar terms of a new Argentine argot, a strange, forbidding vocabulary invented by an underworld of military and police personnel in their extralegal duties. The literal translation into English has a curiously passive sense to it: ‘to be disappeared.’ It disguises the ugly reality of clandestine abduction, torture and execution affecting tens of thousands of Argentines in recent years.”

The article continues: “The desaparecidos are persons who, usually after being detained by teams of well-armed men, vanish without a trace into a world beyond all legal and human rights.”

The Spanish term had previously appeared in Time magazine, according to OED citations, in a 1977 article about Argentina:

“Amnesty International  … accused the military of arbitrary detention, torture, summary executions and the ‘disappearance’ of at least 500 suspects…. Amnesty charges that many of the desaparecidos were innocent citizens abducted and murdered by soldiers and police in mufti.”

But in searches of our own we found earlier uses of desaparecidos, in both Spanish (1971) and English (1976). We also found it in Spanish in the mid-’70s in reference to Augusto Pinochet’s suppression of opponents in Chile.

An English phrase that conveys the meaning of desaparecidos, “the disappeared,” predates Argentina’s military dictatorship, which ended with the return to civilian rule and free elections in 1983.

The OED’s first use of this noun phrase comes from a poem in Charles Bukowski’s The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills (1969): “the hearse comes through the room filled with / the beheaded, the disappeared, the living / mad.”

Oxford’s next citation for the phrase is in reference to Argentina and comes from Robert McAfee Brown’s Theology in a New Key (1978):

“People are taken from their homes by masked gangs. They are never heard from again; they become ‘the disappeared,’ who are tortured to extract information about their political activities before they are killed.”

Some of these usages have survived “post-Argentina” (to use your phrase), and are now used more widely.

For example, “the disappeared” has been used in reference to victims of violent crime in Mexico. It’s also been used to refer to those kidnapped and killed by the Irish Republican Army. The OED includes a 1998 citation from the Belfast Telegraph:

“In addition to a firm commitment on decommissioning, he said his party wanted to see a resolution to the dreadful suffering to the relatives of the ‘disappeared’ and the standing down of the IRA active service units.”

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Out goes you!

Q: I teach ESL to very smart students who have amazing questions. This one stumped me. Shouldn’t the inverted verb be “go,” not “goes,” in this poem? Acca bacca soda cracker, / Acca bacca boo. / Acca bacca soda cracker, / Out goes you!

A: Yes, grammatical correctness would require “Out go you!” But one doesn’t expect proper grammar in playground rhymes, with their nonsense words and quirky syntax. On the playground, grammar is never as important as rhythm and onomatopoeia.

But was “goes” ever the second-person singular of “go” in English? If so, the usage could be a relic from the past.

Well, we couldn’t find this use of “goes” in the Oxford English Dictionary, but the second-person singular was sometimes spelled “gose” in Middle English.

Here’s a 15th-century example from The Towneley Plays, a manuscript named for the family that once owned it: “Who owe this child thou gose withall?”

Nevertheless, we see no evidence of an etymological connection between that 15th-century spelling and the 19th-century children’s doggerel you’ve asked about.

The poem is typical of what are called children’s counting-out rhymes. These frequently end in three emphatically stressed words: “out goes you.”

Children chant such rhymes in order to select a player who’s “counted out” or selected to be “it”—for instance, in a game of tag or hide-and-seek. 

 We found many similar poems in a book called The Counting-Out Rhymes of Children (1888), by Henry Carrington Bolton. A pair of examples:

Acker, backer, soda cracker,
Half-past two.
A pinch of snuff,
That is enough,
Out goes you!

Hackabacker, chew tobacco,
Hackabacker chew;
Hackabacker, eat a cracker.
Out goes you!

Other versions, found in this book and elsewhere, end in variations on this theme, typically with “O-U-T spells out goes you” or “One, two, three, and out goes you.”

Very rarely does one find “out go you.” And we can see why. The punchy “z” sound in “Out goes you” is phonetically pleasing amid all those vowel sounds. In other words, it’s more fun to say—or yell.

Besides, “out goes you” is easily adaptable to substitution—“out goes Jack,” “out goes Mary,” and so on.

Such counting-out rhymes are common among children throughout the world, and according to scholars they make no more sense in French or Russian or Czech than they do in English. But let’s get back to English.

In a study entitled “Children’s Traditional Speech Play and Child Language” (1976), Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett and Mary Sanches quote one such rhyme, which they characterize as “gibberish”:

Inty, ninty, tibbety fig
Deema dima doma nig
Howchy powchy domi nowday
Hom tom tout
Olligo bolligo boo
Out goes you.

In children’s poetry, the authors write, sound is what counts, not grammar or syntax or sense: “only the phonological rules are observed: the phonological sequences neither form units which have grammatical function nor lexemes with semantic reference.”

“That children enjoy playing with sound for its own sake has long been recognized as a prominent feature of child speech,” they add.

In short, the words that kids chant on the playground aren’t about grammar—they’re about sound. Put ’em together and what have you got? Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo!

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English English language Usage

Street cred

Q: I’ve read your “Street smarts” posting, but I’m still confused about whether I MUST use the “-rd” when writing an address such as “659 West 123rd Street” on an envelope. My personal belief is that the “rd” is redundant, but everyone I know includes it. Are there any rules indicating its omission?

A: Cardinal numbers (like “one,” “two,” “three”) tell you how many. But ordinal numbers (“first,” “second,” “third”) tell you which one.

That’s why the names of numbered streets normally appear in ordinal form. A street address tells you which street.

But for purposes of brevity or to save space, the ending of an ordinal number (the “-rd” or “-th” or “-st” or “-nd”) is sometimes omitted on address labels and such. 

Certainly, an envelope addressed to “123 Street” will get there. But in reading that address aloud, you would use the ordinal form, “123rd Street,” pronouncing the omitted “-rd.”

So in our opinion, an envelope addressed to “123 Street” is merely abbreviating an ordinal number.

Is it OK to drop the “-rd”? We don’t recommend it, and neither does our go-to style guide. But this is a matter of style, and you’re free to drop the “-rd” if you’re not writing for publication.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), the arbiter of style for publishing companies, uses ordinals in its entry for numbered streets, avenues, and so forth. The examples it gives are “First Avenue … Ninety-Fifth Street … 122nd Street.”

 As we said, ordinal numbers are normally used in writing street names, and they’re always used in speech.

We never say, for example, “I live on Seventy-Two Street,” or “The store used to be on Nine Avenue.” In speech, we use “Seventy-Second Street” and “Ninth Avenue.”

Both forms of a number—say, the cardinal “five” as well as the ordinal “fifth”—can be adjectives. In the phrases “five houses” and “fifth house,” the numbers are adjectives.

But notice that when the noun phrase refers to only one, an ordinal number is used: “fifth house.” It tells you which house, not how many.

Similarly, “my five employees” is inclusive—it implies that you’re going on to say what all five had in common. But “my fifth employee” is specific; it refers to only one.

Even when the cardinal number is “one” instead of a multiple, it plays a different role than the ordinal “first.”

For example, “my one trip to Europe” implies that you went just once. But “my first trip to Europe” implies that there were other trips.

In summary, when you shorten “123rd Street to “123 Street,” that’s merely a stylistic abbreviation. The omission of “-rd” goes against the grain of common usage, but it’s not unheard of—or ungrammatical. 

No matter how you abbreviate it, the street’s name is still ordinal in notion (which street?) and not cardinal (how many?).

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English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin

Circular reasoning

Q: Can you explain how a leaflet or newspaper insert came to be called a “circular”? I’ve always wondered about this.

A: A leaflet or newspaper insert is called a “circular” because it was originally intended to circulate—to make the rounds among a circle of people.

The noun was born in the early 19th century as an abbreviated form of a much earlier phrase, “circular letter,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

A “circular letter,” the OED says, was defined by Samuel Johnson in A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) as “a letter directed to several persons, who have the same interest in some common affair.”

Here, the adjective “circular” means “affecting or relating to a circle or number of persons,” the OED says.

Oxford’s earliest citation for “circular letter” (sometimes called a “circular epistle” or “circular note”) is from a biblical commentary, The Considerator Considered (1659), by Brian Walton, Bishop of Chester:

“Their chief Priest … sends circular letters to the rest about their solemn feasts.”

The phrase survived until well into the 19th century, especially in historical references. This example is from Thomas Babington Macaulay’s The History of England From the Accession of James II (1849):

“Circular letters, imploring them to sign, were sent to every corner of the kingdom.”

Meanwhile, in ordinary usage the expression had become shortened to “circular” by the early 1800s.

Although it began as an abbreviated form of “circular letter,” the OED says, its meaning is “now esp. a business notice or advertisement, printed or otherwise reproduced in large numbers for distribution.”

Henry John Todd, who edited an 1818 edition of Johnson’s Dictionary, didn’t take kindly to the use of “circular” as a noun. The OED quotes from Todd’s entry for “circular letter”:

“Modern affectation has changed this expression into the substantive; and we now hear of nothing but circulars from publick offices, and circulars from superintendants of a feast or club.”

Common usage won out, as it always does. As Lord Byron wrote in a letter in 1822: “The Circulars are arrived and circulating.”

If your head isn’t spinning in circles by now and you’d like to read more, we had a posting a few years ago about whether a circular argument is a “vicious circle” or a “vicious cycle.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Slang Usage Word origin

Spill proof

Q: I’m wondering why we “spill” secrets. It seems such an odd verb to use when we mean “tell.”

A: This use of “spill” originated  in World War I-era American slang, though a similar usage showed up briefly across the Atlantic in the 16th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of the 20th-century usage is from a master of slanguage, Ring Lardner. Here’s the citation from his novel Gullible’s Travels (1917):

“ ‘Go ahead and spill it,’ I says.” (We found another one in the same book: “I promised her I wouldn’t spill none o’ the real details.”)

In this sense, the OED says, to “spill” means “to utter (words); to confess or divulge (facts).”

The usage soon caught on, and variations appeared. Another American slang phrase, “to spill the beans” (meaning “to reveal a secret”), showed up within a couple of years, the OED says.

Oxford’s earliest example of this one is from Thomas H. Holmes’s novel The Man From Tall Timber (1919): “ ‘Mother certainly has spilled the beans!’ thought Stafford in vast amusement.”

And another variation, “to spill one’s guts,” meaning “to divulge as much as one can, to confess,” came along in the Roaring Twenties, according to citations in the OED.

The dictionary’s first example is from Francis Charles Coe’s underworld novel Me—Gangster (1927). “ ‘Throw him out, eh?’ the old man snarled. … ‘Throw him out an’ have him spill his guts about the whole gang?’ ”

So when we use “spill” to mean confess or give away a secret—to pour out something that was held in—we’re using a century-old American slang term.

But in a quirk of linguistic history, it turns out that Americans weren’t the first to use “spill” in this figurative way. The OED records an isolated example from 16th-century England.

This line appeared in Familiar Epistles, Edward Hellowes’s 1574 translation of a collection of letters by the Spanish friar Antonio de Guevara: “Although it be a shame to spill it, I will not leaue to say that which … his friends haue said vnto me.”

In this citation, the OED says, “spill” is used figuratively to mean “to divulge, let out.”

The volume of Guevara’s Epistolas Familiares that Hellowes translated was first printed in Spanish in 1539. This raises a question: Were the Spanish already using their verb for “spill” in a figurative way to mean “divulge”?  

We located the passage in the original Spanish, and it begins, “Aunque es vergüenza de lo decir …”—literally, “Although it’s a shame to say it ….”

So Hellowes’s figurative use of “spill” for Guevara’s decir (to say) was original.

Interestingly, the English word “spill,” which comes from old Germanic sources, didn’t always mean to pour out.

When it entered Old English around the year 950, it meant to kill, destroy, put to death, ruin, overthrow, wreck, and so on.

Those hair-raising meanings are now obsolete or archaic, but they survived poetically for many centuries. 

Here’s an example from Thomas Taylor’s A Commentarie vpon the Epistle of S. Paul Written to Titus (1612): “Caring no more in their fury to spill a man, then to kill a dogge.”

How did a word for “destroy” come to mean overflow or pour out?

Sometime in the early 12th century, “spill” took on another meaning, the OED says: “to shed (blood).”

And a couple of centuries later, the OED says, that sense expanded to mean “to allow or cause (a liquid) to fall, pour, or run out (esp. over the edge of the containing vessel), usually in an accidental or wasteful manner; to lose or waste in this way.”

We still use “spill” in this way. We’ve also used the noun “spill” since the mid-19th century to mean a tumble or a fall, as in “He had a spill from his horse” or “She took a spill on the steps.”

Another handy usage, the adjective “spill-proof,” came along in the 1920s. This more recent OED example is from an ad that ran in Glamour magazine in 1963: “New spray mist! Unbreakable. Spill-proof…. Intimate by Revlon.”

In short, “spill” has come a long way.

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

Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Today’s topic: It’s summertime and the language is breezy.

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English English language Etymology Spelling Usage Word origin

An eye-opening plural

Q: Which of these sentences is the correct one? (1) “Cyclopses’ eyes are huge.” (2) “Cyclopses’ eye is huge.” The first sentence makes sense, but it may cause confusion because some readers may not know that each Cyclops has only one eye.

A: If you’re writing for Americans, we wouldn’t recommend either one.

The proper noun “Cyclops,” for the one-eyed giant from Greek mythology, doesn’t form its plural in the usual way in American English.

It’s “Cyclopes,” not “Cyclopses,” according to American dictionaries. (British dictionaries are more flexible, listing “Cyclopes,” “Cyclopses,” and sometimes “Cyclops” as acceptable plurals.)

Here are the correct American spellings and pronunciations for the various forms:

Singular: Cyclops (pronounced SIGH-klops).

Singular possessive: Cyclops’s (pronounced SIGH-klops-iz).

Plural: Cyclopes (pronounced sigh-KLOH-peez).

Plural possessive: Cyclopes’ (pronounced sigh-KLOH-peez).

Now, both of the following sentences are correctly written for an American audience, but #2 probably does a better job of getting your meaning across:

(1) “Cyclopes’ eyes are huge” (plural possessive).

(2) “The Cyclops’s eye is huge” (singular possessive).

As you suggest, sentence #1 doesn’t convey the notion that each Cyclops has only one eye. Sentence #2 does get that idea across, and it can be construed as generic—that is, true of every Cyclops.

(If you’re writing for a British audience, the plural possessive in #1 could be Cyclopes’, Cyclopses’, or Cyclops’.)

If you’re curious about the use of the definite article in #2, we wrote a post in 2009  about the use of “the” with a singular noun to refer generically to all members of a class:

“We can correctly say either ‘A goat is a four-footed animal’ or ‘The goat is a four-footed animal,’ ” the blog post says.

“But the tendency is to use ‘the’ when referring to a typical example of its class. And this tendency is stronger the more specific we are about it: ‘The goat is remarkably nimble and sure-footed.’ We don’t mean a particular goat; we mean all goats.”

You can apply this principle to the Cyclops too.

The name, by the way, came into English in the 1500s from late Latin, which got it from the Greek Κύκλωψ (Kuklops, literally, round-eyed).  The Greek roots are κύκλος (kuklos, circle) and -ὤψ (ops, eye).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “Cyclops” as “one of a race of one-eyed giants in ancient Greek mythology, who forged thunderbolts for Zeus.”

The OED’s earliest example of the word in written English is from a version of Virgil’s Aeneid translated by Gawin Douglas sometime before 1522:

“A huge pepill we se / Of Ciclopes cum hurland to the port” (“We saw a huge crowd / Of Cyclopes come rushing to the shore”).

Where did the plural “Cyclopes” come from? The OED suggests the unusual plural may have come from French, in which Cyclopes is the plural of Cyclope.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Bird play

Q: What is the origin of the unfortunate phrase “to kill two birds with one stone”? I do use it by habit, but I catch myself every time I say it.

A: We think you’re being overly sensitive about this. The expression is rarely used literally. In fact, the phrase was used figuratively when it first showed up in writing in the 1600s and it has generally been used that way ever since.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the usage as a proverbial phrase meaning “to accomplish two different purposes by the same act or proceeding.”

The earliest citation in the OED is from a 1655-56 exchange of views about free will between the philosopher Thomas Hobbes and the Anglican Bishop John Bramhall: “T. H. thinks to kill two birds with one stone, and satisfy two arguments with one answer.”

However, we’ve found an earlier example in A Complete History of the Present Seat of War in Africa Between the Spaniards and Algerines, a 1632 book by an author identified on the title page as “J. Morgan Gent.”

The gentleman writes that a Berber military chief “came resolved to kill two Birds with one Stone, return the Spaniards their Compliments, and conduct his insolent Turks, where he was certain at least some of them would be knocked on the head.”

We’ve seen quite a bit of speculation online that the expression originated in other languages—Latin, Greek, Chinese, and so on—but we’ve seen no evidence that English borrowed the usage.

A typical theory is that the expression originated with Ovid, but the closest example we’ve found in the Roman poet’s writing is the scene from Metamorphoses where Tiresias strikes two copulating snakes with a stick and is transformed into a woman.

Many online “experts” believe the usage originated in the story of Daedalus and Icarus, who escaped from the Labyrinth on Crete by making wings and flying out, according to Greek mythology.

Daedalus supposedly got the feathers to make the wings by killing two birds with one stone. However, neither Ovid nor Appolodorus, the principal sources of the myth, say anything about how Daedalus got the feathers.

In the 1600s, when the expression arrived in English, one sense of the word “bird” was a game bird, especially a partridge, according to the OED. And one sense of the term “stone” (or “gunstone”) at that time was a bullet.

A more likely explanation is that the expression was influenced by one that appeared nearly a century earlier: “to stop two gaps with one bush.”

The OED defines the earlier usage as “to accomplish two ends at once” or (you guessed it) “to kill two birds with one stone.”

The first citation for this usage is from John Heywood’s 1546 collection of proverbs: “I will learne, to stop two gaps with one bushe.”

And, with that, we’ll stop.

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How “terror” gave us “terrific”

Q: I assume “horror” gave us “horrible” and “horrific.” How then did “terror” give us “terrible” and (with a positive twist) “terrific”? Is “terrific” not rooted in “terror”? Or am I comparing apples and oranges?

A: No, you’re not comparing apples and oranges, but the etymology here isn’t quite as simple as you think. English borrowed these six words at different times from various versions of French.

Ultimately, all these words can be traced to Indo-European roots describing the way our bodies respond to fear.

The words “horror,” “horrible,” and “horrific” have their roots in the Indo-European base ghers- / ghrs- (to become stiff), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

(We discussed these “horrendous” words in a brief posting back in 2007.)

The terms “terror,” “terrible,” and “terrific,” Chambers tells us, are rooted in the Indo-European base ters- / tres- (to shake).

Those Indo-European roots gave Latin the verbs horrere (to bristle with fear) and terrere (to fill with fear), which inspired the Old French, Middle French, Anglo-Norman, and Modern French words that gave English such frightening language.

The meanings of all six words reflected their scary or hair-raising roots when they entered English from the 1300s to the 1600s, according to written examples in the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Horrific” hasn’t changed over the centuries. It was first recorded in English in 1653, the OED says, and still has its original meaning: “causing horror, horrifying.”

But “terrific” is a different story. This adjective originally meant “causing terror, terrifying; terrible, frightful; stirring, awe-inspiring; sublime.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “terrific” in this sense is from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), which describes the Serpent in Paradise as a subtle beast “with brazen Eyes And hairie Main terrific.”

In less than a century, Oxford says, “terrific” took on a weakened sense: “Of great size or intensity; excessive; very severe.”

The earliest example of this new usage in the dictionary is from a 1743 translation of Horace’s lyric poetry: “How cou’d … Porphyrion of terrific size … stand against the Warrior-goddess?”

It took another century, according to the OED citations, for “terrific” to take on the modern sense of “an enthusiastic term of commendation: amazing, impressive; excellent, exceedingly good, splendid.”

The first example of this sense is from an advertisement in the Oct. 21, 1871, issue of The Athenaeum, a journal of science and the arts:

“The last lines of the first ballad are simply terrific,—something entirely different to what any English author would dream of, much less put on paper.”

So “terrific” evolved from “terrifying” to “excessive” to “amazing” in a little over two centuries.

Meanwhile, much the same thing happened with “terribly,” the adverbial form of “terrible.” A very negative 15th-century word meaning severely or painfully had evolved by the mid-19th century into a general adverb meaning “very” or “greatly” (as in “greatly amused”).

How did all this happen? We can’t say for certain, but English is a work in progress, as we pointed out in 2012. Words take on new meanings or revive old ones; new words are born and old ones die; a slang word becomes standard; a standard word takes on a slang meaning.

The evolution of “terrific” is an example of “amelioration,” a term for when a word’s meaning is elevated. The word “pretty,” for instance, meant cunning or crafty in Old English, and didn’t come to mean attractive until the 1400s.

The term “pejoration” refers to the opposite process, when a word’s meaning is degraded. The word “crafty,” for example, meant skillful or clever in Old English, and didn’t come to mean cunning in an underhanded way until the late 1300s.

[Update. A reader sent this comment about “terrific” on Jan. 15, 2014: “Oftentimes older Irishmen would use this word only in describing a tragedy such as a ‘terrific storm.’ My Polish uncle used to relate a humorous anecdote of trying to compliment his Irish immigrant future mother-in-law by telling her ‘the meal was terrific.’ As you might imagine, confusion, hurt feelings, explanations, and apologies ensued.”]

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