English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

On the shambolic side

Q: All of a sudden, I’m seeing the word “shambolic” nearly every day in the NY Times. It’s being used to mean messy or disorganized, apparently as an adjectival version of “shambles.” What’s going on here?

A: You’re right. The word “shambolic” has shown up a lot lately in the Times—in recent weeks, for example, to describe the messy starts of both Obamacare and the Brooklyn Nets’ basketball season.

But this usage is nothing new. A search of the Times archive indicates that the word has appeared in the paper hundreds of times since William Safire first mentioned it in a March 4, 1984, On Language column.

“Of late,” Safire noted in the Times Magazine column, “our British cousins have taken to using an adjective: shambolic.”

At the time, he said, the word hadn’t appeared in any standard dictionaries. Since then, a half-dozen dictionaries in the US and the UK have included it as a slang, colloquial, or informal usage.

Lexicographers usually describe “shambolic” as a chiefly British adjective, and define it as messy, disorganized, or chaotic.

A search of Google News confirms that the word is primarily seen in British publications, though it appears to be catching on among linguistic Anglophiles in the American news media.

The earliest citation for “shambolic” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the June 18, 1970, issue of the Times of London:

“His office in Printing House Square is so impeccably tidy that it is … a standing reproach to the standard image of shambolic newspaper offices.”

Oxford describes “shambolic” as colloquial, and defines it as “chaotic, disorderly, undisciplined.” It suggests that the word may have been influenced by the adjective “symbolic.”

The OED cites a report that the word was “in common use” in 1958, but the dictionary doesn’t identify a source.

In a search of Google Books, we found a 1952 example from The Tank magazine. A description of dancers at a party remarks that “in truth one must admit there were those among us who were somewhat on the shambolic side.”

The word “shambolic,” as you’ve suggested, is derived from the noun “shambles,” which showed up in Old English in the 800s as a singular word for a footstool and later a table for selling goods.

By the early 1300s, according to OED citations, the noun “shamble” (schamil in Middle English) referred to “a table or stall for the sale of meat.”

In the 1400s, English speakers began using the word in the plural for a butcher shop or a meat market. And in the 1500s, the plural was used for a slaughterhouse.

By the late 1500s, Oxford says, the word “shambles” came to mean “a place of carnage or wholesale slaughter; a scene of blood.”

In the early 20th century, according to the OED, the word “shambles” took on its modern sense of “a scene of disorder or devastation; a ruin; a mess.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of this new usage is from Microbe Hunters, a 1926 bestseller by the microbiologist Paul Henry de Kruif: “Once more his laboratory became a shambles of cluttered flasks and hurrying assistants.”

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English English language Expression Grammar Linguistics Usage

A perfect infinitive

Q: I wonder if  Lara Logan’s grammar was correct when she apologized on 60 Minutes for using a questionable source: “It was a mistake to include him in our report.” Should she have said “to have included”? I’ve been studying modern Greek for several years, and deciphering another language makes me question my understanding of my own. Do you answer emails or should I check your blog for an answer?

A: Yes, we do directly answer the emails sent to us by readers like you. Later, we edit these questions plus our responses, and publish them on our blog. (The questioners remain anonymous.)

Now, on to your question about Lara Logan’s apology for her Oct. 27, 2013, report on 60 minutes about the attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, the year before.   

What she said in her Nov. 10, 2013, apology—“it was a mistake to include him in our report”—was grammatically correct. There was no need say “to have included” instead of “to include.”

The phrase “to have included” is a perfect infinitive, a construction that’s used in tandem with the main verb of a sentence. The perfect infinitive generally refers to an action that has happened earlier than the action of the main verb.

But in this case, the two actions were simultaneous: making the mistake and including him in the report. They amounted to the same thing.

Since there was no difference in the timing of the actions, the simple infinitive “to include” is appropriate.

The infinitive is an interesting creature. It’s a form of verb, but it functions like a noun because it refers to an action as a thing in itself.

A simple infinitive (like “to include”) is sometimes called a present infinitive, and a perfect infinitive (like “to have included”) is sometimes called a present-perfect infinitive.

But those labels are misleading because they sound like tenses. And strictly speaking, infinitives have no tense.

Infinitives do, however, take on a sense of time in relation to the main verb in the sentence.

A simple infinitive refers to an action that coincides in time with the action of the main verb. Here are some examples, with the timing indicated in brackets:

● She likes [now] to study [now].

● She liked [then] to study [then].

● She had always liked [then] to study [then].

● She would have liked [then] to study [then].

Note that the simple infinitive (“to study”) is appropriate in each sentence because the  timing of the actions referred to—the studying and the liking—are simultaneous.

A perfect infinitive, on the other hand, is appropriate when the timing of the actions is different, as in these examples:

● She appeared [then] to have studied [earlier].

● She would like [now] to have studied [then].

● She is believed [now] to have studied [then].

● She will want [later] to have studied [earlier].

● She intended [then] to have studied [at some point before now].

So in nearly all cases, the timing of the perfect infinitive and the main verb are dissimilar.

The timing matches, however, when a perfect infinitive is the subject of the sentence and the verb is what linguists call a “past counterfactual conditional”—a “would have” verb referring to an action that never happened. Here’s an example:

● “To have studied would have been wiser for her.”

Patrick J. Duffley describes the peculiar relationship between perfect infinitives and “would have” verbs in his paper “The Gerund and the to-Infinitive as Subject,” published in the Journal of English Linguistics (2003).

Here, he suggests, the perfect infinitive is used to describe “nonreal” actions “in order to situate hypothetical events before the present moment.”

We use the conjunction “if” in a similar way, he says. In effect, a perfect infinitive like “to have studied” signals a meaning similar to “if she had studied.” 

Now let’s return to Logan’s sentence on 60 Minutes: “It was a mistake to include him in our report.”

The two actions—making the mistake and including him in the report—are clearly one and the same.

They not only happened at the same time, but they’re placed in apposition (that is, they’re the equivalent of one another).

We’ve written about apposition before on our blog, including posts in 2011 and 2013.

Since for all practical purposes the two actions coincided, there was no need to use a perfect infinitive (“to have included”).

However, Logan would have been justified in using a perfect infinitive in a sentence like this: “It was wrong [in the past] to include his comments and not to have confirmed [earlier] them beforehand.”

A perfect infinitive would also have been justified if the mistake never happened: “To have included him in our report would have been wrong.”

There are a couple of other points to be made about a sentence like “It was a mistake to include him in our report.” 

Although the nominal subject is the pronoun “it,” the logical subject is the infinitive phrase “to include him in our report.”

Sometimes “it,” as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, is “placed before the verb as anticipatory ‘dummy’ subject, with the logical subject of the sentence as complement.”

Logan’s sentence is a perfect example. The word order places the logical subject—the infinitive phrase—in the position of complement. As a result, the slot of the subject must be filled, and “it” serves the purpose.

One might also write the sentence this way, putting the subject before the verb: “To include him in our report was a mistake.”

Many people don’t realize that an infinitive or infinitive phrase can function as a noun. As such, it can be the subject of a sentence—or, as we’ve written before on the blog, the object of a verb.

The OED notes that a sentence with the dummy subject “it” can have an infinitive phrase as its logical subject. Here are a few of the examples that Oxford cites:

“It was necessary to make a choice.” (From Thomas Babington Macaulay’s The History of England From the Accession of James II, 1849.)

“It has been found possible to render voting perfectly secret and to provide for a scrutiny.” (From the Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th ed., 1875.)   

“It is important to get Wheatsworth Crackers with your bowl of milk or ‘half and half.’ ” (From an ad in the New York Times, 1923.)   

“It’s hard to reconcile the control-freak in his nature with the hyper-adrenalinated kid in front of the camera.” (From a London newspaper, the Independent, 1997.)

Here are a few more examples of our own (without the “dummy” subject). 

Infinitival subjects: “To do the right thing is my ambition” … “To leave was not polite.”

Infinitival objects: “My hope was to do the right thing” … “I never intended to leave.”

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

Using “one” for “a” or “an”

Q: At a drugstore here in Hawaii we often hear over a loudspeaker the word “one” used in place of “a” or “an.” For example, “We need ONE manager in the photo department.” Is this pidgin English or does it have a basis in historical English?

A: It’s not surprising that a person living in Hawaii would hear “one” used in place of the indefinite article “a” or “an.”

This regionalism is characteristic of what linguists call Hawaii Creole English, and at least one scholar has attributed it to the influence of Cantonese.

We should mention that the dialect you’re hearing isn’t properly a pidgin—a dialect that has no native speakers, like a trading jargon used for business purposes.

Instead, linguists call it a creole because it has expanded, stabilized over time, and become a native tongue learned by children. So what was once a pidgin developed into a creole about a century ago. 

The roots of Hawaii Creole English extend back into the late 18th century, as Hawaii began to emerge as a trading and plantation center.

We won’t attempt to explain the development of this dialect, a subject much debated by linguists over the past 40 years.

It’s enough to know that many tongues besides native Hawaiian have been spoken on the islands in the last two centuries—the South Seas jargon of early sailors plus many varieties of pidgin English brought by traders and plantation workers from China, Japan, Europe, and other Pacific islands.

The feature you’ve noticed—the use of “one” as the indefinite article—was first recorded in Hawaii in 1838, according to the Australian linguist Jeff Siegel.

In his paper “Substrate Influence in Hawaii Creole English,” published in the journal Language in Society in 2000, Siegel notes that “the use of one as an ‘indefinite article’ was one of the features of Chinese Pidgin English (CPE) brought to Hawaii.”

“Pidgin Hawaiian, spoken by most Chinese in Hawaii in the 19th century, also used the numeral one (akahi) as an indefinite article (in contrast to Standard Hawaiian),” Siegel writes.

He traces this usage to Cantonese, which “optionally uses the word yat ‘one’ ” in indefinite noun phrases.

“It is likely that this feature of Cantonese accounts for the origin of the corresponding use of one in CPE [Chinese Pidgin English],” he writes, “and it could have been responsible for reinforcing its continued use in Hawaii as well.”

Two earlier scholars, John E. Reinecke and Aiko Tokimasa, have also written about “one” in place of “a” or “an” in Hawaii.

“In careless speech, one is used as the indefinite article,” they wrote in “The English Dialect of Hawaii,” published in the journal American Speech in 1934.

You also asked whether the Hawaiian usage has any basis in historical English.

As a matter of fact, there was a time when “one” served a double purpose in our language, too—it was both the number and the indefinite article.

That changed in the Middle Ages when the uses of the word were separated and the article (“a,” “an”) was split off.

You might even say that English is unusual in this respect.

In many languages the word for “one,” as John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins points out, “is used as the indefinite article, but in English the numeral one has become differentiated from the article a, an.”

“An,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, originated as an unstressed form of “one,” and “a” developed in the 1100s as the form used before a consonant.

But the differentiation between “an” and “a” didn’t become universal for quite some time.

“An” was still used before “y” and “w” (as in “an woman”) until the 1400s, Chambers says. In addition, “an” was “used before h in a stressed syllable (an hundred) down to the 1600s and is still affected occasionally before h today,” Chambers adds.

“One,” meanwhile, has three general senses in modern English:

(1) It’s an adjective meaning either the number or undivided (“one apple” … “with one voice” … “we are one”). 

(2) It’s a pronoun meaning a single person or thing (“one never knows” … “I’ll take that one” … “one of us”).

 3) It’s a noun for the number (“odds of four to one” … “one o’clock” … “chapter one”).

However, the adjective “one” is also sometimes used colloquially, the OED says, “as a more emphatic substitute for the indefinite article.”

Examples of this emphatic usage include “He’s one tough customer” and “It’s one hell of a blizzard.”

But nowadays “one” isn’t used in the ordinary sense of “a” or “an,” except in regional pockets.

The OED says it’s chiefly found in the English spoken in India, the Caribbean, and parts of the United States—namely South Carolina, Georgia, and, as you already know, Hawaii.

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English English language Grammar Usage

Black bear: phrase or noun?

Q: My daughter Maggie’s seventh-grade class has been studying the parts of a sentence. In identifying a noun, the teacher says, it should be only one word, without any adjective. So “bear” would be a noun, not “black bear.” But Maggie thinks “black bear” and other two-word animal species are nouns too. I believe she’s right, but I can’t find any rules about this. Can you help?

A: Both your daughter and her teacher are right. But they’re looking at “black bear” through different lenses.

If the intent here is to teach the kids the difference between a noun and an adjective, then the teacher is right.

The phrase “black bear” (which might be called a noun phrase) consists of the noun “bear” and the adjective “black.” It could refer to any bear that happens to be black.

But as the name of a species, “black bear” is a noun. Dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary, categorize it as a noun when it means a species.

(It can mean either the North American black bear, Ursus americanus,  or the Asian black bear, Ursus thibetanus—neither of which, by the way, is always black.)

The same is true of many other terms for particular species of animal, like “yellow warbler,” “indigo bunting,” “painted turtle,” “leopard frog,” “American toad,” and so on. They’re classified as nouns.

These terms may consist of two-word phrases, but taken as a whole they amount to a noun and are so categorized by lexicographers.

In short, there are two legitimate ways of looking at the phrase “black bear.”

The teacher is viewing it syntactically, identifying it according to its grammatical elements: adjective + noun.

Your daughter is viewing it semantically, identifying it by a specific meaning: a species of bear, not merely a bear that’s black in color.

Maybe your daughter has a future as a linguist!

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English English language Spelling Usage

Is your spell-checker a maverick?

Q: Ever since I installed the new Mavericks operating system on my Mac, I’ve been in a tussle with the new spell-checker. And the spell-checker is winning. Before, my alleged mistakes were underlined with little red dots, which I often ignored. Now, they’re simply “corrected,” never mind what I want. Well, thanks for listening to my rant.

A: Yes, spell checkers can be frustrating. We’ve had our battles with them too. Fortunately, most spell checkers let you turn off unwanted features.

We don’t have Macs, but we found a guide on the Apple website with advice on how to win tussles with the Mavericks spell-checker.

In Apple’s OS X Mavericks, according to the guide, you can disable the “Correct Spelling Automatically” feature.

In the Apple menu, go to “System Preferences,” then click on “Keyboard” and “Text.” To turn off the automatic correction feature, choose “Edit,” then “Spelling and Grammar,” and uncheck “Correct Spelling Automatically.”

As for spell-checkers, we use ours all the time but we don’t trust them. As Pat points out in Woe Is I, her grammar and usage book, spell-checkers aren’t very picky. They don’t care whether the subject is a “guerrilla” or a “gorilla.”

 “Humans, however, are picky,” Pat writes. “They notice little differences between words that sound the same (like way and weigh, or rain and reign), or words that are similar but not alike (such as not and now, or affect and effect, or how and who). To a real person, one is not just as good as another!”

The lesson?

“Don’t expect your computer to think for you. Sure, go ahead and use your checker, but don’t depend on it to catch every mistake. Word processors have dictionaries, but not common sense—at least not yet. So don’t automatically hit Replace every time the program tells you to (oar Yule bee sari).”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Is the cheese blue or bleu?

Q: I was always a snob and looked down on the poor souls who referred to “bleu cheese” as “blue cheese.”  Now “blue” seems to be the preferred spelling. Did this misspelling become acceptable because “bleu” seemed like a mistake to most Americans?

A: You’ll be dismayed to hear this, but the phrase “blue cheese” showed up in English a century and a half before the Frenchified “bleu cheese” version.

In fact, the phrase “blue cheese” may have appeared in English before fromage bleu made its appearance in French. Here’s the story.

The earliest example of the phrase “blue cheese” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an Aug. 3, 1787, entry in The Torrington Diaries, an account of John Byng Torrington’s travels in England and Wales:

“I eat to day at dinner, and at supper, some excellent blue cheese … which … resembles, both in color and taste, the blue mold of Cheshire cheese.”

It wasn’t until the 20th century that “bleu cheese” showed up. The earliest examples that we could find were from the 1940s.

A 1941 issue of the journal Dairy Industries, for example, notes that “Frenchmen are no longer particularly interested in Argentine bleu cheese.” (Argentine bleu cheese? Who knew?)

Interestingly, the only citation for “bleu cheese” in the OED is from this quip by Ogden Nash in You Can’t Get There From Here (1957): “Every time the menu lists bleu cheese I want to order fromage blue, / Don’t you?”

The earliest example of fromage bleu that we could find in a search of French works in the Google Books database was in Huit Jours d’Absence, an 1821 book by H. Saint-Thomas.

In gushing over a cheesemonger’s creations, the author writes that nous mangeon avec délices (“we eat with delight”) the delicacies from the marchand de fromage bleu (“the blue-cheese merchant”).

But even if it turns out that there are earlier examples of fromage bleu out there, we see no reason why an English speaker should refer to all blue cheeses as “bleu cheeses.”

The three best-known blue cheeses are probably Roquefort (French), Gorgonzola (Italian), and Stilton (English).

It would be just as silly to refer to Gorgonzola as a “bleu cheese” or un fromage bleu as it would be to use either term for Stilton.

As for Roquefort, why shouldn’t an American (good speller or bad) call it a “blue cheese”? After all, the cheese is French, not the speaker.

Update: A French reader of the blog points out that “we rarely say fromage bleu. Instead, we say bleu, du bleu, or bleu de [place where it was made].”

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English English language Etymology Pronunciation Spelling Usage Word origin

How Jesus got his name

Q: In preparation for an upcoming lecture, I would be interested in knowing if you have any details about how the name of Jesus came into English. Specifically, how did it come to be pronounced so differently from the original Greek/Latin?

A: Jesus was first referred to in Old English as hǽlend, or “savior” (the word wasn’t capitalized). The name we now spell “Jesus” didn’t come into our language until the early Middle English period (1150-1250).

But even then, it wasn’t spelled “Jesus.”

In its earliest written form, the name didn’t end in “s” and didn’t begin with “j” (the letter “j” didn’t exist at the time). The name was spelled “iesu” (names weren’t capitalized then). 

Before getting any further into how the spelling developed in English, let’s take a little detour into the etymology of “Jesus.”

The name came into English from the Latin Iesus, a Roman transliteration of the Greek Iesous.

It had come into Greek from the late Hebrew or Aramaic Yeshua, which was a common name for Jewish boys at the time of Jesus’s birth.

(We’ve capitalized the names here, though proper nouns were treated the same as common nouns in classical Latin and Greek, as well as in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic.)

Yeshua, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, came from the earlier y’hoshua, which can be translated as “God (Yahweh) is salvation” or “God saves.” (Other forms of this name include Yehoshua, Jehoshua, and Joshua.)

The name was first recorded in English as “iesu” around 1175, as part of “iesu cristes” in a book of homilies. The name was written in lowercase letters then, but we’ll follow the modern convention and capitalize it from now on.  

The absence of a final “s” was an influence of Old French, the OED says. “Iesu” represented the Old French objective form of the Latin Iesus, and that was the form that came into Middle English and was used for some 400 years.

The spelling “Iesus,” representing the Latin nominative form, was rarely used in Middle English but became the regular English spelling in the 16th century, according to Oxford.

As we mentioned above, “Jesus” wasn’t originally spelled with a “j” because the letter didn’t exist at the time. The “j” showed up in English, the OED says, as “a comparatively late modification of the letter I.”

The sound itself—the “j” we hear in words like “judge” and “jail”—is relatively new as these things go. Here’s how it developed.

In the ancient Roman alphabet, the letter “i” had two sounds—it was a vowel, but also a consonant sounding like “y.”

Sometime before the sixth century, as the OED explains, this “y” sound in Latin and other languages using the Roman alphabet began changing into a “consonantal diphthong.”

This blend of the consonant sounds “d” and “y” (similar to the sound heard in the English words “odious” and “hideous”) gradually passed into what we now know as the “j” sound.

The result, Oxford says, was that from the 11th to the 17th centuries the  letter “i” had two extremely different sounds—it was both a vowel and a consonant sounding like “j.”

Meanwhile, according to the OED, the guttural letter “g” was undergoing its own evolution, and began to develop a “softer” sound, similar to that of the modern “j.”

Clearly, European printers needed a new letter for a sound hitherto represented by both “i” and “g.” Thus “j,” looking in its lowercase form like an “i” with a tail, appeared—first in 15th-century Spanish and later in other languages using the Roman alphabet.

The new letter became established in English in the mid-1600s, too late for the 1611 King James Version of the Bible.

The earliest example in the OED of the “Jesus” spelling is from a 1632 case in the Court of High Commission, the supreme ecclesiastic court in England at that time:

“That we are as carefull in printeing the Bible as they are of their Jesus’ psalter.”

We couldn’t find any earlier examples in a search of Google Books, but we did find several others from the 1600s.

Although the “differentiation of I and J, in form and value” was completed by 1640, the OED notes, “the feeling that they were, notwithstanding, merely forms of the same letter continued for many generations.”

By the way, “Christ” is not Jesus’s last name. Jews in his time had only one name.

As we’ve written before on the blog, “Christ” is a title meaning “anointed one,” an Anglicized version of the Greek Kristos and the Latin Christus. Originally the first vowel had a short “i” sound, as in “mist.”

In another post, we’ve pointed out that the term “Xmas” has been around for hundreds of years. No, it’s not a modern creation that represents the secularization and/or commercialization of Christmas.

In fact, the use of “X” for “Christ” began nearly a thousand years ago. But you can’t blame secularists. Blame the monks in Great Britain who used “X” for “Christ” while transcribing manuscripts in Old English.

Why “X”? Because the Greek word for Christ, ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, begins with the letters “chi” (or “X”) and “rho” (or “P”). And the monks used either “X” or “XP” in writing as an abbreviation for “Christ.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

The nowness of “right now”

Q: Whence cometh “right now”?  Our newscasters in Detroit use it all the time and this drives me batty. What’s wrong with just plain old “now”? Any light you can shed would be appreciated.

A: Just about any usage can get on one’s nerves if used too much, but we don’t believe “right” is redundant in the adverbial phrase “right now.”

Here the adverb “right” is an intensifier that emphasizes the nowness—the sense of being in the present—of the adverb “now.”

In fact, the word “right” has been used for emphasis since the earliest days of Old English, the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons.

It’s used in the sense of “exactly” or “precisely” to modify such words as “now,” “then,” “here,” and “there,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the early days, the OED says, the adverb “right” was used as both a “premodifier” (as in “right anon,” “right now,” or “right then”) and a “postmodifier” (as in “anon-right,” “now right,” or “here-right”).   

As it turns out, the word “right” follows “now” in the dictionary’s earliest example of the usage you’re asking about.

In The Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated manuscript that may date from as early as the year 700, the phrase is written as nu reht in Old English.

In case you’re interested, the ultimate source of the word “right” is the Indo-European base reg- (to move in a straight line), according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

That same prehistoric Indo-European root has given English, via Latin, such words as “regal,” “royal,” “rectangle,” “rectify,” “rectitude,” and “rectum.”

Yes, “rectum.” As Ayto explains, “rectum” is short for rectum intestinum or “straight intestine”—a term “contrasting the rectum with the convolutions of the remainder of the intestines.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Pungent Grains of Titillating Dust

Q: Does the expression “up to snuff” come from the stuff people used to stick up their noses? I don’t see the connection.

A: Yes, the expression almost certainly comes from the pinches of powdered tobacco that people used to inhale (or snuff) through their nostrils.

Although we haven’t found a smoking gun that definitely proves tobacco is the source of the expression, the available evidence is pretty conclusive. Here’s the story.

When the word “snuff” entered English in the late 1300s, it was a noun that referred to the burnt part of the wick on a candle, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first citation in the OED is from the Wycliffe Bible of around 1382: “Candelquenchers, and … where the snoffes ben quenchid.”

In the mid-1400s, a verb “snuff” showed up and meant to cut off the burnt part of the wick with a special tool.

The earliest example in the OED is from a 1465 reference in Manners and Household Expenses of England in the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (1841): “Item, the same day my master bowt a snoffer to snoffe wyth candeles.”

In the 17th century, the verb “snuff” came to mean to extinguish, as in this citation from a 1687 French-English dictionary by Guy Miege: “To snuff out the Candle.”

And in the 20th century, the verb took on its gangland sense of to kill, as in this cite from When the Gangs Came to London, a 1932 crime novel by Edgar Wallace: “Eddie would have snuffed out Cora.”

The verb “snuff” took on its nasal meaning (“to draw up or in through the nostrils by the action of inhalation”) in the 1500s, according to the OED.

In the late 1600s, the dictionary says, the noun “snuff”  came to mean “a preparation of powdered tobacco for inhaling through the nostrils.”

“The practice of taking snuff appears to have become fashionable about 1680, but prevailed earlier in Ireland and Scotland,” the dictionary notes.

The OED traces the English word to the Dutch and Flemish terms for snuffing tobacco, snuf or snuif, apparently an abbreviation of snuiftabak.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a 1683 issue of the London Gazette: James Norcock, Snuffmaker and Perfumer … sells all sorts of Snuffs, Spanish and Italian.” 

Getting back to your question, when the expression “up to snuff” showed up in English in the early 1800s, it meant “knowing, sharp, not easily deceived.”

The OED’s first citation is from John Poole’s play Hamlet Travestie (1810), a parody on Shakespeare: “Zooks, he’s up to snuff.”

The dictionary’s next citation, from Pierce Egan’s 1823 revision of Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), offers the best clue to the source of the expression: “Up to snuff, and a pinch above it.”

That pinch is clearly alluding to the use of the powdered tobacco. But why would the use of snuff suggest someone who’s “knowing, sharp, not easily deceived”—the original sense of the expression?

Some wordsmiths have offered the explanation that snuff was expensive and used by rich—and presumably wise—people. But we don’t buy that theory.

We think the original sense of the expression simply referred to the exhilarating feeling one got from a hit of snuff, or, as Alexander Pope referred to it in his poem The Rape of the Lock (1714), the “pungent Grains of titillating Dust.”

It’s not clear from the OED citations when “up to snuff” got its modern sense (“up to the required or usual standard, up to scratch”).

The first clear-cut example in the dictionary is from a Nov. 4, 1931, issue of Punch: “Now Romney painted well enough, / And Reynolds too, they say, / And Gainsborough’s things are up to snuff, / And Lawrence had his day.”

However, we’d suggest that Pierce Egan’s 1823 citation above (“Up to snuff, and a pinch above it”) may have used the expression in its modern sense.

And Charles Dickens may have used it in the modern sense too when he put these words in the mouth of Sam Weller in The Pickwick Papers (1836): “Up to snuff and a pinch or two over—eh?”

We’ll let the lexicographer John Ayto have the last word on “snuff.”

In his Dictionary of Word Origins, Ayto says the word “snuff” in all its senses probably goes back to a prehistoric Germanic base “imitative of the sound of drawing air in noisily through the nose.”

How, you may ask, does the word’s candle sense have anything to do with its nasal sense?

It seems that to “snot,” an obsolete verb, once meant to put out a candle as well as to blow one’s nose.

And that, Ayto says, suggests that the candle sense of the word “may ultimately have connections with the inner workings of the nose (possibly a perceived resemblance between an extinguished candlewick and a piece of nasal mucus).”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

“After a while” vs. “in a while”

Q: I recently moved from the East Coast to the West Coast. I have noticed that people out West say, “after a while” in situations where I would say, “in a while.” Which is grammatically correct? This is really bothering me!

A: Bother yourself no longer. There’s very little difference between “in a while” and “after a while,” and for the most part they’re interchangeable.

We’ve never heard of a regional preference for one or the other. English speakers seem to choose one or the other at will. Generally, your ear will choose one for you.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that the noun phrase “a while” means “a time, esp. a short or moderate time,” and that it’s used chiefly with the prepositions “after,” “for,” and “in.”

Although the two expressions are generally used the same way, their literal meanings are different.

Here the word “in” means “within limits of space, time, condition, circumstances, etc.,” the OED says. So the literal meaning of “in a while” is within the limits of a short or moderate time.

And “after” in reference to time means “subsequent to, following the interval of, at the conclusion of (a period of time),” the OED says. So “after a while” literally means following a short or moderate time.

But for all practical purposes, the two expressions amount to the same thing, since the time referred to is so nebulous. It’s of little consequence whether something occurs within or following a time that’s general and unspecified.

However, you might prefer one version over the other in certain circumstances—or even for psychological reasons.

For example, agreeing to do a task “in a while” sounds more accommodating than agreeing to do it “after a while.”

And in certain constructions, “in” is more idiomatic—“once in a while” … “see you in a while.” But in others, “after” might seem more natural—“After a while, the pain subsided” …  “After a while, we decided to leave.”

Both “in a while” and “after a while” have been common English phrases for hundreds of years.

“In a while” and the now obsolete “within a while” were first recorded about 1380, the OED says. “After a while” first showed up in 1526.

And after a while, the expressions became almost automatic.

While we’re at it, you might be interested in a post we ran back in 2006 about “a while” versus “awhile,” and a post in 2008 about the use of “while” to mean “although,” “whereas,” or “during the time that.”

In the earlier post, we mention that “while” comes from a prehistoric Indo-European root meaning “rest” or “repose,” and it entered Old English from Germanic sources. It can be a noun, a conjunction, or a verb, as in this sentence:

“For a while, we whiled away our time while answering your question.” 

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Is Brooklyn a brand?

Q: I’m catching up on some WNYC podcasts and just heard Pat and Lennie discuss the affection for (dare I call it the “brand”) Brooklyn. This is nothing new, of course. When I studied Russian poetry, I read “I Love You Brooklyn Bridge” by Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930). I can’t find any reference to the poem online, unfortunately.

A: Yes, Pat discussed the expansive use of the term “brand” during her appearance in November on the Leonard Lopate Show. She and Lennie, as you mention, noted that Brooklyn had become a “brand” both here and in Europe.

Parisians, for example, speak of hip things as being très Brooklyn. Swedes in particular seem to love Brooklyn and Brooklyn-made products.

(Business Week reported in October that outside of New York, the biggest market for the craft beer made by Brooklyn Brewery is Sweden.)

By the way, Mayakovsky’s 1925 poem (it’s called simply “Brooklyn Bridge”) is included in Writing New York, a 1998 anthology edited by Lennie’s brother, the essayist and poet Phillip Lopate.

“Mayakovsky, who promoted the legend of himself as a larger-than-life Bolshevik dynamo, salutes the bridge as one outsized force to another,” Phillip writes in his introduction to the poem.

Getting back to the subject of branding, when we say Brooklyn is a brand, we’re using “brand” in the sense of a public image, not just a name or logo that identifies a company or product. In other words, “brand” has jumped the corporate fence.

Today, Brooklyn isn’t alone in being called a “brand.” These days, colleges and universities, sororities and fraternities, hospitals and libraries—even churches!—refer on their web pages to what they call “our brand.”

But perhaps the most ubiquitous new “brands” are people. Celebrities—artists, authors, chefs, architects, entertainers, and athletes—have all been called “brands.”

We’re told, for instance, that Beyoncé is a now a global brand. Oprah is a brand. Madonna is restoring her brand. The tennis star Maria Sharapova is building a brand.

We read about the damage to the Lance Armstrong brand, or the Paula Deen brand, or the Miley Cyrus brand.

Even part of you can become a brand. The Bollywood actor Ram Kapoor, who’s a little portly, has said he doesn’t want to get slimmer because “my physique has become a brand.”

A recent article in the New York Times referred to the “Kardashian brand,” and said Kim Kardashian’s brand may conflict with the brand of her boyfriend Kanye West (though he’s publicly said, “I love her brand”).

“ ‘Brand’ is an overused word,” wrote the Times reporter, Alessandra Stanley, “but it is so imprinted on the ethos of entertainment that those who have one no longer distinguish between a private label and a personal identity.”

What “brand” means in this sense, as we’ve said, is something like public image. It means what pops into people’s minds when they hear your name.

And as one WNYC listener wrote to Pat after the broadcast, the use of “brand” also means you have something to sell.

Clearly, the word “brand” has come a long way in the last millennium or so.

When it first showed up in Beowulf as bronde, as far back as the eight century, it meant fire or destruction by fire, according the Oxford English Dictionary.

At around the same time, the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says, it was used in the sense of a piece of burning wood or a sword, probably because of the glint of light flashing off the blade.

Later, in the 16th century, “brand” came to mean the mark made by burning something with a hot iron, either to cauterize a wound or as a proof of possession.

Because criminals were sometimes branded, the word “brand” took on a figurative sense in the late 16th century—a  mark of disgrace or infamy.

The use of “brand” as a verb or noun in reference to the marking of cattle or horses originated in 17th-century colonial America, according to the OED.

The modern sense of “brand” as a trademark emerged in the 18th century. Oxford says this use of “brand” originally meant a mark, imprinted by burning or some other means, on a cask of wine or other product.

Then in 19th century, a brand came to mean a product carrying such a mark or name.  Later in that same century, as an outgrowth of the trademark usage, “brand” was used to mean kind or type, as in a “brand of humor.”

 It wasn’t until the 1950s that advertising companies began selling clients on the idea of the “brand image”—the image their advertising created in the minds of consumers. While this was usually applied to commercial products, it was sometimes also used in reference to people.

Of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked, only The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) recognizes a meaning close to public image.

The AH entry for “brand” has this as one of its senses: “An association of positive qualities with a widely recognized name, as of a product line or celebrity.”

As for the phrase “brand-new,” it doesn’t mean so new that the label is still attached. (It also isn’t written “bran new,” without the “d,” supposedly because new and fragile items were often packed in bran.)

As we’ve written on the blog, “brand-new” is a 16th-century expression that means “as if fresh and glowing from the furnace.” The “brand” referred to was a piece of iron glowing in the flames (Shakespeare used the phrase “fire-new”).

You didn’t ask, but we’ll end with a question of our own: where did English get the word “brand”?

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the ultimate source is the ancient German root bran- or bren-, which has given us such fiery words as “burn,” “brandy,” and perhaps “broil.”

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“Jail” versus “gaol”

Q: I’m a native Polish speaker who’s learning vocabulary by solving English crosswords. During a coffee break at work, the clue “prison” suggested “jail” for these four spaces: “_A_L.” This sparked a debate with a British friend over “gaol” vs. “jail.” Your thoughts?

A: Both spellings have been around for hundreds of years. The traditional spelling has been “gaol” in Britain and “jail” in the United States.

Although “gaol” is still acceptable in Britain, it’s now considered a variant spelling of “jail” on both sides of the Atlantic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary and the four standard British dictionaries we’ve checked.

As Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) explains, “gaol, gaoler, the traditional spellings in the UK, are now under severe and probably unstoppable pressure from jail, jailer, which are dominant in most other parts of the English-speaking world.”

Both pairs—“gaol, gaoler” and “jail, jailer”—are pronounced the same way, which leads to this question: why do the British have a “gaol” spelling if the word is pronounced “jail”?

The short answer, according to Oxford Dictionaries online, is that the word “gaol” was “originally pronounced with a hard g, as in goat.” Here’s a fuller answer.

“Etymologically, a jail is a ‘little cage,’ ” John Ayto says in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto explains that the English word is ultimately derived from caveola, a diminutive of cavea, Latin for cage (and the source of the English word “cage”).

Why do we have two spellings? Because Middle English (the language spoken from about 1100 to 1500) adopted two distinct versions of the word from French.

The “gaol” version comes from the Norman French gaiole or gaole, the OED says, while “jail” comes from the Old Parisian French jaiole or jaile.

Early versions of “gaol” (like gayhol and gayhole) first showed up in English in the 1200s, while early versions of “jail” (iaiole and iayll) appeared in the 1300s, according to Oxford citations.

“Until the 17th century,” Ayto writes, “gaol was pronounced with a hard /g/ sound, but then it gradually fell into line with jail.”

The two versions of the word were spelled all sorts of ways in Middle English, when our language had no letter “j”: gayhol, gayhole, gayll, gaylle, gaille, gayole, and so on. The “gaol” and “jail” spellings first showed up in the 1600s.

The OED describes “gaol” as an “archaic spelling” that’s still seen in writing “chiefly due to statutory and official tradition” in Britain. However, the dictionary adds that “this is obsolete in the spoken language, where the surviving word is jail.”

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Does “attendee” bug you?

Q: I hate “attendee,” which I’ve heard for 30 years but see has been noticed since 1937. Not quite sure why I hate it so much, but just do.

A: Well, “attendee” is an odd bird. The “-ee” suffix in English often indicates someone on the receiving end—“payee,” “endorsee,” “lessee,” “legatee,” and so on.

But the suffix sometimes plays a more active role, as in words like “devotee,” “debauchee,” “refugee,” etc. And it’s sometimes used in jest—the victim of a “jokester” may be referred to as a “jokee.”

You may find it annoying, but  we can’t think of a better term than “attendee” for someone who attends a meeting, conference, or other event: “attender”? “attendant”? Nah!

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) cites 1937 as the “first known use of attendee,” but we’ve found quite a few earlier examples of the usage.

For example, the January 1914 diary of the business fraternity Alpha Kappa Psi includes an announcement by its NYU chapter for a dinner dance on Feb. 11:

“The dance is being held on the eve of a holiday, namely, Lincoln’s Birthday. This is an excellent arrangement and permits of the attendees resting late next morn and reviving their tired spirits.”

M-W Collegiate defines “attendee” as “a person who is present on a given occasion or at a given place (attendees at a convention).”

Interestingly, the earliest example of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary is a 1961 citation from the granddaddy of M-W dictionaries, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged.

But we’ll skip to the next (and far more entertaining) example, from The Swinging Set (1967), by William Breedlove and Jerrye Breedlove: “The only attendees who bother with clothes.”

The OED says the usage originated in the US and is chiefly American. However, a third of the dictionary’s citations are from British sources, including this one from the April 3, 1980, issue of the Financial Times:

“Some attendees view this flexibility as an opportunity to negotiate favourable terms.”

You may hate the word “attendee,” but you’ll have a hard time avoiding it. We got over four million hits when we googled it. Unless a better word comes along, you’re stuck with it.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

A “thank you” note

Q: I’m designing a client brochure that includes thanks from numerous folks. The heading reads: “Season’s Greeting and thank you’s from our scholars.” Is the use of “thank you’s” OK? Doesn’t this make it possessive, not plural? But without the apostrophe, “thank yous” looks typically “Jersey” to me!

A: We see no reason why “thank you” has to be pluralized here. But if you want to use the plural, a phrase like “thank you” is pluralized by simply adding the letter “s.”

We agree, though, that “thank yous” looks a bit odd. It might look less so if you added a hyphen (“thank-yous”) or capital letters (“Thank Yous”) or perhaps both (“Thank-Yous”).

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), which hyphenates “thank-you,” gives this plural example: “said their thank-yous and departed.”

Although you may raise a few eyebrows with the use of “thank yous,” you’ll raise a lot more by using “Season’s Greeting” rather than the more idiomatic “Season’s Greetings.”

If we were writing the heading for that brochure, we’d go with this: “Season’s Greetings and Thank You from our scholars.”

As for the Jerseyism you mentioned, we had an item on our blog some time ago about “yous,” “yinz,” “yez,” “y’all,” and other nonstandard plural forms of “you.”

We also had a post around the same time about why some people respond to “thank you” with a “thank you” of their own instead of “you’re welcome.”

And if you’re not thanked-out by now, you might be interested in our views about the expression “thank you kindly.”

Getting back to “thank you” itself, the Oxford English Dictionary says it showed up in Middle English as a short form of the expression “I thank you.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from Why I Can’t Be a Nun, a poem from the 1400s that criticizes religious institutions:

“ ‘Thanke yow, lady,’ quod I than. ‘And thereof hertely I yow pray.’ ” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

The use of “thank you” as a noun phrase referring to an expression of gratitude appeared in the late 1700s, according to OED citations.

The first citation is from a 1792 journal entry by the English novelist Fanny Burney: “He looked even extremely gratified … & Bowed expressively a thank you.”

The earliest example of the noun phrase used in the plural is from the Aug. 21, 1894, issue of the Westminster Gazette:

“The majority of passengers retreated from the tables regardless of their running fire of ‘thankyous,’ which were thankyous for nothing.”

The phrase is hyphenated in this example from the Sept. 1, 1900, issue of the Westminster Gazette:  “We had not said nearly enough ‘thank-yous.’ ”

As for “season’s greetings,” the earliest references we’ve found in Google Books are from the mid-19th century. We’ll end with this example from a Dec. 29, 1860, item in the Medical and Surgical Reporter, a weekly journal in Philadelphia:

“We offer our readers, far and near, the season’s greetings — of a Christmas gone and the New Year dawning. Much of hope and good cheer we want all; for ourselves, for our profession, for our country.”

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Generally speaking

Q: I’m puzzled by the phrase “in general.” I assume “general” is the object of the preposition “in,” but can an adjective be an object? I looked up “general” but found no noun form that references generality.

A: The adverbial phrase “in general” is an idiom, a peculiarity of language that doesn’t necessarily have to make sense grammatically. In this case, though, it does.

As it turns out, there is a noun form of “general” that refers to generality, as in this example: “Politicians prefer to speak about the general, not the particular.”

Hence, we have the adverbial phrases “in general” and “in particular.”

When the word “general” showed up in English around 1200, it was an adjective describing a whole class of things or people. But by the 1300s, it was also a noun meaning a whole class of things or people.

We won’t comment here on the use of “general” in military and civilian titles. We’ve already had several posts on the subject, including one in 2012 that links to a couple of others.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the word “general” is derived from the Latin generalis, which means all of a whole class, but the ultimate source is a prehistoric Indo-European root that refers to producing—that is, making or creating things.

This Indo European root (gen-, gon-, gn-) was very productive itself, as Ayto points out in his dictionary.

It gave Latin genus, the source of generalis, and English (via Latin or Greek) such words as “gender,” “generate,” “generic,” “genesis,” “genital,” “genocide, and “gonorrhea” (literally, flow of semen).

In its “general” entry, the OED has a section on the use of the noun in various adverbial phrases, including “as to the general” (generally), “for the general” (for the most part), and “in the general” (generally). All those are now considered obsolete.

The adverbial phrase “in general” showed up in the 1300s, when it meant universally as well as generally, but Oxford says the universal sense is now obsolete. (In post-classical Latin, in generale or in generali meant without specific reference.)

Here’s an example of the general sense of “in general” from Thomas More’s Dialogue Concerning Heresies (1529): “Somwhat wold I speke of Luther, & his secte ingenerall.”

In the early 1500s, the phrase “in general” took on the meaning of “for the most part; as a general rule; commonly, usually,” according to the OED.

Here’s an example from Pylgrimage of Perfection, a 1526 religious treatise by the monk and author William Bonde:

“I shall in general, gather certayne scrappes & cromes that holy doctors hath left behynde them in writyng.”

In contemporary English, “in general” generally means generally—that is, usually, mainly, or overall.

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Let’s get kinky!

Q: We’ve had the Fierstein-Lauper take on Kinky Boots. How about Grammarphobia’s take on “kinky”?

A: We’re fans of Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper, but we haven’t seen their musical about a drag queen who helps save a struggling shoe factory. From what we’ve read, it’s a lot of fun (though not all that kinky).

As for the adjective “kinky,” it has a twisted history that begins in Old Icelandic nearly a thousand years ago.

The ultimate source of the adjective, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, is kikna, a word in Old Icelandic that meant to bend at the knees.

Chambers says the term passed through Middle Low German (kinke) into Dutch (kink), where it came to mean a twist in a rope.

When English borrowed the term from Dutch in the 1600s, it referred to a twist or curl in thread, rope, hair, and so on, according to the etymology dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest written example of the noun “kink” in English is from a 1678 edition of The New World of Words, a dictionary compiled by Edward Phillips:

Keenk (in Navigation), is when a Rope which should run smooth in the Block, hath got a little turn, and runs as it were double.”

In the early 1800s, according to the OED, the term took on various figurative meanings, including an odd notion (that is, a mental twist) and an odd but clever way of doing something.

One of the earliest examples of the figurative usage is from a Nov. 24, 1803, letter by Thomas Jefferson:

“Should the judges take a kink in their heads in favor of leaving the present laws of Louisiana unaltered.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation.)

In the mid-20th century, according to Oxford, “kink” took on a new twist:

“A sexually abnormal person; one who practises sexual perversions; loosely, an eccentric, a person wearing noticeably unusual clothes, behaving in a startling manner, etc.”

The earliest OED citation for this new sense is from the January 1965 issue of Harper’s Bazaar: “His phone is ex-directory because of all the kinks who used to phone at 2 a.m.”

Returning to your question about “kinky,” we’ll have to back up a bit.

When the adjective “kinky” showed up in English in the 1800s, Oxford says, it meant “having, or full of, kinks; closely curled or twisted: said esp. of the hair of some races.”

The first OED example—from a Jan. 6, 1844, entry in the Congressional Globe, a predecessor of the Congressional Record—is a reference to a black person’s “kinkey” hair.

In the late 1800s, the adjective took on the sense of odd or eccentric. The earliest OED example of this sense is from the Jan. 2, 1889, issue of the Sportsman magazine:

“The kinky ones and the worthy ones who play hole-and-corner with society.”

Here’s a clearer example from The Longest Journey, a 1907 novel by E. M. Forster: “This jaundiced young philosopher, with his kinky view of life, was too much for him.”

In the mid-20th century, the OED says, the adjective “kinky” came to describe someone “given to sexual behaviour regarded as strange or unconventional.”

The dictionary’s first example is from Colin MacInnes’s 1959 novel Absolute Beginners: Suze … meets lots of kinky characters … and acts as agent for me getting orders from them for my pornographic photos.”

The adjective soon took on the sense that’s being used in the title of the Fierstein-Lauper musical: “Of a thing (esp. clothing): sexually provocative in an unconventional way (e.g. kinky boots).”

Here’s an OED example from the 1963 issue of The Annual Register, a British reference that summarizes each year’s events:

“It was the year … that women adopted the fashionable long ‘kinky’ boot.”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

The “cur” in “curmudgeon”

Q: What is the origin of the word “curmudgeon”?

A: Nobody knows, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of word detectives from speculating about it. And some of the speculations are less speculative than others. Here’s the story.

When the word “curmudgeon” first showed up in English in the late 1500s, it referred to a grasping, avaricious man.

But the online Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged describes that sense as archaic, and it says the word now means “a crusty, ill-tempered, or difficult and often elderly person.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of the usage (spelled “curmudgen”) is from the Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577), a history of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

But let’s skip ahead to a more colorful example from Christ’s Tears Over Jerusalem, a 1593 pamphlet written by the playwright Thomas Nashe: “Our English Cormogeons, they haue breasts, but giue no suck.”

Although Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged says the origin of “curmudgeon” is unknown, the OED discusses several theories about the word’s etymology.

The appearance of the word “cornmudgin” in Philemon Holland’s 1600 translation of the works of Livy, Oxford says, has led to suggestions that the term originally referred to someone who hides or hoards corn (that is, grain).

The “-mudgin” part of “cornmudgin,” according to this theory, was derived from a Middle English term meaning to steal or an Old French term meaning to conceal or hide away.

The OED reminds us, however, that “curmudgen,” the “corn”-less version of the word in Holinshed’s Chronicles, “was in use a quarter of a century before Holland’s date.”

The dictionary suspects “that cornmudgin is apparently merely a nonce-word of Holland’s, a play upon corn and curmudgeon.” (A nonce word is one used for the nonce—that is, for a specific occasion.)

The OED also debunks Samuel Johnson’s suggestion that “curmudgeon” may be an English corruption of the French phrase cœur méchant , or malicious heart. (In his 1755 dictionary, Johnson attributes the idea to “an unknown correspondent.”)

The Oxford editors are more open to the theory that the first syllable of “curmudgeon” may reflect the word “cur,” which can refer to a despicable or cowardly person as well as a vicious or undesirable dog.  

“The suggestion that the first syllable is cur, the dog, is perhaps worthy of note,” the dictionary says.

In case you’re curious, English borrowed the word “cur” in the 1200s from other Germanic languages where similar terms meant to growl, snarl, or grumble.

“The primary sense appears thus to have been ‘growling or snarling beast,’ ” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest citation, from the Ancrene Riwle (circa 1225), an anonymous guide for monastic women, uses “cur” in a compound noun: “Þe dogge of helle … þefule cur dogge.” Modern English: “The dog of hell … the foul cur dog.”

And, finally, here’s a figurative example, from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600), in which “cur” is used to refer to a man: “Out dog, out curre: thou driu’st me past the bounds / Of maidens patience.”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

“Grate” expectations

Q: When you’re grateful, what exactly are you full of?

A: You’re full of gratitude, of course. But what you’re really asking is, what is “grate”?

The “grate” that a “grateful” person is full of, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, “is a now obsolete adjective, meaning ‘pleasing’ and ‘thankful.’ ”

The old modifier—derived from gratus, a Latin adjective meaning agreeable, pleasing, or thankful—had its heyday in the 1500s and 1600s, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Grateful is a curious sort of adjective,” Ayto writes. “It is unusual for adjectives ending in -ful themselves to be formed from adjectives, and it has been suggested in this case that the related Italian gradevole  ‘pleasing’ may have had some influence.”

The OED notes that the Italian word was also spelled gratevole, and that the English usage may have been influenced by “an accidental resemblance” between the Italian -vole and the English “-ful” endings.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Oxford says, “grateful” was one of several new words that showed up in English with adjectives attached to the suffix “-ful.” Others were “direful,” “tristful,” and “fierceful.”

The Latin adjective gratus has given English several other words, including “gratify,” “gratitude,” and “gratuity.” And the related Latin noun gratia (grace, kindness) has given English “grace” and “gratis.”

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A past that isn’t perfect

Q: I teach English as a foreign language. My students have a good grasp of the past perfect, but they’re freaking out at this sentence: “They arrived before the game had ended.” Shouldn’t a past-perfect action (the game) happen BEFORE the other action, not after?  How do I explain this grammatically? Or is it, in fact, incorrect?

A: This construction is legitimate, even though the chronology seems mysterious on close examination. The key to the mystery, as we’ll explain later, is the word “before.” 

As your students know, when we refer to two events that happened at different times in the past, we use different tenses—like the simple past tense (“arrived”) along with the past perfect (“had ended”).

Normally, the more recent event is described in the simple past tense and the more distant event in the past perfect. This clarifies the sequence of events.

Here’s an example of a normal chronology: “Steve had finished [past perfect] the book, so he returned [past] it yesterday.”

Even if we reverse the sentence—“Steve returned [past] the book yesterday because  he had finished [past perfect] it”—we know the finishing happened before the returning.

The past perfect tips us off that an action happened further back in time than one described in the simple past. A linguist would say the past perfect is “anterior” to the simple past.

But here’s the catch. When the past-perfect event is introduced by the word “before,” as in the sentence that puzzled your students, the chronology seems to go awry. 

Consider this sentence: “The library asked [past] for the book before he had finished [past perfect] it.”

Note that the event described in the simple past (the asking) comes before the one described in the past perfect (the finishing).

Logic tells us that the past-perfect event should chronologically precede the one in the simple past. But in fact the asking here happened first—the word “before” is staring us in the face.

The relationship between the two events may look screwy but in fact it’s not. That’s because the finishing of the book should have happened by that time but it didn’t. What was expected didn’t actually get done.

When we invent similar examples (“They left before we had eaten” … “He knew her before she had married Edgar” … “We drank the wine before it had been properly aerated”), the same notion is at work. The use of the past perfect here has little to do with the real chronology of events.

In grammatical terms, it appears that the use of the past perfect in cases like these isn’t so much temporal (having to do with time) as modal (having to do with what’s contrary to, or other than, simple fact). 

As it turns out, we’ve found some academic writing on this subject, much of it by Renaat Declerck, professor emeritus of English linguistics at the University of Leuven in Belgium.

Declerck delivered a paper on the subject before an international linguistics conference in France in 2004. The article was later collected in a book of essays, Modality in English (2009), edited by Raphael Salkie and others.

In his paper, “ ‘Not-Yet-Factual at Time t’: A Neglected Modal Concept,” Declerck says the degrees of factuality generally recognized in linguistic literature range from factual to probable to possible to improbable to false.

He says linguists have rarely discussed another state of factuality—“the special use of the past perfect in (what I call) not-yet-factual before-clauses.”

In the sentence “She read the letter before I had read it,” Declerck says, “the function of using the anteriorized form had read … is therefore to bring not-yet-factuality into focus.”

In other words, the use of the past perfect emphasizes the idea that the event hadn’t yet come to pass—that it wasn’t yet a fact.

As Declerck explains, the “had”-less version is “weakly not-yet-factual” while the one with “had” is “strongly not-yet-factual.”

Two other linguists, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, have a somewhat different  take on the difference between the “had” and “had”-less versions of these “before” clauses.

In The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Huddleston and Pullum consider this example: “She left the country before she [wrote/had written] her thesis.”

The “had”-less version, they write, “indicates that the leaving preceded the whole of the thesis writing” while the “had” version “allows (and indeed suggests) that she had started writing when she left.”

As you can see, we’re dealing here with a subtle difference—one that’s viewed somewhat differently by the few linguists who’ve written about it.

Our feeling—and we’re not linguists—is that the use of the past perfect in these “before” clauses simply emphasizes the incompleteness of the event.

It’s true that your sentence—“They arrived before the game had ended”—could have been written entirely in the simple past instead: “They arrived before the game ended.”

But the use of two different tenses emphasizes the fact that the game was incomplete when they arrived.

We hope this sheds some light on a shadowy area of English. Best to you and to your students.

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Let’s do the mashed potatoes

Q: My husband was riding his bike slower than normal when a friend asked, “Did you have too much mashed potatoes last night?” That got him wondering: too much, too many, too much of? What is the correct methodology of inquiring if someone has overindulged in mashed potatoes?

A: A noun phrase like “mashed potatoes” can be confusing. Does it refer to the individual potatoes that have been mashed? Or to the dish produced by mashing them?

In technical terms, is “mashed potatoes” a countable or an uncountable noun phrase? Are we thinking of individual potatoes that can be counted, or a dish made from an indeterminate number of potatoes?

Well, there’s one thing we’ve learning after writing this blog for seven years. No job is too big or too small for academic linguists. They’ll take on anything.

Stephanie Solt, a researcher at DAS, a linguistics institute in Berlin, discusses the ambiguity of “mashed potatoes” and similar dishes in a paper entitled “Q-Adjectives and the Semantics of Quantity.”

In a footnote, she points out the difficulty in choosing between the adjectives “many” and “much” when modifying “anomalous plurals such as refried beans, mashed potatoes and scrambled eggs.”

She writes that these phrases “syntactically show at least some of the characteristics of plural count nouns, but semantically denote noncountable substances or portions of matter.”

“These items are at least marginally acceptable with both many and much, but with a difference in meaning,” she adds.

She gives two Q-and-A examples concerning “scrambled eggs” to make her point:

“Q: How many scrambled eggs do you want?

“A: Three

“Q: How much scrambled eggs do you want?

 “A: A lot/a little/a scoopful/about half the amount you gave him.”

She also offers this hodgepodge of an example: “These/this mashed potatoes/refried beans/scrambled eggs are/is cold.”

Interestingly, the dishes that Americans call “mashed potatoes” and “scrambled eggs” are often referred to as “mashed potato” and “scrambled egg” by British speakers.

Lynne Murphy, an American linguist at the University of Sussex in England, discusses this in a post published a few years ago on her blog Separated by a Common Language.

“These kinds of prepared food are substances more than individuable things,” she writes. “You can’t see the boundaries of the individual eggs or potatoes once they are scrambled or mashed.”

She points out that the British “forms reflect this—they’re singular just as other ‘substance’ food names,” but the American forms “reflect the state of the food before mashing/scrambling.”

“Does this mean that Americans think more about the origins of their food?” she adds. “I can’t think of much other evidence for that.”

We agree. In fact, the American usage seems to be gaining ground in Britain. We’ve checked four standard British dictionaries and half of them list “mashed potatoes” as the primary entry with “mashed potato” as an also-ran.

Another way of looking at “mashed potatoes” is through the lens of notional agreement—that is, agreement based on meaning to the writer or speaker rather than on formal textbook grammar.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage gives this example of notional agreement from Ecclesiastes: “time and chance happeneth to them all.” Here a compound subject (“time and chance”) takes a singular verb (“happeneth”).

And here’s one from a Jan. 20, 1938, letter by James Thurber: “I don’t think the barricades is an answer.”

Merriam-Webster’s has many more, but we’ll stop with this example from the Declaration of Independence:  “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.”

In the 18th century, the usage guide says, grammarians “undertook to prune the exuberant growth of English” and began insisting on formal agreement.

“Modern grammarians are not so insistent,” M-W says, noting that George O. Curme and Randolph Quirk have recognized that when compound nouns form a “collective idea” the “singular verb is appropriate—notional agreement prevails.”

Getting back to your question, we think of “mashed potatoes” as a dish, not the components of the dish. So we’d use “too much,” not “too many,” to modify “mashed potatoes.”

However, Google searches indicate that “too much mashed potatoes” is only slightly more popular than “too many mashed potatoes,” and “too much mashed potato” is a distant third. The expression “too much of the mashed potatoes” barely registers.

By the way, the earliest example of the dish in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, a 1747 cookbook by Hannah Glasse:

“Mashed Potatoes. Boil your Potatoes, peel them, and put them into a saucepan, mash them well; To two Pounds of Potatoes put a Pint of Milk, a little salt; stir them well together, take care they do not stick to the bottom; then take a quarter of a pound of butter, stir it in, and serve it up.”

The OED’s entry, which is listed under the singular “mashed potato,” includes both singular and plural citations for the side dish.

Here’s a singular citation from the Guardian’s Oct. 15, 1994, weekend supplement: “My ribeye of beef with mashed potato.”

The entry also includes references to the dance (called the “mashed potato,” “mash potato,” or “mashed potatoes”) that was popular during the early 1960s.

The OED’s earliest citation for the dance is a 1959 reference to the James Brown song “(Do the) Mashed Potatoes,” which became a Top 10 rhythm-and-blues hit in 1960.

This one, from the March 6, 1963, issue of Punch, includes two other dance crazes from the ’60s: “The Mashed Potato … remains as much of a mystery as the Hully-Gully and the Loco-Motion.”

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If you’re a fysigunkus, skip this!

Q: I recently came across “fysigunkus,” meaning a person devoid of all curiosity, in an old Scottish dictionary, but I found the etymology questionable. Can you elucidate?

A: You probably found that obsolete word in John Jamieson’s 1825 Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language. (The word doesn’t appear in earlier editions of Jamieson’s etymological dictionary.)

Jamieson defines a “fysigunkus” as “a man devoid of curiosity.” He says it’s derived from several Gaelic terms, and originated in Perthshire, a county in central Scotland.

Here’s how Jamieson explains the etymology: “Gael, fosaigh-am signifies to know, Jiosrach inquisitive; and gunta, an experienced, skilful, prying man. But thus the term would have a sense directly the reverse.”

We suspect that “fysigunkus” (pronounced fizzy-GUNK-us, perhaps?) was rare, or at least had a very narrow geographical range, even in the 1800s.

It might even have died out by the end of the century. (Maybe the fact that it didn’t quite make sense in Gaelic contributed to its demise.)

However, “fysigunkus” does have an entry in Joseph Wright’s The English Dialect Dictionary (1900), defined as “a man devoid of curiosity.”

Wright credits Jamieson with recording the word, and with labeling it as a Perthshire usage, but he adds this note: “Not known to our correspondents.”

The word doesn’t appear at all in James Wilson’s Lowland Scotch as Spoken in the Lower Stratheran District of Perthshire (1915).

Today, “fysigunkus” doesn’t show up in the Oxford English Dictionary or in any standard dictionaries.

But it has shown a flicker of life on the Internet. A Google search for “fysigunkus” turns up a few hundred hits, mostly remarking on the word’s oddity.

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