English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin

When a woman was a WOW!

Q: As a civilian conducting research for the US military in Afghanistan, I came across a reference to the Women Ordnance Workers during World War II. The women were referred to by the acronym “WOW,” which led me to your post about the origins of the exclamation “Wow!” Interested?

A: As we said in that 2012 post, the interjection “wow” first showed up in the early 1500s, but it was primarily used at that time in Scottish English.

By the late 1800s, though, the exclamation was in general use among English speakers. Now, as you know, it’s chiefly used to express astonishment or admiration.

In other words, the usage was around well before World War II. But the Women Ordnance Workers were indeed referred to as “WOWs,” and the acronym was sometimes followed by an exclamation point.

Wartime posters celebrating these women, who worked in war plants making weapons, ammunition, and other military supplies, clearly played on the similarity between the acronym “WOW” and the exclamation “Wow!”

One poster, featuring a Woman Ordnance Worker and a GI in combat, reads: “THE GIRL HE LEFT BEHIND” / IS STILL BEHIND HIM / She’s a WOW

Another example, a poster showing a soldier holding a photo of his girlfriend, reads: “My girl’s a WOW”

The best-known Woman Ordnance Worker was the iconic Rosie the Riveter—actually, various Rosies were featured in song, on the air, and in print.

Here’s the beginning of the 1942 song “Rosie the Riveter,” written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb:

All the day long, whether rain or shine
She’s a part of the assembly line
She’s making history, working for victory
Rosie, brrrrrrrrrrr, the riveter

(The “brrrrrrrrrrr” in the lyrics, as you’ve probably guessed, is the sound of a rivet gun.)

Many people think of Rosie when they see the civilian war worker in J. Howard Miller’s 1943 “We Can Do It!” poster for Westinghouse.

However, the worker in the poster, who’s wearing the red-and-white head scarf of the Women Ordnance Workers, wasn’t referred to as “Rosie the Riveter” during the war years.

The most widely seen illustration of a WOW during the war was probably Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter” cover on the May 29, 1943, issue of the Saturday Evening Post.

The picture shows a muscular woman with a rivet gun resting on her lap as she eats a sandwich during her lunch break.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Taking candy from a baby

Q: What does “taking candy from a baby” mean? It seems to me that it would be hard to take candy from a baby, but I hear people using the expression to mean something that’s very easy to do.

 A: The Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms says “like taking candy from a baby” means “extremely easy.” The dictionary gives this example: “Selling my mother something I made is like taking candy from a baby—she can’t say no.”

The McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs describes the usage as a cliché meaning very easy, and gives this example: “Getting to the airport was easy. It was like taking candy from a baby.”

However, we’ve often seen the expression used to suggest disreputable as well as easy. Here’s an example from The Con: How Scams Work, Why You’re Vulnerable, and How to Protect Yourself (2011), by James Munton and Jelita McLeod:

“An enterprising criminal, Darius discovered that a small investment on his part could reap treat rewards. ‘It’s like taking candy from a baby. I don’t even have to write the code myself. I just go online and buy it.’ ”

In fact, many early examples use the expression this way, suggesting that the idiom may have originally referred to something both easy and shameful.

The idiom, which showed up in the US in the early 20th century, is often seen with “stealing” instead of “taking,” and “child” instead of a “baby.”

The earliest example we’ve found (with “child” in place of “baby”) is from Taking Chances (1900), a collection of short stories about gambling, by Clarence Louis Cullen.

In a story entitled “Experiences of a Verdant Bookmaker,” a grocer-turned-bookie tries to pull a fast one at the race track: “Now, this looked like a pretty good thing to the groceryman. It looked like taking candy from a child.”

The earliest example we’ve found of the expression used just in the easy sense is from the January 1904 issue of the Photo Critic magazine:

“After a photographer has made one or two dozen prints and becomes familiar with the general workings of these papers, he actually laughs at himself, it is so easy; like taking candy from a baby.”

An article in the October 1905 issue of Munsey’s Magazine, about a crackdown against corruption, uses the expression in both the easy and disreputable sense: “Taking money from St. Louis was for years easier than taking candy from a baby.”

Jack London uses it primarily in the derogatory sense in The Road, a 1907 memoir about his days as a hobo. One of the chapters, “The Pen,” describes the 30 days he spent for vagrancy at the Erie County Penitentiary at Buffalo, NY.

London writes that he and his fellow trustees used to steal rations of bread from the other prisoners and then trade the bread for plugs of chewing tobacco:

“Two or three rations of bread for a plug was the way we exchanged, and they traded, not because they loved tobacco less, but because they loved bread more. Oh, I know, it was like taking candy from a baby, but what would you? We had to live.”

Getting back to your question, we haven’t tried to take candy from a baby, but we suspect that it would be a lot easier than stealing bread from a prisoner at the Erie County Pen.

Easy or not, the expression is an idiom that’s not meant to be taken literally. We’ve written frequently on the blog about idioms, including posts in 2011 and 2012. We’ve also discussed “hobo” in a couple of posts, including one in 2009.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

English English language Usage

How effective is effectual?

Q: Here goes … effective vs. effectual vs. efficacious. Any difference?

A: The adjectives “effective,” “effectual,” and “efficacious” have the same primary meaning: producing or capable of producing a desired effect.

When used in that sense, the only reason for picking one over the others is style. The best one is the one that goes best with the sentence you’re writing.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) gives these examples of the three words used in this sense: “an effective reprimand; an effectual complaint; an efficacious remedy.

All three adjectives are derived from efficere, a Latin verb meaning to work out or bring about, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. The Latin word, a compound, was formed from ex (out) and facere (to make or do).

The adjectives “effective” and “effectual” showed up in English in the late 1300s, while “efficacious” appeared in the early 1500s.

The earliest examples of both “effective” and “effectual” in the Oxford English Dictionary are from John Trevisa’s 1398 translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the Properties of Things), a medieval encyclopedia by Bartholomaeus Anglicus:

Effective: “Oleum iuniperinum [sic] … is most effectif ayeins the quartayne.”

Effectual: “The more white and bryght that he [a pearl] is, the more effectuel and vertuouse [L. efficacior] it is holde.”

(We’ve changed the runic letters thorn to “th” and yogh to “y.”)

The earliest example of “efficacious” in the OED is from the evangelical author William Roy’s Satire Against Cardinal Wolsey (1528): “Goddis worde is so efficacious.”

Why do we have three similar adjectives with the same primary meaning and the same Latin source?

Because the three words entered English by way of three different Old French words: effectif, effectuel, and efficacité, according to Chambers.

Interestingly, “effectual” and “efficacious” have only the primary meaning we’ve been discussing (producing or capable of producing a desired effect).

However, “effective” can also mean operative (“The ordinance will be effective in 15 days”), actual (“Inflation led to an effective drop in the value of the dollar”), and ready for action (“The Marines have no effective presence in the area”).

Finally, efficere, the Latin verb that gave us all three adjectives, is also the source of the “feck” in “feckless.”

As we wrote on our blog in 2011, “feck” originated as an early 15th-century Scottish abbreviation of “effect.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Rescue dog: rescuer or rescuee?

Q: Is a “rescue dog” one that rescues (like the fabled St. Bernard with a cask of brandy strapped under its neck) or one that is rescued (like an abused puppy that ends up in a shelter)?

A: The phrase “rescue dog” has two meanings, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “(a) a dog trained to aid in rescue operations; (b) a dog that has been rescued from abuse, neglect, etc.”

In the first sense, the phrase has been in use for more than a century. The second sense is newer, only about 35 years old.

But there’s little chance that the two can be confused, since the phrase’s meaning usually becomes clear in context.

Here are the citations given in the OED, listed chronologically, and the intended meanings seem obvious.

1901: “A great St Bernard, the most celebrated of all the rescue dogs that have worked in the hospice on Mount Bernard” (from the Strand Magazine).

1980: “If you are involved in dog rescue work, a rescue dog can be made much more suitable for adoption after two months of letting you practice on him in the Novice class” (from Patricia Gail Burnham’s book Playtraining Your Dog).

1992: “In addition to being an excellent working sheepdog it [the Appenzell, or Alpine Shepherd Dog] is also used as a ski patrol dog, security dog and rescue dog” (from the book 1001 Images of Dogs).

2003: “It seems that every other dog here is a rescue dog, ‘probably abused,’ their owners often say” (from Jon Katz’s The New Work of Dogs).

When “rescue dog” refers to a rescued animal, the OED says the noun “rescue” is being used attributively (that is, as an adjective) “with the sense ‘designating a domestic animal that has been rescued from abuse or neglect, typically by an animal welfare organization.’ ”

The dictionary notes that this usage can refer to other animals, such “as rescue cat, rescue horse, etc.”

It lists “rescue dog” (1980) as the earliest recorded version, followed by “rescue cats” (1993), “rescue horse” (1998), “rescue animals” (referring to shelter dogs, 2003), and “rescue kitten” (2009). 

We’ve found lots of other examples online, including “rescue bluebird,” “rescue hamster,” “rescue salamander,” “rescue snapping turtle,” and “rescue bunny.”

It’s true that this use of the phrase “rescue dog” would be more literal as “rescued dog.” But in pronunciation the adjoining d’s would tend to combine, so the phrase would end up sounding like “rescue dog” anyway.

Besides, while “rescue dog” in this sense is only a few decades old, the general concept of animal “rescue” is much older and justifies the use of “rescue” here instead of “rescued.”

The OED says that one meaning of the noun “rescue” is “the action of rescuing a (domestic) animal from abuse, neglect, etc., typically by an animal welfare organization; (also) an organization of this type, or a shelter or sanctuary run by such an organization. Freq. with modifying word, as animal rescue, cat rescue, dog rescue, pet rescue, etc.”

The earliest such use of “rescue” in the OED is from an 1899 issue of the Boston Daily Globe. A headline on an article about a shelter reads:

“Refuge for stray canines and felines. Animal Rescue League provides means for disposing of helpless animals by easy deaths or securing homes.”

The dictionary’s most recent example is from Pamela Duncan’s novel Moon Women (2001): “Border collie rescue, they called it. They also had poodle rescue, St. Bernard rescue, cocker spaniel rescue, and every other kind of rescue in the book.”

Did St. Bernard rescue dogs ever carry casks of brandy around their necks? No historical records have been found that document such a practice, according to a Jan. 1, 2008, article in the Smithsonian magazine.

The legend of the brandy-carrying dogs was apparently inspired by Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller, an overly dramatic 1831 painting by Edwin Landseer.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

An octopus by any other name

Q: I know you’ve discussed the plural of “octopus” on the blog, but there’s one point I’ve never seen addressed anywhere. The word was adopted into English in the mid-18th century. So what did English speakers call the octopus before then?

A: While the creature itself has been known since ancient times, the word “octopus” didn’t exist until it was coined in the scientific Latin of 16th-century taxonomy. It was adopted into English two centuries later.

But long before the scientific term became common usage, the leggy mollusk had other names.

In ancient Greek, the octopus was called polypous or polupous (many-footed), a word  used by Pliny and Aristotle and later borrowed into Latin as polypus.

Beginning in the early 1500s, “polypus” was also used in English (as well as Dutch) as a name for the octopus.

Other nouns used in English over the centuries have included “polypus-fish,” “preke,” “poor-cuttle,” “pourcontrel,” “polyp,” “eight-armed cuttle,” “devilfish,” and “poulp”—a word with counterparts in French (poulpe), Italian (polpo), and Spanish (pulpo).

The first English example of “octopus” recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London for the year 1758: “The Polypus, particularly so called, the Octopus, Preke, or Pour-contrel.”

But in fact the word was around much earlier, as we said, in scientific Latin.

For example, in De Piscibus Marinus (1554), a book about aquatic creatures, the 16th-century French naturalist Guillaume Rondelet gave the poulpe commun (common poulpe) the scientific name “polypus octopus.”

But the scientist who is probably most responsible for standardizing the name in common usage was the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who used “octopus” in his monumental work on taxonomy, Systema Naturae (10th ed., 1758).

Linnaeus, who devised the now familiar system for classifying living things by giving them Latin names, established “Octopus” as the name for the genus and “Octopodia” (later “Octopoda”) as the name for the order of cephalopod mollusks with eight sucker-bearing arms.

In the 10th edition of his book, Linnaeus credits his student Fredrik Hasselquist for the name “Octopodia.” Hasselquist had used the term in letters written to Linnaeus from Smyrna in 1749, where he was doing field research. Linnaeus also credits his predecessor Rondelet for using “polypus octopus.” 

Now for the word’s etymology. “Octopus” combined ancient Greek terms meaning “eight” (okto) and “footed” (pous). If the word had actually existed in ancient Greek it would have been oktopous

(There was in fact a Greek word, oktapous, described in the revised 1940 edition of A Greek-English Lexicon, by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, as a “Scythian name for one who possessed two oxen and a cart.” We suppose this was a reference to the eight feet of the oxen. But we digress—back to the octopus!)

As we wrote in our 2010 post, there are three plural forms of the noun: “octopuses,” “octopi,” and “octopodes” (pronounced ok-TOP-uh-deez).

Most standard dictionaries accept the first two as equal variants. But usage authorities prefer “octopuses,” which Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) calls “the only acceptable plural in English.”

Fowler’s calls “octopodes,” the Greek plural, “pedantic,” and says “octopi” is “misconceived” and “a grievous mistake.” Another source, the Oxford Reference Guide to English Morphology, says “octopi” is “etymologically fallacious.”

So how did “octopi” come about?

It appears that early in its history, hasty Latinists assumed “octopus” should be pluralized with an –i ending, by analogy with such Latin singular/plural pairs as alumnus/alumni, syllabus/syllabi, and so on.

They were wrong.

The –us ending of octopus doesn’t put it into the same category as those other Latin nouns. The –us ending of octopus is merely part of the Greek element pous (from pod, for “foot”).

As the OED says, the plural form “octopi arises from apprehension of the final -us of the word as the grammatical ending of Latin second declension nouns.” (Latin nouns fall into categories called “declensions,” and this determines how they’re pluralized, made possessive, and so forth.)

As it turns out, a Latin noun borrowed from Greek and ending in a consonant  is treated as a third-declension Latin noun, according to several Latin grammars we consulted, as well as Judith E. Winston’s book Describing Species: Practical Taxonomic Procedure for Biologists (1999). Such third-declension Latin nouns are pluralized with –es, not –i.

Despite its questionable birth, dictionaries now recognize “octopi” as an equal variant of “octopuses.” In other words, both spellings are considered standard English.

In Google searches, the two get roughly the same number of hits, with “octopuses” slightly ahead (it’s preferred in scientific usage). The Greek-inspired plural form “octopodes,” labeled “rare” in the OED, is a distant third.

However, the earliest example we’ve found of the three words is the rare one, “octopodes,” which appears in Richard Chandler’s memoir Travels in Greece (1776).

In enumerating the foods of Athens, Chandler cites “the sea-polypus,” and adds: “The latter called by the Greeks octopodes, from the number of its feet.”

The earliest example we’ve found for “octopi” is from a June 1816 journal entry in Capt. James Kingston Tuckey’s Narrative of an Expedition to Explore the River Zaire (published posthumously in 1818).

As his ship lies off the shore of western Africa near the mouth of the Zaire, Tuckey writes, “the towing net, however, again afforded us abundance of marine animals, amongst which were many of the paper nautilus (Argonauta sulcata), with the living animals, which, in contradiction to the opinion of the French naturalists, proved to be perfect Octopi.”

The earliest example of “octopuses” in the OED is from Rough Notes on Natural History in Norfolk and the Eastern Counties, an 1884 book by Hill M. Leathes that says “enormous octopuses existed on the western side of Panama, in the Pacific Ocean.”

Of the three plurals, “octopuses” may be the latecomer, but it’s the most natural. And it’s the one we prefer, naturally.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Why is a cakewalk easy?

Q: Why is a “cakewalk” something that’s easy to do? It doesn’t make sense. Or does it?

A: The Dictionary of American Regional English says the term “cakewalk” originally referred to a contest among African-Americans in which “a cake was the prize awarded for the fanciest steps or figures.”

Historians generally believe these contests originated in the antebellum slave quarters of Southern plantations, according to a 1981 paper by Brooke Baldwin in the Journal of Social History.

In the paper, “The Cakewalk: A Study in Stereotype and Reality,” Baldwin notes that former slaves discussed the contests during interviews in the 1930s with researchers from the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration.

(The interviews were transcribed in what would now be considered heavy-handed dialect, with inconsistent punctuation.)

Louise Jones, an ex-slave from Virginia, is quoted as saying: “de music, de fiddles an’ de banjos, de Jews harp, an’ all dem other things. Sech dancin’ you never seen befo. Slaves would set de flo’ in turns, an’ do de cakewalk mos’ all night.”

Estella Jones, an ex-slave from Georgia, is quoted as saying, “De women’s wor long, ruffled dresses wid hoops in ’em and de mens had on high hats, long split-tailed coats, and some of em used walkin’ sticks. De couple dat danced best got a prize.”

The paper also cites several secondhand reports from the 1950s and ’60s that say the slaves dressed up and paraded around in their finery to mock the plantation owners.

In 1950, for example, Shepard Edmonds, a musical figure from the ragtime era, recounted this description of cakewalks from his parents, who had been slaves:

“It was generally on Sundays, when there was little work, that the slaves both young and old would dress up in hand-me-down finery to do a high-kicking, prancing walk-around. They did a take-off on the manners of the white folks in the ‘big house.’ But their masters, who gathered around to watch the fun, missed the point. It’s supposed to be that the custom of a prize started with the master giving a cake to the couple that did the proudest movement.”

Neither the Oxford English Dictionary nor the Dictionary of American Regional English has any 19th-century citations for the term “cakewalk” used to refer to these plantation contests.

In explaining the lack of such written evidence, Baldwin says in the Journal of Social History that slave narratives publicized by abolitionists generally “concentrated on the negative aspects of slave life and devoted little attention to slave culture.”

However, an 1863 citation from Contributions to the Montana Historical Society alludes to the slave term in what the OED describes as a “transferred sense”: “Around and around that bush we went…. We had a good laugh over our cake walk.”

By the late 19th century, according to OED and DARE citations, “cakewalk” was being used in reference to a strutting or prancing dance modeled after the earlier slave contests.

This new “cakewalk” (also spelled “cake walk” or “cake-walk”) was performed in African-American communities as well as in minstrel shows featuring blacks or whites in blackface.

The OED’s earliest citation for “cakewalk” used in this sense is from the October 1879 issue of Harper’s magazine: “Reader, didst ever attend a cake walk given by the colored folks?”

Oxford cites several other examples, including this one from Americanisms Old and New, an 1888 dictionary of colloquialisms and other usages, by John Stephen Farmer:

“In certain sections of the country, cake-walks are in vogue among the colored people. It is a walking contest, not in the matter of speed, but in style and elegance.”

In commenting on the use of cakewalks in minstrel shows, Amiri Baraka (writing as LeRoi Jones) remarked in his book Blues People: The Negro Experience in White America (1963) on the irony of whites satirizing blacks satirizing whites:

“If the cakewalk is a Negro dance caricaturing certain white customs, what is that dance when, say, a white theater company attempts to satirize it as a Negro dance? I find the idea of white minstrels in blackface satirizing a dance satirizing themselves a remarkable kind of irony—which, I suppose is the whole point of minstrel shows.”

In the 20th century, according to citations in DARE, the word “cakewalk” was also used for various marching or dancing games, as well as for a game similar to musical chairs.

The OED’s earliest example for “cakewalk” used to mean something easy to accomplish is from Coo-oo-ee! A Tale of Bushmen From Australia to Anzac, a 1916 book by John Butler Cooper:

“Whether they would give him victory in a fight that would not be a cake-walk, he did not know.”

However, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has a much earlier example from The “Fight of the Century, an 1897 book by George Siler and Lou M. Houseman.

In describing the heavyweight championship bout between Bob Fitzsimmons and James J. Corbett, the authors write at one point: “It’s a cake-walk for Jim. … Fitz hasn’t a chance.”

(Fitzsimmons actually won the fight in the 14th round.)

Why did the term for a contest and a dance come to mean something that’s easy to achieve? We haven’t found a definitive answer, but perhaps the people doing a cakewalk made it look easy—at least those who took the cake did.

DARE notes that this “easy” sense of “cakewalk” is similar to a more popular expression, “piece of cake,” which showed up a couple of decades later.

The earliest citation for “piece of cake” in the OED is from The Primrose Path, a 1936 collection of light verse by Ogden Nash: “Her picture’s in the papers now, / And life’s a piece of cake.”

If you’d like to read more, we had a post a few years ago about “piece of cake.”

We’ll end now with a “cakewalk prance” from Scott Joplin’s 1902 song “The Ragtime Dance”:

Let me see you do the rag-time dance,
Turn left and do the cakewalk prance,
Turn the other way and do the slow drag
Now take your lady to the World’s Fair
And do the rag-time dance.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

The Latin beat

Q: I have a question that three history teachers couldn’t answer. Why do we call Central and South America “Latin America”? And why are the inhabitants called “Latinos”? My only guess is that these areas were colonized by Spaniards and they spoke Latin for religious services.

A: The term “Latin” has been used since the 1700s “as a designation for the European peoples which speak languages descended from Latin,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s first example is from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1788), by Edward Gibbon.

In writing of the First Crusade, Gibbon mentions “Godfrey of Bouillon, first King of Jerusalem” and the “Institutions of the French or Latin Kingdom.”

By extension, the term “Latin America” came to mean “those countries in Central and South America in which Spanish or Portuguese is the dominant language collectively,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s first example of “Latin America” used this way is from a 1912 issue of The Chambers Journal, a Scottish newspaper: “The amount of British capital invested in the countries of Latin-America is very great.”

One advantage of “Latin America” is that it’s a lot shorter than “Central and South America.” This is probably why it’s more popular too, with over 36 million hits in a Google search to under 2 million for the longer version.

As for “Latino,” the OED says, it refers to “a Latin-American inhabitant of the United States.” However, standard American dictionaries define “Latino” as either a Latin American or someone of Latin American origin living in the US.

The earliest example of “Latino” in the OED is from San Antonio: City in the Sun, a 1946 book by Green Peyton:

“The first program on the University’s list is an exchange of students with Latin America. That in itself would be a fresh intellectual experience for Texas, where Latinos are usually looked on as sinister specimens of an inferior race.”

If you’d like to read more, we answered a question a few years ago about whether Sonia Sotomayor, the Supreme Court justice, is a “Latina” or a “Hispanic.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Slang Usage Word origin

Why is a dead ringer a double?

Q: After mistaking someone in a store for someone else the other day, I thought to myself, “Wow, that person is a dead ringer.” Where in the world does that term come from?

A: Sometimes a nonliteral usage makes sense only if you use your imagination a bit. This is one of those cases.

Since the 19th century, the nouns “ring” and “ringer” have been used in several extended senses, all loosely related to the making of a resonant sound.

One of these extended senses has to do with the notion of likeness or resemblance, and this is the sense that gave us the expression “dead ringer.”

In slang usage, a “ringer” is someone or something that closely resembles another. The adjective “dead” (in the sense of certain or complete) is usually added for emphasis, as it is in the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citations.

There’s a certain poetic logic at work here. The literal meaning of “ringer”—someone who makes a resonant sound—has been extended to the visual sphere. Just as a sound can resonate and repeat itself, so can a visual image.

In American slang, “dead ringer” has meant “a person or thing that looks very like another,” or “a double,” since the 1870s, the OED says.

Oxford’s first published example is from a Colorado newspaper, the Weekly Register-Call of Central City (1878):

“The knight of La Mancha storming a wind mill, is a ‘dead ringer,’ so to speak, for Windy Bill riding down a phalanx of Mexicans on a long-eared mule.”

A similar noun phrase with the same meaning, “dead ring,” has been used in Australia and New Zealand since the 1890s, the OED says.

Today both “dead ringer” and “ringer” alone are used this way in both American and British English.

Oxford cites a 2005 example from a London newspaper, the Independent: “There is another ticket inspector, a ringer for Micky Dolenz of The Monkees, whose name is Simon de Montfort.”

Two additional extended senses of “ring” and “ringer” are worth mentioning. These have to do with the opposing notions of (1) truth and authenticity, and (2) impostors or fraudulent substitutes.

For example, when we speak of something that’s convincing (like a statement or an account), we say it has the “ring of truth,” an expression the OED dates from the 1840s.

Oxford’s earliest citation is from the Illuminated Magazine (1843): “There was a ring of truth and good-fellowship in the man’s voice, that, as we felt, made us old acquaintances.”

This phrase is probably related to similar usages dating from the early 1600s in which the genuineness or quality of coins, precious metals, glass, pottery, etc., was judged by how they “rang” when struck.

Material that was authentic or high-quality would “ring true,” while shoddy or fake merchandise would “ring false” or “ring hollow.” 

This brings us to the shadier meanings of “ring” and “ringer,” in which resemblance is used for subterfuge.

The OED suggests that these illicit usages can be traced to 18th-century criminal slang, in which to “ring” or “ring changes” meant “to substitute one thing for another fraudulently and take the more valuable item.”

In mid-19th-century American slang, a “ringer” (originally a “ringer of changes”) meant “a person who fraudulently substitutes a horse, athlete, etc. for another in a competition or sporting event,” the OED says.

Later, in wider usage, a “ringer” came to mean “a person who fraudulently substitutes one thing for another.”

Oxford’s earliest citation comes from a November 1858 issue of American Freemason: “He knew what dummies meant, as well as the most expert cracksman or ringer of changes in town.”

The shorter version, “ringer,” appeared in an 1877 issue of The Spirit of the Times, a New York sporting newspaper. “Ringers” here refers to the people responsible for the switching:

“While Hicks & Co. were engaged in the laudable cause of exposing the iniquitous ringers in Boston, they should not have overlooked Dolly Davis, Easter Maid, by Almont, and her performances near Boston.” (A trotter named Easter Maid was also raced under the name Dolly Davis.)

This slang use of “ringer” is now rare in American usage, though a similar term related to car theft emerged in British slang in the 1960s. The OED defines this use of “ringer” as meaning “a criminal who fraudulently changes the identity of a motor vehicle.”

One fraudulent sense of “ringer” that’s still with us on both sides of the Atlantic is the one that means the substitute itself. In this sense, the “ringer” is the stronger horse or athlete that’s underhandedly substituted for a weaker one.

This usage dates from American horse racing in the mid-1880s, and it’s still around today.

Here’s an OED citation from a 1980 issue of the Times of London: The Crown claimed that the horse had been switched and that the winner was in fact a ‘ringer,’ a more successful stablemate called Cobblers March.”

This later example refers to an altogether different brand of sport. It comes from Ryan Nerz’s Eat This Book: A Year of Gorging and Glory on the Competitive Eating Circuit (2006):

“The local eaters were going up against professionals—‘ringers’ brought in from out of town.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Jibe, gibe, and jive

Q: I see both “jibe” and “jive” used to mean agree, as in “His testimony did not jibe/jive with what he said earlier.” As a sailor, I know “jibe” refers to changing tack while sailing downwind.  “Jive,” on the other hand, refers to deceptive talk. How on earth did we get from point A to point B here?

A: We’re dealing with three similar-sounding words: “jibe,” “gibe,” and “jive.” That’s confusing enough.

To muddle things more, dictionaries recognize “jibe” and “gibe” as variant spellings of each other. And the nautical word for changing tack is spelled “jibe” in the US and “gybe” in the UK.

If you’re still with us, there are two more flies in the ointment. The verb “jibe” has a second meaning, primarily in American English: to agree.

And as you’ve noticed, “jive” is often used for “jibe” in the sense of agreement, though no authoritative dictionary considers this usage standard English.

To get to the bottom of all this, let’s begin with some definitions.

The verb “jibe,” as you say, is a nautical term that refers to changing course by shifting a fore-and-aft sail from side to side while sailing before the wind. (Remember, British dictionaries spell the word “gybe.”)

However, “jibe” has another meaning that’s not etymologically related to the nautical usage: to agree or be consistent with, as in, “Those figures don’t jibe.” The Oxford English Dictionary describes this usage as “chiefly U.S.”

The word “jive” can be either a noun or a verb, as in “Don’t give me that jive” or “Don’t jive me.” It’s a Jazz Era slang term that usually refers to deceptive or nonsensical talk, though it can also mean jazz music.

A third word that’s often confused with these, “gibe,” is both a noun and a verb referring to teasing, taunting, or caustic remarks, as in “Ignore his rude gibes” or “He tends to gibe when he’s annoyed.”

These three words cover a lot of etymological history, so let’s take a look at their origins. (We’ll discuss them in order of seniority, saving “jive” for last.)

The oldest is the verb “gibe,” first recorded in the mid-16th century. The OED says to “gibe” is “to speak sneeringly; to utter taunts; to jeer, flout, scoff.”

Unfortunately, the source of this verb is unclear. The dictionary says it may come from the Old French verb giber, meaning to shake, perhaps used in the sense of horseplay or roughhousing.

The verb was first recorded in English in George Turberville’s Epitaphes, Epigrams, Songs and Sonets (1567): “Speake fayre, and make the weather cleere to him that gybes with thee.”

The modern spelling “gibe” appears in this citation from Robert Greene’s play The Comicall Historie of Alphonsus King of Arragon, written sometime before 1592: “You shall perceiue Medea did not gibe.”

The verb in turn gave us the noun, defined by the OED as “a scoffing or sneering speech; a taunt, flout, or jeer.” The noun was first recorded in 1573, spelled  “iybes” in the plural.

This example from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1604) has the modern spelling: “Alas poore Yoricke … where be your gibes now?”

The nautical term “jibe” showed up in 17th century. Although the word is now “jibe” in the US and “gybe” in the UK, both spellings have been around since the late 1600s.

Here’s an example from Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe: “The Boom gib’d over the Top of the Cabbin.”

The OED says the English term is apparently derived from gijben, an obsolete Dutch term meaning to jibe.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology suggests that the “jibe” spelling was influenced by the noun “jib,” which appeared in the mid-1600s and refers to a triangular sail in front of the foremast.

Chambers says the noun is of uncertain origin but “perhaps related to gibbet, with reference to the sail’s suspension from the masthead.” (The word “gibbet,” another term for gallows, dates from the early 1200s.)

By the way, a verb “jib” was originally used in the early 19th century in reference to horses. The OED says to “jib” was “to stop and refuse to go on; to move restively backwards or sideways instead of going on; to balk stubbornly.”

The first written reference, according to Oxford, is from a letter written by Jane Austen in 1811: “The horses actually gibbed on this side of Hyde Park Gate.” (All the subsequent OED citations are spelled with a “j.”)

As we’ve said, the nautical “jibe” is not related to the agreeable “jibe,” which first showed up in American English in the early 1800s, meaning “to chime in (with); to be in harmony or accord; to agree,” to quote the OED

This word’s origin is also uncertain, though Oxford says it is “perhaps phonetically related to chime.” (One meaning of the verb “chime,” a sense dating from the 1600s, is “to accord harmoniously, harmonize, agree,” Oxford says.)

This example is from Doesticks, What He Says (1855), a collection of comic sketches by Q. K. Philander Doesticks, P.B. (the pen name of Mortimer Thomson):

“I attempting to sing the words of ‘Old Hundred,’ while the lady played the Jenny Lind polka, which didn’t seem to jibe.”

This leaves us with “jive,” a term of unknown origin that showed up—both noun and verb— in American slang in the Roaring Twenties. It has close associations with jazz, Harlem, and Black American English.

The OED defines the verb as meaning “to mislead, to deceive, to ‘kid’; to taunt or sneer at.” To “talk jive,” Oxford adds, is “to talk nonsense, to act foolishly.”

And the noun “jive” is defined similarly: “talk or conversation; spec. talk that is misleading, untrue, empty, or pretentious; hence, anything false, worthless, or unpleasant.”

In Oxford’s citations, the verb first appeared in 1928 in the title of a Louis Armstrong record, “Don’t Jive Me.”

The noun appeared in the same year in The Walls of Jericho, a novel by the Harlem Renaissance figure Rudolph Fisher: “Jive, pursuit in love or any device thereof. Usually flattery with intent to win.”

Additionally, in the ’20s “jive” was used as a musical term to mean “jazz,” and in the ’30s it meant to play or dance to jive music.

Finally, in the late ’30s, the OED says, “jive” came to mean “a variety of American English associated with the Harlem area of New York; slang used by Black Americans, or by jazz musicians and their followers.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Don’t bruise the gin

Q: I’ve always been amused by the expression “bruising the gin,” which seems to me the kind of thing one of Bertie’s pals at the Drones Club might utter. What’s the origin/history of “bruise” used in this context?

A: When the verb “bruise” showed up in Old English in the ninth century (spelled brysan), it meant to crush or mangle by a blow with a blunt instrument.

By Shakespeare’s day, however, the crushing-and-mangling sense of “bruise” had weakened considerably to mean injure with a blow that discolors the skin but doesn’t break it.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites this example from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (probably written sometime before 1600): “I bruiz’d my shin th’ other day.”

Since then, the verb has taken on various literal and figurative meanings—peaches and egos are bruised, for example, as well as gin.

However, the sense of bruising gin hasn’t made it into the OED or the half-dozen standard dictionaries we usually consult.

We’re not big on martinis, but we’ve read that they can be bruised—that is, diluted and made to taste sharper—by shaking.

The shaking breaks up the ice and, as a 1999 British Medical Journal study notes, is “more effective in deactivating hydrogen peroxide” than simply stirring the gin and vermouth.

To bruise or not to bruise? Most martiniacs seem to believe a martini should be stirred, not shaken, to avoid bruising the gin. However, the earliest written example we’ve found of “bruise” used in this sense takes the opposite position.

In John O’Hara’s 1935 novel Butterfield 8, Paul Farley explains his change of heart on the subject of martini-making:

“I’ve always taken a holy delight in not bruising a poor little cocktail until this English barkeep explained the right way, or his way, and I must say it sounds plausible. He told me a Martini ought to be shaken very hard, briskly, a few vigorous shakes up and down, so that the gin and vermouth would be cracked into a proper foamy mixture.”

For the other side of the stir-versus-shake debate, John T. FitzGerald, chief instructor at the Bartenders School in New York City, offers this advice in an ad for Hiram Walker gin in the June 19, 1939, issue of Life magazine:

“Why should a martini be stirred instead of shaken? Because shaking ‘bruises’ the vermouth … that is, emulsifies it and makes the cocktail cloudy.”

No discussion of shaking and stirring would be complete without mentioning the most famous advocate of shaking—James Bond.

In Casino Royale (1953), Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, 007 orders a “dry martini” made to his own, distinctive specifications.

Bond directs the barman to mix vodka, gin, and the French aperitif Lillet: “Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

The scene continues: “He watched carefully as the deep glass became frosted with the pale golden drink, slightly aerated by the bruising of the shaker. He reached for it and took a long sip.”

Interestingly, Bond doesn’t use his catchphrase “shaken, not stirred” until the film version of Goldfinger (1964), when he tells a stewardess: “A martini, shaken, not stirred.” However, he uses a similar phrase, “shaken and not stirred” in the novel Dr. No (1958).

Getting  back to your question, we haven’t come across a good explanation of why the word “bruise” was originally used to describe the transformation that occurs when a martini is shaken.

We wonder, though, if the bruising of ginger—the pounding of the root to release its juices—in ginger beer may have influenced the usage. Or perhaps the bruising of mint in making a mint julep.

Although the ginger and the mint are physically bruised, the ultimate goal of the bruising is to intensify the flavor in the drinks.

By the way, we don’t recall any remarks by Bertie Wooster or his pals at the Drones Club about gin-bruising. But we recently came across this comment by the British writer Robert McCrum about P. G. Wodehouse’s intoxicating contributions to the OED:

“Wodehouse’s Drones will make for the bar like buffalo for a watering-hole. Their lexicon for inebriated includes: awash; boiled; fried; lathered; illuminated; oiled; ossified; pie-eyed; polluted; primed; scrooched; stinko; squiffy; tanked; and woozled.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

English English language Usage

The Rockies? Not the Rainier?

Q: Some geographical nouns seem to require “the” while others don’t. She vacations on Cape Cod, but climbs the Alps. We sail up the Nile, but swim in Lake George. Is there any logic here?

A: The definite article “the” was once seen more often in place names than it is today. But this convention is still very much with us, and logical or not, there are a few broad rules of thumb.

First of all, we use the article with the names of oceans, gulfs, and rivers: “the Pacific,” “the Nile,” “the Mississippi,” “the Ganges,” “the Caribbean,” etc.

We also use “the” with names for deserts: “the Sahara,” “the Mojave,” “the Kalahari,” and so on.

And we use “the” with the names of mountain ranges and groups of islands that are expressed as plurals.

This accounts for usages like “the Adirondacks,” “the Himalayas” (mountain ranges); “the Bahamas,” “the Hebrides” (island groups), and others. 

However, “the” is generally not used with singular names for individual mountains and islands (“Mount Rainier,” “Oahu”), though there are exceptions.

The definite article is used, for example, with mountains like Switzerland’s “the Matterhorn” and “the Jungfrau,” names that the Oxford English Dictionary says are “felt to be descriptive.”

We use “the” with both singular and plural names for regions, as in “the South,” “the Highlands,” and “the Lake District.”

We also use “the” with a singular geographic name that begins with an ordinary noun plus “of,” as in “isle of” and “cape of.”

This accounts for usages like “the Isle of Wight,” “the Isle of Man,” “the Cape of Good Hope,” “the Rock of Gibraltar,” and “the Strait of Hormuz.”

As the OED notes, “the” was formerly “used more widely” in geographic names, especially the names of countries: “In particular, use with country names has declined considerably; for instance, the Ukraine was once common but is now widely considered nonstandard.”

The dictionary mentions other old usages like “the Argentine,” “the Congo,” “the Lebanon,” “the Sudan,” and “the Yemen.”  Today, they’re simply “Congo,” “Argentina,” and so on.

The names of some countries have included “the” because they were originally named for a river, a region, a desert, or a mountain range. One such country that still retains its article, “the Gambia,” was named for the Gambia River.

In addition, “the” is used with countries whose names are plurals, or whose names consist of a common noun that’s modified.

This accounts for “the Netherlands,” “the Seychelles,” “the Dominican Republic,” “the United States,” “the United Kingdom,” and others.

We don’t generally use “the” with names of lakes. A special case is “the Great Salt Lake,” which is exceptional because it’s a descriptive noun phrase consisting of common words.

We haven’t covered all the bases here but we’ve given you a broad outline.

By the way, we ran a blog post a couple of years ago on the use of prepositions with geographical nouns. This will explain why we say “on Cape Cod” but “in the Rockies.”

[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 26, 2022.]

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

When a cordwainer made shoes

Q: I enjoyed listening to Pat’s segment on WNYC about “lost” words. I just wanted to toss another one at you: “cordwainer.” It means a shoemaker, but it’s next to unknown now. This I’ve learned since I started to make boots by hand a few years ago. Also, how about “cobbler,” the word for a shoe repair guy?

A: “Cordwainer,” what a wonderful word—once quite common, but now little more than a historical footnote (no pun intended!).

Like some of the other words Pat discussed on that program—“loophole,” “dashboard,” “tenterhooks,” and others—“cordwainer” is rarely seen in its original sense.

Literally, a “cordwainer” is someone who works in “cordwain,” an archaic word for cordovan leather.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “cordwain,” a noun first recorded in English in the 14th century, as “Spanish leather made originally at Cordova, of goat-skins tanned and dressed, but afterwards frequently of split horse-hides.”

Such leather, the OED adds, was “much used for shoes, etc., by the higher classes during the Middle Ages.” In fact, the dictionary’s earliest citation for “cordwain” shows just what a luxury item this was in medieval times.

In a religious treatise written about 1380, John Wycliffe wrote that although Christ and his disciples went barefoot, “the pope and other bishops will keep their feet full clean with scarlet and cordwain, and sometime with sandals, with gold, with silver, and silk preciously dight.” (We’ve expanded the quotation for context, and translated the Middle English.)

The related word “cordwainer” meant “a worker in cordwain or cordovan leather,” or more simply “a shoemaker,” the OED says.

Interestingly, the word “cordwainer” was recorded in English long before “cordwain” itself. The OED’s earliest citation for “cordwainer” is from a book of land charters in the 11th century.

Both words—“cordwain” and “cordwainer”—came into English by way of Old French.

“Originally in Spanish, Italian, and Old French,” the OED explains, a cordwainer was “a maker of or dealer in cordovan leather; thence in later French and the Germanic languages, a worker in this leather, a shoemaker.”

While “cordwainer” is now obsolete as an ordinary word for a shoemaker, Oxford says, it still exists “as the name of the trade-guild or company of shoemakers” and is “sometimes used by modern trades unions to include all branches of the trade.”

Several of the OED’s later citations, in fact, are about trade unions.

For example, a 1633 edition of The Survey of London says: “The Company of Shoomakers or Cordwainers, as they stile themselves … were first incorporated in the seventeenth yeere of King Henry the sixth.”

And an 1814 entry from the dispatches of the Duke of Wellington refers to “the unanimous resolution of the incorporated Company of Cordwainers of Newcastle upon Tyne.”

So a union or guild that has “cordwainer” in its name today can trace its lineage—at least etymologically—to the leatherworkers of a thousand years ago.

Another old word, “cobbler,” is still used as an ordinary term for someone who repairs shoes.

“Cobbler” is at least as old as 1362, when it appeared in William Langland’s medieval poem Piers Plowman: “Clement the Cobelere caste of his cloke.” (“Clement the cobbler cast off his cloak.”)

The OED suggests that the noun “cobbler” is evidently derived from the verb “cobble,” meaning to mend, patch, or put together in a rough or clumsy way. The source of the verb is unknown, the OED says.

However, the noun “cobbler” was recorded in the 14th century, although its supposed parent, the verb “cobble,” hasn’t yet been found in any written documents older than the 15th.

This leads John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, to a different conclusion: “The verb cobble is a back-formation from cobbler,” a noun he describes as being “of unknown origin.” (A back-formation is a new word formed by dropping part of an older one.)

While we’re on the subject, the verb “cobble” and the noun “cobblestone” are unrelated.

An old noun, “cob,” once used in the sense of a roundish lump, is thought to have yielded two nouns meaning rounded stones suitable for paving—“cobble” and “cobblestone.”

Finally, we should mention that the noun “shoemaker” itself first showed up in the late 1300s.  Here’s an OED example from Charles Dickens’s last novel, Our Mutual Friend (1864): “His expression and stoop are like those of a shoemaker.”  

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Politics Usage Word origin

The pork in “pork barrel”

Q: A WNYC caller asked Pat about the origin of “pork barrel.” Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (an invaluable resource) says it’s “an allusion to old plantation days when slaves assembled at the pork barrel for the allowance of pork reserved for them.”

A: We’d describe Brewer’s as an entertaining resource rather an invaluable one. Some of its etymologies are questionable, more folklore than fact.

In fact, Susie Dent, editor of the latest edition of the reference book, acknowledges that Brewer’s “is not entirely objective—even after nineteen editions the choices (and voices) of its author are still at its heart.”

In her foreword to the 19th edition, Dent writes that Ebenezer Brewer “sought his information from the edges of the traditional canon of knowledge.”

She quotes Brewer, who published the first edition in 1870, as explaining that he gathered “jottings of odds and ends of history, which historians leave in the cold or only incidentally mention in the course of their narratives.”

Interestingly, Brewer himself (1810-1897) was not responsible for that jotting about “slaves assembled at the pork barrel.” It was added to the dictionary, without a source, in the 20th century.

We suspect that the source was “A Little History of Pork,” an article by Chester Collins Maxey in the December 1919 issue of the journal National Municipal Review.

Maxey compares the “stampede” of members of Congress to pass pork-barrel bills to “slaves rushing the pork barrel,” but he doesn’t say the political usage is derived from plantation days. And we’ve found no authoritative source that makes such a claim.

So where does “pork barrel” come from? When the phrase first entered English in the early 1700s, it referred simply to a barrel for storing pork, but the Oxford English Dictionary says that sense is now rare.

The OED’s earliest written example is from a 1705 entry in the public records of the Colony of Connecticut: “All barrells made for tarr and cyder shall be of the same gage as pork and beeff barrels, viz thirtie one gallons and a halfe.”

The word sleuth Barry Popik notes on his Big Apple website that the “pork barrel was a prized culinary possession in the 19th century, able to feed many mouths.”

In the 1860s, “pork barrel” took on a new, figurative sense. Edward Everett Hale uses the phrase positively in “The Children of the Public,” an 1863 short story, to refer to public spending by the government for the benefit of its citizens.

In the early 1870s, the OED says, the phrase “pork barrel” took on the political sense of government funds “appropriated for local projects designed to please the electorate or legislators and win votes.”

The dictionary’s first example is from the Sept. 13, 1873, issue of the Defiance (Ohio) Democrat: “Recollecting their many previous visits to the public pork-barrel … this hue-and-cry over the salary grab … puzzles quite as much as it alarms them.”

Around the same time, the OED notes, the word “pork” took on the slang sense in the US of government funds or benefits “dispensed by politicians in order to gain favour with patrons or constituents.”

Here’s an example from the Feb. 28, 1879, issue of the Congressional Record: “St. Louis is going to have some of the ‘pork’ indirectly; but it will not do any good.”

We’ll end with an excerpt from the 1913 autobiography of Senator Robert M. La Follette Sr., a Republican senator from Wisconsin and a Progressive Party presidential candidate:

“My first speech in Congress was made on April 22, 1886. It was on the so-called ‘pork-barrel’ bill for river and harbor appropriations. I was then, as I am now, heartily in favor of generous expenditures of national funds for waterways and harbors, but the scramble for unwarranted appropriations was then and is now not short of scandalous.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Is it bad to discriminate?

Q: Is there a difference between “discriminating” and “discriminatory”?  Does the latter word imply disapproval of the discrimination?

A: Each of these adjectives, “discriminating” and “discriminatory,” can be used in both positive and negative ways. 

Like the verb they come from, “discriminate,” they have to do with making distinctions, which is not a bad thing in itself. Making distinctions is unjust only when it’s done for unjust purposes.

But although the adjectives overlap, it’s our feeling that “discriminating” (used as an adjective and not as a participle) is a less loaded word than “discriminatory.”

Of the two, “discriminating” is more likely to be used in a positive way. You might say, for example, that a connoisseur of wines has “discriminating tastes” (not “discriminatory tastes”).

“Discriminatory” seems to be the choice when the meaning is negative—as in “discriminatory housing practices” (not “discriminating housing practices”).

We aren’t the only ones to perceive a difference here. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines “discriminating” in mostly positive terms and “discriminatory”  in largely negative ones.

The dictionary’s leading definition of “discriminating” is positive: “able to recognize or draw fine distinctions or judgments: a discriminating collector of fine books.

Next in order is “serving to distinguish; distinctive: a discriminating characteristic.

Last comes the meaning associated with injustice: “marked by or showing prejudice; discriminatory.”

As for “discriminatory,” the negative sense predominates. American Heritage’s first definition is “marked by or showing prejudice; biased.” The last is more neutral: “making distinctions.”

(We’re citing American Heritage here because this dictionary lists a word’s central meaning first. Merriam-Webster’s lists the various meanings in their historical order.)

As we’ll explain later, there seems to some historical foundation for the difference between “discriminating” and “discriminatory.” But first let’s look into the verb that gave us these adjectives.  

“Discriminate” came into English in the early 1600s from the Latin discriminare, which means not only to distinguish or differentiate but also to divide or separate.

The first written use of “discriminate,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, appeared in a book on anatomy published in 1615.

The author, the English physician Helkiah Crooke, describes ligaments that serve “to discriminate or separate the right muscles from the left.”

This later usage appeared in a religious treatise published in 1637 by Bishop Joseph Hall: “The differences whereby we may discriminate counterfeit vertues from true.”

And William Penn used the word in his Perswasive to Moderation to Dissenting Christians (1685): “He sees the Where and What of Persons and Things: He discriminates, and makes that a rule of conduct.”

So in early usages, one who could “discriminate” was a person of discernment, and the ability to “discriminate” was an intellectual and spiritual asset.

Similarly, the 17th-century derivations “discriminating” and “discrimination” were positive or neutral when they first appeared. Negative senses of these words came along later, at about the time that “discriminatory” was introduced.

In post-Revolutionary American economics, the verb “discriminate” began to take on pejorative overtones when it was used to describe trading policies. 

The OED defines this sense of “discriminate” as meaning “to treat goods, trading partners, etc., more or less favourably according to circumstances.” In this sense, Oxford adds, “discriminate” is frequently used “with against (also in favour of).”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for this use of the verb is from a letter written in 1786 by the American political economist Tench Coxe: “They do not discriminate against ships belonging to the other states, in any charge whatever.”

Finally, in mid-19th century America, “discriminate” acquired the familiar negative meaning it has today: “to treat a person or group in an unjust or prejudicial manner, esp. on the grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.,” in the words of the OED.

This sense of the word, the dictionary notes, is frequently used with “against,” but it can also be used with “in favor of.”

Not surprisingly, the OED’s earliest citation is about racial discrimination. It’s from an anonymous novel about slavery published in Philadelphia in 1857, The Olive-Branch: or, White Oak Farm:

“The African race is placed under disabilities in every State in the Union but one. … As a race, the laws discriminate against them.” (In case you’re curious, the character being quoted refers to Maine as the exception.)

This later example comes from a 1913 issue of the Fort Wayne (Indiana) News: “Civil service rules barred him from discriminating in favor of the jobless and against men who worked on the streets.”

 Oxford cites a more recent example from Helena Kennedy’s book Just Law (2005): “I have frequently criticised judges for their hidebound attitudes to women or their unwillingness to see how the system discriminates.”

In short, “discriminate” was generally used as a positive or neutral term until it added negative social connotations in 19th-century American usage. And words derived from “discriminate” show the same pattern.

In the mid-1600s, the adjective “discriminating” meant “distinctive” or “distinguishing” when applied to things and “discerning” when applied to people.

Then in the 1780s, “discriminating” acquired its neutral economic meaning (favorable or unfavorable taxes, tariffs, etc.). 

It wasn’t until the mid-19th century, according to the OED, that it added the negative sense of treating “a person or group in an unjust or prejudicial manner, esp. on the grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.”

Here are two of the negative 19th-century American examples cited in the dictionary:

“They [former slaves] will … be made the unhappy objects of ungodly, discriminating laws.” (From the Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper, 1865.)

“The section gives the Chinese the same rights as other citizens, and prohibits discriminating legislation by any State against immigrants from one foreign country over those from another.” (From the San Francisco Chronicle, 1870.)

While the other adjective, “discriminatory,” was neutral when first used in 1745, it added both positive and negative meanings in 19th-century America.

In the early 1800s, it was used to describe favorable or unfavorable trading policies. And in the late 1800s, it took on its principal meaning today: unjust or prejudicial, based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and so on.

The OED’s earliest citation for this latter sense of the word is from an 1896 issue of the Galveston Daily News: “Discriminatory and repressionary restrictions.”

In summary, it seems clear that “discriminatory” is more closely associated with prejudicial treatment than “discriminating.”

This could be because “discriminatory” was the latecomer, arriving not long before “discriminate” and its other derivatives were beginning to take on negative meanings in American usage.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.­

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Why did Johnny walk the line?

Q: What is “the line” that Johnny Cash walked and Eddie and the Cruisers walked on down? There is the obvious geometric sense and the implication of faithfulness or doing right, but the usage seems to vary in American popular culture.

A: The noun “line” has taken on quite a lot of senses since it showed up in Anglo-Saxon times and meant a rope or string, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Today, it can mean a line on a piece of paper, a railway line, a line of work, a power line, a pickup line, a line of products, a foul line in sports, a defensive line on the battlefield, a line of people, a line of a musical staff, a bookmaker’s line, and so on.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the English word is ultimately derived from linea, Latin for linen thread and the source of the English noun “linen.”

The noun “line” has taken on even more meanings in such expressions as “draw the line” (18th century, to lay down a limit beyond which one won’t tolerate or act) and “hold the line” (20th century, to maintain a position or a viewpoint).

As for the expressions you’re asking about, let’s begin with the beginning of the 1956 Johnny Cash song “I Walk the Line”:

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds
Because you’re mine, I walk the line

As you’ve noted, in the Cash song the expression “to walk the line” means to be faithful. That’s how he explained it in a Feb. 26, 2010, interview with NPR: “It was kind of a prodding to myself to play it straight, Johnny.”

[Update, Jan. 16, 2015. A reader writes to point out that the song Sixteen Tons, first recorded by Merle Travis in 1946 and later by Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955, uses the same expression. One stanza, as recorded by Travis, ends, “Aint no high-tone woman make me walk the line.”]

Where does this usage come from?

We couldn’t find any entries for “walk the line” in the OED, standard dictionaries, or authoritative slang dictionaries.

However, we’ve found many examples from as far back as the 1700s of the expression used in the sense of being faithful.

For example, Masonic Miscellanies, a 1797 collection of Masonic poetry and prose collected by Stephen Jones, includes these lines:

To the secret and the silent,
To all Masons who walk the line,
To him that did the Temple rear,
To each true and faithful heart,
That still preserves the sacred art.

As for “Boardwalk Angel,” the John Cafferty song from the 1983 film Eddie and the Cruisers, here’s the stanza that caught your attention:

The world has let you down and it broke your heart
But tonight’s the night for a brand new start
We’ll leave the world behind
We’ll go walking on down the line
Come on girl, let’s make our dream come true

The expression “down the line” is often used literally, meaning from one end to the other, as in down a line of troops or down a railway line.

Here’s an OED example from Tony, an 1898 children’s book by the English novelist Florence Montgomery: “A few stations down the line.”

The expression is also used figuratively in the sense of complete, as in this OED example from the June 9, 1962, issue of the Economist: “Mr. Yarborough described himself as a ‘down-the-line supporter’ of President Kennedy.”

However, Cafferty doesn’t seem to be using “down the line” either way in his lyrics for “Boardwalk Angel.” Two other uses of the phrase make more sense to us.

The Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms says the expression is usually spoken and means in the future. It gives this example: “Waiting even a year to put money into your retirement account can make a big difference down the line.”

So according to Cambridge, a statement like “We’ll go walking on down the line” could mean “We’ll go walking on into the future.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang offers another possible explanation of the lyric. It says the verb phrase “go down the line” means “to make an effort, to commit oneself.” This sounds a lot like the way Johnny Cash used “walk the line.”

Here’s an example from a 1955 novel by Budd Schulberg based on the screenplay he wrote for On the Waterfront (1954): “I go down the line for them and the Doyle crowd still treat me like a bum, Terry thought bitterly.”

So, according to Green’s, “We’ll go walking on down the line” could mean something like “We’ll be committed to each other.”

Sorry we can’t be more definite here. We’ve asked John Cafferty, the guy who wrote “Boardwalk Angel,” for the final word on this, but we haven’t heard from him yet.

In the meantime, let’s say “We’ll go walking on down the line” means something like “We’ll be faithful to each other as we walk on into the future.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


English English language Grammar Usage

Who’s vs. who’s

Q: I discovered this book description on Amazon: “So if you’re a .NET developer who’s mired in the trenches and yearning for a better way, this book is most definitely for you.” Is this use of “who’s” to mean “who has mired” and “who is yearning” acceptable?

A: The contraction “who’s” is a shortened form of either “who is” or “who has.” But in your example, it doesn’t mean both. It means only “who is.”

Here’s a stretched-out version of the sentence: “So if you’re a .NET developer who is mired in the trenches and who is yearning for a better way, this book is most definitely for you.”

One “who’s” can apply to two or more parts of a sentence, but the contracted verb cannot be both “has” and “is” at the same time. It must mean one or the other.

Generally, the writer depends on the context to make the meaning clear. In cases where there’s ambiguity, the writer should avoid the contraction.

We don’t find the sentence ambiguous, and we’re surprised that you do. It seems obvious to us that “who’s” stands for “who is” in both key parts: “who is mired in the trenches” and “who is yearning for a better way.”

On the other hand, if “mired” were used as a verb—as in “who has mired himself in the trenches”—then “who’s” here would be a contraction for “who has.”

In that case, the verb “has” could not extend automatically to what follows the conjunction. So “is” would have to be inserted after the conjunction (“and is yearning …”).

The passage would then read: “So if you’re a .NET developer who’s [or “who has”] mired himself in the trenches and is yearning for a better way, this book is most definitely for you.” 

It might be more graceful, though, to drop the “who” business entirely: “So if you’re a .NET developer mired in the trenches and yearning for a better way, this book is most definitely for you.” 

Check out our books about the English language


English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

When a blockbuster was a bomb

Q: Am I right in believing that the word “blockbuster” originally referred to a show so popular that people lined up around the block to purchase tickets? This, of course, was in the days before phone sales and online ticket buying.

A: Today the term “blockbuster” usually refers to a play, a movie, a book, or another work of entertainment that’s an enormous success.

But when it first showed up in English during World War II, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word referred to “an aerial bomb capable of destroying a whole block of buildings.”

The press initially used “blockbuster” (two words at first, then hyphenated, and finally solid) to refer to 4,000-pound bombs used by the Royal Air Force during World War II. It was later used for RAF bombs of 8,000 and 12,000 pounds.

The OED’s earliest written example, from the Sept. 14, 1942, issue of Time magazine, refers to watching a test of the bombs from “a sturdy observation tower a mile from the exploding block busters.”

The next example is from the Dec. 22, 1943, issue of the Times of London: “Bombs were falling … many 8,000 lb. and 4,000 lb. ‘block-busters’ among them.”

“Blockbuster” took on several other meanings in the war years and later, including a knockout punch or other hard blow, something enormous, and the first black family to move into a white neighborhood, according to citations in Green’s Dictionary of Slang.

The OED’s first example of the term “blockbuster” used figuratively for an entertainment success is from The Friends, a 1957 novel by Godfrey Smith: “One day I had what seemed to me like a block-buster of an idea for a musical play.”

Here’s an earlier example from the New York Times archive. A June 3, 1951, article in the Times Magazine refers to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin as “Mrs. Stowe’s literary blockbuster.”

Interestingly, two cousins of “blockbuster” have been used to describe failure in entertainment and other endeavors: “bomb” (since 1961) and “dud” (since 1908).

So if that “blockbuster” of an idea in Smith’s novel The Friends turned out to be a “dud,” the musical would have been a “bomb.”

Check out our books about the English language


English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Mastheads, afloat and in print

Q: I was reading The Egoist, George Meredith’s 1879 novel, the other day when I came upon a passage that imagines a sailor “blown from the masthead in a gale.” Am I right in assuming that the nautical “masthead” gave us its periodical sense?

A: Yes, it’s likely that the “masthead” on a ship inspired the “masthead” in a newspaper or magazine, though we haven’t found an authoritative source to confirm this.

The terms are clearly related. Both are derived from “mast” and “head,” two old words with roots in Anglo-Saxon times. And an early masthead from the 19th-century American journal Gleason’s Weekly features an image of a sailing ship.

However, the word “head” had been used figuratively for hundreds to years to refer to the top of a page when the term “masthead” first appeared in its journalistic sense in the 1800s.

Both “mast” (spelled mæst) and “head” (spelled heafdu, heafod, or heafde,) showed up early Old English, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

King Alfred uses both terms in his Old English translation of the Roman philosopher Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiæ (circa 888).

The term “mast” originally meant pretty much what it means now: an upright pole to support the sails of a sailing ship. And “head” originally had the principal meaning it has today: the upper part of a human or animal body.

In the 1500s, the word “head” took on a new sense: the top of a page or the title at the top of a page. The OED’s earliest citation for this usage is from the Geneva Bible of 1560:

“We haue set ouer the head of euery page some notable worde or sentence which may greatly further aswel for memorie, as for the chief point of the page.”

The combined term “masthead” showed up in the late 1400s in the nautical sense, meaning the top of a mast. The OED says it usually referred to a place for observation or flying a flag, though it was once a place for punishment.

The earliest citation for “masthead” in the OED is from a 1495 entry in the naval accounts and inventories of King Henry VII: “A parell for the mayne Toppe maste ffeble j Garlandes of yron abought the mast hede j.”

The word took on a journalistic sense in the early 1800s, when it referred to “the title, motto, or similar device, of a newspaper or journal, printed in a conspicuous place, usually at the top of the first page or front cover,” according to the dictionary.

The first Oxford citation for the usage is from the Dec. 22, 1838, issue of the Hennepin (Illinois) Journal: “Many of our Whig friends … were anxious that the Journal should … carry Whig colors at the mast-head.

In the early 1900s, according to OED citations, the word took on a new journalistic sense: “a section in a newspaper or journal (usually on the editorial page or next to the table of contents) giving information relating to the publication, such as the owner’s name, a list of the editors, etc.”

The dictionary’s first example for this usage is from a 1934 entry in Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition:

Masthead, the matter printed in every issue of a newspaper or journal, stating the title, ownership, and management, subscription and advertising rates, etc.”

Check out our books about the English language


English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Tosser & Twee LLP

Q: American here;  I am never sure that I understand the source, meaning, and cultural nuances of British vernacular, most recently the gist of two words, “tosser” and “twee.” Where are they on the incendiary scale?

A: “Tosser” and “twee”—sounds like a UK law firm. Well, both of these British terms are derisive, but to varying degrees.

The slang noun “tosser,” dating from the 1970s, is pretty high on the incendiary scale. It’s defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a term of contempt or abuse for a person; a ‘jerk.’ ” (A “jerk-off” is closer to its etymological roots.)

The colloquial adjective “twee,” dating from the early 1900s, isn’t nearly as insulting. British speakers use it the way Americans use “precious” in its negative sense of overly nice or affected.

“Tosser,” the OED says, is probably derived from the verbal phrase “toss off,” meaning to masturbate. This phrase can be transitive (as in “he tossed himself off”) or intransitive (“he tossed off”).

The OED’s earliest recorded use of this phrase is from a poem in The Pearl, a journal of Victorian erotica that was briefly published in 1879 and ’80: “I don’t like to see, though at me you might scoff, / An old woman trying to toss herself off.”

Oxford also describes an earlier noun usage, in which “toss-off” was “coarse slang” for “an act of masturbation.” This usage was recorded as far back as 1735 in The Rake’s Progress etchings of Hogarth: “And take a Toss-off in the Porch.”

Suffice it to say that the underlying sense of “tosser,” a term first used in the 1970s, is masturbator—or, to use a slightly earlier British vernacular term, “wanker.” (On the source of the mid-20th-century verb “wank,” the OED has only “origin unknown.”)

But despite its underlying sense, “tosser” is generally (though not always) used loosely to mean, as the Collins English Dictionary says, “a stupid or despicable person.” 

The OED’s earliest published example is from a 1977 issue of the British music magazine ZigZag: “She came on in a big mac and flashed her legs like an old tosser before throwing it off.”

This milder example is from the British mystery writer Peter Inchbald’s novel Short Break in Venice (1983): “Poor little tosser. As if he wasn’t suffering enough already.”

As for “twee,” it represents “an infantile pronunciation of sweet,” the OED says. And originally “twee” simply meant “sweet,” as in this 1905 example from Punch: “ ‘I call him perfectly twee!’ persisted Phyllis.”

But today, Oxford says, the adjective is seen “only in depreciatory use,” and means “affectedly dainty or quaint; over-nice, over-refined, precious, mawkish.”

Standard dictionaries agree.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), defines “twee” as chiefly British and meaning “affectedly or excessively dainty, delicate, cute, or quaint.”

The Macmillan Dictionary puts it this way: “something that is twee is intended to be attractive but seems too perfect to be real.”

The OED gives this example from a 1983 issue of a former BBC publication, the Listener: “Mike Nichols’s thriller-fantasy about dolphins should be as nauseatingly twee as the worst Disney—but it isn’t.”

Check out our books about the English language