English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Bullies and bulldogs

Q: I came across someone who wonders if “bullying” has something to do with “bulldogs.” Is there anything to this? Or is it just bull?

A: It’s just bull, though the paths of the two words did cross at least once (more on this later).

“Bullying” and “bulldogs” aren’t etymologically related. In fact, the word “bully” had nothing to do with what we now think of as “bullying” when it entered English in the 1500s.

The noun “bully” was originally “a term of endearment and familiarity” similar to “sweetheart” or “darling,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Although it was initially used for both men and women, the OED says, it was “later applied to men only, implying friendly admiration: good friend, fine fellow, ‘gallant.’ ”

The origins of the word are fuzzy, but the dictionary suggests that it might have come from boel or buole, Dutch or Middle High German terms for a lover.

The earliest Oxford citation for the usage is from A Comedy Concernynge Thre Lawes, of Nature Moses, & Christ, Corrupted by the Sodomytes, Pharysees and Papystes (circa 1548), a morality play by John Bale, an Anglican bishop:

“The woman hath a wytt, / And by her gere can sytt, / Though she be sumwhat olde. / It is myne owne swete bullye, / My muskyne and my mullye.” (“Muskyne” and “mullye” are obsolete terms of endearment.)

Here are a few examples from Shakespeare’s plays:

“From my hart strings I loue the louely bully.” (Henry V, c. 1600.)

“What saiest thou, bully, Bottome?” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, c. 1600.)

“Blesse thee my bully doctor.” (The Merry Wives of Windsor, c. 1602.)

In the late 1600s, the term “bully” came to mean a “blustering gallant” or a “swashbuckler,” according to the OED, though it now generally means “a tyrannical coward who makes himself a terror to the weak.”

It’s impossible to tell from the dictionary’s examples when the swashbuckling sense of the noun evolved into the tyrannical sense.

But the verb “bully,” which showed up in the early 1700s, was initially used in both the blustering and tyrannical senses—or, as the OED defines it, “to act the bully towards; to treat in an overbearing manner; to intimidate, overawe.”

The OED’s earliest example for the verb is from Samuel Palmer’s Moral Essays on Some of the Most Curious and Significant English, Scotch and Foreign Proverbs (1710): “His poor neighbour is bully’d by his big appearance.”

And here’s an example in Google Books of the noun used in the tyrannical sense, from Tobias Smollett’s 1775 novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker:

“Then, it must be owned, he wants courage, otherwise he would never allow himself to be cowed by the great political bully, for whose understanding he has justly a very great contempt.”

As for the noun “bulldog,” it first showed up in the mid-1700s. (The OED has a questionable 1518 citation that refers to “two bolddogges,” but it’s unclear whether the animals were actually bulldogs.)

The dictionary defines the noun, which it hyphenates, as “a dog of a bold and fierce breed, with large bull-head, short muzzle, strong muscular body of medium height, and short smooth hair.”

Oxford says the name of the dog is derived from the words “bull” and “dog.” Why a bull? Because the dog was once used in bull-baiting—a “sport” in which a dog would lock its teeth onto the snout of a tethered bull.

The first clear “bulldog” citation in the OED is from a 1752 essay by David Hume: “The courage of bull-dogs and game-cocks seems peculiar to England.”

The adjective “bully” (meaning admirable) showed up in the late 1600s. We discussed this usage in a blog post several years ago about the term “bully pulpit.”

In the late 1800s, the adjective was also used to describe someone who looked like a bulldog—this is where the paths of “bully” and “bulldog” crossed.

The OED’s sole example of the adjective used this way is from Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s 1883 novel Phantom Fortune: “Angelina is bully about the muzzle.” (Angelina is a fox terrier.)

Although the usage hasn’t made it into the OED or standard dictionaries, many dog rescue groups use the term “bully breeds” to refer to such breeds as the American Staffordshire terrier, bull terrier, bulldog, and bullmastiff.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

“I’m afraid” (aka “I’m sorry”)

Q: What’s the origin of the use of “afraid” in sentences like “I’m afraid I can’t help you” or  “I’m afraid that is the case”? Is this apologetic sense considered old-fashioned today?

A: When the adjective “afraid” showed up in the 1300s (as affred or afreyd in Middle English), it meant alarmed or frightened.

But by the early 1600s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the expression “I am afraid” (or “I’m afraid”) was being used in the apologetic sense you’re asking about.

The OED says “I’m afraid” here means “I regret to say,” “I apologetically report,” “I suspect,” “I am inclined to think,” and so on.

Oxford’s earliest example is from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (circa 1590): “I am affraid sir, doe what you can / Yours will not be entreated.”

In this citation from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Miss Bingley’s offer of help is rebuffed by Darcy:

“I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well.”

“Thank you—but I always mend my own.”

(We’ve expanded on the OED citation to savor Miss Bingley’s comeuppance.)

The most recent Oxford example is from Bloodless Shadow, a 2003 detective novel by Victoria Blake: “I’m afraid I can’t discuss my cases.”

You ask if this apologetic sense of “I’m afraid” is now considered old-fashioned. Not as far as we can tell.

It seems as contemporary today as when Shakespeare put those words into the mouth of Petruchio’s friend Hortensio.

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Does “Sr.” outlive the senior?

Q: My father and brother, both deceased, had the same name, and used “senior” and “junior” to differentiate themselves. Now, I can’t decide how to present my father’s name in a book dedication. Do you have any advice?

A: The use of “Sr.” in reference to your father would be appropriate.

This is an issue of etiquette, not style, grammar, or usage. But we think it makes sense to keep the “Sr.” here to be clear who is being referred to in the dedication.

Generational suffixes like “Jr.” and “Sr.” aren’t necessarily dropped when a son or a father dies. A deceased father may still be known as “John Doe Sr.” and a deceased son as “John Doe Jr.”

A well-known example is Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., who outlived his “Jr.” son but continued to be referred to as “Sr.” even after his own death.  

When the son survives the father, he may choose to drop the “Jr.” from his name, or he may choose to keep it.

William F. Buckley Jr., for example, used the “Jr.” throughout his life, and the suffix is still used after his death.

And by the way, it’s not necessary to use commas around the abbreviations “Jr.” and “Sr.,” according to The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.).

The manual uses this example: “John Doe Sr. continues to cast a shadow over his son.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the use of “Sr.” for “senior” as “chiefly US.”

This use of the abbreviation to distinguish a father from a son of the same name is relatively new, according to OED citations.

The earliest example in the dictionary is from the June 5, 1936, issue of the New York Herald Tribune: “Extradition of Ellis Parker Sr. to await Republican Convention.”

(The OED doesn’t have any citations for “Jr.” used to distinguish a son from his father.)

However, the dictionary has citations dating from the 1400s for the word “senior” used this way, and from the 1600s for “junior” used for the son.

Here’s an example from a 1692 issue of the London Gazette that uses both: “Lost, a Note of Mr. Tho. Symonds junior’s Hand for Mr. Tho. Symonds senior … for 50£.

Finally, you might be interested in a post we wrote a few months ago about the use of “senior” to refer to an old person.

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Taking George Clooney to task?

Q: Twice in The Monuments Men (screenplay by George Clooney), Clooney the actor uses “task” as a verb: “We have been tasked to find and protect art that the Nazis have stolen.” But were people saying that back in the early 1940s?

A: You’re not the first moviegoer to be startled by Clooney’s use of “task” as a verb. Bloggers and contributors to online discussion groups have criticized this usage.

One critic complains, for example, that Clooney is making a noun (“task”) into a verb. Another suggests that the usage emerged in 1980s corporate-speak, so it’s an anachronism in a movie that takes place near the end of World War II. 

Neither complaint is legitimate. Since 1530, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “task” has been used as a verb meaning to impose a task on someone.

The construction followed by “with” or “to” (as in “tasked to find”) has been around since the late 1500s and appears in Shakespeare.

The OED has an example from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 (1598), in which Hotspur complains that the King “taskt the whole state.”

But we prefer the scene in Othello (circa 1603) where Iago schemes to get Cassio plastered.

Here Cassio says he can’t hold his liquor and doesn’t want any more to drink: “I am unfortunate in the infirmity, / and dare not task my weakness with any more.

The OED has only a couple of modern examples, including this Nov. 20, 1980, ad from the Oxford Star, a weekly in England:

“A small engineering team tasked with the design, building and commissioning of high volume production lines.”

However, the usage is alive and well these days. A Google search for “I was tasked to” resulted in more than 1.7 million hits. Example: “I was tasked to look through my old Facebook pics to find a candid photo of myself for a shoot.”

Now for an interesting detour. In Middle English, “task” and “tax” meant the same thing. The two words are etymological twins that went their separate ways over the centuries.

When the noun “task” first appeared around 1300  it meant a payment or a levy—that is, a tax. And when the verb came along in the 1400s, to “task” meant to impose a tax.” 

So why were there two words, “task” and “tax,” one ending in an “sk” sound and the other in a “ks” sound?

As the OED explains, both have their ultimate roots in the Latin taxare (assess, evaluate). It’s been suggested that around the year 800, the consonant sounds were swapped in medieval Latin, resulting in two separate nouns taxa and tasca.

These two Latin words were passed along into Old French, then into Anglo-Norman, and finally into English.

(The transposition of sounds is called metathesis, and it can result in new words. As we’ve written on our blog, something similar happened with the word “ask, which had two forms in medieval English, “ask” and “axe.”)

The words “task” and “tax” began to diverge in the 1500s.

The “task” that originally meant a fixed payment imposed on someone—say, by an overlord—came to mean a fixed quantity of labor imposed on a person or owed as a duty.

From that meaning grew the modern sense of “task”: an assignment or a piece of work. (The verb “task” developed along similar lines.)

While “task” and “tax” have now gone their separate ways in English, they still intersect here and there.

As you know, we sometimes say a difficult task or a hard job is “taxing.” Both “task” and “tax” are occasionally used as verbs meaning to “burden” or “put a strain on,” as in these OED citations:

“It tasked his diplomatic skill to effect his departure in safety” (from John Yeats’s The Growth and Vicissitudes of Commerce, 1872).

“My ingenuity was often taxed for expedients” (from Elisha Kent Kane’s The U.S. Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin, 1853).

And when we scold or censure a person for doing something, we “take him to task” for it.

In fact, the verbs “task” and “tax” have both been used in this sense of censuring or reproving someone. Here are a couple of examples from the OED:

“Trollope is another offender who is frequently tasked with endangering the wholeness of his novels” (1965, from Kenneth Graham’s English Criticism of the Novel, 1865-1900).

“That Chronicle … which seems to tax the envy and rapaciousness of Clarence as the Causes of the dissention” (1768, from Horace Walpole’s Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard the Third).

And that’s our task for the day. We won’t tax our brains any more!

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

How funny is facetious?

Q: How do you assess the state of “facetious” today? Do most people use it to mean humorous or to mean joking, often inappropriately? Do you find this ambiguity problematic or do you think context is usually sufficient for understanding?

A: All in all, “facetious” is a slippery term. Some dictionaries recognize two meanings, some only one. And those that give only one definition differ as to whether “facetious” remarks are biting or benign.

It’s safe to say, however, that both the meanings you mention are in use today.

The word can simply mean humorous—that is, not serious. But “facetious” can also mean waggish or jokey, sometimes in a flippant or inappropriate way.

We generally depend on the context, or the manner of the delivery, to tell us whether a joke or witty comment is merely amusing or has a bite to it.

Obviously, that’s easier when the witticism is spoken (with vocal inflections and perhaps wry facial expressions), than when it’s written.

The different senses of “facetious” can overlap, of course, which is probably why some standard dictionaries mush them together.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says only that “facetious” means “playfully jocular; humorous,” as in “facetious remarks.”

And this single definition comes from Cambridge Dictionaries Online: “not seriously meaning what you say, usually in an attempt to be humorous or to trick someone,” as in “I make so much money that we never have to worry – I’m being facetious.”

On the other hand, the Macmillan Dictionary recognizes only the negative meaning of “facetious.” The sole definition is “trying to be funny in a way that is not appropriate.”

Some other dictionaries recognize wider uses for the adjective. 

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has these definitions: (1) “joking or jesting often inappropriately: waggish,” as in “just being facetious”; and (2) “meant to be humorous or funny: not serious,” as in “a facetious remark.”

M-W’s online edition gives longer examples, including this illustration for inappropriate humor: “a facetious and tasteless remark about people in famine-stricken countries being spared the problem of overeating.”

The Oxford English Dictionary also has two broad definitions of “facetious” in modern usage: (1) “characterized by or given to pleasantry or joking, now esp. when inappropriate or flippant”; and (2) “witty, humorous, amusing.”

That “now esp.” comment in the OED suggests that the dictionary’s editors believe that when “facetious” is used in a joking sense today, the flippant side of the word—the one with the bite—is more common.

The OED’s earliest published citation for “facetious” in the modern sense appears to use the word to mean witty and amusing. It’s from A Treatise of the Felicitie of the Life to Come (1594), by the Scottish minister and poet Alexander Hume:

“To heare the merry interloquutors of facetious Dialogues, pretty and quicke conceits, and rancounters of Comediens, in their comedies, and stage plaies.”

In a more contemporary citation, we find “facetious” used to describe an article that’s an extended joke (though a harmless one) about two literary figures who were dead ringers for each other.

“The resemblance between the two is extraordinary,” Robert H. Boyle writes in the New York Times Book Review (2000). “I decided to write a facetious article stating that Joyce and Jennings had been separated at birth.”

The references are to James Joyce and an angler named Preston Jennings, whose volume A Book of Trout Flies was published in 1935, four years before Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

In accompanying photographs, the two authors look nearly identical. Boyle argues, among other things, that the “fin” in Joyce’s title is no coincidence, and that his phrase “speckled trousers” is code for “speckled trout.”

Boyle’s article is hilarious, but not flippant or inappropriate.

(None of the OED’s examples of “facetious,” in our opinion, seem to represent inappropriate humor.)

So far, we’ve been discussing the meanings of “facetious” that have survived in modern usage. But an earlier sense of the word in English was lost long ago.

This “facetious,” first recorded in 1542, meant “polished, elegant, agreeable,” and was used to describe a person’s manners or style, according to the OED.

Oxford has only four examples, concluding with this one from Samuel Mather’s An Apology for the Liberties of the Churches in New England (1738):

“I Have a Letter in my Hands, and the very Original Letter, of the learned and pious and facetious Mr. Charles Morton of Charles-Town in New-England.”

What kind of etymological roots could grow a word meaning both elegant and funny? Slightly different roots, it seems.

The “facetious” that’s now obsolete (“polished, elegant, agreeable”) comes ultimately from the classical Latin facetus (clever, whimsical), which in post-classical Latin came to mean courtly.

And the “facetious” that has survived into modern usage is descended from the classical Latin facetia (a joke or jest).

Finally, an interesting aside: In booksellers’ catalogues the word “facetiae” is a euphemism for pornography, according to Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.). It means “jests” in Latin.

Keep that in mind next time you’re shopping for printed rarities.

Update (March 26, 2014): A reader writes to remind us that “facetious” is one of only two common words that contain all five vowels in order. The other is “abstemious.”

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English language Etymology Grammar Spelling Style Usage

The geography of the apostrophe

Q: I thought you might find it interesting that city officials in Cambridge (England) have banned the use of the apostrophe in new street names. What are your thoughts?

A: We saw the same news stories you did. But a few days after you emailed us, there was a new development. The officials in Cambridge bowed to public pressure and reversed that ban on possessive apostrophes in signs marking new streets.

Here in the United States, we don’t see many possessive apostrophes (or periods, for that matter) in street signs. The authorities that regulate these things tend to discourage the use of punctuation. 

(And by the way, you might be interested in a post we wrote some time ago on the use of compass directions—like the confusing “No” for north—on street signs.)

Who gets to decide whether street signs can have apostrophes? In the US, as in Britain, this is up to local cities and towns.

In this country, the individual municipalities use guidelines established by state boards or commissions that regulate geographic names. All 50 states have such agencies.

The states in turn look to the federal government for guidance. And on the federal level, the use of apostrophes in the names of geographic features has been discouraged since 1890, when the US Board on Geographic Names was established.

This is why you almost never see apostrophes on federal signs and maps. The US board says in the FAQ on its website that when place names are in the possessive form, “the apostrophe is almost always removed,” though the “s” by itself is allowed.

What does the federal government have against apostrophes in geographic features? The agency itself can’t explain. “The Board’s archives contain no indication of the reason for this policy,” it says in the FAQ.

But it does dispose of a few old theories: “Myths attempting to explain the policy include the idea that the apostrophe looks too much like a rock in water when printed on a map, and is therefore a hazard, or that in the days of ‘stick–up type’ for maps, the apostrophe would become lost and create confusion.”

“The probable explanation,” the agency suggests, “is that the Board does not want to show possession for natural features.”

Elsewhere, in its editorial guidelines, the board says: “Apostrophes suggesting possession or association are not to be used within the body of a proper name (Henrys Fork, not Henry’s Fork).”

However, the guidelines add, “Apostrophes may be used within the body of a geographic name to denote a missing letter (Lake O’ the Woods) or when they normally exist in a surname used as part of a geographic name (O’Malley Hollow).”

As for street signs, the national board says that, unless asked for an opinion, it doesn’t get involved in the names of roads, streets, highways, canals, shopping centers, churches, schools, hospitals, airports, and other entities that are administered by local governments. 

So local agencies or municipalities are free to choose whether the names include a genitive or possessive apostrophe. But as we said above, the local agencies generally follow guidelines from their states, which tend to follow the federal government’s lead.

For example, the Hawaii State Board on Geographic Names lists apostrophes among “things to avoid.”

Many American place names that once had apostrophes officially lost them to government regulation back in the 19th century—notably Pikes Peak, named for the explorer Zebulon Pike, and Harpers Ferry, for a ferry operator named Robert Harper.

And for the most past, Americans haven’t been as bothered by all this as their counterparts in Britain. But even here, defenders of the apostrophe have occasionally (very occasionally) made themselves heard on the subject.

As a result, a handful of what the board calls “natural features” have been allowed to include an apostrophe denoting possession or association.

Here are the names, along with the years in which the board relented and gave them back their punctuation:

● Martha’s Vineyard (Massachusetts, 1933). The locals simply wouldn’t stand for “Marthas Vineyard” and mounted an intense campaign. It worked.

● Ike’s Point (New Jersey, 1944).  The argument, according to the agency: “it would be unrecognizable otherwise.”

● John E’s Pond (Rhode Island, 1963). This would be unreadable without the apostrophe. And spoken, the name would sound like “John S.”

● Carlos Elmer’s Joshua View (Arizona, 1995). The Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names argued that three apparent names in a row would be confusing. (The third name is a reference to a stand of Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) once captured on film by the photographer Carlos Elmer.)

● Clark’s Mountain (Oregon, 2002). Meriwether Lewis named the peak for William Clark, who climbed it in 1806. To commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Oregon Geographic Names Board, along with the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, asked that the apostrophe be restored.

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English English language Grammar Usage

When fewer is less

Q: You’ve written more than once about your preference for “less” over “fewer” in referring to percentages. In a recent comment on the New York Times’s After Deadline blog, Philip B. Corbett takes the opposing view. Your guidance feels better to me, but are you in the minority or the majority?

A: We disagree with Corbett, the Times’s associate managing editor for standards. We think the reporter, Lizette Alvarez, was right to use “less” instead of “fewer” in this sentence on Jan. 20:

“In all, less than 1.5 percent of the country’s 1.9 million inmates are Jewish, according to the Aleph Institute, a social services organization, and many do not even request kosher meals.”

Although “fewer” is generally used for a smaller number of individual things, and “less” for a smaller quantity of one thing, there are many exceptions.

As we’ve said before on the blog, including posts in 2008 and 2009, “less” is more appropriate than “fewer” when percentages are involved.

We’re in the majority on this. Many usage authorities believe that percentages, like fractions, suggest quantity rather than counted individuals.

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) says it’s better to think of a percentage as a collective mass noun than as something that’s been counted.

As Bryan A. Garner writes: “Most percentages aren’t whole numbers anyway. And even if it were a toss-up between the two theories [collective mass noun versus countable noun], it’s sound to choose less, which is less formal in tone than fewer.”

Here’s what Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has to say:

“In present-day written usage, less is as likely as or more likely than fewer to appear in a few common constructions. One of the most frequent is the less than construction where less is a pronoun. The countables in this construction are often distances, sums of money, units of time, and statistical enumerations, which are often thought of as amounts rather than numbers.”

Finally, in Woe Is I, Pat’s grammar and usage guide, she recommends using “less than (not fewer than) with percentages and fractions: Less than a third of the graduates showed up for the reunion.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

It’s a big ask

Q: When did “ask” become a noun? I first heard “a big ask” used at work for a difficult request. I considered it another annoying bit of industrialese, but I just heard a TV commentator use “a tough ask” this way. Is the usage now an acceptable idiom?

A: You’d better sit down. The word “ask” has been used as both a verb and a noun since Anglo-Saxon days.

The verb, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, first showed up in Old English in Beowulf, which is believed to date from the early 700s.

The noun appeared a couple of hundred years later in the dooms, or laws, of Athelstan, who was King of the Anglo Saxons (924-27) and the King of the English (927-39).

Since it first showed up in Old English, the noun has meant asking, an inquiry, a thing asked, or a request, according to Oxford.

Here’s an OED example in modern English from a Dec. 8, 1781, letter by the scholar Thomas Twining (whose grandfather founded the Twinings tea empire):

“I am not so unreasonable as to desire you to take notice of all the stuff I scribble, or answer all my asks.” (We’ve expanded on the citation.)

And here’s an example from The Laws and Principles of Whist, an 1886 book written by “Cavendish” (the pen name of Henry Jones): “When your three comes down in the next round, it is not an ask for trumps.”

The particular usage you ask about (in expressions like “a big ask” and “a tough ask”) isn’t quite as new as you seem to think—it’s been around since the 1980s.

The OED describes the usage as colloquial (more common in spoken than written English), and says it originated in Australia.

The dictionary defines this “ask” as meaning “something which is a lot to ask of someone; something difficult to achieve or surmount.”

Oxford’s earliest citation is from a May 6, 1987, issue of the Sydney Morning Herald: “Four measly pounds is what the critics say. But according to his trainer, Johnny Lewis, that four pounds is ‘a big ask.’ ”

In a 2005 draft addition to its entry for the noun “ask,” the OED says the usage is chiefly heard in sports. But as you’ve observed, the expression has traveled far afield since then, geographically as well as linguistically.

A Jan. 30, 2014, editorial in the Guardian, for example, wonders whether Ukrainians will get a chance to “to make a free choice about their own government and national direction.”

“It is a big ask,” the paper says, “and none of the steps will be easy.”

And, according to the latest reports from Eastern Europe, it’s still a big ask.

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Is “expat” domesticated?

Q: On WNYC, Brian Lehrer invited “expats” from Seattle and Denver to call in with their opinions on the merits of their ex-cities (music scene, weather, microbrews, etc.). Has the term “expat” been domesticated?

A: We’ve checked a half-dozen standard dictionaries, as well as the Oxford English Dictionary, and all of them define “expat” as an informal shortening of the noun “expatriate.”

As for “expatriate,” all the dictionaries define the noun as someone who’s living in a foreign country—not in a new part of his or her own country.

Although lexicographers haven’t yet recognized the domestication of “expat,” the usage is definitely out there.

A search of online databases suggests that the use of “expats” for people moving within their own country began showing up nearly a dozen years ago.

The website Mountain West News, for example, has this headline on an Oct. 1, 2003, article about Californians moving to the Rocky Mountains region: “California’s expats brought their politics.”

And an Oct. 15, 2003, article on the website City Limits reports that “scores of New York expats have joined lawsuits” against 26 Poconos-area builders, real estate agents, and appraisers.

Although this new use of “expat” seems to have originated in the US, American dictionaries say the original use of the term as a shortened form of “expatriate” is “chiefly British.”

The OED, which considers “expat” a colloquialism, has only two examples for the usage—from 1962 and 1968.

The latest citation is from the Jan. 25, 1968, issue of the now-defunct BBC magazine The Listener: “The ‘expats,’ as the expatriate British refer to themselves, are understandably fond of Ghana.”

Interestingly, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has four citations from US publications for this supposedly British usage, though some of the cites refer to British expatriates.

Here’s an example from the May 21, 1961, issue of the New York Times: “The easygoing Malays still maintain many Britons, whom they call expatriates, or ‘expats,’ in key positions.”

When the noun “expatriate” entered English in the early 1800s, it referred to someone “expatriated”—that is, forced into exile.

The OED’s earliest example of the usage is from an 1818 issue of the Quarterly Review: “Patriots and expatriates are alike the children of circumstances.”

The English noun (as well as the verb) “expatriate” is ultimately derived from the classical Latin prefix ex- (out) and noun patria (native land).

Getting back to your question, we like the new informal use of “expat” for someone living in a different part of his own country.

It’s similar to the extended use of the newspaper term “column” for a website “column,” a subject we’ve discussed on our blog.

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

Hear Pat live today on WNYC

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English English language Grammar Usage

Is “caring” a noun?

Q: The company I work at lists “caring” as one of its supposed “shared values.” The other values (“productivity,” “integrity,” etc.) are obviously nouns. The word “caring” looks like the odd one out. Sounds awfully, distastefully wrong to me. Am I right?

A: The word “caring” can be a present participle (“He’s caring for his sick child”), a participial adjective (“He is a caring person”), or a gerund (“Caring is a full-time job”).

Although all three are derived from the verb “care,” the present participle is a verb form, the participial adjective is of course an adjective, and the gerund is a noun—technically a verbal noun.

So the gerund “caring” does indeed belong with the other nouns in your company’s list of shared values.

The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for “caring” as a noun, with examples dating back to the 16th century.

The earliest OED citation is from the English poet Nicholas Grimald’s 1556 translation of Cicero’s De Officiis: “No painfulness, no diligence, no caring.”

A gerund can be a subject, an object, or the principal part of a noun phrase. Although gerunds don’t ordinarily have plural forms, plurals are sometimes used (“comings” and “goings,” for example).

Gerunds are sometimes referred to as deverbals or deverbatives, as well as verbal nouns or simply nouns. Some are listed in standard dictionaries as nouns and some aren’t.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, has separate entries for “running,” “skiing,” and “working” as nouns, but not for “driving,” “eating,” and “smoking.” Why not?

We asked Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at the Merriam-Webster company, how lexicographers decide when a gerund gets listed separately as a noun.

He explained that space is the major consideration, so the big Merriam-Webster Unabridged  has more noun entries for gerunds than the M-W Collegiate.

“The bar for gerund entry in the Unabridged is much lower than for the Collegiate, because there’s more space,” Sokolowski said.

Less common gerunds “are considered to be covered by the verb entry,” he added, and a  “similar policy is in place for nouns that function adjectivally.”

“Our Learner’s Dictionary has a more liberal policy regarding gerunds because we can’t assume that the user will understand the relationship between the verb and the gerund, so ‘driving’ and ‘smoking’ are there, for example,” he said.

We’ve written about gerunds frequently on the blog, including a recent post about why some verbs are followed by gerunds and others by infinitives, and an item in 2012 about the difference between gerunds and participles.

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Can cluelessness be betrayed?

Q: I am a physician who blogs and strives to improve his style. But I stumble when I see a statement like this one on an NY Times blog: “it betrays a surprising lack of awareness of some critical aspects of the medical profession.” What is being betrayed here? A lack of awareness? Or the medical profession? I would think the latter.

A: The verb “betray” has several meanings that concern disloyalty: one can betray a country, a cause, a confidence, or a spouse.

But you’re asking about a different sense of the word: to make known unintentionally (as in, “The snicker betrayed his true feelings”).

The comment that got your attention—by Lawrence K. Altman, a Times medical writer and professor of medicine at NYU—is about an article in the New York Review of Books by a doctor who was seriously injured in an accident.

In the article, Arnold Relman, a doctor with six decades of experience, writes that he “had never before understood how much good nursing care contributes to patients’ safety and comfort.”

In commenting on that, Altman writes that Relman’s sudden realization of the importance of nursing “betrays a surprising lack of awareness of some critical aspects of the medical profession and the nation’s fragmented health care system.”

Altman is using the word “betrays” here to mean “unintentionally reveals.” What is being revealed? Relman’s former cluelessness about the importance of nursing.

The verb “betray” entered English in the 1200s with the sense of “to give up to, or place in the power of an enemy, by treachery or disloyalty,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

English adopted the word from Old French, but it’s ultimately derived from the Latin verb tradere, meaning to deliver or hand over.

The sense of the word you’re asking about showed up in the late 16th century. The OED defines it this way: “To reveal or disclose against one’s will or intention the existence, identity, real character of (a person or thing desired to be kept secret).”

The earliest citation in the dictionary for the usage is from Shakespeare’s comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598): “I do betray my selfe with blushing.”

And here’s an example from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667): “Ire, envie and despair … betraid Him counterfet.”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

When “ditto” was an original

Q: In The Pioneers, a book from Time-Life’s The Old West series, a pioneer woman uses “ditto” to mean something like “I agree with what you just said.” I thought the term had its origins in the Xerox copy machine, which created “dittos” of documents.

A: No, the word “ditto” had been around for hundreds of years before Xerox made its first copying machine in the mid-20th century. And Xerox wasn’t even responsible for the use of “ditto” in the copy-machine sense.

We wrote briefly in 2007 about the history of the word “ditto,” but your question gives us a chance to expand on our original post.

English borrowed the word “ditto” in the early 1600s from Italian, where detto (ditto in the Tuscan dialect) was the past participle of dire (to say).

At the time, the Oxford English Dictionary says, detto was used adjectivally in the sense of “aforesaid” to modify dates in Italian “to avoid repetition of the name of a month.”

In an Italian sentence, the OED explains, “December 22” and “December 26” might have been written as 22 di dicembre and 26 detto. And the phrase il detto libro would have meant “the said [or aforesaid] book.”

In the dictionary’s earliest English example of the usage, “ditto” appears in the date sense and means “in or of the month already named; said month.”

Here’s the citation, from a 1625 collection of travel writing by the English cleric Samuel Purchas: “The eight and twentieth ditto, I went … to the Generals Tent.”

This monthly use of “ditto” soon expanded in English to include other senses of “aforesaid” and “the same,” the OED says, such as in accounts and lists “in commercial, office, and colloquial language.”

Oxford’s first example of this expanded use of “ditto” is from The New World of Words (4th ed.), a 1678 dictionary by Edward Phillips:

Ditto (Italian, said) a word used much in Merchants Accompts, and relation of Foreign news; and signifieth the same place with that immediately beforementioned.”

(The OED notes that a 1696 edition of the dictionary changes “same place” to “the same Commodity or Place,” and that a 1706 edition adds “the aforesaid or the same” to the meaning of ditto in Italian.)

In the 1770s, the usage expanded further, with several other senses of “ditto” showing up.

In a 1775 example in the OED, the verbal phrase “to say ditto to” is used in the sense of “to acquiesce in or express agreement with what has been said by (another).”

The citation, from a biography of Edmund Burke by James Pryor, describes a Parliamentary candidate as using “the language of the counting-house” in support of remarks by Burke: “I say ditto to Mr. Burke.”

In an Aug. 12, 1776, letter from John Adams to his wife, Abigail, during the Revolutionary War, “ditto” is used as a noun meaning “a duplicate or copy; an exact resemblance; a similar thing,” according to the OED:

“Here they wait untill We grow very angry, about them, for Canteens, Camp Kettles, Blanketts, Tents, Shoes, Hose, Arms, Flints, and other Dittoes, while We are under a very critical Solicitude for our Army at New York, on Account of the Insufficiency of Men.”

(We’ve expanded on the Oxford citation to add context.)

The OED doesn’t have any examples of “ditto” used as a noun to mean a duplicate produced by a copying machine. However, it has several citations for the term used to mean a copying machine.

The dictionary describes “Ditto” (with a capital “D”) as “a proprietary name in the U.S. for a kind of duplicating machine that reproduces copies from a master.”

The OED’s earliest citation for the usage is from a July 1, 1919, notice in the Official Gazette of the US Patent Office: “Duplicator Manufacturing Company, Chicago, Ill. … Ditto … Claims use since Dec. 16, 1918.”

The Duplicator Manufacturing Company produced a copier called a Ditto that was somewhat similar to a mimeograph machine. The process involved creating a master copy that would be transferred to a hand-rotated printing cylinder.

The July 28, 1921, issue of the trade magazine Printers’ Ink reported that Duplicator, a Chicago company, “has found it expedient to change its corporate name to that of its advertised product, ‘Ditto.’ The corporate name is now Ditto, Incorporated.”

Although Ditto, Inc., is now defunct, a company called the Ink Technology Corp. has sold ink for the few ditto machines still functioning, according to a Jan. 16, 2007, article by Eric Zorn in the Chicago Tribune.

Finally, we should mention that the word “ditto” ultimately comes from the Latin dicere (to say). And as John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes, dicere is the source of many other English words, including one we use a lot: “dictionary.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Usage

You who, Mrs. Goldberg?

Q: I’m a language arts teacher in Florida who loves your blog—what fun! Now, my question. In these sentences, does the verb agree with “you” or “who”? (1) “You who have/has been so kind, I thank you.” (2) “You who cut/cuts through the veil of this mortal coil, guide us.”

A: The pronoun “who” can be singular or plural in number, so the choice of verb depends on whether “who” refers to one person or more. Examples: “Who are they?” … “Who is she?”

When it’s preceded by a noun or another pronoun, as in the “you who” construction you’re asking about, “who” takes its number (singular or plural) from the antecedent.

(An antecedent, as you know, is a word, phrase, or clause that determines what a pronoun refers to.)

In this case, the verb agrees with the antecedent “you,” as in “you who see me standing before you,” or “you who remember her will recall,” or “this is for you, who were so kind.”

We ran a post a couple of years ago that touches on this subject. But in case you or your class would like to know more, here’s a technical explanation, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED describes “who” in such constructions as a relative pronoun (similar to “that”) being used to introduce “a clause defining or restricting the antecedent and thus completing the sense.”

As we mentioned, the verb in these constructions agrees with the antecedent. 

The OED cites this example, from an essay written in 1717 by Alexander Pope: “those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.” (By way of illustration, the singular version would be “he moves easiest who has learn’d to dance.”)

We’ll invent a couple more singular and plural examples:

In subject position: “He who betrays you is not to be trusted” … “They who betray you are not to be trusted.”

In object position: “Don’t trust him who betrays you” … “Don’t trust them who betray you.”

We hope this helps, and all the best to your students!

They’re too young to remember this, but your question reminds us of the old TV show The Goldbergs. Molly Goldberg and her neighbors used to holler “Yoo-hoo!” to get one another’s attention.

The expression became the catchphrase of The Goldbergs, which ran on radio from 1929 to 1946, and on TV from 1949 to 1956.

Although the show undoubtedly helped popularize “yoo-hoo,” the usage had been around before The Goldbergs went on the air.

The earliest example in the OED is from a 1924 issue of the journal Dialect Notes: “Yoo-hoo (call).” Oxford describes the usage as “a call made to attract attention,” and notes that a similar nautical expression, “yoho,” showed up in the 1700s.

We’ll end with an example from the Jan. 2, 1926, issue of the New Yorker: Yoo-hoo! When did your school let out?”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

May I help who’s next?

Q: Regardless of which Starbucks I go to, employees taking orders say, “May I help who’s next?” This may not be technically wrong, but it sounds awful! I’d say “May I help the next customer?” or “May I take your order?” or “Are you ready to order?”

A:You aren’t the first person who’s been startled to hear “May [or “Can”] I help who’s next?”

People waiting in line at a coffee shops, bakeries, bookstores, banks, and ice cream parlors are hearing this query across the United States and in parts of England, according to linguists.

But strictly speaking, this construction isn’t incorrect. As the linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum has written on the Language Log, it’s merely outdated and no longer common in English usage.

That is, it’s no longer common except at Starbucks and other places where people wait in line. 

Pullum points out that what you’re hearing is “an isolated survival of an extinct construction type” that hasn’t been in common use for the last 50 to 100 years.

What’s happening is that “who” is being used as what linguists call a “fused relative.”

In this construction, the single word “who” represents (or is fused into) the relative noun phrase “the person that.”

In modern usage, though, the pronoun of choice here is “whoever,” not “who.” 

This particular use of “who,” Pullum speculates, “seems to have survived in one very limited contextual environment”—and you heard an example of it at Starbuck’s.

Pullum says he began hearing reports about this usage around 1990, especially from the Upper Midwest. But now, he says, it’s being heard all across the continent (presumably wherever people wait in line to be helped).

And it’s not just American. The linguist Lynne Murphy, who teaches at the University of Sussex, reports on her blog that she’s heard “Can I help who’s next?” from clerks and shop assistants in the south of England. 

Pullum admits that this use of “who” is odd. He calls it “something that is almost grammatical and used to be fully grammatical.”

The use of “who” in this manner “has mostly been extinct for some fifty to a hundred years,” he says. The construction “survived down to the 19th century. But it did not survive down to the present day.”

On the other hand, he says, “whoever” is “freely used” this way in contemporary English.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the relative use of “who” to mean “any one that” or “whoever” is now considered “archaic” or “literary.” The OED’s examples of the usage date from the 1200s to the late 1890s.

The dictionary includes two examples from Shakespeare, probably written about 1600: “Let it be who it is” (Julius Caesar), and “Who steales my purse, steals trash” (Othello). 

Later citations include this line from Robert Browning’s poem Balaustion’s Adventure (1871): “I passionately cried to who would hear.”

And this one is from Rudyard Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads (1892): “Who rides at the tail of a Border thief, he sits not long at his meat.”

So why are we hearing this old construction again? This is a legitimate question, but there’s no simple answer.

No one’s suggesting that baristas and bank tellers revived the construction after reading Shakespeare or Kipling. But, as Pullum says, this isn’t a matter of ignorance, either:

“It’s about the grammatical possibility of human-referring fused relatives,” he says, “and the complexity of the picture we face when a single language is in use by a billion people with dates of birth spread over about a century.”

It’s also, he adds, “about the odd survivals and exceptions that can lurk in the syntactic patterns found in everyday use.”

By the way, we once wrote a post about a similar, commonly heard expression, “May I help the following customer?”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Big-time spenders

Q: My wife and I wonder where “last of the big-time spenders” comes from. Our parents (who were born in the 1910s and 1920s) used the expression for someone living high on the hog. Can you enlighten us?

A: In a literal sense, the catch phrase “last of the big (or big-time) spenders” means someone who spends lavish amounts of money. But it’s often used humorously or ironically to describe someone who’s stingy.

The Macmillan Dictionary defines “the last of the big spenders” as meaning “someone who spends a lot of money, often in a way that is designed to impress people.”

But, the dictionary adds, “This expression is often used in a humorous way about someone who spends a very small amount of money.”

Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Catch Phrases (1992) describes “last of the big-time spenders” as a “playfully ironic” expression that “has flourished, in UK, since c. 1945.”

The reference book, edited by Paul Beale, further speculates that it was “very prob. adopted from US servicemen c. 1944 and has almost certainly arisen in US during the early 1930s—during the Great Depression.”

However, no citations are given that would back this up. While the expression may indeed date from World War II or before, the earliest published examples we’ve been able to find are from the late 1950s.

This one, for example, appeared in a profile of the actress Joy Lafleur that ran in a 1957 issue of the Canadian magazine Saturday Night: “If you offer to buy Joy a coffee, she’ll wisecrack, ‘No, I’m the last of the big-time spenders.’ ”

The expression has also been used as a song title. 

In late 1960, a comic song entitled “Last of the Big-Time Spenders,” by Cornbread and the Biscuits, appeared on Billboard magazine’s “Hot Hundred” chart.

More recently, the title was given to a poignant ballad written by Billy Joel and recorded on his album Streetlife Serenade (1974).

The shorter expression “big-time spender” is probably a conflation of two others—the adjective “big-time” and the noun phrase “big spender,” both of which appeared in the early 20th century.

The adjective “big-time,” meaning significant or impressive, may be a coinage from vaudeville days, when the major theater circuits were referred to as “the big time.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for the adjectival usage is from 1914: “They buy and sell for all ‘big time’ acts and all ‘big time’ theaters.”

The show-biz newspaper Variety is often credited with this usage. A 1927 article in Vanity Fair, for example, said:

“For the vaudeville branch of the show business Variety coined such famous colloquialisms as ‘Big Time’ and ‘Small Time,’ differentiating the first rate circuits from the second rate.”

As for “big spender,” the earliest example we’ve found is from an article about the gambling industry that ran in the December 1907 issue of the journal the Scrap Book:

“With the typical big spender and plunger, it is either his way of taking his fun or he is well able to take care of himself. The real problem is the poor little piker.”

After this, uses of “big spender” became extremely common.

In 1909, for example, Moody’s Magazine said of the financier Henry Keep: “He was never a big spender according to the Wall Street interpretation of the term, and when he died in 1869, he left his family a fortune of over four million dollars.”

And in June 1910, according to Congressional records, an Illinois cattle farmer named Daniel L. Keleher testified before  a Senate committee on wages and commodities prices:

“I am not what might be called a big spender and have always made it a point to have something, thank God, for a rainy day.”

Today, many people associate the noun phrase “big spender” with the song of that title, in the 1966 musical Sweet Charity, by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields.

Here are a couple of stanzas from the song, which was a hit record for Peggy Lee in 1966 and for Shirley Bassey in 1967:

The minute you walked in the joint
I could see you were a man of distinction,
a real big spender.
Good looking, so refined,
Say, wouldn’t you like to know what’s going on in my mind?

So let me get right to the point.
I don’t pop my cork for every guy I see.
Hey, big spender, spend
A little time with me.

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English English language Expression Grammar Linguistics Usage

Like to read? Or like reading?

Q: Is there a reason why some verbs are followed by gerunds and some by infinitives?  I’ve seen lists created to help non-native speakers, but I haven’t seen a rule that explains what’s going on.

A: In the kind of construction you’re referring to, when a verb has an action as its object, that action can be expressed either as a gerund (an “-ing” word like “skating”) or as “to” plus an infinitive (“to skate”).

Some verbs, like “adore,” use only gerunds in such a situation: “She adores skating.” Others, like “wish,” use only “to”-infinitives: “She wishes to skate.”

And still other verbs, like “prefer,” can use either one: “She prefers skating” … “She prefers to skate.”

So for many verbs there’s a division of labor between the gerunds and the infinitives. But for other verbs, either one is possible.

This state of affairs has evolved over time, and native speakers of English don’t have to stop and think about which to choose—gerund or infinitive. It’s largely a problem for foreign learners.

Anyone who’s puzzled can consult one of the many verb lists on the Internet, but those merely tell which complement goes with which verb—they don’t say why.

There’s a good reason for this. In fact, there’s no easy way to explain why some verbs are followed by gerunds, some by “to”-infinitives, and some by either one (but often with different meanings).

A great many academic linguists have written about this subject, but no one, to our knowledge, has come up with a simple formula—perhaps because no simple formula is possible.

For purposes of experiment, let’s make up a test. We’ll look at two different sets of verbs and the typical object (gerund or infinitive) that goes with them.

● verbs followed by a gerund: “She enjoys/practices/finishes/resumes skating.”

● verbs followed by a “to”-infinitive: “She decides/prepares/plans/intends to skate.” 

Is there a pattern here that would explain why some verbs go one way and some another? We’ve come across three general views.

(1) Some linguists suggest that the gerund constructions refer to actions that are habitual or have happened in the past, while “to”-infinitives are about potential or future actions.

(2) Others suggest that gerunds represent actions that are “real” or fulfilled, while infinitives represent actions that are hypothetical or yet to come.

(3) Still others see gerund constructions as conveying sensation or actual experience, while infinitive constructions convey volition—that is, a general inclination toward something.

All three make good points, but taken together what do they add up to? Perhaps that gerunds often look back (to an action that’s completed or in progress), while “to”-infinitives tend to look ahead—literally “to” or toward something.

Yet even that statement has holes in it. For example, verbs like “contemplate,” “recommend,” and “advise” all take gerunds and yet refer to unfulfilled actions. You can see what a slippery eel we’re trying to grasp here. 

And how to explain verbs that go either way?

With some of these verbs, the choice of gerund versus infinitive can make little or no difference in meaning: “She likes skating” versus “She likes to skate.”

But with some other two-way verbs, the choice can make a marked difference.

The verb “try” is a good example of the latter. It can take both complements: “He tried skating” … “He tried to skate.” But the meanings are different. The first refers to skating in general, while the second refers to a particular act.

Or consider the verb “stop”—”I stopped thinking” means just the opposite of “I stopped to think.”

The verb “remember” is another interesting example. “He remembers washing” is very different from “He remembers to wash.” In the first, he recalls an occasion when he washed (in the past); in the second, he’s reminded to perform the act (in the present or near future).

This answer is a bit rambling, but you can perhaps get the drift. This is a very broad and complicated subject, one that many linguists of our time (and earlier) have wrestled with.

As Randolph Quirk wrote in The Linguist and the English Language (1974): “There ought to be a big award for anyone who can describe exactly what makes him say ‘I started to work’ on one occasion and ‘I started working’ on another.”

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English English language Etymology Slang Usage Word origin

Toilet training

Q: I found your post about the use of “head” for toilet very illuminating, although I was surprised by the euphemistic use of “lavatory,” probably derived from a Latin word for “wash,” rather than the more precise “crapper,” which, as I recall, derives from the name of the person who invented the first flush toilet.

A: We wouldn’t describe “lavatory” as a euphemism, like “powder room” or “restroom” or “washroom.” It’s an old word that’s been around since the 14th century, and its modern sense of a room with a toilet can be traced to the 17th century.

You’re right, though, that it’s derived from a Latin word (lavare, to wash). We discussed “lavatory” a couple of years ago in an item about another word from the same Latin source, “lavabo,” a washbasin or lavatory.

The word “lavatory” is more common in the UK than the US, where a room with a toilet is usually referred to as a “bathroom,” a usage that might be described as a euphemism when the room doesn’t have a bath or shower.

As for “crapper,” we hate to be the bearers of bad news, but it’s a notorious myth that the Victorian plumbing magnate Thomas Crapper was responsible for the words “crap” and “crapper,” or for the invention of the flush toilet.

In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, we explain that the word “crap” has been used to mean debris since the 1400s, and “crapping” has meant defecating at least as far back as 1846, when Thomas Crapper was barely out of diapers.

In fact, there’s some evidence, though not conclusive, that “crapping” has meant defecating since the 1600s.

“Another widespread legend about Crapper is that he invented the flush toilet,” we write in Origins. “This myth was helped along by a comic biography, Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper (1969), by the British humorist Wallace Reyburn.”

In fact, the flush toilet was around well before Crapper was born. He did, however, help popularize it, and he patented some toilet-related inventions, not all of them improvements.

“One in particular,” we write, “a spring-loaded toilet seat, was nicknamed the ‘bottom-slapper’ for its inclination to paddle Victorian users as they rose.”

A final myth is that Thomas Crapper’s name was the source of the word “crapper,” slang for the device itself.

One story has it that American doughboys in England during World War I brought back the usage after seeing the trade name “Crapper” on British toilet bowls.

“But in fact the word was already in use in 1911, when it meant a lavatory or bathroom and not the fixture itself,” we say in Origins. “The apparatus wasn’t referred to as a ‘crapper’ until 1932, long after the war.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Steady, the Buffs!

Q: I watch the PBS series Midsomer Murders. In a recent episode, a character appears who sometimes exclaims, “Steady, the Buffs” and “Stiffen the Prussian Guard.” I tried to find their source, with little luck. They sound like something in a novel about the Napoleonic Wars, or a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. What do you know about them?

A: The first of those expressions originated in the British military and the second probably did, though its origins are a lot more obscure.

Later, as you’ve discovered, they found their way into civilian usage, minus their military flavor.  

We’ll examine the less obscure one first. “Steady, the Buffs!” means “Keep calm!” or “Steady on, boys!” and can be traced to the late 19th century.  

The “Buffs” in the phrase is a reference to a famous British Army unit, the Third Regiment of Foot. The regiment, founded in 1572, was nicknamed “the Buffs” in the early 18th century because of the colors of its uniforms.

“The Buffs” was officially made part of the regiment’s name by royal warrant in the 1750s, according to several histories we consulted. (It’s now the East Kent Regiment.)

The earliest published use of “Steady, the Buffs!” we’ve found is from a history of the regiment that appeared in the journal Notes and Queries in 1876.

First, the writer quotes an earlier history, published in 1836, which says: “The men’s coats were lined and faced with buff; they also wore buff waistcoats, buff breeches, and buff stockings, and were emphatically styled ‘The Buffs.’ ”

The writer then goes on to add: “ ‘Steady, The Buffs,’ a not unfamiliar caution to many an English soldier.”

The source of that “not unfamiliar caution” is hard to pin down.

By some accounts, an adjutant shouted the expression to a battalion of the Buffs while it was on parade in Malta in 1858.

By other accounts, an officer cried, “Steady, The Buffs!” as the regiment was going into battle abroad. We haven’t been able to confirm either story.

Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Catch Phrases calls it an expression “of self admonition or self-adjuration or self-encouragement” that originated in the military. Its origin? Partridge says only that it comes “from an incident in the history of the East Kent Regiment.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says the expression is a reference to the army regiment and means “hold on! keep calm! be careful!” No origin is given.

However it originated, the expression followed the regiment back home to Britain and became a popular catchphrase.

Oxford’s earliest example is from Rudyard Kipling’s The Story of the Gadsbys (1888), but we’ve found a civilian usage that’s at least two years older.

An angler named Samuel Harwood used it in his “Thames Reminiscences,” which appeared in an April 1886 issue of Fishing, a journal published in London:

“He turned off to the left, and I followed him as well as I could. Squish—squash! This was a sort of exercise in which I did not excel. Oh, why had I not brought my goloshes? But steady, the Buffs, what had become of my leg! Down a drain, or something, by all that was ludricrous. I pulled it out as fast as I could, but only to find I was minus a shoe.”

We also found this example, from an October 1899 issue of the Sketch: “ ‘Good the Guards!’ is becoming a military catchword, just as ‘Steady the Buffs’ and half-a-dozen other short sentences of the kind are.”

A similar but unrelated expression, “stand buff,” means “to stand firm, not to flinch; to endure,” according to the OED.

Oxford’s earliest published example of “stand buff” comes from Samuel Butler’s poem Hudibras’s Epitaph, written sometime before 1679: “For the good old cause stood buff  / ’Gainst many a bitter kick and cuff.”

The “buff” in this phrase is an old noun, dating back to the 1400s, meaning “a blow, stroke, buffet,” the OED says. “Buff” and “counterbuff,” the dictionary adds, “seem to have been technical terms in fencing or pugilism.”

Now, let’s look at the more obscure of the two expressions you asked about—“Stiffen the Prussian Guard (or Guards).”

Other than a brief mention here or there on an Internet discussion group, sightings of this expression are rare.

We found an example in White City (2007), a memoir by the British writer Donald James Wheal of his childhood in World War II-era London.

In this passage, Wheal’s father is speaking: “ ‘Stiffen the Prussian Guards!’ he exploded—his invariable comment at moments of high drama. ‘They’ve given you a scholarship!’ ”

A British review of Wheal’s book, from a 2007 issue of the Telegraph, says that “he writes affectionately of both his background and his parents, particularly his plumber-cum-bookie dad whose only two weaknesses were shouting ‘Stiffen the Prussian Guards!’ at every opportunity and wanting the best for his son.”

What does the phrase mean? Our best guess is that Wheal’s father was using an expression from an earlier era, World War I, and that it originally meant something like “Kill the Germans!”

In turn-of-the-century slang, to “stiffen” was to kill or murder—that is, to make a corpse of—according to the OED and Green’s Dictionary of Slang.

Green’s has examples of this use of “stiffen” (as in “Stiffen the brute!”) dating from the 1890s. The OED has a single example, from an 1888 issue of the Daily News in London: “Mr. Burgess threatened to blow my brains out and to ‘stiffen’ me.”

The rest of the phrase is probably a reference to an elite military unit in Prussia and later Germany from the mid-1700s to the early 1900s.

So in the mouth of a British soldier, “Stiffen the Prussian Guard (or Guards)!” would have been a rousing call to arms.

Donald James Wheal’s parents courted in the 1920s and married in the ’30s, so his father would have remembered World War I and the slang that was in the air back then.

However, he was probably using the expression loosely as an expression of surprise or amazement, much like “I’ll be damned!” or “Blow me down!”  or “I’ll be a son of a gun!”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Ante meridiem or antemeridian?

Q: My child got back a spelling test in which she was marked wrong for writing “ante meridiem” as the full name of the abbreviation “AM.” The teacher’s spelling list had it as “antemeridian.” Is this some variant I’m unaware of?

A: Your child’s paper should not have been marked wrong.

In fact, “ante meridiem” and “antemeridian” are two different terms. Neither of them is seen much, though, since the first is rarely written out and the second is rarely used at all.

The two-word “ante meridiem” is the term that’s abbreviated as “AM” or “a.m.” Like its counterpart, “post meridiem,” it’s seldom written out.

The Oxford English Dictionary classifies “ante meridiem” as an adverb meaning “before midday; applied to the hours between midnight and the following noon.”

Standard dictionaries agree that the full phrase is uncommon. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, says “ante meridiem” is “used chiefly in the abbreviated form to specify the hour: 10:30 AM.”

The term, first recorded in English in 1563, is from Latin: ante (before) and meridiem (midday).

The other word, “antemeridian,” is labeled in the OED as a “rare” adjective meaning “of or belonging to the forenoon or ‘morning.’ ”

The word, Oxford says, was derived from the Latin adjective antemeridianus (“of the forenoon”), which in turn comes from ante meridiem

Some standard dictionaries (Longman and Macmillan, for example) don’t have entries for “antemeridian.”

One that does, Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, gives this example of its usage: “antemeridian chores.” Another, Webster’s New World, has “an antemeridian repast.”

The OED has only one example for the use of “antemeridian” in a sentence, from an 1865 article in the Daily Telegraph of London: “Every[one] had come out in attire that was decidedly ante-meridian.”

The spelling that’s clearly a mistake today is “ante meridian.” It’s either “ante meridiem” or (less likely) “antemeridian.”

Under its entry for “a.m.” and “p.m.,” Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) has this to say: “Some writers, when using the full phrases, mistake meridiem for meridian.”

If you can’t remember which is which, go to the dictionary. You’ll usually find at least one of them.

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Why is a ship’s toilet a head?

Q: Your article about “masthead” raises an interesting question: how about the naval term “head” as a place for defecation?

A: When the word “head” was first used in a nautical sense back in Anglo-Saxon times (spelled heafod in Old English), it referred to a ship’s figurehead.

By the 1400s, the term “head” or “boat head” was being used to refer to the front or bow of a ship, boat, or other vessel, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

So how did the word “head” come to mean a toilet on a ship? You’ve probably figured that out by now. The term referred to a lavatory in the bow of a vessel.

The earliest example of this usage in the OED is from A Cruising Voyage Round the World, a 1712 book by the English sea captain Woodes Rogers: “He begg’d to go into the Head to ease himself.”

And here’s a citation from The Adventures of Roderick Random, a 1748 novel by Tobias Smollett: “The madman … took an opportunity, while the centinel attended him at the head, to leap over-board.”

The most recent example of the usage in the OED is from The Last Heathen (2004), Charles Montgomery’s memoir about a trip to Melanesia to see the area visited by his missionary great-grandfather in the 19th century:

“The floor was a slippery paste of oil, spit, crushed insects, and a disturbing slurry that seeped from the ship’s head.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Politics Slang Word origin

Kick the can down the road

Q: The use of “kick the can” now in vogue among pundits and politicians has nothing to do with the childhood game I played 60 years ago. How did kicking the can “down the road” become such a common cliché?

A: The expression “kick the can down the road,” meaning to procrastinate or put off solving a problem until later, isn’t quite as new as you may think.

It first showed up in the 1980s, according to a search of newspaper and literary databases, though of course it’s not nearly as old as the game kick-the-can, which has been mentioned in print since the late 1800s.

In the game, a variation of hide-and-seek, the kid chosen to be “it” tags, or captures, players and puts them in a holding area near the can.

The game is over when “it” captures all the other children. But if one of the free players sneaks up and kicks the can, the captured children are released.

We’ve found several 19th-century mentions of the game. Here’s one from The Story of Aaron, an 1896 children’s book by Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus stories:

“ ‘Oh, come and help us, Drusilla!’ cried Sweetest Susan, as gleefully as if she were playing hide-the-switch, or kick-the-can.”

(In hide-the-switch, another children’s game, the child who finds the switch is allowed to hit one of the players with it.)

The earliest example we could find for the expression “kick the can down the road” is from an Associated Press article that ran on Feb. 26, 1985, in the Galveston (TX) Daily News, the Gettysburg (PA) Times, and other newspapers:

“Whether or not the reason for the delay is exclusively for technical reasons, this official said the delay ‘kicks the can down the road’ in terms of making it a less pressing problem with the Soviets.”

William Safire, commenting on the usage in a 1988 On Language column in the New York Times Magazine, suggests that the children’s game inspired the expression:

“What a superb use of metaphor. Who has not, as a kid, played kick-the-can, or in less organized fashion kicked a can or other nonbiodegradable container ahead?”

We haven’t found any evidence proving that the game kick-the-can is the source of the expression “kick the can down the road.” But we’ve seen some evidence that suggests a connection.

For example, Twilight Zone: The Movie, which appeared in 1983 shortly before the expression showed up in print, includes a “Kick the Can” segment in which the game helps transform residents at a retirement home into their youthful selves.

We didn’t see the movie, but the 1959 TV segment on which it was based begins with kids kicking a can around in an aimless way (or, to use Safire’s phrase, “in less organized fashion”) before playing the actual game.

Did that aimlessness suggest the procrastinating sense of “kick the can down the road”? Perhaps, but another explanation may lie in the etymology of the verb “kick.”

Since the early 1800s, the verb phrases “kick about” and “kick around” have meant “to walk or wander about; to go from place to place, esp. aimlessly,” according to the OED. The dictionary describes the usage as a colloquialism that originated in the US.

The earliest example of this usage in the dictionary is from A New Home—Who’ll Follow, an 1839 book by the American writer Caroline Matilda Kirkland: “We heard that he was better, and would be able to ‘kick around’ pretty soon.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has 20th-century examples of a similar expression, “kick it around,” which it defines as to carouse.

Here’s the earliest citation, from Ceiling Zero, a 1936 Howard Hawks film starring James Cagney and Pat O’Brien: “You gotta learn to kick it around. Look at Dizzy—he’s having a great time.”

We’ve probably spent way too much time thinking about this can-kicking business, but there’s one other way of looking at the relationship between the game kick-the-can and the expression “kick the can down the road.”

In kick-the-can, the kicking frees the captured children and delays a resolution of the game, which could loosely be described as putting off a solution to a problem.

Sorry we can’t be more definite about this, but we’ve given you a few ideas to kick around.

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