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

Possessed by saints

Q: My sisters and I were wondering why schools named after saints are possessive (St. Aidan’s Grammar School, St. Mary’s High School, St. John’s University) while other schools, religious or otherwise, are not (Glen Cove Elementary School, Friends Academy, Brigham Young University).

A: We haven’t found any authoritative explanation why schools named after saints generally use the possessive (as in “St. Hilda’s Academy”) while other schools don’t (“Millard Fillmore Junior High School”).

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t shed much light here, though it does have a small notation that applies to churches: “The possessive of names preceded by ‘Saint’ is often used ellipt. in names of churches, as St. Paul’s, St. Peter’s.”

Perhaps this elliptical church convention was passed along to religious schools. In any case, the possessive form seems appropriate in this situation.

When a school (or church or hospital) is named for a saint, it’s consecrated to and placed under the protection of the saint, not merely named in someone’s honor.

By the way, we’re using the term “possessive” here, though “genitive” would be a better term. The possessive is one kind of genitive, but genitives involve relationships much wider than simple possession or ownership.

A genitive can express relations like measurement (“a week’s vacation”), affiliation (“Sylvia’s book club,”) kinship (“Percy’s cousin”), description (“a bachelor’s degree”), and so on.

There’s another point to be made here. Schools whose names include “of” instead of ’s are also genitives. So “Academy of St. Hilda” is the grammatical equivalent of “St. Hilda’s Academy.”

This seems to work with saints but not with mortal beings. We somehow can’t imagine a school named “Millard Fillmore’s High School” or the “High School of Millard Fillmore.”

For whatever reason, there does seem to be some underlying difference (celestial versus earthly?) that would account for this convention. However, we’ve found that while the pattern is widely followed, it isn’t universal.

Not every school named for a saint has ’s. Examples include St. Bonaventure University in western New York and St. Catherine University in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

And not every school named for an ordinary person lacks the ’s. Take Paul Smith’s College in upstate New York, named after a 19th-century hotel owner. As the school’s style guide says, even on second reference the name has ’s, as in “Paul Smith’s alumni” (who, by the way, are called “Smitties”).

Granted, Paul Smith’s is exceptional. “When a college is named after anyone except a saint, the apostrophe is rare,” Robert L. Coard wrote in the journal American Speech in 1958.

It’s colleges named after saints that generally have the ’s, he said, noting the half-dozen American schools called St. Joseph’s College.

“But even here the tendency to use the uninflected form appears,” he said, “as in St. Joseph College, West Hartford, Connecticut.”

He added that the ’s is usually omitted when “the result would be harsh or cumbersome,” as in “St. Francis College” or “St. Mary-of-the-Woods College.”

Where churches are concerned, it seems that the modern tendency is to dispense with the ’s. We gather that this is a style matter that churches or dioceses decide for themselves.

Writing in the National Catholic Reporter in 2005,  E. Leo McManus noted “a trend to eliminate the troublesome apostrophe by jettisoning what is popularly called the possessive case” from the names of churches dedicated to saints.

When he was a boy growing up in Rochester, NY, he said, his family’s church was known as St. Anne’s. But it’s now listed in the Rochester Catholic Directory as “St. Anne.”

Similarly, he said, “St. Monica’s in Rochester is now St. Monica; St. Salome’s in Irondequoit is now St. Salome; and St. Helen’s in Gates is now St. Helen. Only St. Patrick has, so to speak, held his own, for there are eight St. Patrick’s parishes and but one St. Patrick in Cato. Almost all of the 15 churches dedicated to St. Mary are popularly in the possessive case.”

McManus suggested that mistaken notions about possessiveness may be at work:

“The disappearance of the unruly apostrophe may be the result of having confused the role of the possessive case,” he wrote. “It was the Anglican bishop and grammarian Robert Lowth in 1752 who first called what had been the genitive case the ‘possessive.’ That may have contributed to the erroneous belief that the only function of the possessive is to show ownership.”

If you don’t believe that church names are inconsistent, just look at London’s famous Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the short form of which is St. Martin’s.

As James Graham wrote last year in the journal British Heritage, in the United States there are at least 20 churches named after the original, and those names are written all kinds of ways—with and without hyphens, with and without ’s after “Martin,” and with “Field” in the singular as well as the plural.

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Is “operationalize” operational?

Q: I noticed the word “operationalize” in an article about medical education in the March 20 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. But I can’t find it in my big dictionary at home, nor in my go-to computer dictionary. Is it operational?

A: The verb “operationalize” may be clunky and relatively new, but it’s a legitimate word, with roots in ancient Rome. As you’ve learned, though, not many standard dictionaries have entries for it.

One of the few dictionaries that does, the big Merriam-Webster Unabridged, defines it as “to make operational.” And Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.), adds a second sense: to “put into operation.”

However, the verb has a very different meaning in academic and scientific writing, where to “operationalize” means to express something in measurable terms, such as mathematical symbols or operations in logic.

Because “operationalize” means one thing to ordinary people (if they’re aware of it at all) and another to scientists or academics, that usage in the medical journal is ambiguous when taken out of context.

When the authors of the article say that changes in working hours were “easier to operationalize,” they could mean (1) easier to put into effect, or (2) easier to express as a formula.

We’ve looked at the article, and the authors seem to mean #1. This more recent sense of “operationalize,” defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “to put into effect” or “to realize,” dates from the early 1980s.

Judging by citations in the OED, the term in this sense was first recorded in writing about education, then military affairs. Here are the examples:

1981:  “The head of the new … Centre for Curriculum Development, Training, and Research in Chile called upon the services of a former professor … to help operationalize and evaluate a new curriculum.” (From Connecting Worlds: A Survey of Developments in Educational Research in Latin America, by Robert G. Myers.)

1988:  “Mutual defence and mutual security were the reasons for the Philippines agreeing. … However, the MBA makes no reference to how these mutualities would be operationalised.” (From the journal the Pacific Review.)

1994:  “A number of Asian governments already had developed variants of ‘Comprehensive Security’ as a way to conceptualize, articulate, and operationalize their specific national and regional security and defence needs.” (From Canadian Defence Quarterly.)

The earlier, technical meaning of “operationalize”—to  express something in mathematical or logical terms—was first recorded in the 1950s. These examples in the OED are both from academic journals:

“No adequate methodological techniques exist for operationalizing and quantifying the characteristics themselves” (American Sociological Review, 1952).

“Attempts to operationalize the concept have met with difficulty of two opposing kinds” (Applied Linguistics, 1989).

The verb “operationalize” in all its senses was derived from the adjective “operational.” And like the verb, the adjective has meanings in both technical and everyday usage.

When “operational” was first recorded in the late 19th century, the OED says, it was a technical term meaning “of, involving, or employing mathematical operators or logical operations.”

Oxford’s earliest example is from an 1885 issue of the American Journal of Mathematics: “The forms of Boolian algebra hitherto used, have either two operational signs and a special sign of negation, or three operational signs.”

This more recent example is from a 2001 issue of the Bulletin of Symbolic Logic (2001): “It is useful to define the operational semantics of a language as a transition relation between states of an abstract machine.”

During the 20th century, “operational” came to have other meanings, in technical usage as well as in military and everyday language.

The common definition, in the words of the OED, is “in a condition of readiness to perform some intended (originally military) function; able and ready to function. Also in weakened sense: working, in use.”

All of these terms—along with words such as “operate,” “operator,” “operation,” and even “opera”—can be traced to the Latin verb operari (to work), from the noun opus (work).

As a point of interest, our word “opera” is etymologically the Latin plural of opus. In Latin, as John Ayto explains in the Dictionary of Word Origins, the noun opera “came to be regarded as a feminine singular noun meaning ‘that which is produced by work.’ ”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Is Berkshire’s approach scalable?

Q: I was reading a business article in the New York Times about Berkshire-Hathaway’s policy of trusting managers rather than relying on a safety net of lawyers and compliance officers. At one point, the writer asks, “So is Berkshire’s approach scalable?” What on earth does “scalable” mean here?

A: We can see why you’re confused. Standard dictionaries generally define “scalable” as “climbable” or “expandable.” It can also mean “measurable” or “resizable” or “used on a large scale” or “used by many people.”

None of those definitions seem right here. For example, it’s already used on a large scale and by many people at Berkshire-Hathaway. The writer of that Times article is apparently using “scalable” to mean usable by other companies.

The word “scalable” first showed up in the 1500s in the climbable sense, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Sir Thomas North’s 1579-80 translation of Plutarch’s Life of Aratus: “Without the wall the height was not so great, but that it was easily scalable with ladders.”

Although the OED describes the climbable sense of “scalable” as rare, that’s the primary meaning given in most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked.

In the 20th century, Oxford says, the word “scalable” took on a new meaning: “able to be measured or graded according to a scale.”

The dictionary’s first example of this sense is from a 1936 issue of the journal Psychological Monographs: “A few seem common enough to be regarded as comparable from one individual to another. These might be called common or scalable traits.”

In the 1970s, the OED says, the word “scalable” took on yet another sense: “able to be changed in scale.”

The dictionary describes this sense as rare and lists only one citation, from a 1977 issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts: “Such lasers are scaleable since large volumes could be pumped uniformly.”

The OED doesn’t have any other senses of “scalable,” but Oxford Dictionaries online includes these additional definitions:

● “Able to be changed in size or scale: scalable fonts.

● “Able to be used or produced in a range of capabilities: it is scalable across a range of systems.”

● “Able to be measured or graded according to a scale.”

The Collins English Dictionary says the term may also refer to a computer network that can “be expanded to cope with increased use.”

The Macmillan Dictionary online says it refers to computer systems, software, or technologies that “continue to work well when they are used on a large scale or by many people.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) offers this definition: “capable of being easily expanded or upgraded on demand: a scalable computer network.”

A bit of googling finds the word used in many other senses, but we’ll stop here. Our heads are spinning.

With so many meanings, “scalable” is becoming meaningless, especially to an everyday reader unfamiliar with its jargony senses. Perhaps it’s time for the mainstream news media to give “scalable” a rest.

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English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage Word origin

Hear Pat live today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 PM Eastern time to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Today’s topic: soccer and hooliganism. If you miss the program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.
English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Somewhen over the rainbow

Q: I was reading that scene in Tess of the D’Urbervilles where the newlywed Tess suggests to her husband, Angel, that they separate because a rape in her past may “somewhen” come between them. Why did “somewhen” fall out of favor while “somewhere,” “sometime,” and “somehow” survived?

A: You can find the adverb “somewhen” in some contemporary dictionaries, but it’s one of those words that never quite caught on. It’s out there, but you find it mostly in 19th-century literature.

Pat came across it for the first time in another Victorian novel she read two or three years ago. Here’s the passage, from George Meredith’s The Egoist (1879):

“ ‘I’ll debate on it with Willoughby.’ ‘This afternoon?’ ‘Somewhen, before the dinner-bell. I cannot tie myself to the minute-hand of the clock, my dear child.’ ”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “somewhen” as meaning “at some (indefinite or unknown) time; sometime or other.”

Most standard dictionaries don’t have entries for “somewhen,” even those that include such archaic words as “somewise” and “somewhither.” (More about those later.)

There are exceptions, however. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), the big Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and the Collins English Dictionary all have entries for “somewhen.”

The dictionaries define it more or less similarly: “sometime,” “at some time or other,” “at some indefinite or unknown time,” etc.

If people rarely use “somewhen” today, that’s probably because they prefer “sometime,” which means the same thing. When they do produce a “somewhen,” it’s nearly always used semi-humorously or for deliberate effect.

“Somewhen” was first recorded in the late 13th century, according to OED citations. But that early usage (spelled “somwanne”) appears to be an oddity, since the word then dropped out of sight for almost six hundred years.

The word next showed up in the 1800s. And then, as the Oxford editors explain, “somewhen” became a common 19th-century term, usually “coupled with somewhere or somehow.”

The earliest 19th-century example we’ve found in our own searches is from 1827, when the English author Caroline Fry used “somewhen” in a piece of short fiction she wrote for her monthly periodical, The Assistant of Education.

In Fry’s story, the narrator describes travelers in a coach, “engaged in such conversation as takes place between strangers, who have somewhere and somewhen performed the ceremony of introduction.”

The OED’s earliest example in modern English is from a letter written in 1833 by John Stuart Mill: “I shall write out my thoughts more at length somewhere, and somewhen, probably soon.”

The fact that Mill used italics for the “when” indicates that he didn’t consider this an ordinary compound but rather a droll variation on “somewhere.”

This OED citation, from Charles Kingsley’s novel The Water-Babies (1863), also uses “somewhen” alongside similar compounds: “Some folks can’t help hoping … that they may have another chance, to make things fair and even, somewhere, somewhen, somehow.”

And this one, from William Dwight Whitney’s The Life and Growth of Language (1875), does the same: “Spoken somewhere and somewhen in the past.”

In our own searches of various databases, nearly all the examples we found paired “somewhen” with similar words.

William James spun out the longest thread we came across: “somebody, somehow, somewhere, and somewhen” (from his essay “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results,” 1898).

Only rarely is “somewhen” used alone instead of alongside another “some-” word. The OED has these examples:

“… till somewhen about next Wednesday” (from a letter written in 1876 by Edward A. Freeman); and “ “Somewhen about 50,000 years ago” (from H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History, rev. ed., 1920).

We came up with only a handful of other examples with “somewhen” standing alone, as it does here:

“Somewhen around 1626-33 settlers began to repeople the lower valley” (from an article by Charles Edgar Gilliam in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 1942).

And this example from a scholarly study by three German doctors appeared in the journal Ophthalmic Research (2011):

“Patients in Cologne who had taken canthaxanthin somewhen between December 1983 and March 1988 were recruited via a newspaper article.”

Otherwise, our contemporary sightings of “somewhen” generally used it in tandem with other “some-” words.

Our findings also consisted largely of usages that were either semi-humorous, deliberately quaint, or used for effect (especially in articles about time travel). Here’s what we mean:

“Of course, I’d bought the plants days before I knew it was Earth Day, but I tend to buy plants then have to find somewhere or somewhen to plant them” (from the Daytona Beach News-Journal, 2005).

“The wormhole time machine makes complete sense. You’d jump through the wormhole and you come out not only somewhere else, but somewhen else” (from the Globe and Mail of Toronto, 2002).

Incidentally, “somewhen” isn’t the only English compound that’s become a rare bird. “Anywhen” (at any time) and “nowhen” (at no time) were once part of the language too.

We can’t sign off without mentioning some of the other antiquities that have vanished from common usage.

“Any” compounds: “anywhat” (any thing or amount); “anywhence” (from anywhere); “anywhither” (to any place); “anywhy” (for any reason); “anywise” (in any way).

“Every” and “ere” compounds: “everyhow” (in every way); “everywhen” (at all times); “everywhence” (from every direction); “everywhither” (in every direction); “erewhile” (some time ago); “erelong” (before long); “ereward” (previously).

“No” compounds: “nowhat” (nothing, or not at all); “nowhence” (from no place); “nowhy” (for no reason); “nowhither” (to no place); “nowise” (in no way).

“Other” compounds: “othersome” (some others); “otherward” (in another direction); “otherwhat” (something else); “otherwhence” (from elsewhere); “otherwhere” (elsewhere); “otherwhither” (to another place); “otherwhile” (at times, or at another time).

“Some” compounds: “somewhence” (from some place); “somewhither” (in some direction, or to some place);  “somewho” (some person); “somewhy” (for some reason); “somewhile” (formerly); “somewise” (in some way).

We’ll end with this example from Robert Browning’s 1864 poem “Mr. Sludge, ‘The Medium’ ”: Out of the drift of facts, whereby you learn / What someone was, somewhere, somewhen, somewhy?”

[Update: A reader in the UK writes on Oct. 3, 2022, to say that even today “somewhen” remains in use as a stand-alone adverb: “It is still in common usage on its own, on the Isle of Wight, England.”]

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

The Kardashians of the world

Q: Here’s a construction that’s widely used by radio hosts, though it’s not yet epidemic: “the (insert plural name of a singular individual) of the world.” For example, “the Babe Ruths of the world.” My complaint is that there are no multiple Babe Ruths. I get the intention, but it bugs me to hear a big internal contradiction in such a little phrase.

A: Like many idiomatic usages, this one isn’t meant to be taken literally. We’d never make our beds if we actually had to build them from scratch.

You seem to think the idiom you’ve heard on talk radio is a relatively new phenomenon, but the construction first showed up in the mid-1800s, well before Marconi got his first patent for transmitting radio waves.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the usage as colloquial (that is, more common in speech than written English), and defines it this way:

“With a personal name, in the plural. the — — of this world: people considered to represent or be like the type specified. Also in extended use with other proper names. Freq. somewhat derogatory.”

The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from the September 1897 issue of the North American Review: “The Mrs. Siddons’ or Rachels of the world have gained a fame to which even Garrick and Booth cannot approach.”

(The references are to British and American actors: Sarah Siddons, Elisabeth Rachel Félix, David Garrick, and Edwin Booth.)

We’ve found several earlier examples dating from the 1850s.

An article in the January 1854 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, for example, calls for “bringing prominently forward the peaceful heroes of art and meditation, the Newtons, the Shakespeares, the Miltons of the world.”

The most recent citation in the OED is from Do You Remember the First Time, a 2004 novel by Jenny Colgan: “Why should fashion belong only to the Britneys of this world, goddamit?”

As you’ve noticed, the usage is still around. We got more than 50,000 hits when we googled “the Kardashians of the world,” including this one from the May 17, 2013, issue of the Washington Times:

“These days, tabloid sales are fueled by persistent paparazzi and their photos of the Kardashians of the world in compromising situations.”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Methinks, therefore meseems

Q: Please settle an argument.  A friend (who is usually my first point of call for any grammatical queries) recently wrote, “If she’s as much like I as methinks she is.”  I suggested this should be “If she’s as much like me as I think she is.” The argument has now spread to three continents with me (or I) very much in the minority. I will abide by your judgment.  Unless it goes against me, in which case I will remain silent!

A: Both of you are partly right.

You’re correct to suggest that your friend should have written “as much like me.” But your friend is perfectly within her rights to use “methinks,” which is a very old construction, a mashup roughly meaning “it seems to me.”

So what she ought to have written is “If she’s as much like me as methinks she is.”

“Methinks” (past tense “methought”) is a very old “syntactic collocation” (in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary) that’s still occasionally used in a poetic or deliberately archaic way.

It dates back to early Old English, when it was recorded in the writings of King Aelfred. A similar formation meaning the same thing, “meseems,” appeared several hundred years later, around 1400, but it was never as popular as “methinks.”

Shakespeare must have been very fond of “methinks.” He used it at least 150 times in his plays and sonnets, according to searches of Shakespearean databases.

A few examples: “The lady protests too much, methinks” (Hamlet); “O, look! methinks I see my cousin’s ghost” (Romeo and Juliet); “This night methinks is but the daylight sick” (The Merchant of Venice).

The word (and it is regarded as a single word) persisted long after the Elizabethans. The OED has many examples, including some from 20th-century literature. Here’s a sampling:

“Methinks a strait canal is as rational at least as a mæandring bridge.” (From Horace Walpole’s Anecdotes of Painting in England, 1780.)

“Methinks a person of delicate individuality … could never endure to lie buried near Shakespeare.” (From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s essay collection Our Old Home, 1863.)

“Anne, methinks I see the traces of tears.” (From Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel Anne of Green Gables, 1908.)

“They are only jealous, methinks.” (From Mavis Nicholson’s memoir Martha Jane and Me, 1992.)

Nothing wrong with using a quaint old antiquity, even if you’re not reciting Shakespeare.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Is “change up” redundant?

Q: I noticed a new usage this week—three times, thus far—that strikes me as peculiar. A radio ad: “Are you ready to change up your furniture?” Isn’t it redundant to use “change up” where simply “change” would suffice?

A: The verbal phrases “change up” and “change down” have been around for more than a century, but with another meaning—to change gears in a motor vehicle. (In a moment, we’ll get to the usage you noticed.)

The online Oxford Dictionaries describes the vehicular usage as British and gives this example: “what you notice with a diesel is the need to change up slightly earlier than in a petrol car.”

The big Oxford English Dictionary has examples going back to 1902. This more recent one is from Life at the Top, a 1962 novel by John Braine: “I changed down into second; then changed up again.”

Americans are of course familiar with the noun “changeup,” which the Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3rd ed.) defines as either “a slow ball thrown after one or more fastballs, or a letup pitch to look like a fastball to upset the batter’s timing.”

The earliest example of the baseball usage in the OED is from J. G. Taylor Spink’s Baseball Guide and Record Book 1943: “Change-up, change of pace, slow ball.”

But we prefer this example, which also appears in Dickson, from the May 7, 1948, issue of the Birmingham News: “He’s got everything—speed, curve, change-up and plenty of heart.”

This brings us back to your question. The verb phrase “change up” in the sense you ask about (to upgrade) is a relative newcomer that doesn’t have an entry yet in the OED or the eight standard dictionaries we regularly check.

It first showed up in the 1970s, according to a search of Google Books, but it was rarely used until the turn of the new century.

The first example we could find is from the 1973 Summer Manual of the American Football Coaches Association:

“You must change up your option defense to both attack and finesse the quarterback.”

A recent example is this Jan. 3., 2014, headline from Runner’s World: “Change Up Your Running Routine / Tweaking your schedule magically produces fast results.”

Is the usage redundant? Well, we’ve found some examples that use “change up” simply to mean “change,” but most people use the phrase in the sense of “change for the better.”

We think that’s how “change up” is being used in that example of yours. The radio ad is appealing to potential customers who are ready to “change up” their furniture (that is, replace it with something better).

Here’s another example, from a May 20, 2013, post on the Shop Smart website: “Change Up Your Furniture, Change Up Your Life.”

If changing your furniture doesn’t improve your life enough, you can change your routine, as a Feb. 19, 2014, article in Elite Daily, a website for generation Y, recommends: “Change Up Your Daily Routine And Change Your Life For The Better.”

In blog posts in 2007 and 2012, we discussed a similar expression, “change out,” which is used in the sense of replacing a broken or outdated part—in a car, a computer, a house, and so on.

We’ll end with a cautionary tale for fellow googlers. In searching for “change up,” we found the phrase in Judge and Jury: The Life and Times of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a 1998 book by David Pietrusza.

A footnote in the book describes an incident that reportedly took place when Landis, the first baseball commissioner, shared a box at the 1934 World Series with Will Rogers and J. G. Taylor Spink, publisher of the Sporting News:

“At one point Spink, a big tipper, gave a vendor a $20 bill for a hot dog. When the boy said he’d be back with Spink’s change, Spink cheerfully yelled out, ‘Stick the change up your behind,’ meaning the lad should keep it.”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Here’s looking at you, kid

Q: How do you feel about the use of “kids” instead of “children”? It upsets me, especially when the context is serious, as in how many “kids” were killed in some incident. It almost seems as if “children” is going out of fashion.

A: You don’t have to worry about the fate of “children.” Both “kids” and “children” are alive and well, with billions of hits each in Google searches.

We use the two words a lot on our blog (232 hits for “children,” 135 for “kids”), but we agree with you that “kids” may be out of place in serious or formal contexts.

Why, you may ask, does “kids” show up so often on a relatively serious blog like ours? Well, we try to keep our writing casual here, even when we deal with scholarly issues of language.

Half of the eight standard dictionaries we’ve checked describe “kid” as informal when used to mean a child. Even the dictionaries that don’t use that label generally illustrate the usage with informal examples.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the use of “kid” for “a child, esp. a young child” as slang. However, the OED cautions that its entry for “kid” was first published in 1901 and “has not yet been fully updated.”

When the noun “kid” showed up in Middle English around 1200, it referred to a young goat, a sense that it still has.

The OED says English adopted the word from a Scandinavian source (in Old Icelandic, for example, a kidh was a young goat).

The earliest example of the word in the dictionary is from the Ormulum, a collection of homilies explaining biblical texts. The OED dates it at around 1200, but adds a question mark. Other sources say it was written sometime before 1200.

Here’s the citation, which was transcribed by the lexicographer R. W. Burchfield: “the firrste callf. the firrste lamb. the firrste kide. & swillke” (we’ve replaced the letter thorn here with “th”; swillke meant “such”).

Oxford says the use of “kid” for a human child showed up in the 1600s. The dictionary adds that it was “originally low slang, but by the 19th c. frequent in familiar speech.”

The earliest OED example of the new usage is from The Old Law, a tragicomedy by Thomas Middleton, William Rowley, and Philip Massinger: “Ime old you say / Yes parlous old Kidds and you mark me well.”

(The play was published in 1656, but it’s believed to have been written several decades earlier.)

The next example is from Collin’s Walk Through London and Westminster, a 1690 poem by Thomas D’Urfey: “And at her Back a Kid that cry’d, / Still as she pinch’d it, fast was ty’d.”

In the late 1800s, the noun “kid” came to be used colloquially to mean a young man or woman.

And here’s a 20th-century example, from The Brass Cupcake, a 1950 novel by John D. Macdonald: “I spoke out of the corner of my mouth. ‘We can’t talk here, kid.’ ”

When the verb showed up in the early 15th century, it meant to give birth to goats—in the words of the OED, to “bring forth a kid or kids.”

The dictionary’s first example is from The Master of Game (circa 1425), by Edward, Duke of York: Men shulde leue hem þe femels … into þe tyme þat þei haue kiddede.”

About four centuries later, the verb came to mean to “hoax, humbug, try to make (one) believe what is not true,” according to the OED.

The first Oxford example is from Lexicon Balatronicum: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pick Pocket Eloquence (1811), by Francis Grose and Hewson Clarke:

Kid, to coax or wheedle … To amuse a man or divert his attention while another robs him.”

The earliest example in the OED for the verb used in the sense of to joke with or tease is from George Bernard Shaw’s 1903 play Man and Superman: “Garn! youre kiddin.”

And here’s an example from the play that we’ve found: “Garn! You know why. Course it’s not my business; but you neednt start kiddin me about it.”

Both comments are by Henry (or, as he’d say, ’Enry) Straker, the cockney-speaking chauffeur in the play.

[Note: This post was updated on Jan 31, 2017.]

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Phrase origin Usage Word origin

How well of a test taker?

Q: Here’s what an NYC teacher had to say about the recent state English tests for grades 3-8: “I felt like the students really were just being tested on how well of a test-taker they were, not necessarily how great of a reader they were or how great a writer they were.” Am I the classic grump who refuses to surrender what’s left of my tenuous hold on good grammar? Please explain just why “how well of a test taker” and “how great of a reader” don’t make sense. At my advanced age (83), I’m too darned tired to look it up!

A: Grumpy or not, you’re right. That teacher’s sentence is a mess. But let’s not rush to put a dunce cap on his head and stand him in the corner. There are extenuating circumstances here.

We tracked down the sentence in question and found that it was made on WNYC during an interview with several teachers about the tests.

People who usually talk or write in standard English sometimes trip over a few words when speaking off the cuff, especially when they’re nervous about being on the radio.

If that third-grade teacher had been given a few seconds to think before opening his mouth, his English might not have sounded to you like fingernails on a blackboard.

Here are a couple of possible revisions of the sentence, keeping singulars with singulars and plurals with plurals:

“I felt as if a student really was just being tested on how good a test-taker he was, not necessarily how great a reader or how great a writer he was.”

“I felt as if the students really were just being tested on how good they were at test-taking, not necessarily how great they were at reading or writing.”

Now, back to the problem sentence. What bothered you about it was the speaker’s use of “well of a test taker” and “great of a reader,” so we’ll discuss those first.

Let’s say right up front that the speaker’s use of the adverb “well” is a major misdemeanor. We’re fairly broadminded here at Grammarphobia, but in this world a student is a good test taker, not a well test taker (unless you’re talking about his health).

Now on to those “of a” constructions. We ran a blog post last January about what some linguists call the “big of” syndrome—using “of” in phrases like “not that big of a deal” and “too long of a drive.” These generally consist of adjective + “of a” + noun (or noun phrase).

As we pointed out, constructions with a noun described in terms of another noun (like “a devil of a time,” “a prince of a man”) are standard English. The Oxford English Dictionary has examples going back to the 1600s.

However, when an adjective is part of the pattern some usages are considered standard and some aren’t.

In standard English, we commonly use certain adjectives of quantity—“much,” “more,” “less,” “enough”—in this way, as in “enough of a problem” and “too much of a drive.”

But with adjectives of degree—“good/bad,” “big/small,” “long/short,” “old/young,” “hard/easy,” “near/far,” and so on—the “of a” pattern is not considered standard.

With that class of adjectives, the “of”-less versions (“not that big a problem”) are standard, while the “of” versions (“not that big of a problem”) are regarded as dialectal.

While this dialectal usage is nonstandard, it shouldn’t be called incorrect—just inappropriate in formal English.

The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says the adjectival idiom is “almost entirely oral” and is “rare in print except in reported speech.”

“The only stricture on it suggested by our evidence is that it is a spoken idiom: you will not want to use it much in writing except of the personal kind,” M-W adds.

But again, we’re talking about adjectival usages here. As for the adverbial “how well of a test-taker,” fuggedaboutit!

Yes, “how well of a” is out there in the ether (we got 2.9 million hits when we googled it), but we haven’t found a single language commentator who speaks well of it.

A final note. You didn’t mention it, but some usage authorities would object to that teacher’s use of “like” as a conjunction. They would have recommended that he start his sentence with “I felt as if” instead of “I felt like.”

We don’t use “like” as a conjunction ourselves, but the ground is shifting here and some language authorities see no problem with it. We ran a post on the blog a few years ago about the usage.

As we wrote then, writers have been using “like” as a conjunction since the 14th century. Chaucer did it. Shakespeare, too. So did Keats, Emily Brontë, Thackeray, George Eliot, Dickens, Kipling, Shaw, and so on.

The Merriam-Webster’s usage guide says that objections to “like” as a conjunction were apparently “a 19th-century reaction to increased conjunctive use at that time.”

Although conservative usage guides and grammar sticklers still object to the use of “like” as a conjunction, that opinion is far from unanimous.

Merriam-Webster’s says “the usage has never been less than standard,” and the “belief that like is a preposition but not a conjunction has entered the folklore of usage.”

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (revised 3rd ed.) doesn’t go quite so far, but it says “like as a conjunction is struggling towards acceptable standard or neutral ground” and “the long-standing resistance to this omnipresent little word is beginning to crumble.”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Are you riven about “rived”?

Q: A recent article in the NY Times says northeastern Nigeria “has been rived for years by attacks from Boko Haram.” Shouldn’t that be “riven”?

A: In that May 6, 2014, article in the Times about the kidnapping of schoolgirls by the terrorist group, the reporter paraphrased a comment by a UN official:

“Manuel Fontaine, Unicef’s regional director for West and Central Africa, said in a telephone interview that the information had been obtained from the agency’s contacts for the area, which has been rived for years by attacks from Boko Haram.”

Is this use of “rived” as a past participle OK? It depends.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the past participle of the verb “rive” is “riven” in British English, but it’s either “riven” or “rived” in American English.

Standard dictionaries in the US generally list “riven” as the usual past participle, but include “rived” as a less common usage.

Information in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, indicates that the use of “rived” as a past participle is a “standard usage” that “occurs appreciably less often” than “riven.”

A search of the New York Times archive finds that both “riven” and “rived” are used as past participles, though “riven” is far more common at the paper.

The verb “rive,” meaning to tear apart or split, first showed up in The Chronicles of Britain, a Middle English poem written in the late 12th or early 13th centuries by the poet-priest Layamon, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Chambers says English borrowed the term from Scandinavian sources (in Old Icelandic, for instance, rifa meant to tear apart), but it ultimately comes from an ancient Indo-European root that also gave English the word “rift.”

The OED says the verb “rive” is now “somewhat” archaic or literary in standard English, except when used for splitting people into opposing sides, or (in the US) splitting wood or stone.

Here’s an example of the divisive usage from the Sept. 22, 1998, issue of the Guardian: “The avenging, evangelical prosecutor seems never to give a thought to how his relentless chase is riving the nation.”

And here’s an example about wood being split, from the June 1991 issue of the American Woodworker: “The ax rives the wood by following the grain.”

Finally, the adjective “riven,” which showed up in the early 1300s, is still being divisive, as in this example from The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain, a 1999 brook by David Cannadine: “The image of Ireland as a riven society was no less misleading.”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Is one wisteria a wisterium?

Q: Why isn’t one wisteria a wisterium? Did the Romans ever refer to a single wisteria plant as a wisterium?

A: The ancient Romans may have never seen the flowering vine, since the various species of the genus Wisteria are native to the US, China, Japan, and Korea.

In fact, the letter “w” didn’t even exist in classical Latin. The Romans used the consonant “v” or the vowel “u” in writing to represent the “w” sound. There was no “v” sound in classical Latin.

The English botanist Thomas Nuttall named the genus Wisteria in 1818 in memory of Caspar Wistar, an American professor of anatomy who died that year.

So why did he spell it Wisteria, not Wistaria?

An editor’s note in the July 1898 issue of Meehan’s Monthly Magazine, a horticultural journal, says Charles J. Wister, a friend of Nuttall and a relative of Wistar, once asked the botanist to explain the spelling of the genus.

Wister, an amateur botanist, called Nuttall’s “attention to the fact of his having named the plant in honor of the eminent professor, notwithstanding that he spelled his name with an a,” according to this account.

“Nuttall said that he was quite aware of that, but since the families of Wistar and Wister were one, and that Wisteria was more euphonious than Wistaria, he had preferred and adopted the former,” the editor’s note concluded.

The magazine gave only “a subscriber” as the source. Wister, who died in 1865, wrote a memoir, but we haven’t been able to find a full-text version online.

Although the common name of the plant is sometimes spelled “wistaria,” the genus is listed as Wisteria in the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature.

Nevertheless, the earliest example of the plant’s name in the Oxford English Dictionary uses the “wistaria” spelling.

Here’s the citation, from The Suburban Horticulturist, an 1842 book by John Claudius Loudon: “Vines, roses, Wistarias, or other luxuriant climbers.”

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English English language Etymology Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Thank you so much

Q: Have you noticed the use of the inflated “thank you so much”? To me, it has the opposite effect of a simple “thank you.” It sounds condescending. And what’s worse, it has insinuated itself into my speech! Please let me know that I’m not the only one bothered by this.

A: You’re not the only one bothered by “thank you so much,” though most of the botherees seem to think the expression isn’t quite as legit as “thank you very much.”

As it turns out, grateful people have been thanking one another “so much” since the 1800s and “very much” since the 1600s, while plain old “thank you” has been around since the 1400s.

The two of us generally use “thank you” or “thanks,” but we sometimes add “so much” or “very much” or “a lot” or “a heap” or “a million” or “a bunch.”

We don’t think it’s condescending to add a couple of grace notes to our thanking. It may be a bit wordy, but we don’t see anything wrong with going the extra word or two.

And we don’t see any particular difference in meaning between “thank you so much” and “thank you very much.”

The use of “thank you very much” has risen pretty steadily over the last century, according to a search using Google’s Ngram Viewer.

The use of “thank you so much” rose steadily until World War II, then fell during the postwar years. But it’s been rising again over the last four decades, and you’re probably noticing the expression because of its recent increase in popularity.

The earliest example of “thank you very much” that we’ve been able to find is from a 1650 letter by James Usher, the Archbishop of Armagh: “I thank you very much for your large Narrative of the proceedings in the Controversy touching Grace and Free-will.”

(The cleric’s name is sometimes spelled Ussher—he referred to himself in Latin as Jacobus Usserius.)

The earliest example we’ve found for “thank you so much” is from My Daughter Elinor, an 1869 novel by Frank Lee Benedict: “I thank you so much. I am sorry to distress you.”

We’ve written several posts about “thank you,” including one in 2013 that discusses the history of the phrase.

As we said then, “thank you” itself showed up in Middle English as a short form of the expression “I thank you.”

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

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

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Is “logisticate” a word?

Q: Here in the Washington area a lot of words seem to be created for government use only. Just on a lark, I tried several years ago to create one myself and inject it into the language. Have you ever heard “logisticate” used anywhere?

A: No, we haven’t heard it used, but we’ve had a fair number of sightings since your question arrived in our inbox and we began looking into the usage.

You won’t find “logisticate” in standard dictionaries—we checked eight of them and drew a blank. Nor will you find it in the Oxford English Dictionary, the largest dictionary of the English language.

However, “logisticate” is out in the ether—barely. We googled it and got 19,300 hits, but  the number shrank to 118 when we actually began clicking on them. (Whassup with that, Google?)

You didn’t mention when you first thought of the word and how you tried to spread it. But “logisticate” has been around for more than seven years, and perhaps longer.

The earliest example we’ve found  is from the online Merriam-Webster Open Dictionary, which lets readers submit new words for consideration by the M-W editors.

A Dec. 4, 2006, submission from a reader in the UK suggested “logisticate” and offered this definition:

“To think about or discuss the problems of moving materials or the details of a problem and how to solve it. To rethink etc would therefore be to relogisticate.”

The same contributor reported a June 2004 sighting of “relogisticate,” but we haven’t been able to confirm it.

The M-W Open Dictionary also has a July 1, 2006, entry from an anonymous contributor for “logisticize,” which is defined as “To organize the logistics of (an occasion). To plan (as a trip, party, or major event).”

The entry includes this example: “We have so many events to logisticize this year that my siblings with the planning gene will be in ecstasy.”

A Sept. 25, 2008, contribution to Urban Dictionary, another reference that relies on user-submitted entries, defines “logisticate” this way: “to provide the vision and overall direction for a task that will be completed by other people.”

The entry includes this example: “The Laundry will be picked up, sorted, pretreated, washed, dried, folded, pressed, hung and then delivered same day as per your wishes, but I’ll be sure to check in with the team ahead of time to logisticate.”

Urban Dictionary also has a reader-submitted Nov. 30, 2010, entry for “logisticize,” with this definition: “To work out details or a schedule; to make a plan in detail; to finalize the logistics of an appointment, a meeting or an engagement.”

The entry has two examples: “There will be a big crowd at the concert, so we’d better logisticize” … “Let’s logisticize now, so there’s no confusion later.”

Both “logisticate” and “logisticize” are mushy and formless, in our opinion. If a word has too many interpretations, and if others do the job better, what’s the point in using it?

In a Feb. 16, 2010, blog post about business jargon, the CNBC reporter Jane Wells condemns “logisticate” as the “worst violation of sane speech I’ve heard.”

“Readers, let’s stop the madness,” she writes. “Going forward, let’s effort to logisticate a path to sanity. Next time someone talks to you in such a manner, say, ‘Excuse me, but you could speak English?’ ”

Well, she got that off her chest. We don’t particularly like bizspeak, but we suspect that “logisticate” may already be past its sell-by date.

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English English language Etymology Grammar Usage

Just suppose

Q: I told a student of mine that this was incorrect: “Suppose you were starting your own business, what would you do?” I said the two sentences should be divided by a period, not a comma. But now I am having second thoughts. Please straighten me out.

A: The word “suppose” here is being used as a conjunction to introduce a hypothetical “what would happen if” statement, according to the online Cambridge Dictionaries.

The website gives this example of the usage: “Suppose we miss the train—what would we do then?”

In effect, “suppose” here (and in your example) functions like the conjunction “if” to mean “in the event that” or “on the assumption that.”

Cambridge says “supposing” can be used the same way: “Supposing that you had that opportunity, Mrs. Gallagher, what would you say?”

We would describe “suppose” in your example as an imperative verb acting as a conjunction. In that sentence, it introduces a hypothetical statement made up of two clauses separated by a comma.

No matter what terminology is used, “suppose” and “supposing” have been introducing hypothetical sentences and clauses for hundreds of years.

Examples of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary suggest that “suppose” is more likely to introduce a construction made up of two sentences, while “supposing” or “supposing that” is more likely to introduce one made up of two clauses.

However, both words are used both ways in standard dictionaries. We’ve found several examples of “suppose” used when two clauses are divided by a comma.

The online Macmillan Dictionary, for example, offers this example: “Suppose you won the lottery, what would you do with the money?

And the Longman Dictionary online offers this one: “Look, suppose you lost your job tomorrow, what would you do?”

In describing the usage, the Oxford Dictionaries online says  “suppose” is being “used to introduce a hypothesis and trace or ask about what follows from it.” Oxford has this example with a dash: “suppose he had been murdered—what then?”

The word “suppose” has been used to introduce hypothetical statements since the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In this sense, the OED explains, “suppose” is an imperative verb meaning “assume,” “imagine,” or “what if?” However, the dictionary gives examples from the 15th to the 20th centuries of the word “passing into conj.” in Scottish English.

We’ll end with an Oxford citation from the July 25, 1907, issue of the Nation about William Jennings Bryan’s campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination:

“Suppose him the Democratic nominee, and the issue would be thrust in his face from every stump in the land. His party would have to bear the odium.”

Bryan won the Democratic nomination, but he was trounced by the Republican candidate, William Howard Taft, in the 1908 presidential election.

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

The spirited life of “alcohol”

Q: I’m curious about the history of the term “alcohol.” How did a word for eye shadow come to mean the spirits we know and love?

A: The ultimate source of “alcohol” is Arabic, the language of a people associated with abstinence from alcohol.

The tipoff here is the “al” at the beginning of “alcohol.” Like the “al” in “alchemy,” “algebra,” and “algorithm,” it’s the Arabic equivalent of the definite article “the” in English.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says “alcohol” comes from the Arabic term “al-kuhul, literally ‘the kohl’—that is, powdered antimony used as a cosmetic for darkening the eyelids.”

Ayto gives this explanation of the usage from A Relation of a Journey, a 1615 book by George Sandys about his travels in the Middle East:

“They put between the eyelids and the eye a certain black powder made of a mineral brought from the kingdom of Fez, and called Alcohol.”

When the Arabic word first showed up in English (via medieval Latin) in the 1500s, it was a term in chemistry for “a fine powder, esp. as produced by grinding,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest citation is from Bartholomew Traheron’s 1543 translation of a book on surgery by the Spanish physician Juan de Vigo: “The barbarous auctours use alchohol, or (as I fynde it sometymes wryten) alcofoll, for moost fyne poudre.”

By the end of the 1500s, according to OED citations, the term “alcohol” was also being used to mean “a liquid essence or spirit obtained by distillation, as alcohol of wine.”

The first citation in the dictionary for the new usage is from Sclopatarie, John Hester’s 1590 translation of a book by the French physician Joseph Duchesne about the treatment of wounds:

“Circulate the Rubin of sulpure with the Alcoll of wine eight dayes.” (We assume a “Rubin of sulpure” is a sulfur rub or ointment.) 

The term “alcohol of wine,” according to Ayto’s etymological reference, referred to “the ‘quintessence of wine,’ produced by distillation or rectification.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) explains that this substance was “the constituent of fermented liquors that causes intoxication, and the term alcohol came to refer to this essence.”

“Eventually, the liquors that contained this essence began to be called alcohol, too,” American Heritage says in an etymology note. “In the terminology of modern chemistry, alcohol has also come to refer to the class of compounds to which ethanol belongs.”

It was in the early 1800s, according to OED citations, that “alcohol” acquired the modern meanings of a “substance consumed as the intoxicating ingredient of alcoholic drink,” or a “drink containing alcohol, such as beer, wine, gin, whiskey, etc.,” or an “intoxicating or spirituous liquor.”

The dictionary’s first citation for this new usage is from Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Heart of Midlothian (1818):

“Without asking farther questions, the landlady filled Dick Ostler a bumper of Hollands. He ducked with his head and shoulders, scraped with his more advanced hoof, bolted the alcohol, to use the learned phrase, and withdrew to his own domains.”

(We’ve expanded the OED citation. “Hollands” here is Hollands gin.)

The most recent Oxford example (which we’ll also expand) comes from Martin Amis’s novel The Pregnant Widow (2010):

“I wanted a couple of powerful ones to get me in the mood, so I looked in at the Saracen’s Head in Cambridge Circus, a place described to me, by Violet, as ‘good.’ Why, I wondered, did Violet think it was good, apart from the fact that it sold alcohol?”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Hue and cry

Q: Is the “hue” in the expression “hue and cry” related to the “hue” that refers to color?

A: No, the “hue” in “hue and cry” is a horse of another color.

In Anglo-Saxon times, the noun “hue” (written hiew, hiw, or heow) referred to the shape of something as well as its color, but the shape sense is now considered obsolete.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest examples of those senses of the word are from the Blickling Homilies, a collection of Old English sermons dating from 971. The first color citation refers to “brunes heowes.”

The other “hue”—the one meaning “outcry, shouting, clamour, esp. that raised by a multitude in war or the chase”—showed up in the 1300s, according to the OED. That sense is now obsolete, surviving only in the expression “hue and cry.”

English borrowed the clamorous “hue” from an Old French noun (written hu, hui, huy, or heu) meaning an outcry, a war cry, or a hunting cry. The Old French verb huer meant to hoot, cry, or shout.

The expression “hue and cry,” which came into English by way of the Anglo-Norman hu e cri, was originally a legal phrase that referred to an outcry by a victim, a constable, or others, calling for the pursuit of a felon.

The OED has two questionable citations from the late 1200s for “hue and cry,” but the first definite example is from a chronicle written in the early 1500s by the London merchant Richard Arnold:

Ony persone … that wyll not helpe Constable sergeauntis and other officers … when hue and Crye is made.”

The OED says there’s “some ground to think” the words “hue” and “cry” in the expression originally had two distinct meanings, with “hue” referring to an “inarticulate sound, including that of a horn or trumpet as well as of the voice.”

By the late 1500s, according to the OED, “hue and cry” was being used more widely to mean “a clamour or shout of pursuit or assault; a cry of alarm or opposition; outcry.”

The first example of this looser usage in the dictionary is from a 1584 English translation of a history of Wales by the cleric Caradoc of Llancarfan: “Set vpon them with great hew and crie.” 

In case you’re curious about the idiom at the beginning of this post, we discussed “a horse of another color” on the blog in 2012.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Is your foot out of step?

Q: I have always read, and heard, that you “set foot” when you enter a place. Now I seem to hear “step foot” very often. Are both correct?

A: The usual expression is “set foot,” but “step foot” is very popular, and it’s not all that new. In fact, both phrases have been around for centuries.

The Oxford English Dictionary has examples of foot-setting going back to the 1400s and of foot-stepping dating from the 1500s.

However, a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer indicates a sharp rise in the use of “step foot in” since 1980, which may explain why you’ve been noticing the usage.

Are both expressions correct? Well, we don’t use “step foot,” and you won’t find it in standard dictionaries or idiom references.

But we wouldn’t say it’s incorrect—not when the usage has been around for hundreds of years and now has millions of users.

Here’s the result of Google searches for the two expressions: “set foot in,” 35.5 million hits, vs. “step foot in,” nearly 6.7 million.

The older of these two usages—“set foot” in, into, on, at, and so on—showed up in the late 15th century, according to citations in the OED.

The earliest example in the dictionary is from The Foure Sonnes of Aymon, William Caxton’s 1490 translation of a French romance of chivalry: “I shall never sette foote there.”

The first example with a preposition comes from Nicolas Udall’s translation of the Apophthegmes of Erasmus (1542): “It was a foule shame for a phylosophier to sette his foote into any hous where bawderie wer kepte.”

As for “step foot,” the OED has examples going back to the mid-16th century of the phrase used with various prepositions.

The earliest is from John Palsgrave’s 1540 translation of The Comedye of Acolastus, by Gulielmus Gnapheus: “Steppe not one foote forth of this place.”

The first Oxford example of the phrase with the preposition “in” is from a poem, written sometime before 1547, by the Earl of Surrey: “Stepp in your foote, come take a place, and mourne with me awhyle.”

Here’s a 19th-century example, from Richard Burleigh Kimball’s novel Was He Successful? (1864): “When Hiram stepped foot in the metropolis.”

Although nearly all of the OED’s “step foot” citations are from British sources, the dictionary says the usage now shows up only in US English.

If you’d like to see another take on the subject, you might look at our friend Merrill Perlman’s Language Corner column in the Columbia Journalism Review.

We’ll end with an example of the usage from Chronicles (2004), the first volume in Bob Dylan’s planned three-part memoir:

“I had stopped going down to the Café Wha? in the afternoons. Never stepped foot in there again.”

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English English language Etymology Pronunciation Usage Word origin

Immediately, if not sooner

Q: On radio and TV, I have lately been hearing the word “immediately” pronounced with the first syllable emphasized. Is this incorrect or am I just being a nitpicker?

A: You may be a nitpicker, but you’re right about the pronunciation of “immediately.”

The Oxford English Dictionary and the eight standard dictionaries we’ve checked all agree that the second syllable of “immediately” is the one that’s emphasized.

However, lexicographers at these dictionaries recognize a few variations in pronouncing the word.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, lists i-MEE-dee-ut-lee as the usual pronunciation.

However, M-W says Americans sometimes pronounce it i-MEE-dit-lee and Britons often say i-MEE-jit-lee. All three are standard.

The word can be an adverb (“It happened immediately” or “He was sitting immediately behind her”) as well as a conjunction (“Let us know immediately he arrives”). However, its use as a conjunction, meaning “as soon as,” is chiefly British.

The earliest citation in the OED for “immediately” is from John Lydgate’s Troy Book (1412-20), a Middle English poem about the rise and fall of the city: “Fro Troye were sente lettres …To pallamides inmediatly directe.”

Although English borrowed “immediately” from Latin, it ultimately comes from an Indo-European source that gave English the words “medium,” “mediocre,” and “mediate,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Etymologically, Ayto says, the word “immediate” (and, of course “immediately”) refers to “acting directly, without any mediation.”

In case you’re interested, the expression “immediately, if not sooner” showed up in the 19th century. Here’s an early example from an 1833 issue of Fraser’s Magazine, a literary journal in London:

“He was determined to fight; right or wrong, fight he must, and fight he would—immediately, if not sooner.”

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English English language Etymology Slang Usage Word origin

Is Justin Bieber a twerp?

Q: In a recent column in the Miami Herald, Leonard Pitts Jr. refers to Justin Bieber as a “twerp,” which prompts this question: Where does the word “twerp” come from?

A: In his March 16, 2014, “In My Opinion” column, Pitts writes: “Bieber comes across as a twerp so snotty and insolent even Mother Teresa would want to smack him.” Ouch!

As for the word itself, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “twerp” as a “despicable or objectionable person; an insignificant person, a nobody; a nincompoop.”

Well, that gives us several distinct definitions, and you can take your pick. Pitts obviously considers the Canadian pop singer despicable and objectionable, but he wouldn’t be writing about him if he considered Bieber a nobody.

Standard dictionaries generally agree with the OED’s assessment of “twerp.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, defines it as “a silly, insignificant, or contemptible person.”

Where, you ask, does “twerp” come from? Oxford says it’s slang “of uncertain origin,” but the dictionary points readers in a tantalizing direction.

The OED cites a 1944 letter by J. R. R. Tolkien and a 1957 book by the poet Roy Campbell that suggest the original twerp was a fellow student at Oxford University named T. W. Earp (in later life, the art critic Thomas Wade Earp).

In an Oct. 6, 1944, letter to his youngest son, Christopher, Tolkien writes of living on Pusey Street while a student at Exeter College, Oxford, and “going about with T. W. Earp, the original twerp.”

(John Garth, author of a Tolkien biography, says on his blog that the two Oxford students “had jousted in college debates” and “must have disagreed about almost everything.”)

Campbell, a South African, made his comment about “twerp” in Portugal, a 1957 book about his expatriate home. Campbell, who died in a car crash that same year, wrote:

“T. W. Earp (who gave the English language the word twirp, really twearp, because of the Goering-like wrath he kindled in the hearts of the rugger-playing stalwarts at Oxford, when he was president of the Union, by being the last, most charming, and wittiest of the ‘decadents’).”

The OED’s earliest citation for “twerp” (or “twirp”) is from Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases, a 1925 book by Edward Fraser and John Gibbons: “Twerp, an unpleasant person.”

We’ve found several earlier examples, including one in College Humor, a 1921 collection of humor from campuses in the US and Canada.

Here are a few lines from “Hiawatha’s Wedding,” a takeoff on the Longfellow poem “The Song of Hiawatha.” (The parody originally appeared in the Sun Dodger, a magazine at the University of Washington.)

Called Him Onderdonk, the Bonhead,
Wilfred Onderdonk, the Booby,
Onderdonk Pasha Nabisco
Little Twirp, the Chronic Nit Wit.

We’ve seen several earlier dates for the usage in slang dictionaries, but we haven’t been able to confirm them.

American Slang (4th ed.), for example, dates “twerp” to “1874+” but doesn’t offer any citations. The only 19th-century examples we could find in digitized databases were the results of poor scanning (“an twerp” for “Antwerp” was a common error).

So is T. W. Earp the source of “twerp”? Well, the timing is apparently right. Tolkien, Campbell, and Earp were students at Oxford in the second decade of the 20th century, not long before the usage started showing up.

But if T. W. Earp was indeed the source, we’d expect to see one or two early citations for the word spelled “twearp.” We haven’t found any yet. So for the time being, we’ll go along with the OED and say “twerp” is “of uncertain origin.”

As for Justin Bieber, we’ll let our readers decide whether he qualifies.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

The skills in your skill set

Q: Have you weighed in on “skill set”? It strikes me as corporate jargon, but it showed up in a recent review of Peniel E. Joseph’s Stokely in the New York Times.

A: Our guess is that “skill set” originated not in the corporate world but in academia, another wellspring of jargon.

The earliest examples we’ve found, dating from the late 1960s and early ’70s, are from books about education and psychology.

The first example we’ve came across is from Peter James Arnold’s Education, Physical Education, and Personality Development (1968):

“For example, the phrase ‘being careful’ meant various things to the participants and this in turn affected their approach in tackling the skill set.” Arnold’s field was kinesiology, the study of human movement.

The next is from a psychology text, Wayne Lee’s Decision Theory and Human Behavior (1971): “Perhaps the skill set was critical here.”

The noun phrase becomes more common in the mid-1970s (it appears twice in the reports of the National Computer Conference and Exposition, published in 1974).

And by the mid-1980s it has become almost routine in many fields—academia, business, computing, aviation, law, and others. 

You won’t have much luck finding “skill set” in standard dictionaries.  Perhaps that’s because lexicographers feel the parts explain the whole—a “skill set” is simply a set of skills, just as a “tool set” is a set of tools.

One of the few sources that includes the phrase is Oxford Dictionaries online, which defines “skill set” as “a person’s range of skills or abilities.”

Examples given include “The jobs are out there; you just need the skill sets,” and “Typically, forces deployed to peace operations use different skill sets to execute required missions.”

By the way, the word “skill” once had very different meanings than it does today.

It came into Middle English in the 1100s from an Old Norse word (skil) meaning distinction or difference, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the 12th through 14th centuries, the OED says, “skill” had such meanings as these:

(1) “that which is reasonable, proper, right, or just”; (2) “reason as a faculty of the mind”; (3) “discrimination or discretion”;  (4) “a sense of what is right or fitting”; (5) “cause, reason, or ground”; and even (6) “a statement made by way of argument or reasoning.”

All those senses are long dead. Only one early meaning has survived—a 13th-century usage defined by the OED this way:

“Capability of accomplishing something with precision and certainty; practical knowledge in combination with ability; cleverness, expertness. Also, an ability to perform a function, acquired or learnt with practice.”

That sense of the word, you might say, has survival in its skill set.

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English English language Etymology Slang Usage Word origin

I left my heart in … Frisco?

Q: My North Beach uncle used to respond negatively when I used the term “Frisco” to refer to San Francisco. He considered it a huge no-no. He loved the city and thought the usage was disrespectful. What’s wrong with it? I (a Midwesterner) kind of like it.

A: Like your uncle, some San Franciscans object to the use of “Frisco,” saying it’s too touristy or it recalls the city’s gritty past.

Etymologically, it’s simply an abbreviation of “San Francisco,” perhaps introduced by 19th-century sailors who used the shortened name for the port.

We know that the nickname “Frisco” has been around since at least as far back as 1849. The city was officially named San Francisco in 1847, taking its name from the already well-known Bay of San Francisco.

Long before the official naming, though, sailors had referred to the town, the port, and the surrounding region as San Francisco.

For example, Richard Henry Dana uses “San Francisco” for both the port and the region in his sailing memoir Two Years Before the Mast (1840).

The earliest published use of “Frisco,” according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, is from an 1849 letter written during the Gold Rush.

The letter, quoted in Octavius Thorndike Howe’s book Argonauts of ’49 (1923), is dated Dec. 30, 1849, and was written by a New Englander who had recently arrived by ship. He uses both the abbreviation and the full name:

“Made good passage to ’Frisco. Captain David Carter of Beverly [Mass.] died on the passage out. Think San Francisco the most contemptible dirty place one could wish to see. Not fit for man or beast.”

Note that the letter writer uses an apostrophe before “Frisco,” so he regarded it as an abbreviation. The apostrophe appears in many early uses.

As we said, this is the earliest known example. But we suspect that earlier ones will turn up, since that letter-writer used the term so casually, as if it were well-known.

Thanks to the California Digital Newspaper Collection, we were able to find other early uses.

This one, for example, is from the March 9, 1850, issue of the Placer Times in Sacramento:

“A correspondent in a ’Frisco paper, writing from this city, says he saw ‘a female pedestrian galloping through our streets.’ Hope she had a good time.”

Nine more examples cropped up later that year in the Placer Times, the Sacramento Transcript, and the Sacramento Daily Union. In succeeding years, the usage was much more widespread. 

And it seems to have been perfectly respectable. We found a reference, for example, in a short story by C. J. Everett, “The Gentleman From Honolulu,” published in the genteel Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine in March 1868.

Early in the story, we’re told that one of the refined characters has picked up some slang on his trip to California and wishes he were “back in Frisco.”

One of his sisters, busy with her embroidery, answers: “Frank, we are tired of hearing you talk of Frisco. Where in the world did you get that name for it?”

He replies: “Oh, that’s the pet name the ‘boys’ give their beautiful harbor-city, the pride of the State. You ought to hear them shout for Frisco, as they throng into the ‘What Cheer House’ of a gala-day; and at the ‘Occidental’ is tossed off many a bumper ‘to Frisco and the ladies.’ ”

The term was common enough to appear in a dictionary published in London, John Stephen Farmer’s Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present (1890).

The book describes “Frisco” as an American noun—“Short for San Francisco”—and gives contemporary citations from Bret Harte’s poems and from Sporting Life.

Before long, the term was part of common usage, even in officialdom.  

We found this line in a telegram sent in May 1900 by the Surgeon General in Washington, D.C.: “You may inspect all vessels as far as possible from Frisco.”

The message, published in the journal Public Health Reports in June 1900, was sent to a California quarantine officer after an outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

The officer later wired back: “Now that plague officially announced, wire instructions regarding my duties relative shipment of freight from Frisco to points in California and to surrounding States.”

Of course, since these uses of “Frisco” appeared in telegrams, perhaps the intent was to be brief.

It’s hard to say when some residents began frowning on the abbreviation.

One of the earliest objections is recorded in A Scamper Through America, an 1882 travel book. The English author, T. S. Hudson, warns travelers not to use the abbreviation while visiting the city.

“All Spanish names and expressions are proudly retained,” Hudson writes, “and you must never be heard using the irreverent abbreviation ’Frisco, the only curtailment admissible to the dignity of the citizens being that which they frequently use, ‘San Fran.’ ”

Later, even the local judiciary weighed in. A 1918 issue of the San Francisco Examiner reported that Judge Edmund P. Mogan chewed out a witness, a Los Angeles auto dealer, for using the term “Frisco” four times in his testimony.

“No one refers to San Francisco by that title except people from Los Angeles,” said the judge. “Don’t do it again.”

Perhaps the most vocal of the locals was the San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, who wrote in 1953:

“Don’t call it Frisco. It’s San Francisco, because it was named after St. Francis of Assisi. And because ‘Frisco’ is a nickname that reminds the city uncomfortably of the early, brawling, boisterous days of the Barbary Coast and the cribs and sailors who were shanghaied. And because ‘Frisco’ shows disrespect for a city that is now big and proper and respectable. And because only tourists call it ‘Frisco,’ anyway, and you don’t want to be taken for a tourist, do you?”

Later, Caen moderated his grudge against “Frisco,” writing in a 1978 column: “My recollection is that it’s a waterfront-born nickname that the sailors used lovingly, back when this was the best (wildest) port of call in the Pacific.”

He could be on to something here. The language researcher Peter Tamony also suggested a maritime origin for “Frisco.”

In “The Sailors Call It ‘Frisco,’ ” published in the journal Western Folklore in 1967, Tamony said he didn’t believe that “Frisco” was necessarily an abbreviation.

He suggested the name arrived with sailors, and may have come ultimately from a Middle English term, frithsoken (asylum, sanctuary, “safe harbor”). But since that word died out in the early 1300s, his suggestion seems farfetched.

However, he could have been right that the abbreviation “Frisco” originated with sailors, since the first usage we have is by someone who arrived from New England by ship.

But we’re into mere speculation here. Lacking any documentary evidence of a connection with sailing, we conclude that “Frisco” is probably a simple abbreviation, much like “Berdoo” (San Bernardino); “Sacto” or, more recently, “Sac” (Sacramento); “Philly”; and “Chi.”

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