English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Business agnostic?

Q: In a recent conference call, three people described themselves as “business agnostic.” By this they meant they had skills useful in many business sectors, not just one. Is this use of “agnostic” correct? If so, will you please explain the rationale?

A: We can’t find this sense of “agnostic” in the Oxford English Dictionary or the half-dozen standard dictionaries we regularly check.

But English has taken a lot of liberties with “agnostic” since it first showed up in the mid-1800s. The usage you’ve noticed seems to be yet another extension of the many extended uses of the word.

The OED says “agnostic” first showed up as a noun for “a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of immaterial things, especially of the existence or nature of God.”

The dictionary’s earliest written example is from the May 29, 1869, issue of the Spectator:

All these considerations, and the great controversies which suggest them, are in the highest degree cultivating, and will be admitted to be so even by those Agnostics who think them profitless of any practical result.”

The OED says the term “agnostic” was “apparently coined” by the English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley.

The dictionary probably qualifies the attribution because the chronology is a bit fuzzy.

In “Agnosticism,” an 1889 essay, Huxley says he invented the term at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in London in 1869.

However, the society didn’t hold its first formal meeting until June 2, 1869, four days after the word “Agnostics” appeared in the Spectator.

It’s possible, though, that Huxley may have used the term at an organizational meeting of the Metaphysical Society that he attended on April 21.

In his essay, Huxley says he saw the word “agnostic” as “suggestively antithetic to the ‘gnostic’ of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant.”

The Gnostics (from gnosis, Greek for knowledge) were early Christians who used the term for people with spiritual knowledge.

Soon after “agnostic” appeared in print, the OED says, people were using the noun loosely to refer to “a person who is not persuaded by or committed to a particular point of view; a sceptic. Also: person of indeterminate ideology or conviction; an equivocator.”

The first Oxford citation for this new sense is from the Dec. 15, 1885, issue of the Western Druggist: Judge Chipman is clearly an agnostic on the subject of pills.”

When the adjective showed up in the 1870s, the dictionary says, it referred to “the belief that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (as far as can be judged) unknowable.”

The first OED citation for the adjective is from the Oct. 1, 1870, issue of the Spectator: “Are not his favourite ‘agnostic’ creeds … absolutely hostile to that enthusiasm of love to God and faith in God which are the simplest and most universal elements of a ‘religious spirit’ ”?

But like the noun, the adjective soon took on extended uses: “not committed to or persuaded by a particular point of view; sceptical. Also: politically or ideologically unaligned; non-partisan, equivocal.”

The first Oxford citation for this sense is from the June 23, 1884, issue of the Syracuse (NY) Standard: “Many worthy young persons who have been brought up on the sincere milk of agnostic politics.”

More recently, the OED says, the adjective has taken on a new sense in computing: developing, working with, or compatible with more than one type of computer system or operating system.

Is it legitimate to describe a versatile business person as “business agnostic”? It’s a bit of a stretch, but we think so.

If it’s OK to use “agnostic” to describe an open-minded politician, it’s not all that much of a leap to use it for an adaptable business type.

If you’d like to read more, we ran a post back in 2006 about the differences between an atheist and an agnostic.

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


English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Is a customer a guest?

Q: My question is about the disappearance of “customer” and the overuse of “guest,” as in “May I help the next guest?” when you’re buying your ticket at the movies. Why is this happening?

A: We agree that “guest” is being overused these days as a euphemism for a paying customer. We don’t think of ourselves as “guests” when we fork over money to a ticket-seller at a movie theater. Generally it’s the host who pays, not the guest.

There are a couple of established uses of “guest” that we all accept. The word has long been used to mean someone paying to stay in a hotel, and many dictionaries say it can also mean a restaurant customer.

Those usages are reasonable, since it’s bed and board—not merchandise—that’s being provided.

For more than a thousand years, “guest” has meant “one who is entertained at the house or table of another,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But the use of the term for a moviegoer is questionable in our opinion, though one could argue that the theater customer is being entertained at a movie house.

However, we think that calling a retail shopper a “guest” is clearly going too far, and lexicographers generally agree with us.

Here’s what some leading dictionaries include among their definitions of “guest”:

“Someone who is paying to stay at a hotel or eat in a restaurant,” from Macmillan Dictionaries online;

“a person who pays for the services of an establishment (as a hotel or restaurant),” Merriam-Webster‘s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.);

“one who pays for meals or accommodations at a restaurant, hotel, or other establishment; a patron,” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.);

“a patron of a hotel, boarding house, restaurant, etc.” (Collins Dictionaries online);

“any paying customer of a hotel, restaurant, etc.,” Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.).

Obviously, the editors of those dictionaries didn’t have retail customers in mind. Nevertheless, Google searches show that companies—including Target, Toys “R” Us, Kwik-Trip, and 7-Eleven—all refer to their customers as “guests.”

Somehow we doubt the shoppers think of themselves that way—unless the merchandise is being given away.

The word “guest” is part of an interesting history. As John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins, it ultimately comes from the same source as “host,” and “their family tree diverged in ancient times.”

Their common ancestor was a prehistoric Indo-European word reconstructed as ghostis (stranger).

This is the ancestor of the Latin hostis (enemy, stranger), the Greek xenos (guest, stranger), and the old Germanic sources that gave English the word “guest.”

Thus English words including “hospitable,” “hostile,” “xenophobia,” “hotel,” and “hospital” (as well as “guest” and “host”) are all derived from the ancient notion of receiving a stranger.

The Old English “guest” (written gæst, giest, etc.) was recorded as early as 725 in Beowulf. Originally it could mean either a stranger or a guest—that is, someone who was owed hospitality.

In the 1200s, the OED says, it was used to mean “a temporary inmate of a hotel, inn, or boarding house.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from The South English Legendary, a medieval collection of lives of the saints compiled around 1290 (some scholars date it to 1265).

At around the same time (1290 or thereabouts), “host” entered English by way of Old French with the sense of someone who entertains another, either in his home or at a public inn.

(Since we never pass up a chance to quote P.G. Wodehouse, here goes: “I entered the saloon bar and requested mine host to start pouring,” from Right Ho, Jeeves, 1934.)

In the early 20th century, people began using “guest” to mean something like a visiting performer, as in “guest artist,” “guest soloist,” “guest conductor,” “guest star,” “guest speaker,” and so on.

Then of course there’s “guest host,” which sounds like a contradiction in terms but is familiar to fans of Saturday Night Live.

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


English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Why villains are vilified

Q: Your article on the many uses of “nick” on British crime shows reminds me of the way cops in the UK call perps “villains.” That has to go back—to Shakespeare, at least.

A: You’re right. The word “villain” does go back a long way. It crossed the Channel with England’s Norman conquerors (in Anglo-Norman and Old French, the word was vilein, vilain, or villain).

But the specific usage you’ve mentioned (the slang use of “villain” to mean a career criminal) is relatively recent, dating back no further than the mid-20th century. Here’s the story.

When “villain” first showed up (spelled vyleyn in Middle English), it meant “a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from Handlyng Synne (1303), a long devotional poem by the medieval monk Robert Manning of Brunne:

“Goddys treytour, and ryȝt vyleyn! Hast þou no mynde of Marye Maudeleyn.” (God’s traitor, and right villain! Hast thou no mind of Mary Magdalene?)

Over the years, the OED says, the word “villain” came to mean “an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology adds that “the extended (and now usual) sense of an unprincipled scoundrel or knave, evil person, is implied in the earliest uses of this word.”

As for the slang use of “villain” for a career criminal (the OED uses the phrase “professional criminal”), the earliest citation in the dictionary is from the Jan. 24, 1960, issue of the Observer:

“Suppose … a bogy did get it up for a villain now and again by making sure that some gear was found in his flat?” (A “bogy” is a detective or police officer in UK criminal slang.)

And here’s an example from Horse Under Water, a 1963 spy novel by Len Deighton: “This villain is doing a nice Cabinet Minister’s home.”

In case you’re wondering, the words “villa,” “village,” and “villain” ultimately come from the same classical source, villa, Latin for a farmhouse or farmstead.

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


English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

When “Euro” met “skeptic”

Q: All the news channels reporting on the recent European Parliament elections use the term “Euroskeptic” for a voter who is, well, skeptical of the EU’s value. This is the first time I’ve heard the word. Do you know who coined the term and when?

A: “Euroskeptic” isn’t new. It’s been around since at least as far back as the early 1970s.

The term is spelled “Eurosceptic” in British English, where it originated, and it’s sometimes hyphenated.

The earliest example we’ve been able to find comes from a 1971 issue of the Spectator, which refers to “the Euro-sceptic Chiefs of Staff, and Lords Carrington and Balniel, equally sceptical.”

(It’s impossible to tell whether “Eurosceptic” was really meant to have a hyphen there, since the term comes at the end of a line break and thus requires one.)

The Oxford English Dictionary has this definition for the term:

“A person, esp. a politician, having doubts or reservations regarding the supposed benefits of increasing cooperation between the member states of the European Union (and formerly the European Economic Community).” Also, “an opponent of greater political or economic integration in Europe.”

The OED’s earliest published example is from a 1985 issue of the Times in London: “Cockfield—appointed by Thatcher, ironically, for being a Euro-sceptic—has taken to making visionary statements recently.”

Oxford has this more recent citation, from the October 2004 issue of the journal Politics: “Whatever he does to try belatedly to win them back will be ridiculed by Europhiles and meet with a wall of doubt from Eurosceptics.”

Besides being a noun for a person, the word is also an adjective (as in “a turnout of Euroskeptic voters”). The OED has citations for the adjectival usage, as well as for the noun “Euroskepticism,” dating back to 1990.

We’re seeing a lot more of these words lately in the wake of last month’s elections for the European Parliament, where Euroskeptic parties gained ground against the established parties.

For example, a May 28 editorial in the New York Times noted: “Though the Euroskeptics will be a sizable, if fragmented bloc, the parties most supportive of the union will command almost 70 percent of the 751 seats.”

The widespread use of “Euroskeptic” is really no surprise. In recent decades, “Euro-” has become a popular prefix for referring to things or people associated with or originating in Europe.

Here are a few usages from the OED, along with the dictionary’s earliest examples. (We’ll spell them as they appeared, and we’ll include only words that refer to Europe in general, not to the European Union.)

Words for people: “Euro-anatomist” (a medical scientist, 1961); “Eurobum” (a professional houseguest, 1964); “Eurotrash” (rich European socialites, 1980), and “Euro-intellectual” (2005).

Words for music: “Eurojazz” (1967); “Euro-rock” (1974); “Eurobeat” (1976); “Europop” (1976); “Euro-disco” (1979); “Euro-rap” (1983); “Euro Techno” (1991), and “Euro trance” (2002).

Also, “Europlug” (an electric plug that fits sockets in Europe, 1965); “Euro-arty” (describing a sophisticated audience, 1982); “Euro-English” (the kind spoken by continental Europeans, 1986); “Eurofashion” (1993), and “Euro-chic” (2004).

And of course we must include “Europhobia” (1967) and “Europhobe” (1978), as well as “Europhilia” (1968) and “Europhile” (1971).

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


English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage

Pulling one’s leg

Q: Where does the expression “to pull one’s leg” come from? Could it have anything to do with pirates or smugglers hiding things in wooden legs? I just wonder.

A: The expression, which means to deceive or tease a person humorously or playfully, first showed up in print in the 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest citation in the OED is from the Feb. 20, 1883, issue of a Pennsylvania newspaper, the Wellsboro Agitator: “The Chinese giant once told me he had half a dozen wives at home, but I think he was pulling my leg.”

However, we’ve found earlier examples going back to the mid-1800s, including this one from Always Ready; or Every One in His Pride, an anonymous 1859 novel about the British Merchant Navy:

“In reply to which both brothers commenced ‘pulling his leg’ by criticising his rig, asking him ‘Who his hatter was?’ and politely wishing those present to ‘twig his heels.’ ” (The expression “twig his heels” is apparently obsolete slang for tease or criticize.)

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has an even earlier example, an 1821 entry from the Diary of James Gallatin, but it may be fraudulent. Historians have questioned the legitimacy of the diary and have suggested it’s a hoax.

For example, Raymond Walters Jr., writing in the July 1957 issue of The American Historical Review, says “the diary must be considered historical romance” and libraries “that own copies of it should transfer them to their fiction shelves.”

We can’t find any evidence that the expression “to pull one’s leg” ever had anything to do with pirates, smugglers, or peg legs. Nor with pulling the legs of prisoners on the gallows to speed up executions—a common theory.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms says the usage “is thought to allude to tripping someone by so holding a stick or other object that one of his legs is pulled back.”

Why trip someone? The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins suggests that by tripping a person “you can throw him into a state of confusion and make him look very foolish indeed.”

We’ve also seen speculation that the usage originated with muggers who tripped their victims with a stick to make it easier to rob them, but we haven’t seen any evidence to support this idea.

Our theory? We’ll file the expression away in our “Origin Unknown” folder.

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


English English language Etymology Pronunciation Usage Word origin

How do you pronounce “err”?

[Note: This post was updated on Oct. 29, 2021.]

Q: When I pronounced the verb “err” to rhyme with “hair,” a friend (a retired schoolteacher) corrected me and said it rhymes with “her.” Is she correct?

A: No, she erred in “correcting” you. The verb “err,” meaning to be in error or make a mistake, has two pronunciations in standard American English, and most Americans prefer yours.

You can hear both at’s entry for “err,” where the first pronunciation sounds like AIR and the second like UR. (The dictionary’s big sister, the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged, on the other hand, gives both pronunciations in its text, but offers only one, AIR, at its audible “pronouncer.”)

Eight of the ten standard American and British dictionaries that we regularly consult give both pronunciations. Three of the UK dictionaries indicate that preferences are for AIR in American English and UR in British English.

Americans who use the UR version, by the way, pronounce it as if it rhymed with “her.” However, British speakers drop the “r” and sound only the vowel, as if they were saying “uh” or /ə/, a sound like the “a” in “ago.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, in fact, gives all three pronunciations: UR, AIR, and /ə/.

As it turns out, the original pronunciation sounded like AIR. The UR pronunciation, a later development, eventually became dominant and is still regarded as the “traditional” one by many. But in the last half-century or so, AIR has made a comeback.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged adds some perspective on this in a note.  Originally, it says, the initial vowel of the word “err,” as with “error,” was like the one in AIR.

But over time, the dictionary adds, the word also developed the UR pronunciation. A similar thing happened with the words “curt,” “word,” “bird,” and “were,” which originally had distinctly different vowel sounds that are now pronounced as UR.

Why did this happen? Because of the presence of “r.” As the dictionary says, “The sound of the letter r often colors a preceding vowel in English.”

In the case of “err,” the note continues, “Commentators have expressed a visceral dislike for the original pronunciation [AIR]; perhaps they believe that once usage has established a new pronunciation for a word there can be no going back.”

But, the editors conclude, “no sound reason prevents us from accepting again the [AIR] pronunciation of err, which is today also the more common variant in American speech.”

As we said, today most standard dictionaries accept both AIR and UR as equal variants. Two British dictionaries (like some older Americans who were brought up in the UR tradition) still regard UR or /ə/ as the only acceptable way to say the word “err.”

It’s been suggested that the words “error” and “errant” may have helped to reestablish the AIR pronunciation, which appears to have become acceptable to American lexicographers in the last 50 years or so.

Our 1956 printing of the unabridged Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary (2nd ed.), known as Web II, has only the UR pronunciation, with the vowel described as sounding like the one in “urn.”

But AIR began appearing in dictionaries in the 1960s, and now, as we mentioned above, the Unabridged has both but offers only the AIR version on a pronouncer icon.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that “in current usage” (we presume this means American usage) the AIR pronunciation “preponderates.”

As for its etymology, “err” (like “error,” “erroneous,” “erratic,” “errant,” and others) can be traced to a prehistoric Indo-European root reconstructed as er-, which meant “wandering about,” according to John Atyo’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

(Remember that a “knight errant” was an itinerant or traveling knight, roaming in search of adventure.)

As Ayto notes, “the semantic progression from ‘wandering’ to ‘making mistakes’ is reproduced in several other quite unrelated word groups in the Indo-European language family.”

The prehistoric root, he says, “produced Gothic airzei ‘error,’ Old High German irri ‘astray’ (source of modern German irre ‘angry’), Old English ierre ‘astray,’ and Latin errare ‘wander, make mistakes’—from which, via Old French errer, English got err.

The word was first recorded in English at the turn of the 14th century, when it meant both to go astray and to make a mistake. Each of those meanings, according to OED citations, appears in Robert Manning of Brunne’s 1303 work Handlyng Synne.

Cousins of “err” appeared later in English writing: “error” (circa 1320), “errant” (c. 1369), “erratic” (c. 1374), and “erroneous” (c. 1400).

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


English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Tricky “nick”

Q: In British crime/court shows, “nick” is used to mean jail (“the nick”) as well as the act of being arrested (“he was nicked”). Where it gets interesting, though, is the way “nick” also means to steal. What’s the history of this great word?

A: “Nick” is a tricky word, one with a lot of colloquial or slang meanings and a questionable birth. It’s not even certain which came first, the verb or the noun, though they’re undoubtedly related.

As the Oxford English Dictionary succinctly puts it: “Origin unknown.”

Although the OED’s earliest citation is for the verb, an etymology note says “the noun may in reality have priority, and it may be accidental that the oldest recorded senses of the noun are attested slightly later than the first attestation of the verb.”

When the word first showed up in print in the 13th century, according to Oxford citations, “nick” was a verb meaning to make a denial.

The OED cites the Ancrene Riwle (circa 1225), an anonymous guide for monastic women, as the source of the earliest example of the usage. However, the dictionary describes this sense as rare, so let’s move on.

By the 15th century, the verb “nick” was being used in the sense of making a notch or cut in something.

Oxford‘s earliest example (with “nicked” spelled “nikit”) comes from a 1460 entry from the Ayr Burgh Court Books, records of the Royal Burgh of Ayr in Scotland.

But we’ll skip ahead to this cutting example from Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors (written in the 1590s):

“My Mr preaches patience to him, and the while / His man with Cizers nickes him like a foole.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation.)

The verb took on its sense of chicanery in the 16th century, when it came to mean to trick, cheat, or defraud.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Rocke of Regard, a 1576 collection of prose and verse translated from Italian by George Whetstone:

“I neuer nickt the poorest of his pay, / But if hee lackt, hee had before his day.”

By the early 1800s, this sense of the verb had evolved to mean to steal or pilfer. Here’s an example from an 1826 collection of the works of the Scottish poet David Anderson:

“Some there ha’e gotten their pouches picket, / Their siller an’ their watches nickit.”

We’ll have to back up a bit now. In the 17th century, the verb took on the colloquial sense of to catch or take unawares.

The OED’s first citation is from The Prophetess, a 1622 play by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger: “We must be sometimes wittie, to nick a knave.”

The dictionary says this sense evolved into the slang use of “nick” to mean to be pinched by the constabulary.

It’s hard to tell from the OED examples exactly when people began using “nick” in this slang sense, but it was probably sometime in the 18th or 19th century.

Here’s a clear example from Japhet, in Search of a Father, Frederick Marryat’s 1836 novel about a foundling’s search for his unknown parents:

“He has come to get off his accomplice, and now we’ve just nicked them both.”

Now, let’s discuss the arrival of “nick” as a noun. Although the OED has a couple of questionable 15th-century citations for the noun, the earliest definite example is from the 16th century.

When the noun first appeared in print in the early 16th century, it referred to a notch made to keep a score, but that sense is now obsolete, according to the OED.

By the late 1600s, the noun was being used in a more general way to describe a notch, groove, or slit in something.

The first example of this new usage in the OED is from a 1578 book of anatomy by the English anatomist, surgeon, and teacher John Banister: “Departyng from this corner, or deepe nicke … there riseth a certaine sharpe Processe.”

The slang use of “nick” to mean a jail, especially one in a police station, originally showed up in Australia in the 1880s. The first Oxford citation is this entry from the Sydney Slang Dictionary (1882): “Nick (The), gaol.”

Here’s a more recent example from Martin Amis’s 1995 novel The Information: “Know how much it costs to keep a bloke in nick for a week?”

Although the various cops-and-robbers senses of “nick” are more common in the UK than the US, the usage isn’t unknown among Americans.

Robert Coover, for example, uses it in The Public Burning, his 1977 novel about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In commenting on Broadway’s origins as an old Indian trail, Coover writes:

“It’s said the last to use it were the Mana-hatta tribe, who departed by it after nicking gullible old Peter Minuit, first of the tourist yokels, for twenty-four dollars.”

We’ve discussed only a few of the many meanings of “nick” here. If you’d like to read more, we had a post six years ago that also dealt with the use of “Nick” or “Old Nick” to mean the Devil.

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


English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Translated from the …

Q: Your article about “the dead” reminded me of a recent essay in the New York Times by the novelist Jo Nesbo. There was a note at the bottom that said it was translated “from the Norwegian.” What’s with the article “the” here?

A: It used to be quite common in English to use the definite article before the name of a language, though the usage is now “obsolete except in contexts that indicate translation from an original language,” according to Merriam-Webster Unabridged.

The Oxford English Dictionary has examples of the usage from the late 1500s to the mid-1960s. The earliest is from Strange Newes, a 1593 work by the Elizabethan pamphleteer Thomas Nashe: “To borrowe some lesser quarry of elocution from the Latine.”

And here’s an example from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, written in the late 1590s: “You will come into the court and sweare that I haue a poore pennie-worth in the English.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation.)

Oxford also cites references to “the French,” “the Hebrew,” “the Arabic,” “the Spanish,” and “the Portuguese.”

The dictionary says the usage is seen “now only in consciously elliptical phrases” in which words like “language” and “original” are omitted.

For instance, these phrases show the ellipses (that is, omissions) in brackets: “the French [language]” … “the German [original].” Sometimes, the OED notes, “The degree of ellipsis is not easy to determine.”

The most recent example of the usage in the dictionary is from The Northern Fiddler, a collection of poetry by Brian Higgins that was published posthumously in 1966: “ ‘I’m corrupt’ he said to me in the French, ‘I think I live in corruption’s stench.’ ”

If you’d like to read more, we had a post six years ago about the idiomatic use of “the” with the names of things that don’t seem to need an article (or that could use the article “a” instead).

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


English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage Word origin

Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’s on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the English language and take questions from callers.

English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

An etymological fiasco

Q: I’ve often heard that “fiasco,” which means bottle in Italian, got its negative meaning because Italian glassblowers used to smash bottles that weren’t up to snuff. However, it strikes me that this explanation doesn’t make sense. Why would a glassblower cry out “bottle!” when he ruined one?

A: In Italian, a fiasco is literally a bottle, especially a flask encased in a straw basket, like a traditional Chianti bottle.

However, fiasco has a figurative meaning in Italian that’s the same as its usual meaning in English: an utter failure.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says this “figurative use apparently stems from the phrase far fiasco, literally ‘make a bottle.’ ”

As Ayto explains, far fiasco has been “used traditionally in Italian theatrical slang for ‘suffer a complete breakdown in performance.’ ”

How did an Italian phrase meaning “make a bottle” come to mean “have a flop”?

“The usual range of fanciful theories has been advanced for the origin of the usage, but none is particularly convincing,” Ayto concludes.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology agrees with Ayto that the linguistic evolution of fiasco in Italian is unknown.

But Chambers goes on to mention one of the theories: “the alleged practice of Venetian glassmakers setting aside imperfect glass to make a common bottle or flask.”

The Italian word fiasco is derived from flasco, a medieval Latin term that’s the source of the English word “flask.”

Interestingly, English adopted the term “fiasco” from French, not Italian. The French faire fiasco (to fail) was adopted in turn from the Italian far fiasco.

When the term “fiasco” entered English in the mid-1800s, it meant “a failure or break-down in a dramatic or musical performance,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from an 1855 letter from William Lowther, second Earl of Londsale, to the Irish statesman John Wilson Croker: “Derby has made what the theatrical people call a fiasco.”

Later, the term “fiasco” showed up in English in its bottle sense. The OED has only one citation for this sense, from the Nov. 12, 1887, issue of the literary journal Athenaeum: “A fiasco of good Chianti could be had for a paul.” (A “paul” is an Italian coin.)

However, several standard dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (11th ed.) and Webster’s New World (4th ed.), still include the bottle sense among the definitions of “fiasco.”

Getting back to your question, the OED says that “Italian etymologists have proposed various guesses, and alleged incidents in Italian theatrical history” to account for the evolution of fiasco.

However, the dictionary concludes—as do we—that the evolution of fiasco in Italian from flask to flop “is of obscure origin.”

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


English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

On “football” and “soccer”

Q: I’m already tired of soccer, and the World Cup has barely started! But I’m never tired of etymology, so here’s my question. Where did the term “soccer” come from, and why do Europeans call it “football”?

A: As everybody knows by now, the game that North Americans call “soccer” is known as “football” (or a local variation on this) in most other countries.

Sports fans in England generally don’t use the word “soccer.” But interestingly, the word originated in England more than a century ago as a slang term for the older “football.” Here’s the story.

In late 19th-century England, students at the Rugby School in Warwickshire began using the  suffix “-er” to form slang words. The practice spread to other public schools, such as Harrow, and on to Oxford University.

Typically, an existing noun would be clipped and “-er” attached to the end.

Among early examples in the Oxford English Dictionary are “footer” (for football,  1863), “ekker” (exercise, 1891), “brekker” (breakfast, 1889), “bonner” (bonfire, 1898), and “cupper” (intercollegiate cup match, 1900). Perhaps more familiar to Americans is the later example “bed-sitter” (1927, short for “bed-sitting-room”).

“Soccer” was one of these schoolboy formations. It was a slang term for association football—that is, football played according to the rules of the Football Association. In this case, the “-er” suffix was combined with a clipped form of “Assoc.”

As the OED explains, “soccer” (in early use sometimes spelled “socca” or “socker”) is derived from “Assoc., short for Association.”

The dictionary’s earliest published example comes from a letter by the poet and fiction writer Ernest Dowson, written in 1889, a year after he left Oxford: “I absolutely decline to see socca’ matches.” Note the apostrophe, signifying an abbreviation.

[Update, June 22, 2014: Fred Shapiro, editor of the wonderful Yale Book of Quotations, has informed us of earlier sightings. He found “soccer” in an 1888 issue of Oxford Magazine, and Evan Kirshenbaum discovered even older examples in boarding-school publications—“socker” in the Oldhallian (1885) and “soccer” in the Carthusian (1886).]

In Britain, the slang term “soccer” never replaced the original word, “football,” which has been in English use since the early 1400s for various games involving people kicking balls around on a field.

The conventions of the modern game of English “football” weren’t standardized until 1863, when the Football Association drew up its rules.

After that, there was a differentiation in English sports between “association football” and “rugby football” (nicknamed “rugger”), the variety of football played at Rugby.

So “soccer” and “rugger” originated as slang names for the two varieties of English football.

Today, North Americans use the former slang term “soccer” to differentiate their football from the rest of the world’s. In fact, the United States Soccer Federation was formerly called the US Football Association.

Although most of the world is watching “football” when cheering teams at the World Cup, Americans aren’t the only ones watching “soccer.” Australians use the term to differentiate the sport from Australian Rules Football (or “Footy”), a kind of mix between soccer and rugby.

So what does the world at large call North American “football”? Many English speakers outside North America use the terms “gridiron” or “grid.”

The OED has a couple of examples, including this one from Terry McLean’s book Kings of Rugby: The British Lions’ 1959 tour of New Zealand: “American, or gridiron, football.”

This later citation is from Charles Drummond’s novel Death and the Leaping Ladies (1968): “You can’t just walk into a team like you can, say, in gridiron or soccer.”

While we’re at it, the word “gridiron” got its start in the late 13th century as the name of a cooking apparatus, and is probably related to the earlier word “griddle.” It consists of bars made of made of iron or other metal, and supported on legs for cooking over a fire.

Later, “gridiron” was used for things of a similar pattern, like a grating or grill or—in the 19th century—the  markings on a sports field.

The OED cites this example from an 1896 issue of the Daily News in London: “The ground here is marked out by white lines … thus giving it the appearance of a gigantic gridiron—which, indeed, is the technical name applied to an American football field.”

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

English English language Etymology Slang Usage Word origin

Monetizing “dough” and “bread”

Q: I was reading Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22 when I ran across this comment by Doc Daneeka, the squadron physician: “I don’t want to make sacrifices. I want to make dough.” When did “dough” become a slang term for money?

A: When the word “dough” showed up in Old English more than a thousand years ago (originally spelled dag or dah), it referred to the floury concoction you knead to make bread.

The word’s slang sense of money originated in the US in the mid-1800s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest example is from the February 1851 issue of the Yale Tomahawk, the magazine of the fraternity Alpha Sigma Phi: “He thinks he will pick his way out of the Society’s embarrassments, provided he can get sufficient dough.”

The slang usage was later picked up in British English. Oxford’s most recent example is from the Aug. 3, 1955, issue of the Times in London: “I’m going back to business and make myself a little dough.”

How did “dough” become monetized? Our guess is that the slang sense of “dough” reflects the earlier use of “bread” for livelihood or means of subsistence.

The word “bread” was rare in Old English, and apparently meant a bit or piece of food, according to the OED. (The Old English word for what we think of as bread was hlaf, the ancestor of our word “loaf.”)

But by the mid-900s, the dictionary adds, “bread” came to mean the “well-known article of food prepared by moistening, kneading, and baking meal or flour, generally with the addition of yeast or leaven.”

In the early 1700s, “bread” took on a new sense—livelihood or subsistence. The first Oxford citation is from Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel: “I was under no Necessity of seeking my Bread.”

Although “bread” meant livelihood or subsistence in the 18th century, it didn’t come to mean money per se until the 20th century.

Here’s an example of this slang sense from Jazzmen, a 1939 book edited by Frederick Ramsey Jr. and Charles Edward Smith: “Inside the low, smoky room, the musicians sweated for their bread.”

Finally, here’s an OED citation from the June 15, 1952, issue of DownBeat magazine: ”If I had bread (Dizzy’s basic synonym for loot) I’d certainly start a big band again.”

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


English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

On dents, indents, and dentists

Q: Is the “dent” in a car related to the “indent” in writing? And is a “dentist” related to either of them? He fills cavities, doesn’t he?

A: The words “dent” and “indent” have different etymological roots, but they’ve influenced each other over the years, so an offspring like “indentation” can mean either a “dent” or an “indent.” We’ll get to “dentist” later.

The noun “dent” is a cousin of dint, an Old English term for a stroke or blow, especially one with a weapon, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Old English term, dating from King Aelfred’s writings in the late 800s, is similar to dyntr or dyttr, words in Old Norse with the same meaning.

The OED describes “dent” as a “phonetic variant or doublet” of dint. “Doublet” is a linguistic term for one of two words derived in different ways from the same source—in this case, perhaps, Old Norse.

The word “dent” also meant a stroke or blow when it first showed up in Middle English, but that sense is now obsolete.

The OED’s earliest example of “dent” used in this sense is from Richard Coer de Lyon (circa 1325), a Middle English romance about the life of King Richard I of England.

Although the citation (With a dente amyd the schelde) refers to a blow against a shield, it’s easy to see how the term “dent” could evolve over the next two centuries to mean the result of such a blow.

The OED’s first example of “dent” in the modern sense is from a 1565 treatise written by John Jewel, an Anglican bishop, during a heated exchange of tracts with Thomas Harding, a Roman Catholic priest: “We haue thrust our fingers into the dents of his nailes.”

When the word “indent” first showed up in the late 1300s, Oxford says, it was a verb that meant “to sever the two halves of a document, drawn up in duplicate, by a toothed, zigzag, or wavy line, so that the two parts exactly tally with each other.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the usage is from a May 15, 1385, document in a legal dispute between Robert, Earl of Fyfe, and John of Logy:

“To the wytnes of the qwylkis al and syndry in thir endentyt lettrys contenyt, tyl ilke parte of the forsayde endenturis I hafe put my Cele.” (The OED notes that the verb is implied here by the adjectival use of the past participle “endentyt.”)

You’re probably wondering why people would cut a legal document into two identical parts with a toothed line.

This was done, the OED explains, so that each party to a legal agreement would have an identical copy of the document, and “the genuineness of these could be subsequently proved by the coincidence of their indented margins.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that the verb “indent” is derived from the classical Latin noun dens (tooth) and the medieval Latin verb indentare, which refers to the creation of those two-part documents intended to be cut with a toothed line.

“A particular use of such documents,” Ayto writes, “was between master craftsmen and their trainees, who hence became known as indentured trainees.”

The noun “indentation” showed up in its printing sense in the mid-1800s, and the short form “indent” followed in the late 1800s.

The OED’s first citation for “indentation” used in this sense is from an entry for the word in the 1864 edition of Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language.

Here’s a fuller description of the usage from Practical Printing, an 1884 book on typography by John Southward: “The first line of the paragraph … is shorter than the two following, there being a widespace at the beginning of it. This is called an indentation.”

No, we haven’t forgotten your question about “dentist.” As you’ve undoubtedly realized by now, it’s ultimately derived from dens, the Latin word for “tooth.”

English borrowed the word in the 1700s from the French noun dentiste, but it was “at first ridiculed as a high-falutin foreign term,” Ayto points out.

In fact, the earliest citation for “dentist” in the OED is an example of such ridicule. The cite is from the Sept. 15, 1759, issue of the Edinburgh Chronicle:

Dentist figures it now in our newspapers, and may do well enough for a French puffer; but we fancy Rutter is content with being called a tooth-drawer.”

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


English English language

Missed Connections

Read Pat’s review of A Replacement Life, by Boris Fishman. It will appear in print on the cover of the June 15, 2014, issue of the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Troops, troopers, and bloopers

Q: In considering whether “troop” can refer to a single soldier, would “trooper” come into play? In my hazy understanding of things military, an individual member of a “troop” can be called a “trooper” (as in “watch your step, trooper”).

A: Where these words are concerned, we have derivations on top of derivations! It’s true that “trooper,” which entered English in 1640, was derived from the noun “troop” with the addition of “-er.”

Originally, in the mid-1500s, a “troop” was a body of soldiers, and the later word “trooper” meant “a soldier in a troop of cavalry” or “a horse soldier,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Today a “trooper” can mean a state police officer, a paratrooper, or a soldier in a horse, armored, or air cavalry troop.

And, as you’ve noticed, the singular “troop” is sometimes used to mean one soldier—a usage perhaps influenced by “trooper”!

This is ground we’ve covered before on our blog. As we wrote in 2013, the OED says the colloquial use of “troop” to mean a single member of a troop is irregular.

The usage is derived from the use of “troop” as a collective plural, or in some cases may be an abbreviation of “trooper,” according to the Oxford lexicographers.

Is the use of “troop” for a single member of a “troop” a blooper? As we say in our post last year, it’s a colloquial usage that’s not considered standard English—at least not yet. Stay tuned!

We also wrote a post in 2006, updated in 2009, explaining (among other things) the difference between “trouper” and “trooper.”

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


English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Punctuation Word origin

Are scare quotes scary?

Q: Is there any legitimate reason for using single quotation marks, other than when a quote appears within another quote? I often see single quotation marks used to warn readers about a questionable term or simply to highlight a term.

A: In American usage, single quotation marks are generally used in prose for one purpose only: to surround a quotation nested within a larger quotation: “Was it Linus who said, ‘Get lost’?” asked Lucy.

There are exceptions in certain kinds of specialized writing, which we’ll get to later. And single quotation marks are generally used in headlines.

But the warning quotes you’re referring to, sometimes called “scare quotes,” should always be double quotes, not singletons, in American writing.

Here’s how The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) explains the legitimate use of scare quotes:

“Quotation marks are often used to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard (or slang), ironic, or other special sense. Nicknamed scare quotes, they imply ‘This is not my term’ or ‘This is not how the term is usually applied.’ Like any such device, scare quotes lose their force and irritate readers if overused.”

Here are the examples given (we’ll put them in italics to avoid confusing things with our own punctuation):

On a digital music player, a “track” is really just a separately encoded file in a directory.

“Child protection” sometimes fails to protect.

Another respected authority, the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (7th ed.), has these examples:

A silver dome concealed the robot’s “brain.”

Their “friend” brought about their downfall. 

All of those are perfectly justifiable uses of quotation marks, because the term in quotes is highlighted for a good reason—to warn the reader to be wary of it.

But sometimes writers (particularly sign painters!) use quotes merely to highlight terms, as in these examples:

“Fast” and “friendly” service! … Our bread is baked “fresh” daily … Employees must “wash hands.” … “Delivery” available.

We think a writer who wants to boast about a word or merely emphasize it should find another way—italics, perhaps, or a different size type. The quote marks imply that the words aren’t meant literally.

However, the lexicographer Grant Barrett defends the use of quotes for emphasis—a usage he refers to as “shout quotes.” In a May 14, 2008, post on his blog, he argues that it’s unlikely readers would misunderstand them.

By the way, the use of the phrase “scare quotes” in this sense is relatively recent, showing up in the mid-20th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from a 1956 issue of the journal Mind: The ‘scare-quotes’ are mine; Aristotle is not overtly discussing the expression ‘whichever happens.’ ”

An earlier use of the phrase, from Southern California: An Island on the Land, a 1946 book by Carey McWilliams, refers to quotations that can be used against a political candidate.

McWilliams writes that “the best advertising brains in California were put to work culling scare-quotes” from the candidate’s writings.

But let’s get back to single quotation marks. As we’ve said above and as we’ve written before on our blog, they’re sometimes used in a couple of specialized fields.

Horticultural writing is one of them. Some publications in the field, like the magazine Horticulture, use single quotation marks around the names of cultivars, the Chicago Manual says.

And in another horticultural exception to normal American usage, Chicago adds, “any following punctuation is placed after the closing quotation mark.” Here’s the example given (we’ll use boldface here, since the illustration includes italics):

The hybrid Agastache ‘Apricot Sunrise’, best grown in zone 6, mingles with sheaves of cape fuchsia (Phygelius ‘Salmon Leap’).

There’s another kind of specialized writing in which single quotation marks appear.

“In linguistic and phonetic studies,” the Chicago Manual says, “a definition is often enclosed in single quotation marks,” and here again, “any following punctuation is placed after the closing quotation mark.” This is the example given:

The gap is narrow between mead ‘a beverage’ and mead ‘a meadow’.

But unless you’re writing about horticulture, linguistics, or phonetics, the convention in American usage is to use double quotation marks (except for internal quotes) and to keep commas and periods inside final quote marks. The Chicago Manual gives this example of the normal usage:

“Admit it,” she said. “You haven’t read ‘The Simple Art of Murder.’ ”

Keep in mind that so far we’ve been discussing American-style punctuation. In British usage, single quotation marks are  more widely used.

As the Chicago Manual says, “The practice in the United Kingdom and elsewhere is often the reverse” of that found in American usage. Single quotation marks may come first, with double marks used for quotations within quotations.

For example, if Lucy and Linus had been characters in a British novel, that quote we cited above (from Pat’s grammar book Woe Is I, 3rd ed.) might have looked like this:

‘Was it Linus who said, “Get lost”?’ asked Lucy.

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


English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

When “I’m good” is “no, thanks”

Q: I frequently hear the expression “I’m good” in the South when a server offers a refill on coffee, iced tea, water, etc. Is this use of “I’m good” to mean “No, thank you” a regionalism or is it common now?

A: You hear the expression in the South, we hear it in New England, and we’ve seen comments about it online from people in other parts of the US as well as in the UK and Australia.

It’s definitely out there, but we wouldn’t say it’s common. The usage isn’t in the Oxford English Dictionary or the standard dictionaries we usually check. And we couldn’t find comments about it, pro or con, in usage guides.

The use of “I’m good” to mean “no, thanks” or “no more” is relatively new. As far as we can tell, it first showed up in the mid-1950s among poker players.

The earliest example we’ve found is from a game of five-card draw played in “The Reforming of Parlor Davis,” a short story by Peerce Platt in the May 13, 1955, issue of Collier’s magazine:

“ ‘I’m good,’ Parlor said.

“ ‘I’ll take one,’ Ed said. He took the card, put it with his other four, and shuffled them nervously. ‘Three hundred,’ Ed said, pushing in the remainder of his chips.

“ ‘I raise you one thousand dollars,’ Parlor said.”

The next example we’ve found, from Slaughter Island, a 1991 novel by Herb Fisher, uses the expression in the drinking sense:

“ ‘Nah, I’m good, Terry,’ said Manny, waving the bottle of beer as the houseboy moved toward him along the deck of the pool.”

In this more recent example, from Close Knit Killer, a 2013 mystery by Maggie Sefton, the phrase “I’m good” is used in the restaurant sense you’ve asked about:

“ ‘I bet you want a refill,’ Julie said, walking up to Hal. ‘You need any more, Kelly?’

“ ‘No, thanks, I’m good.’ Kelly held up her hand.”

Is this colloquial use of “I’m good” legit? We see nothing wrong with it in casual speech or informal writing.

And as we’ve written before on the blog, there’s nothing wrong with responding “I’m good” when someone asks you how you are or how you’re feeling.

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


English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Habitus forming

Q: The reference to the “habitus of the gluteus” in your “booty camp” article caught my eye. My girlfriend, a professor of radiology, notes that radiologists must not tell patients they are fat. The politically correct term for obesity is “increased body habitus.” Since none of the radiologists worry about  “decreased body habitus,” the phrase is often shortened to “body habitus.”

A: The expression “increased body habitus” is new to us. In fact, it appears to be a relatively new usage even among radiologists—at least in published writing.

The earliest example of the phrase we’ve found is from a June 20, 2013, opinion in the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court.

In ruling that a plaintiff wasn’t seriously injured in a motor-vehicle accident, the court cited “reports of a radiologist who found that the MRIs revealed injuries that were degenerative in nature, consistent with her age and increased body habitus.”

The slimmed-down phrase “body habitus” has been around since the early 1900s, though it usually refers to just a physique or body type, not necessarily an obese physique.

For example, an April 24, 1915, article in the Medical Record, a weekly journal, says life insurance medicine deals with clinically important subjects “such as body habitus in its relationship with heredity.”

The word “habitus” was occasionally used in the late 1800s to mean a bodily condition or constitution, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s an example from the Jan. 22, 1886, issue of the journal Science: The disposition to the disease—the consumptive habitus.”

The Latin noun habitus (a condition or state) also gave English the more common noun “habit,” which etymologically means “what one has,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

As Ayto explains, habitus was originally the past participle of the verb habere, which meant “to have” but came to be used reflexively for “to be.”

The past participle habitus, he says, “came to be used as a noun for ‘how one is’—one’s ‘state’ or ‘condition.’ ”

As habitus evolved in Latin, Ayto adds, it could refer to either an outward condition (such as clothing) or an inner condition (one’s character or way of behaving).

Those Latin senses, he says, were “taken over lock, stock, and barrel  by English, although the clothing sense now survives only in relation to monks, nuns, and horseriders.”

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


English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Memento mori

Q: You might be able to save me from a Google failure to find a linguistic reason for the expression “brought back from the dead.” Why does it have a definite article? Wondering about this is making my arm twitch.

A: Since Anglo-Saxon times, the definite article has been used before an adjective to create a noun phrase with a plural sense, as in “the poor,” “the rich,” “the lame,” “the sick,” “the naked,” and “the dead.”

In such phrases, “the poor” means “the people who are poor” or “those who are poor,” while “the rich” means “the people who are rich” or “those who are rich.”

The earliest example of this usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is a reference to ð worold-wisan (the worldly wise) from Pastoral Care (c. 897), King Aelfred’s Old English translation of a Latin treatise by Pope Gregory I.

Here’s a modern English example from Shelley’s 1819 poem Rosalind and Helen: “He was a coward to the strong: / He was a tyrant to the weak.”

The OED’s earliest example for “the dead,” the specific phrase you’ve asked about, is a reference to þe deade (the dead) in a document from around 1175 in the Lambeth Manuscript, a collection of late Old English sermons.

Finally, here’s an Oxford example from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (c. 1599): “I will not do them wrong; I rather choose / To wrong the dead, to wrong myself and you.” (We’ve expanded Antony’s lines.)

If you’d like to read more, we had a post six years ago about the idiomatic use of “the” with the names of things that wouldn’t appear to need an article (or that could use the article “a” instead).

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


English English language Etymology Politics Usage Word origin

Speechifying therapy

Q: In this political year, I have been hearing “speechify” more. This appears to be a needlessly circular formation, but it serves a humorous purpose by describing needlessly long speaking. Is this word an old or recent construction?

A: The word “speechify” has been around for a few hundred years, which seems just about as long as some of the speechifying we’ve had to sit through.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “speechify” as “to make or deliver a speech or speeches; to harangue or ‘hold forth’; to speak or talk at some length or with some degree of formality.”

In ordinary use, the OED says, “speechify” and its derivatives are “chiefly employed as a humorous form or with depreciatory suggestion.”

Standard dictionaries use adjectives such as “boring,” “annoying,” “tedious,” and “pompous” to describe all that speechifying.

The OED cites this description of the usage from John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1848): “a rather low word, and seldom heard except among bar-room politicians.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the noun “speechifying” is from a 1723 edition of the Briton, a weekly edited by the Scottish author Tobias Smollett: “He has an excellent Talent at Speechifying.”

The OED’s first two examples of the verb “speechify” are from The Orators, a 1762 play by the British dramatist Samuel Foote: “And have you speechify’d yet?” … “I did speechify once at a vestry.”

Finally, the earliest Oxford example of “speechifying” used as an adjective is from a March 18, 1803, letter in The Life and Correspondence of John Foster (1846): “The man who has just conquered his speechifying antagonist.”

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


English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

The demon drink

Q: If you say “I need a drink,” it’s assumed the reference is to an intoxicating drink, not water or soda. When did a “drink” come to mean alcohol rather than simply a beverage to keep yourself hydrated?

A: The short answer: about a thousand years ago.

When the noun “drink” showed up in Old English (as drinc) in the late 800s, it referred to a beverage, not necessarily an intoxicating one.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from King Aelfred’s translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ of Boethius: Næron ða … mistlice … drincas (“There were not then various drinks”).

A century and a half later, according to OED citations, the term was being used for an “intoxicating alcoholic beverage.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1042 document in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

Her gefor Harðacnut swa þæt he æt his drinc stod (“In this year Harthacnut died as he stood at his drink”).

Here’s a later example from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, written in the late 1500s or early 1600s:

“How it did grieue Macbeth! did he not straight / In pious rage, the two delinquents teare, / That were the Slaues of drinke, and thralles of sleepe?” (We’ve expanded the OED citation.)

When the word “drinking” showed up around 1200, according to Oxford, it specifically referred to “the use of intoxicating liquor, or indulgence therein to excess.”

The dictionary’s first example is in a document from around 1200 in the Trinity Cambridge Manuscript: Sume men ladeð here lif on etinge and on drinkinge alse swin (“Some men lead a life of eating and drinking like a herd of swine”).

Finally, here’s a “drink” example straight from the mouth of W. C. Fields: “I was in love with a beautiful blonde once. She drove me to drink. ’Tis the one thing I’m indebted to her for.” (From the 1941 movie Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.)

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


English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Spelling Usage Word origin

A trash “chute” or “shoot”?

Q: In one of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum mysteries, Stephanie refers to a trash “chute” in her apartment building as a “shoot.” Was the copy editor asleep at the wheel? Or did I doze off while the spelling changed?

A: The usual spelling for the shaft down which garbage, laundry, and other stuff drops is “chute.” However, some standard dictionaries, including Oxford Dictionaries online, list “shoot” as an acceptable variant.

In fact, “shoot” (actually, “shoote”) was the original spelling of the noun, which showed up in the early 1500s and has roots in Anglo-Saxon days, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The “chute” spelling, Chambers says, first appeared in the US in the late 1700s and was influenced by chute, a French term for the fall of water.

“The French form came into American English through contact with early French-speaking explorers and settlers in North America,” the etymology guide adds, noting that the ultimate source of the French term is cadere, the Latin verb meaning to fall.

This story begins with the verb “shoot,” which meant “to go swiftly and suddenly” when it showed up in Old English (spelled sceote) in the late writings of King Aelfred (849-899), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When the noun “shoot” first appeared in the early 1500s, the OED says, it referred to “an act of shooting (with firearms, a bow, etc.); a discharge of arrows, bullets, etc.”

But by the early 1600s, Oxford reports, the noun was being used to mean “a heavy and sudden rush of water down a steep channel; a place in a river where this occurs, a rapid.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of this sense is from The Secrets of Angling, a book by John Dennys published in 1613:

“At the Tayles, of Mills and Arches small, / Whereas the shoote is swift and not too cleare.” (The OED dates the citation from sometime before 1609.)

In the early 1700s, Oxford says, the noun “shoot” took on a new sense: “an artificial channel for conveying water by gravity to a low level; or for the escape of overflow water from a reservoir, etc.”

By the 1800s, according to OED citations, a “shoot” could convey coal, ore, wheat, timber, cattle, rubbish, and so on. Here’s a trash example from London Labour and the London Poor, an 1851 work by Henry Mayhew:

“Each particular district appears to have its own special ‘shoot,’ as it is called, for rubbish.”

The word “chute,” which first showed up in the 1700s, originally referred to “a fall of water; a rapid descent in a river, or steep channel by which water escapes from a higher to a lower level.”

The OED’s earliest example is from a 1793 diary entry in Five Fur Traders of the Northwest, a book edited by Charles M. Gates and published in 1933: “[We] slept at the chute a Blondeau.”

Chambers cites this diary entry example as evidence that the “chute” spelling entered American English through contact with French-speaking explorers and settlers.

By the early 1800s, the term “chute” was being used in the US to mean “a steep channel or enclosed passage down which ore, coal, grain, or the like is ‘shot,’ so as to reach a receptacle, wagon, etc. below.”

The OED says the term is “usually shoot” in England. However, all the British standard dictionaries we’ve checked list “chute” as either the only or the more common spelling.

The OED doesn’t have any citations for the terms “garbage chute” or “trash chute” used in the sense of a refuse disposal shaft in an apartment building.

However, we’ve found several late-19th-century examples for “garbage chute” in Google Books, including this one from an 1895 collection of documents from the New York State Assembly:

“We recommend for new tenements an airtight ash and garbage chute, as the best solution of the removal of garbage during the day. Without this the tenants will persist in throwing rubbish out of the windows or storing it on the fire escapes.”

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


English English language Pronunciation Usage

The T sound

Q: I am a Vietnamese who is puzzled by the pronunciation of “t” in American movies.  Sometimes it sounds a little like a “d” and other times I don’t hear any sound at all. Is this just a habit or some odd way of pronunciation—something regional, maybe.

A: What you’re hearing is a normal pronunciation in American English.

The letter “t” isn’t always aspirated crisply, as it is in the words “tea” and “bite.” When it follows a vowel and precedes an unstressed syllable, it’s often a mere flick of the tongue.

Linguists call this sound a “flap” (some use the word “tap,” but it’s the same sound). It somewhat resembles a cross between “t” and “d,” but very much softened.

This is the kind of “t” you heard in those movies, as if the actors were saying alligador or phodograph. (Our use of “d” in those spellings is a gross exaggeration, but it’s as close as we can come to this flapping sound.)

“Water,” “butter,” and “atom” are good examples of words with a flapped “t.” In normal conversation, few Americans clearly aspirate the “t” before the unstressed syllable. They merely tap it with the tongue.

As we said, this flapping happens only if the following syllable is unstressed. Otherwise, the “t” is clearly aspirated, as in “atomic” and “photography.”

There’s another kind of “t” pronunciation you’ll encounter now and then in both American and British English.

This is the “t” that a lot of speakers pronounce as a glottal stop—the air flow through the vocal cords actually stops, skips over the “t,” then is released.

This is quite common when the “t” comes just before an unstressed nasal syllable.

Listen the next time someone says “mitten,” “button,” or “mountain,” and you’ll probably hear a glottal stop. The words will sound like mi’n, bu’n, and moun’n.

Most Americans, as well as growing numbers of British speakers, vocalize “t” as a glottal stop when it comes just before an unstressed nasal syllable.

According to the Macmillan Dictionary online, for example, both American and British speakers pronounce “mitten” with a glottal stop. But most British speakers don’t use the glottal stop for “kitten.”

You can hear the difference for yourself. Macmillan has differing pronunciation keys for “kitten,” both British (with aspirated “t”), and American (with a glottal stop).

The adjective “glottal,” by the way, is a reference to the glottis, the opening between the vocal cords in the larynx. In a glottal stop, the glottis closes, then opens.

The Oxford English Dictionary quotes a homey illustration, from Robert Anderson Hall’s book Introductory Linguistics (1964):

“A complete stoppage of the breath-stream by the vocal cords is called a glottal stop or glottal catch (such as we make between the two oh‘s of ‘Oh-oh!’ when said in surprise or reproof).”

By the way, in looking into the pronunciation of “t,” we learned that many people mistakenly believe the expression “to a T” refers to the tee of golf or a T square or a T-shirt.

The best guess is that “to a T,” which showed up in the late 1600s, is a short form of an earlier expression “to a tittle” (that is, to a dot), which dates from the mid-1500s.

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