English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Do you sleep in your contacts?

Q: When I go to bed without removing my contact lenses, I sleep in my contacts. Or so I say, even though the reverse is true: my contacts are in me when I sleep. What say you?

A: The preposition “in” has been used to mean “wearing” since Anglo-Saxon days.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary, from an Old English translation of Exodus, refers to mourners in blacum reafum (in black robes).

You’re right, though, that when “in” is used this way we’re usually in clothing of one sort or another (a dress, a suit, a dinner jacket, and so on).

However, we sometimes use “in” loosely to mean “wearing” when we’re not literally inside things—or at least not very far inside them. For example, we say we’re “in curlers” or “in a wig” or “in a beret.”

More important, the expression “in my contacts” is an idiom, and idioms don’t always make sense on a literal level. We’ve written often on our blog about idioms, including a post a few years ago entitled “Can an idiom make sense?”

As we said then, an idiom is a peculiarity of language—an expression or some characteristic of speech that’s peculiar to a language, a region, a dialect, or a group of people.

Sometimes an idiom doesn’t make literal sense (“it’s raining cats and dogs,” or “he reached for the stars”). At other times it’s grammatically unusual or doesn’t parse (“I could care less,” “that dress isn’t you”).

An idiom can also be a specialized language or vocabulary used among a particular group—like doctors or journalists. Or it can be a particular regional or dialectal speech pattern.

By the way, the term “contact lens” may be a lot older than you imagine. The two earliest examples in the OED are from an 1888 issue of Archives of Ophthalmology. Here’s one citation:

“The ‘contact-lens’ consists of a thin glass shell, bounded by concentric and parallel spherical segments.”

The first example in the dictionary for the term “contacts” used in place of “contact lenses” dates from 1961, but we’ll end with this more recent OED citation:

“I can’t wear glasses because it hurts my nose. I can’t wear contacts because it hurts my nerves” (from Money: A Suicide Note, an 1984 novel by Martin Amis).

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Close encounters

Q: When I was younger, I didn’t hear anyone say “close with,” but now I hear it all the time. Example: “She’s close with her sister.” For me, it should be “close to.” I did a Google search, however, and got millions of hits for “close with.” Am I crazzzy?

A: No, you’re not crazzzy! The usual preposition here is “to,” as in “He was close to his grandfather.”

Other prepositions are commonly used with different senses of “close.” For instance, “He’s close [i.e., stingy] with a dollar,” and “They’re close [secretive] about their private lives.”

But when “close” means “intimate” or “near,” the usual preposition is “to.”

Still, we sometimes read and hear “close with,” as in “He’s always been close with his cousin Frank,” or “Julia is very close with her friend Amy.”

Our guess is that this usage has been influenced by similar “with” phrases—“friendly with,” “intimate with,” “on good terms with,” and “tight with,” a slang phrase that’s been around since the 1950s. Perhaps people are extending these “with” usages to include “close.”

In fact, the preposition “with” can imply a more personal interaction than “to.” For instance, we recognize that the phrase “talk (or speak) with” implies a greater intimacy than “talk (or speak) to,” and this recognition may have influenced the use of “close with.”

By the way, Google search results are often misleading. When we searched for “I was close with him,” for example, Google reported 4,430,000 results. But when we went to the last page of the results, we found that the actual number was 127.

As for the etymology, “close” showed up in writing around 1275 as a verb meaning “to stop an opening; to shut; to cover,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the verb came into Middle English from the Old French clore, which in turn came from the Latin verb claudere (to shut, to close).

Adjective and adverb forms came along in the late 1300s, with the adjective generally meaning closed or shut, and the adverb meaning in proximity to.

It wasn’t until about 1500 that the adjective “close” took on meanings having to do with nearness of one kind or another, whether “in space, time, form, or state,” as the OED says.

The primary notion here was of “having intervening space or spaces closed up,” Oxford explains, “whereby the parts are in immediate contact with, or near to each other.”

In the latter part of the 15th century, people began using the adjective “close” in another way, to describe people and relationships as “closely attached, intimate, confidential.”

The OED’s first example is from the writings of the historian Raphael Holinshed (1577): “Letters sente to him from some close friendes.”

Unfortunately, none of the OED’s citations for this sense of “close” show it preceding a preposition, as in “he was close to his colleagues.”

Nevertheless, “to” has long been the preferred preposition following “close” in the sense of nearness. In fact, “close to” is sometimes referred to as a complex preposition in itself.

The Oxford English Grammar, by Sidney Greenbaum, includes “close to” in a list of complex prepositions. And Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) notes: “Some grammarians treat close to, as in he was standing close to the door, as a complex preposition.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language goes further and says that “close” by itself is sometimes a preposition rather than an adjective.

In discussing “near,” “close,” and “far,” the Cambridge Grammar says they “belong to both categories” (adjective and preposition), “though the prepositional uses are much more common than the adjectival.”

The book says all three words can be attributive adjectives (that is, adjectives that precede a noun), as in “a near relative, close friends, the far side of the building.

In addition, the adjective “close” can follow what it modifies—that is, it can be a predicate adjective—as in the Cambridge Grammar’s example: “Kim and Pat are getting very close (in the sense of close friends).”

But Cambridge would consider “close” and the other two words prepositions, not adjectives, in phrases like “close to election day, “near the city,” and “far from their house.”

When they act as prepositions, Cambridge says, they behave in some respects like adjectives. For example, they’re “gradable”—that is, they can be modified by “very” and “too.” And they have comparative and superlative forms (“closer to” … “closest to”).

But there are differences between “near,” “close,” and “far” when used as prepositions.

For example, Cambridge notes, “near” as a preposition can be followed by a noun phrase (“near/nearer the pool”) or a “to-phrase” (“near/nearer to the pool”).

But the grammar book says “close takes only a to phrase and far only a from phrase” (“close/closer to the pool” … “far/farther from the pool”).

The notion that “close” and “to” are paired in this sense is reiterated elsewhere in the Cambridge Grammar; “close” is included in a list of prepositions where “for the most part the to phrase complement is obligatory.”

Getting back to your question, will “close with” eventually be considered normal in the intimate sense? As we’ve often said on the blog, only time will tell.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Did World War I give us cooties?

Q: I tuned in late to Pat’s last appearance on WNYC and just caught the tail end of her discussion about cooties. Did I hear right that World War I gave us the word?

A: When the word “cooties” first showed up, it referred to the lice that were rampant on the bodies of soldiers fighting in the trenches during World War I.

The earliest example of “cooties” in the Oxford English Dictionary appears in From the Fire Step, a 1917 memoir by Arthur Guy Empey about his experiences as an American serving in the British Army:

“ ‘Does the straw bother you, mate? It’s worked through my uniform and I can’t sleep.’ In a sleepy voice he answered, ‘That ain’t straw, them’s cooties.’ ”

The noun “cooties” was derived from a slightly earlier WWI word, “cooty,” an adjective meaning infested with lice and first recorded in 1915. The phrase “going cooty” meant getting lice and being quarantined for de-lousing.

It’s been suggested that these words—“cooty” and “cooties”—may have come from kutu, a word for louse in the Malay or Maori languages.

However, the OED says that “there is nothing in the early uses of any of these three words to make such an origin seem likely.”

The word “cooties,” as you know, is now used loosely (and often humorously) to mean imaginary germs or bugs.

We found a recent example in Notorious Nineteen (2012), a novel in Janet Evanovich’s series about the klutzy bounty hunter Stephanie Plum.

Lula, Stephanie’s sidekick, says one of the hazards of bounty hunting “is getting hospital cooties. We had to do some investigating in a hospital today, and I might have got the cooties.”

For dozens of years, the term “cooties” has also been the name of a children’s tag game that often pits boys against girls.

In “Tradition and Change in American Playground Language,” a 1973 paper in The Journal of American Folklore, Herbert and Mary Knapp describe how a designated “cootie carrier” spreads an imaginary infection by hand.

Children can be protected, the Knapps write, by inoculating themselves with a “cootie shot.” In different versions of the game, the inoculation includes such ritualistic expressions as “Circle, circle, dot, dot. Now you’ve got a cootie shot.”

“Almost all our informants who attended fifth grade in the fifties, sixties, and seventies recall ‘Cooties,’ ” the Knapps report in their paper. “The percentage of affirmative replies declines in the forties and thirties.”

Now, we’ll briefly mention some of the other World War I terms that Pat discussed in her appearance on the Leonard Lopate Show on July 16. (Thanks go to the OED for most of these etymologies.)

People refer to American soldiers of World War I as “doughboys,” and to their British counterparts as “Tommies”—but in fact both terms preceded the war.

“Doughboy” was American Army slang for an infantryman as far back as the 1830s. And “Tommy” (short for a mythical “Thomas Atkins,” a generic name for a British soldier) dates from 1881, as we’ve written on our blog.

But plenty of words did originate during WWI, though many of them have since lost their wartime associations and acquired figurative meanings in everyday language.

A WWI term that’s acquired a wider meaning is “shell shock.” It was introduced in 1915 to describe a combat condition that we might now call post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s now also used more broadly to mean any kind of emotional upset.

The phrase “over the top” also originated in the trenches of 1915. To go “over the top” meant to go over the parapet of a trench and into battle. Later, in the 1930s, “over the top” took on a figurative usage and came to mean “to an exaggerated degree” or “beyond the limit.”

The very modern-sounding verb “liase” was first used by British officers in WWI and has gone on to be widely used (or misused, as many people think) in civilian life. We’ve written about the history of “liase” on our blog.

Another modern-sounding  term, “zero hour,” also came into use in 1915, when it meant the time at which a military operation was to begin.  Later it acquired an extended usage: the time at which any event is scheduled to take place.

“Zero in” also owes its origins to WWI, when it meant to adjust one’s rifle sights. It now means to focus or home in on something.

“Tailspin” is yet another example. When first recorded during the war, it meant a steep, uncontrolled, spinning descent of an aircraft with engine failure. But it now can mean any kind of rapid, out-of-control fall—as when having 22 errands on your list for the day sends you into a tailspin.

Here’s a term that many people don’t associate with WWI—“trench coat.” But when first recorded (in 1914), it meant a lined or padded waterproof coat worn by soldiers in the trenches.

As you might expect in an era marked by new ways of waging war, many of the words that emerged in 1914-18 have retained their original wartime meanings.

These include “air raid,” “anti-aircraft,” “gas mask,” “flame thrower,” “storm trooper,” and “tank”—originally a code word used in 1915 while the armored artillery vehicle was being secretly developed.

Another military word, “strafe” (1914), was derived from the German verb strafen (to punish), and was plucked from a famous German propaganda slogan, Gott strafe England! (“God punish England!”).

German also inspired “U-boat” (1914), meaning a German military submarine. The “u” in “U-boat” was from unterseeboten, the German word for the submarine.

Even on the home front, the war made changes in our language. The term “home front” itself came out of WWI, as did the nickname “Aussie” (for an Australian soldier), and the phrase “over there” (meaning Europe), which was popularized by the George M. Cohan song of that title.

A different category of WWI words includes those that (like “doughboy” and “Tommy”) were around before but didn’t become household words until the war brought them into the news.

Examples include “Zeppelin.” While the airship was developed at the turn of the century, the word didn’t come into common use until the Germans used Zeppelins in bombing raids in 1914.

“Dogfight,” too, had been around in figurative usage as a word for a struggle or melee. But in 1918 “dogfight” was first used to mean an air battle between warplanes.

Those dogfights may have been fought by “aces.” That word, too, had been in earlier use to mean someone who excels. But it wasn’t used until 1916 to mean a daring flier—like a pilot or gunner—who brings down lots of enemy planes.

“Submarine” had also been around before WWI, but it was a mere novelty until the war at sea made it a household word. Similarly, the phrase “cannon fodder” was around earlier but emerged from obscurity in WWI and is now forever associated with that war.

Another word dreaded by troops—“shrapnel”—was first recorded in 1914 in the sense of fragments from shells or bombs. But it came from an earlier sense of the word. In the 19th century, a “Shrapnel” (named for its British inventor, Henry Shrapnel) was a type of hollow shell containing bullets and a charge.

Even the way people referred to the war has an interesting history.

Early on, in 1914, it was called “the Great War,” and was sometimes referred to as “the war that will end war,” a phrase credited to H. G. Wells (it was the title of a book he published that year).

The phrase “First World War” was coined toward the war’s end, in September 1918.

But the name we probably use most often, “World War I,” was first used by Time magazine in its issue of Sept. 18, 1939, shortly after Germany invaded Poland and ushered in the next world war.  Only the previous week, Time had become the first to use the term “World War II” in print.

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English English language Grammar Usage

A moving appreciation

Q: The words “move” and  “appreciate” are often used in local government in San Francisco, but not always to my liking. I hear “so moved” when a motion is approved rather than introduced. And I hear things like “I want to appreciate her advocacy” instead of “I appreciate her advocacy.” Your thoughts, please.

A: We’re volunteer land-use commissioners in our small New England town, so we’re intimately acquainted with the jargon of local government.

We’ve never heard “So moved” used to indicate that a motion has been approved. The usual expression would be “Motion carried” or “Motion approved.”

In our town, the chairman of a board, committee, or commission may say something like “I’d entertain a motion to approve the minutes” or “I’d entertain a motion to adjourn.”

One of the seated members may then say “So moved” as shorthand for “I move to approve the minutes” or “I move to adjourn.”

Some parliamentary mavens object to the use of “So moved” in such a case, insisting that it’s too vague and that a full motion should be made.

We see nothing wrong with using “So moved” for relatively minor motions like those mentioned above.

But we’d recommend a formal motion in more complex situations, such as a vote on a series of amendments to revise building setbacks.

As for the verb “appreciate,” it means to be thankful or grateful for something when used in the sense you’ve mentioned. The usual, idiomatic way of using it, as you point out, is “I appreciate her advocacy.”

The sentence “I want to appreciate her advocacy” seems off to you because it’s not idiomatic. In fact, it suggests just the opposite of what is intended: “I want to appreciate her advocacy, but …”

With a little help from our friends at Google, we found lots of examples of the “want to” usage that bugs you, such as “I want to appreciate his gifts of fatherhood and joy” and “I want to appreciate his generosity.”

However, we also found many examples of “want to” followed by a not-so-appreciative “but” clause, including this one from a post on Tumblr: “I want to appreciate Tupac’s music but I cannot get into it.”

We wrote a post a couple of years ago about the use of “but” clauses in backhanded statements like “It’s not about the money, but …” and “It really doesn’t matter to me, but …”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage

The “basket case” myth

Q: I found a photo online, apparently from the early 20th century, of a disabled man in a basket chair. Could this be a clue to the origin of “basket case”?

A: The man pictured in the basket chair (a three-wheeled woven rattan wheelchair) is nowhere near as disabled as the original basket case—had such a basket case ever existed.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the colloquial term “basket case” originated in the United States shortly after World War I, and meant “a person, esp. a soldier, who has lost all four limbs.”

However, the phrase, which initially referred to American soldiers supposedly left limbless by the war, was a product of the postwar rumor mill in the US. No quadruple-amputee American soldiers existed, and there’s no evidence that any head-and-torso survivors from any country were carried around in baskets.

Nevertheless, word spread that limbless soldiers were being warehoused in one place or another in the US. As a result, the Surgeon General of the Army, Maj. Gen. Merritte W. Ireland, said in 1919 that the rumor had absolutely no foundation in fact.

“I have personally examined the records and am able to say that there is not a single basket case either on this side of the water or among the soldiers of the A. E. F. [Allied Expeditionary Force],” he explained.

Furthermore, the general said in his March 28, 1919, statement, “I wish to emphasize that there has been no instance of an American soldier so wounded during the whole period of the war.”

According to newspaper accounts of the time, only one Allied combatant, a Canadian soldier, is known to have survived the war after a quadruple amputation.

He was Ethelbert (Curley) Christian, a Pennsylvania-born African American who had settled in Canada and joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force. After he was gravely injured in April 1917 in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, surgeons amputated both arms below the elbows and both legs below the knees.

But he was no “basket case.” He was fitted with prosthetic legs, and family photos show him standing upright. He is even said to have devised an arm prosthesis that enabled him to write. He lived a productive life, dying in 1954.

The OED’s earliest citation for the use of the phrase “basket case” dates from January 1919, two months after the war ended. It’s from Oak Leaves, a local newspaper in Oak Park, Ill.: “There were seven ‘basket cases,’ men without arms or legs.” [The account was apparently inaccurate.]

The term “basket case” isn’t used anymore in that original sense; it refers now to an emotionally disturbed person or an ineffective organization, nation, business, and so on.

The dictionary’s first citation for the phrase used in its ineffective sense is from the Feb. 16, 1948, issue of Life:

“The U.N. may become a more pathetic basket case than the old League of Nations after the Japanese nullified the decision on Manchuria.”

In the early 1950s, the phrase came to mean “a person who is emotionally or mentally unable to cope, esp. because of overwhelming stress or anxiety,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest example of this usage is from Polly Adler’s 1953 autobiography, A House Is Not a Home:

“By New Year’s, 1935, after three months in the new house, I realized I’d wind up a basket case if I didn’t take a vacation.”

[Note: This post was updated on Aug. 16, 2018. We’re grateful to a descendant of the Canadian soldier Curley Christian, who wrote to us about him and supplied photos and newspaper clippings.]

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

How to shorten a child

Q: I recently found an old diary in which my grandmother wrote this about my uncle: “today the baby was shortened.” What in heaven’s name could she have been referring to? She was born in 1893, grew up around Philadelphia, and had my uncle around 1925. She was Catholic so it couldn’t have had anything to do with circumcision.

A: We were stumped too, until we found this definition of “shorten” in the Oxford English Dictionary: “To put (a child) into short clothes.”

The dictionary defines “short clothes” as “an infant’s short-coats,” which wasn’t much help. Nor was this definition of “short-coats” in the OED: “The garments in which an infant is clothed when the long clothes are laid aside.”

It turns out that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, both male and female newborns were clothed in dresses (long clothes) that came down below their feet.

When the babies were a few months old and beginning to crawl, they were “shortened”—that is, clothed in ankle-length or calf-length dresses (short clothes or short coats) so they could move around.

In the May 1913 issue of the Ladies Home Journal, a doctor answers a question from a young mother about baby clothes. Here’s an excerpt from “The Young Mothers’ Class,” by Emelyn L. Coolidge, MD:

“This time I have some questions to ask you about the baby’s clothes,” said the young mother to her doctor. “First I want to know at what age you think a baby should be changed from long clothes to short ones, and how long these first short clothes should be.”

“Usually in these days it is considered best to put the baby in short clothes when he is three months old,” replied the doctor. “He is not then hampered by long skirts when he needs to kick and develop his legs; but if he happens to reach this age in the coldest weather you had better wait until it is a little warmer before making the change from long to short clothes, which should be of ankle length.”

[Update, Aug. 20, 2014: A reader of the blog notes that the most often-heard reference to short clothes these days is
probably in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers. Marco and Giuseppe, in their introductory song, describe themselves as “For gallantry noted / Since we were short-coated.”]

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage

A half-dollar vs. 50 cents

Q: Has the use of the term “half-dollar” to mean fifty cents fallen out of favor? I never hear it anymore.

A: Standard dictionaries generally define the term “half-dollar” as a coin worth 50 cents, not as an amount of money valued at 50 cents.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, defines it as “a US coin worth 50 cents” while the online Collins English Dictionary defines it as “(in the US) a 50-cent piece.”

The Cambridge Dictionaries Online says it’s “a coin worth 50 cents,” and the unabridged Random House Dictionary says it’s either a US or Canadian coin “equal to 50 cents.”

We’ve found only two standard dictionaries that define a “half-dollar” as both a coin and an amount of money, and those two references are published by the same company:

● Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says it can be “a coin that is worth 50 cents” or “the sum of 50 cents.”

● The online Merriam Webster’s Unabridged says it’s either “a coin representing one half of a dollar” or “the sum of fifty cents or one half of a dollar.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, whose entry for “half-dollar” first appeared in 1898 and hasn’t been fully updated, defines the term as “a silver coin of the United States and other countries, equal to 50 cents.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from an Aug. 8, 1786, resolution published in the Journals of Congress: “Resolved … that the silver coins shall be as follows: One coin containing 187  82-100 grains of fine silver, to be called a Half-Dollar.”

The 1964 John F. Kennedy half-dollars were the last to contain silver (the percentage of silver was reduced from 90 percent to 40 percent from 1965 to 1970).

You seldom see a half-dollar today, except in coin collections. That may be another reason why the term “half-dollar” is rarely used now to mean 50 cents.

As “the popularity of the Kennedy half dollar began to fade,” production fell from a high of over 429 million in 1964 to just over 3 million in 2011,  according to the numismatic writer James Bucki.

“The workhorse coin of the US economy,” Bucki says on, “was, and still is, the Washington quarter dollar.”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Are “loath” and “loathe” related?

Q: I assume the adjective “loath” (meaning reluctant) and the verb “loathe” (meaning to dislike) are relations of one sort or another. Which of these came first? And where did it come from?

A: Yes, the two words are related. John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the verb “loathe” is derived from the adjective “loath,” which was láð in Old English. (The letter ð, or eth, was pronounced like “th.”)

The adjective, according to Ayto, “originally meant ‘hostile’ or ‘loathsome,’ and goes back to a prehistoric Germanic laithaz,” which gave German leid (sorrow) and French laid (ugly or disgusting).

Two of the earliest examples of the adjective “loath” in the Oxford English Dictionary are from the Old English epic poem Beowulf, which is believed to date from the 700s.

Early in the poem, the monster Grendel kills dozens of warriors, leaving King Hrothgar grief-stricken from a feud described as to strang, lað ond longsum (“too cruel, loathsome, and long”).

Later, during Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother, she clutches him, but her laþan fingrum (“hostile talons”) fail to pierce his chain-mail shirt. (The letter þ, or thorn, was also pronounced like “th.”)

It wasn’t until the 1300s that the adjective “loath” took on the modern sense of reluctant or unwilling, according to examples in the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Chaucer’s 14th-century Middle English translation of De Consolatione Philosophiae of Boethius: “She lyueth loþ of this lyf.”

Here’s an example in modern English from a Feb. 7, 1667, entry in Samuel Pepys’s Diary: “I … would be loath he should not do well.”

As for the verb “loathe,” it meant to be hateful, displeasing, or offensive when it first showed up in Old English in the late 800s, but the OED says that sense is now obsolete.

“Loathe” went through several other senses now considered obsolete before the modern meaning of “to feel aversion or dislike” showed up in the 12th century, according  to the OED.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Poema Morale, an anonymous early Middle English work from sometime before 1200.

However, the Middle English is easier to read in this example from A Paraphrase on the Seven Penitential Psalms (1414), by Thomas Brampton: “Good werk he lothith to bigynne.”

Now, let’s skip ahead to a couple of 19th-century poetic examples in modern English:

“To breathe and loathe, to live and sigh, / Than once from dread of pain to die,” from Tennyson’s “The Two Voices” (1842).

“Man who, as man conceiving, hopes and fears, / And craves and deprecates, and loves, and loathes,” from Robert Brownings’s “The Family” (1884).

Although careful writers are now careful to spell the verb “loathe” with an “e” at the end, the OED has many literary examples from the past of the “e”-less verb.

Here’s an example from Dryden’s 1697 translation of Virgil’s Georgica: “The Swarms … loath their empty Hives, and idly stray.”

The OED even has a 14th-century citation for the adjective spelled with an “e” at the end, but you’ll have to trust us on this. We’re loath to give one more example.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Linguistics Phrase origin Usage

When the future is present

Q: I’ve noticed that people who write Dear Abby often say something like “I am being married in the fall” where I would say “I am getting married in the fall.” Is “being married” correct here?

A: The short answer is yes, but expressing the future in English can get (or be) as complicated as trying to predict it.

In fact, some linguists maintain that English doesn’t have a future tense per se. They argue that the word “will” in “We will marry in the fall” is an auxiliary of mood, rather than tense. But let’s not get sidetracked.

Whether English technically has a future tense or not, it certainly has a lot of ways to express the future.

One of them is what grammarians call the futurate, a usage in which the future is referred to without using a traditional future construction. The usual way to do this is with a multi-word form of the present tense.

The two sentences you ask about (“I am being married in the fall” and “I am getting married in the fall”) are examples of the present progressive futurate.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says the futurate “is subject to severe pragmatic constraints” and “must involve something that can be assumed to be known already in the present.”

Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, authors of the Cambridge Grammar, say the most common uses of the futurate “involve cyclic events in nature, scheduled events, and conditionals.” Cambridge offers these examples:

Cyclic events of nature. “It’s going to rain soon.”

Scheduled events. “Australia meets Sweden in the Davis Cup final in December.”

Conditionals. “What happens if there is a power failure?”

As for your question, both “I am getting married in the fall” and “I am being married in the fall” are perfectly legitimate sentences.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for “get” indicates that “getting” in a sentence like the first one means causing a “specified action to be performed upon (a person or thing).”

And the dictionary’s entry for “be” indicates that “being” in a sentence like the second is an “auxiliary, forming the progressive passive.”

The OED has examples of this use of “being” dating back to the 1700s. Here’s one from a 1795 letter by the English poet Robert Southey: “A fellow … whose grinder is being torn out by the roots.” (A grinder is a molar.)

Although the OED lists the “being” usage as standard English, it notes that some 19th-century commentators criticized it.

For example, David Booth, author of An Analytical Dictionary of the English Language (1830), is quoted as saying the usage “pained the eye and stunned the ear.”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Does “daresay” have a past?

Q: My dictionary doesn’t have a past tense for “daresay.” Is it “daresaid”? Or “daresayed”? Or perhaps even “daredsay”? I daresay you’ll have an answer.

A: We haven’t found any standard dictionaries that list a past tense for “daresay,” a compound verb that means to think very likely or to suppose.

In fact, many dictionaries specifically say that “daresay” is generally used in the first-person singular present tense (“I daresay”).

However, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that “some dialects make the past daresaid, darsayed, dessayed.” The term is “durst say” in the OED’s only past-tense example:

“La Fleur … told me he had a letter in his pocket … which, he durst say, would suit the occasion” (from A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, a 1768 novel by Laurence Sterne).

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage cites a more recent example of the past tense—using “daresayed”—from a Sylvia Townsend Warner story published in the New Yorker in 1954:

“Philip, a courteous guest, daresayed that the hourglass was timed to town eggs—puny specimens.”

Despite that example and the one in the OED, the usage guide says, “This compound verb is used in the first person singular of the present tense. It has hardly ever  been used otherwise.”

We’ve written before on our blog about the first part in the compound verb, “dare,” including posts in 2008 and 2009 on the regional or dialectal usages “durst,” “dast,” and “dasn’t.”

As for the verb “daresay,” the editors of the M-W manual say the term can be written as either “daresay” or “dare say,” but they add that “our evidence shows the one-word styling slightly more common.”

The OED says “dare say” (it uses two words) can mean to venture to assert or to assume as probable. The dictionary has examples of the first usage dating from the 1300s and of the second from the 1700s.

The verb is in the present tense in the dictionary’s earliest citation, from a Middle English translation (circa 1350)of Guillaume de Palerme, a French poem written around 1200:

I dar seie & soþliche do proue, sche schal weld at wille more gold þan ȝe siluer” (“I dare say and truly do prove she shall wield at will more gold than silver”).

We’ll end with a more recent example, from an essay by the author Daniel Mendelsohn in the Oct. 8, 2013, issue of the New York Times Book Review:

“Tone is everything. A novel in which characters say ‘I daresay’ is galaxies apart from one in which characters say ‘I kinda think.’ ”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Spelling Usage Word origin


Q: Any thoughts why the “.com” in a Web address is referred to as “dot com” and not “period com” or perhaps the more suitable “point com”?

A: Our feeling is that “dot” is preferred because it’s snappier than “period” or “point.” It has fewer syllables than “period,” and it’s clearer and more emphatic than “point.”

While journalists and editors often use “point” to mean “period,” we suspect that most people think of “point” in the punctuation or notation sense as short for “decimal point”—something used with numbers, not letters.

Besides, “dot” was first on the scene in the world of computing. It’s been used for more than 30 years to refer to this punctuation mark in an Internet address.

By the way, most standard dictionaries hyphenate the term “dot-com” when it refers to a company that does business on the Internet. However, the term is often seen as “,” “dotcom,” “dot com,” or simply “.com.”

The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (3rd ed.) uses “dot-com” when referring to Internet commerce and “.com” when referring to a Web address. We think that’s a good idea.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for the term spells it “dotcom,” but the dictionary notes the various other spellings mentioned above.

Since at least as far back as 1981, according to the OED, “dot” has been used to mean “a full stop or point as an element of punctuation dividing the different components in an Internet address.”

And since at least as far back as 1984, the dictionary says, “com” has been used in domain names “to indicate a commercial web site, though later more broadly applied.”

The dictionary’s “dotcom” entry includes definitions for both an address (or website) and a company. We’ll quote them in full:

1. “An Internet address for a commercial site expressed in terms of the formulaic suffix .com; a web site with such an address.”

2.  “A company which uses the Internet for business, esp. one which has an Internet address ending with the suffix .com. In extended use: the Internet as a business medium.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for No. 1 is from the April 5, 1994, issue of Newsday: “If I were telling someone that address I’d say: ‘quit at newsday dot com.’ ”

And its earliest example for No. 2 is from the November 1996 issue of Internet World: “A broad discussion of what’s around the corner for dot.coms.”

No matter how it’s spelled, the term is always pronounced the same way (as a compound of “dot” and “com”).

[Update, Aug. 15, 2014: A reader of the blog notes that
RFC 882 (a Request for Comments memo issued by Internet developers in November 1983) uses the term “dot” in introducing the concept of domain names. Here’s the relevant sentence: “When domain names are printed, labels in a path are separated by dots (‘.’).”]

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage

Learner driver or student driver?

Q: I see driver education cars with stickers reading “Learner Driver” rather than “Student Driver.” The phrase “Learner Driver” just doesn’t seem right to me. Is it?

A: Like you, we find the phrase “student driver” more idiomatic than “learner driver.” But we may be in the minority here.

It turns out that “learner driver” is more common—at least on the Internet—than “student driver.” The phrase “learner driver” gets almost four times as many Google hits as “student driver.”

What’s more, the Oxford English Dictionary has examples for “learner driver” going back more than 80 years, but it has no examples for “student driver.”

However, some googling suggests that the term “learner driver” is more popular in the UK than in the US. It’s also popular in Canada. (In Britain, learner drivers must display a red letter “L”—for “learner”—on their license plates.)

The OED’s earliest example is from Taxi! A Book About London Taxicabs and Drivers (1930), written by Anthony Armstrong (the pseudonym of George Willis): “Conversational freedom between … taximen and private ‘learner drivers.’ ”

This later example is from Paul Barry’s novel Unwillingly to School (1961): “If you hadn’t been a learner driver … I’d have booked you for that!”

And here’s an OED citation from the June 28, 1973, issue of the Times (London): “The learner driver holding up the traffic as he or she falters down the High Street is still part of the British motoring scene.”

All those examples are in a subentry in the dictionary for the noun “learner” used to mean “one who is learning to be competent but who does not yet have formal authorization as a driver of a motor vehicle, cycle, etc.”

In the phrase “learner driver,” the OED says, the noun “learner” is being used attributively (that is, adjectivally) to modify the noun “driver.”

The word “student” in “student driver” is also being used attributively.

Such a noun is sometimes called an “attributive noun” because the attributes we associate with the noun (“learner” or “student”) are used to modify another noun (“driver”).

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Linguistics Phrase origin Usage

These ones and those ones

Q: “These ones” is never OK. Not here in the US, nor in my native UK. There is no “sometimes.” It’s simply wrong. The “ones” element is redundant. It’s “these” or “those” (for plurals), and “this” or “that” for singular items.

A: We assume your remarks were inspired by our post in 2010 about whether the phrase “these ones” is ever legitimate.

As we said then, we don’t like this usage. But we could find no authoritative evidence against it, and on the contrary there was reliable evidence in its favor.

In the earlier post, we note that the linguist Arnold Zwicky says the use of “these ones” and “those ones” apparently isn’t considered odd or nonstandard in Britain.

Zwicky cites the linguist Nicholas Widdows, who reports finding examples in the British National Corpus of “these” and “these ones” used in different senses. Here’s how Widdows explains the difference:

“Faced with an array of jelly babies I might point to a red one and say, ‘I like these ones.’  The fused head [plain these] could be misinterpreted as referring to all jelly babies; the ‘ones’ says more clearly ‘this type.’ ”

In the US, Zwicky writes on the Language Log, educated people seem to differ about the usage, and their opinions may depend on where they grew up.

”It’s possible that in North America ‘these/those ones’ is a variant in the gray area between standard and nonstandard—fully acceptable to educated middle-class speakers in some areas, but not fully acceptable, though not actually stigmatized, to such people in other areas,” he writes.

The fact that we dislike a usage doesn’t make it incorrect. Nor does the fact that some online language junkies claim it’s wrong, without offering any evidence to support their opinions.

You argue that “ones” is redundant in “these ones,” but do you really find “one” redundant in the phrases “this one” and “that one” for the same reason?

And what about if we add a modifier to “these ones” or “those ones”? Would you object to “these heavy ones,” “those black ones,” and so on?

The Cambridge History of the English Language indicates that “ones” here is an anaphoric pronoun—a pronoun that refers back to another word or phrase. In this case the pronoun is preceded by a determiner, a modifier like “these” or “those.”

Cambridge says “those ones” first showed up in the 19th century, and “these ones” in the 20th. However, we’ve found many formal and informal examples of “those ones” going back to the 1600s, and of “these ones” dating from the 1700s.

Here’s an example of “those ones” from Greenwich Park, a 1691 comedy by the English actor and playwright William Mountfort:

Reveler: “Madam, Men may divert themselves with several Women, but only one can make ’em truly happy.”

Dorinda. “And how many of those ones have you said this to?”

Reveler: “As I never was really in Love till now, I never had occasion for the Expression before.”

Here’s a more formal example from Annals of Commerce, Manufactures, Fisheries, and Navigation (1805), by David Macpherson and Adam Anderson:

“The mercantile Venetian and Genoese galleys, which formerly resorted to England, were very probably of a more solid structure than those ones which are only fit for summer expeditions within the Mediterranean.”

Another example, from The British Cyclopedia (1836), edited by Charles F. Partington, says that only in Europe and Asia have falcons been trained to help humans “and therefore those ones of which specimens are obtained from remote countries are birds of little or no interest, except to mere collectors.”

And in Cobbett’s Parliamentary History of England (Vol. 2, 1807), William Cobbett and Thomas Curson Hansard write about 17th-century reforms in Britain that eased the burdens of taxation:

“The compulsion of the subject to receive the order of Knighthood against his will, paying of fines for not receiving it, and, the vexatious proceedings thereupon for levying of those ones, are, by other beneficial laws, reformed and prevented.”

As for “these ones,” here’s an example from An Exposition of the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (1766), by John Brown:

“Our Mediator Christ being so excellent a person, his death was so full a price, and so satisfactory unto justice, for all these ones for which it was offered up, that it needeth not to be repeated, but once for all this sacrifice was offered: He died once.

And here’s an example from “The Foreigner,” a story published in the June 1895 issue of Blackwood’s Magazine:

“It is not the colour only. It is that the whole room has neither expression nor character about it. You must surely have noticed that our English drawing-rooms were very different from these ones.”

Modern scholars, too, have used this construction. Here’s a recent example from Blooming English, a 2012 collection of observations by the British linguist Kate Burridge:

“These were just some of the nominees for the annual Doublespeak Awards—and these ones didn’t even win a prize.”

This modern example is from Emerging English Modals, a 2000 monograph on English auxiliaries by the linguist Manfred G. Krug: “Like previous maps, these ones too have to be taken with a good deal of caution.”

If you don’t trust the writing of linguists, here’s an example from The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature (Vol. 3, 2012), edited by David Hopkins and Charles Martindale:

“The effect produced by the epigrams in Rowe’s Lucan is indeed often one of dignity, but this can make them rather un-Lucanian. Take these ones, for instance, about the panic that grips Rome as Caesar approaches the city at the end of Book I.”

(The work is a study of how literary texts from the classical world were received by English writers from the Middle Ages to the present time.)

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