English English language Etymology Grammar Usage

If grammar be the food of love

Q: A couple of friends insist on using the subjunctive in a conditional clause like this: “Say hello to my brother if he be there when you arrive.” To me, it sounds ungrammatical, never mind this example from Shakespeare: “If music be the food of love, play on.” What do you say?

A: The sentence “Say hello to my brother if he be there when you arrive” is not grammatically correct in modern English.

The proper construction is “if he is there.” Why? Because it’s possible that he will be there.

In modern English (we’ll get to Elizabethan English later), we use the subjunctive with “if” only when the condition is contrary to fact.

Here’s an example: “If she were thinner, she’d be more confident” (she’s not thinner, so the condition mentioned is not a fact).

There’s a lot of confusion over what constitutes the subjunctive mood. It’s not the same as the conditional; not all conditional clauses have verbs in the subjunctive mood.

Here’s a passage from Woe Is I, Pat’s grammar and usage book, that you might find helpful:

CONDITIONAL CLAUSE. A clause that starts with if, as if, as though, or some other expression of supposition. The verb in a conditional clause has an attitude: that is, it takes on different forms, or ‘moods,’ depending on the speaker’s attitude or intention toward what’s being said. When the clause states a condition that’s contrary to fact, the verb is in the subjunctive mood (If I were you . . . ). When the clause states a condition that may be true, the verb is in the indicative mood (If I was late . . . ).”

And here’s a passage, from a post on our blog, that further explains the conditions under which the subjunctive is used in modern English:

“(1) When expressing a wish: ‘I wish the nuclear arsenal were retired.’ (In the subjunctive, ‘was’ becomes ‘were.’)

“(2) When making an ‘if’ statement about a condition that’s contrary to fact: ‘If the nuclear arsenal were retired, we’d be safer.’ (Ditto.)

“(3) When something is being asked, demanded, ordered, suggested, and so on: ‘We demand that the government retire the nuclear arsenal.’ (In these cases, the verb in the second clause is always in the infinitive, as in ‘I suggest she walk,’ ‘They ordered that he be jailed,’ etc.)”

Note that we said “in modern English.” If Shakespeare were writing today, he wouldn’t use the subjunctive in that passage from Twelfth Night (unless he wanted to sound Elizabethan).

In the past, the subjunctive was used more widely and in different kinds of constructions than it is today.  Thus does English change.

Note: We’ve had several items on the blog about obsolete uses of the subjunctive, including a post in 2010 on the use of the verb “be” in Elizabethan times.

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

A medieval mystery

Q: I’m enjoying Mel Starr’s Hugh de Singleton series of medieval mysteries. I take notes when he mentions unfamiliar dishes and I look up the terms later. I’ve finally come across one I can’t track down. It’s cevy, which seems to be a broth or herb or flavoring for cooking fish or rabbit. Can you help?

A: The term cevy is a variant of cive, a Middle English word for a “spicy sauce containing chives or onions,” according to the Middle English Dictionary (5th ed., 1998), edited by Hans Kurath and Sherman M. Kuhn.

The dictionary says cive (pronounced with a long e) is derived from civé, Old French for “chive” or “onion.”

Other Middle English variants for cive include civey and cyvee. (In Middle English, the “v” sound is often written as u.)

In addition, Kurath and Kuhn note, the term is sometimes misspelled as ciney, cene, sine, and sene.

The dictionary has citations, dating from sometime before 1300 to sometime before 1500, for cive and its variants, including Harys in cyuee, mallard in cyuey, Connyngnes [rabbits] in cyuee, Mawlard in gely or in cyuey, and Oysturs in ceuy.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which spells the word civy or civey, cites a more expansive description of the now-obsolete term from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongnes (1611), compiled by Randall Cotgrave:

“A broth or sauce made of the entrails of a hog; also broth or sauce for the forepart of a fried hare, made of wine, vinegar, verjuice, herbs, and spices; oyster broth, or broth made of boiled oysters.”

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English English language Etymology Pronunciation Usage Word origin

How do you say “long-lived”?

Q: Should “long-lived” and “short-lived” be pronounced with a long or a short “i”?  I have always wondered about that and I would appreciate your consideration of this issue.

A: The traditional pronunciation of “-lived” in a compound is with a long “i,” but current dictionaries say the vowel can now be either long (as in the noun “life”) or short (as in the verb “live”).

How did this change come about?  The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), which accepts both pronunciations, sheds some light in a Word History note.

“Some uncertainty exists as to the correct pronunciation of long-lived,” the note says. “The answer depends in part on how one looks at the word.”

Historically, according to American Heritage, “the first pronunciation is the more accurate. The word was formed in Middle English times as a compound of long and the noun life, plus the suffix –ed.”

In Middle English, the editors note, “the suffix -ed was always pronounced as a full syllable, so long-lifed (as it was then spelled) had three syllables.”

Later, the dictionary continues, the “f” came to be pronounced as “v,” and “eventually, the spelling became long-lived to reflect the pronunciation.”

But this new spelling, American Heritage says, “introduced an ambiguity; it was no longer clear from the spelling that the word came from the noun life, but rather looked as though it came from the verb live.

Thus the new pronunciation was introduced, and over the years it has come to be accepted as standard English, along with the traditional pronunciation.

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

What’s “flat” about “flatware”?

Q: I was in a restaurant with three golfing buddies when I told the waitress we needed flatware. All three guys hooted, saying I should have said “silverware.” (The utensils were stainless steel. Are plastic knives, forks, and spoons “silverware” too?) Anyway, where does “flatware” come from, especially the “flat” part?

A: Originally, “flatware” meant not cutlery but dishes—that is, “plates, dishes, saucers and the like, collectively,” in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Such things were called “flatware” in the mid-19th century to distinguish them from “holloware” (or “hollow-ware”), a 17th-century term for bowls, cups, pots, pans, and other vessels with some depth to them, mostly made of metal.

The word “flatware” was first recorded, according to the OED, in the official catalogue for the Great Exhibition of 1851, which carried this description:

“Plates, dishes, saucers, &c., termed ‘flat ware,’ are made from moulds which form the inside of the article, the exterior being given by ‘profiles’ of the required outline, made of fired clay, glazed.”

But by the end of the century “flatware” was being used—especially in the US—to mean “domestic cutlery,” the OED says. All four of the dictionary’s citations are American, and show that “flatware” could be made of silver.

Oxford’s earliest example is from an 1895 Montgomery Ward catalogue: “Solid Sterling Flat Ware … Tea Spoons … Dessert Forks … Sugar Shells … Butter Knives.”

A few years later, in 1901, the New York Evening Post carried a reference to “a complete line of Rogers Flatware.”

The American author Gertrude Atherton used the term in her 1914 novel Perch of the Devil: “A magnificent silver service, from many dozens of ‘flat ware,’ to silver platters.”

And Mary McCarthy used it in her 1952 novel The Groves of Academe: “She seemed to fix her eyes on the flatware and napery with the same hypnotized effort that dragged her fork to her lips and back again.” (Earlier, we were told the table had been laid with a lace cloth and “wedding silver.”)

Today, many people use “flatware” to mean any kind of cutlery, and reserve “silverware” (another term coined in the mid-19th century) for tableware made of silver or an alloy of silver.

But this isn’t universally the case. In our experience, people sometimes use “silverware” loosely to mean knives, forks, and spoons in general.

“Tableware,” by the way, is a general term for articles used at the table—“cutlery, crockery, etc.,” as the OED says. It was first recorded in the late 1700s.

“Ware” in all these compounds, Oxford says, is a collective term for “articles of merchandise or manufacture; the things which a merchant, tradesman, or pedlar, has to sell; goods, commodities.”

This Germanic word, first recorded in English around the year 1000, is also used in the plural, as when we speak of a shopkeeper’s “wares.”

But etymologists think it may be older yet in English, and that it could be the same word as a now defunct “ware” from the 800s.

This obsolete word, first recorded in the ninth century, meant “watchful care,” “safekeeping,” and the like, and is the source of “wary,” “beware,” and “aware.”

So the 11th-century version of “ware” meaning goods, the OED suggests, is “used in the concrete sense ‘object of care.’ ”

As for plastic knives, forks, and spoons, we’d call them “plastic knives, forks, and spoons,” but some googling suggests that “plastic cutlery” is the preferred term among the people who make and sell the stuff.

Although the term “cutlery” has traditionally referred to knives, scissors, and other cutting implements since it entered English in the 1400s (via the Old French coutelerie), many standard dictionaries now accept its use for knives, forks, and spoons.

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English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage Word origin

Transitive, intransitive, or both?

Q: I’m appalled by the intransitive use of transitive verbs such as “excite,” “engage,” “inform,” and “entertain.” Then there’s the transitive use of intransitive verbs, as in “grow the economy.” I gag on these, almost as much as “between you and I.”

A: In English, the line dividing transitive and intransitive verbs isn’t as distinct as you might think. Most English verbs—including the ones you mention—can be both.

As we’ve written before here, a verb is said to be transitive when it requires a direct object, as in “She raises the shade.” (The verb’s action is transmitted to an object.) And a verb is intransitive when it doesn’t require an object, as in “The shade rises.”

Some verbs are always one or the other—they’re either transitive (like “raise”) or intransitive (like “rise”). But such one-or-the-other verbs are the exceptions.

As Joseph M. Williams writes in Origins of the English Language (1986), “Most verbs in English are neither strictly transitive nor intransitive.”

It’s true that the verbs you mention—“excite,” “engage,” “inform,” “entertain,” and “grow”—are generally used in limited ways (except for “grow,” they’re mostly used with objects).

But none of them are exclusively transitive or intransitive, according to their entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. Here’s a brief summary:

● “Excite,” while usually transitive (used with a direct object, as in “don’t excite the children”), has also been used without one for almost two centuries.

As the OED says, “excite” is used in modern English to mean “to move to strong emotion, stir to passion; to stir up to eager tumultuous feeling, whether pleasurable or painful.” And in this sense it’s sometimes used intransitively.

An early 19th-century example in the OED suggests to us that the intransitive “excite” may have originated as fashionable London slang. Here’s the citation, from a footnote in Pierce Egan’s novel Life in London (1821): “If some of the plates should appear rather warm, the purchasers of ‘Life in London’ may feel assured, that nothing is added to them tending to excite.” (In his novel, Egan italicized slang words.)

The OED also gives this later example of the verb’s intransitive usage: “Last week’s legitimate television drama failed to excite” (from a BBC publication, the Listener, 1968).

● “Engage,” usually transitive, has had intransitive (or “absolute”) uses since the mid-17th century. The OED has a representative example from 1693: “When Beauty ceases to engage” (from a poem by Matthew Prior).

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says that “engage” used intransitively can also mean, among other things, “to involve oneself” or “participate.”

● “Inform,” originally transitive, began acquiring intransitive uses in the 16th century. The OED’s examples include these: “They held that the Senses inform not alwaies truly” (from the classical scholar Thomas Stanley, 1656) …  “The basis of the patient’s claim is essentially the doctor’s failure to inform of risks” (the Modern Law Review, 1989).

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says that “inform” used intransitively means “to impart information or knowledge.”

● “Entertain,” which also started out as a transitive verb, has had intransitive senses since the 19th century. The OED has these early examples: “My favourite occupations … now cease to entertain” (Charles Lamb, 1828), and “We were in such confusion … that we could not entertain” (from Macmillan’s Magazine, 1880).

American Heritage says that when used intransitively, to “entertain” can mean “to provide entertainment.”

● “Grow,” an intransitive verb in Old English (as in “the corn grows”), has been used transitively (“he grows corn”) since the 18th century, according to citations in the OED.

In the transitive sense, to “grow” means to cultivate or cause to grow. Many people object, however, to uses that don’t involve living things (“grow the business” … “grow the economy”).

As we’ve written on our blog, you can feel free to object to this inanimate usage (we don’t particularly like it ourselves), but not on the grounds that “grow” is only intransitive.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) accepts without reservation the use of “grow” to mean “promote the development of” and gives as an example “start a business and grow it successfully.” So as far as M-W is concerned, this use of the verb is standard English.

There’s a much broader point to be made here. English verbs are very flexible in how they’re used, with transitive verbs taking on intransitive uses and vice versa. This has happened from the earliest times, and it’s likely to continue.

Origins of the English Language, which was mentioned above, notes that “starve” was originally always intransitive (“He starved”), but it took on a transitive sense in the 16th century (“Someone starved him”).

Williams, the author, argues that a sentence like “Someone starved him” probably sounded ungrammatical once upon a time. But such change is normal and to be expected.

In the end, he writes, the differences between transitive and intransitive senses “may not be in the meaning of the word but in whether the word occurs before an object, before a noun phrase.”

Another grammarian, Josephine Turck Baker, put it this way back in 1907: “The distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs is not an important one, for the reason, that most verbs are capable of either a transitive or an intransitive use.”

And in her book English Mediopassive Constructions (2007), the linguist Marianne Hundt notes that “the flexibility of using verbs both transitively and intransitively goes back to the Old English (OE) period. This tendency seems to have been strengthened through the following centuries.”

We’ve written before about verbs that change their spots, as with the newer uses of “disappear,” “bank,” “progress,” “consent,” “do,” “look,” “present,” and others.

There’s one more issue to consider here. Sometimes a verb’s alteration from transitive to intransitive has to do with its “voice”—that is, whether it’s being used in the active voice, the passive voice, or a “middle” voice (sometimes called the “mediopassive”) that’s somewhere in-between.

The German linguist Ekkehard König, writing in The Germanic Languages (2013), has this to say:

“In the so-called ‘middle’ voice, transitive verbs are constructed like intransitive ones and what is normally selected as object appears in subject position: Shakespeare does not translate, this bed folds up easily, this tent puts up in five minutes, this paint applies evenly.”

People use such constructions every day, in sentences like “My new silk blouse washes beautifully” … “Your house will sell in a week” … “The car drives smoothly.”

Note that the subjects (blouse, house, car) aren’t performing any action; they’re in fact the recipients of the action. Someone offstage presumably does the actual washing, selling, and driving.

In sentences like these, what would normally be the object of the verb disappears and becomes the subject. So the verb, even if it’s normally transitive and takes an object, must change its spots and become intransitive.

In our view, this flexibility between transitive and intransitive is a pretty nifty characteristic of English verbs. Sure, usages will emerge that make you gag. Some make us gag too.

But that’s the price we pay for speaking an exciting, engaging, and growing language.

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Lobbies where lobbyists lobby

Q: I assume that the verb “lobby,” meaning to try to influence politicians, is related to the noun “lobby,” a room near an entrance. Can you tell us a little about the history of the two words, and how they’re connected?

A: Yes, the noun and the verb “lobby” are related. When the verb showed up in the 1830s, it meant to hang out in the lobby of a legislative building with the aim of influencing the voting.

When “lobby” first appeared in this sense, it was an intransitive verb—that is, it didn’t need an object to make sense. By the mid-1800s, it was being used transitively—that is, with an object.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Oct. 6, 1837, issue of the Cleveland (Ohio) Herald:

“Gen. Bronson … spent a considerable portion of the last winter in Columbus, lobbying to procure the establishment of a Bank at Ohio City.”

The OED’s first transitive example is from an 1850 book by Sir Charles Lyell, an English geologist, about his travels in North America:

“A disappointed place-hunter, who had been lobbying the Houses of Legislature in vain for the whole session.”

The use of “lobbying” as a noun (a gerund is a verbal noun) showed up in an entry for the verb “lobby” in an 1855 supplement to The Imperial Dictionary, edited by John Ogilvie.

Here’s a more interesting OED example from the Jan. 6, 1862, issue of the Times (London): “ ‘Lobbying’ as it is termed, is a well known institution at Washington.”

The earliest Oxford citation for the guy doing all that lobbying is from the January 1863  issue of the Cornhill Magazine: “A Representative listening to a lobbyist.”

The latest cite is from Epitaph for a Lobbyist, a 1974 mystery by R. B. Dominic (pen name of Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart, who also wrote as Emma Lathen): “I don’t like high-powered lobbyists and their greasy favors.”

But let’s go back to the place where all this started. When the noun “lobby” appeared in the 1500s, it referred to a covered walk or cloister in a monastery.

The OED’s earliest (and only) example of this sense is from Thomas Becon’s 1553 book, The Relikes of Rome: “Our Recluses neuer come out of their lobbeis, sincke or swimme the people.”

By the late 1500s, the noun was being used to mean a corridor with one or more apartments in a building or a waiting area in a hall or theater.

Polonius uses the word in that sense in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written around 1600: “You know, sometimes he walkes foure houres together / Heere in the Lobby.

The noun “lobby” took on a political sense in 17th-century England, when it was used to mean the entrance hall in the House of Commons—a place where MPs could speak with members of the public.

Here’s a 1640 example from the Historical Collections, a series of works by the English historian John Rushworth:

“The outward Room of the Commons House, called the Lobby … where the Cryer of the Chancery first made Proclamation in the King’s name.”

In the 1800s, according to the OED, the noun took on another political sense in the US: “the persons who frequent the lobby of the house of legislature for the purpose of influencing its members in their official action.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for this sense is from a Feb. 2, 1808, debate in Congress: “If we move to Philadelphia we shall have a commanding lobby.”

In the mid-20th century, the OED says, the noun took on yet another political sense: “a business, cause, or principle supported by a group of people; the group of persons supporting such an interest.”

The dictionary’s first example is from the July 26, 1952, issue of the Economist: “American … interests have maintained their effective lobby against the project.” (The reference is to the St. Lawrence Seaway.)

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Mr. Black, Ms. White, Mr. Purple?

Q: Many people are called “Mr. Black,” “Ms. White,” “Mr. Gray,” or “Ms. Brown,” but almost no one is “Mr. Red” or “Mr. Yellow,” “Ms. Pink,” “Ms. Purple,” or “Ms. Blue.” Why are so many beautiful colors unpopular as family names?

A: To keep things simple, we’ll discuss only names of British origin, though much of this would apply to surnames that originated elsewhere in Europe.

When people began using colors as surnames in Britain during the Middle Ages, the colors usually referred to appearance—hair color, complexion, clothing, and so on.

As Charles Wareing Endell Bardsley explains in English Surnames, Their Sources and Significations (1915), “there was no term in the vocabulary of the day which could be used to denote the colour of the dress, the hair, or the face, which did not find itself a place among our surnames.”

The historian Mark Lower notes that “Black” and its variants “doubtless refer in general to the dark complexion and black hair of the original owners.”

Similarly, Lower writes in Patronymica Britannica: A Dictionary of Family Names in the United Kingdom (1860), the name “Brown” refers “to the dark complexion of its original bearers,” and “white” to someone “of light or fair complexion.”

As for the surname “Grey” (or “Gray”), Lower believes it’s derived from a place name, but the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that its use in 13th-century surnames such as “Greiberd,” “Greyeye,” and “le Greie” may refer to physical appearance.

Larry Trask, a professor of linguistics at the University of Sussex in England, agrees that “the surnames ‘Black,’ ‘White’ and ‘Brown’ often developed from nicknames applied because of the bearer’s complexion.”

In responding to a question on Ask the Linguist, a feature of the Linguist List forum, he points out that the use of the color red as a surname isn’t as rare as you seem to think.

In Old English, Trask says, the color was pronounced with a long “e” sound, which “gave rise to the surname variously spelled Reade, Read or Reed.”

These surnames stayed the same, but the color term “underwent a shortening of the vowel” and was pronounced and spelled “red.” (The same sound change happened with “bread,” “dead,” and “head,” but the spellings didn’t change.)

“As for ‘purple,’ this word was simply not in use in English as a color term when surnames were being invented,” Trask adds. “All of ‘purple,’ ‘’orange’ and ‘pink’ were late additions to our set of color terms.”

He notes that the use of “Green” as a surname “was variously conferred because the bearer lived next to the village green, because he had played the Green Man in a play, or perhaps because he was fond of green clothing.”

(In outdoor shows and pageants, a “Green Man” was someone “dressed in greenery, representing a wild man of the woods or seasonal fertility,” according to the OED.)

The use of the color blue as a surname isn’t all that common, but it’s not unheard of. In fact, the left-handed pitcher Vida Blue and the switch-hitting first baseman Lu Blue were notable Major League baseball players with that surname.

Lower, writing in Patronymica Britannica, suggests that the use of “Blue” as a surname may have arisen in Scotland and that “It is probably derived from the favourite colour of the costume of the original bearer.”

Finally, why don’t we see a lot of people called “Mr. Yellow”? For one thing, light hair is usually described as “blond” or “blonde,” a subject we’ve discussed on our blog.

Although we don’t find a lot of people called “Mr. Blond” or “Ms. Blonde,” we do find quite a few called “Fairchild,” “Fairbairn,” and “Fairfax” (“fax” is an obsolete term for hair).

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Did clams give us “clammy”?

Q: A recent article in the Charlotte Observer about regional food describes New England clam chowder as “clammy (in the good way).” Does “clammy (in the bad way)” also come from the noun “clam”?

A: No, the adjective “clammy,” meaning moist, sticky, and cold, is not derived from “clam,” the noun for a bivalve mollusk with a soft, edible  body.

Early versions of both the adjective and the noun showed up in Old English, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, but the two words are not related.

Ayto says “clam” originally meant “something for tying up or fastening,” and it can be traced back to the prehistoric Germanic root klam-, which also gave English the word “clamp.”

By the late 1300s, according to Ayto, both “clam” and “clamp” referred to a rigid, vise-like device used to grip or brace objects.

It wasn’t until the 1500s, he writes, that “clam” came to mean “the mollusc which now bears the name, apparently on the grounds that its two shells close like the jaws of a clamp or vice.” (Ayto uses the British spelling, “vice.”)

As for the adjective “clammy,” it etymologically means “sticky as if smeared by clay,” according to Ayto.

He says the adjective comes from a now obsolete verb, clam, that meant to smear or stick, but the ultimate source is klaimaz, a prehistoric Germanic root that also gave English the word “clay.”

Ayto adds that klai- (the base of klaimaz) “can be traced back to the Indo-European base gloi-, glei-, gli-, from which English gets glue and gluten.”

By the way, we couldn’t find the clam-like sense of “clammy” in the Oxford English Dictionary or any of the standard dictionaries we usually check.

However, you don’t have to dig too far to find the usage on the Internet, and we imagine that lexicographers will take notice if enough people use “clammy” in the good way.

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English English language Usage

Can “such as” be separated?

Q: I was hoping to get your thoughts on something that’s been bugging me for a while.  Almost everyone  breaks up “such as” in statements like “such companies as G.E. and I.B.M.” This sounds terribly awkward and just plain wrong to me.

A: We’ve written before on our blog about the history of “such as” and its use to mean “like” or “for example.”

But we didn’t discuss whether the phrase “such as” can be split when used in this sense. The short answer is yes.

You can write either (1) “authors such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald,” or (2) “such authors as Hemingway and Fitzgerald.”

In other words, the “such” in the phrase can either follow the noun “authors” (as in #1 above) or precede it (as in #2).

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains in more technical language, “syntactically, such may have backward or forward reference.”

The OED notes that the entire phrase “such as” can be “used to introduce examples of a class.”

One of the quotations it cites for this usage is from a 1779 issue of the Mirror (London): “Writers, such as Theophrastus and La Bruyere.”

Elsewhere, in an entry about the use of “as” when the antecedent is “such,” the OED gives this example:

“Without ever having discovered such unwanted distractions as subjugation, exploitation, or war” (from The Last Theorem, 2008, by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl).

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has a few more illustrations of “such as” constructions, with “such” either preceding or following the noun it refers to:

“such statements as this” … “such factors as costs and projected life expectancy” … “sports such as tennis, cricket, and football.”

That last example could have been written differently: “such sports as tennis, cricket, and football.” A writer might choose to split or not to split—for reasons of style, emphasis, or sentence structure.

In other words, you shouldn’t have separation anxiety when other writers split “such as.” But if separating the phrase sounds awkward to you, don’t do it.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Did froggie go a-wooing, or no?

Q: I proofread pretrial depositions for court reports. Some attorneys have the annoying habit of asking questions like “Was that xyx, or no?” My inner voice screams “or NOT!” But don’t get me started on attorneys and their ignorance of basic grammar.

A: Yes, a lot of legal usage is atrocious, but you can’t criticize lawyers for using “or no” in place of “or not.”

The use of the adverbial phrase “or no” to express “the negative in an alternative choice, possibility, etc.,” has been around since the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The oldest example of the usage in the OED is from an early version of the Wycliffe Bible, written sometime before 1382: “Wheþer þou woldist kepe þe hestys of hym or no” (“Whether thou wouldst keep the commandments of him or no”).

Although the usage is primarily seen in “whether … or no” statements, many respected writers have used “or no” in examples similar to the one you cite.

The most recent example in the OED is from the March 3, 1988, issue of the Times (London): “He … might afterwards complain (rightly or no) that he was not given an accurate account.”

Here are some 20th-century examples from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage:

“Laryngitis or no, the play has started off with a bang,”  from a Feb. 19, 1940, letter by Alexander Woollcott.

“But personality or no, I have been aware of how much of you she was,” from an April 20, 1957, letter by E. B. White.

“Sister Mary Teresa emerges as a real human, nun or no,” from an April 1, 1984, column by Newgate Callendar (a k a Harold C. Schonberg) in the New York Times Book Review.

Merriam-Webster’s notes that several 19th-century language commentators objected to the usage, though M-W doesn’t have any objections of its own. Nor does the OED or any of the standard dictionaries or usage guides we checked.

(A post we wrote for our blog earlier this year deals with a related issue, the use of “no” as either an adjective or an adverb to make a sentence negative.)

We’ll end with an example from Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), which cites an early 19th-century version of “Frog Went A-courting,” a nursery rhyme with roots that date back to the 16th or 17th centuries:

A frog he would a-wooing go,
Heigh-ho! says Rowley,
Whether his mother would let him or no.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Is that officer a police?

Q: I just finished reading a book that uses such statements as “I am a police” and “He is a police.” I‘ve been a court reporter for about 20 years, and this stopped me each time I read it. Is this correct? It seems very awkward.

A: This usage was new to us, too, but it’s apparently common among police officers and those who have dealings with them. Perhaps the police drop their insider lingo when they appear in the courtrooms where you work.

Martin Amis’s novel Night Train (1998), which is set in a “second-echelon American city” that sounds like Seattle, opens with this passage:

“I am a police. That may sound like an unusual statement—or an unusual construction. But it’s a parlance we have. Among ourselves, we would never say I am a policeman or I am a policewoman or I am a police officer. We would just say I am a police. I am a police. I am a police and my name is Detective Mike Hoolihan. And I am a woman, also.”

Later, the narrator says, “I worked murders. I was a murder police.” And still later: “ ‘What’s your read on it, Mike? Not as a friend. As a police.’ ‘As a police? As a police I have to say that it looks like a suicide.’ ”

Characters in the American crime drama The Wire, set in the Baltimore area, also use “a police” in this way, as many fans have commented online.

The Oxford English Dictionary says this use of “police” as a “count noun” is regional. (A count noun is a noun that can be used in the singular with an indefinite article like “a.”)

The dictionary says the usage is chiefly found in American, Scottish, West African, and Caribbean English.

The OED’s published examples date back to the 19th century. The earliest citation (which we’ll expand for context) is from an editorial published in the Chicago American on Sept. 5, 1839, encouraging ladies to attend the theater:

“Why do not the fair ladies of our city lend the theater, occasionally, the light of their countenance? The play of ‘Isabelle, or Woman’s Life’ this evening will give them a fair and appropriate opportunity. There is a police in attendance, whose duty it is to preserve strict order and decorum in the theater.”

Here are a few of the OED’s later examples:

1856: “He was a police.” From The Adventures of Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, by Mark Twain. (The reference is to “a military lookin gentleman with a club in his hand, tappin me on the shoulder.”)

1960: “It was all over the market that ‘the unco man wis a p’leece wi’ plain claes.’ ” From the Huntly Express, a local weekly paper in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. (“Unco” is Scottish dialect for unknown or strange. It’s a shortening of an old use of “uncouth,” which originally meant unknown or unfamiliar.)

1988: “If you see Jobe tell him a police outside looking for him.” From A Brief Conversation: And Other Stories, by Earl Lovelace, who was born in Trinidad.

2002: “Why you was acting so suspicious? You think I was a police?” From the Sunday Gleaner, in Kingston, Jamaica.

We doubt that “a police” will slip into common usage. Our guess is that it will continue to be used mostly among law enforcers, law breakers, and the people who write about them.

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Calculus class

Q: I was listening to a radio interview and heard the host ask a guest for “your calculus” on something or other. She was using the word in place of “calculation.” It sounded so pretentious and wrong. Did she use the word incorrectly or am I wrong?

A: In British as well as American usage (in fact, wherever English appears) “calculus” is widely being used to mean simply “reasoning” or “thinking” or “decision-making” or “method”—or, as you’ve noticed, “calculation” in a loose sense.

You can find scores of recent examples in mainstream newspapers and magazines. Here are just a few of them:

“the moral calculus” (New York Times) … “the political calculus” (Wall Street Journal) … “The calculus is simple” (Japan Times) … “playing into this calculus” (the Nation) … “The calculus has changed” (Pravda) … “that calculus may be shifting” (Washington Post). None of these examples referred to mathematical computations.

We’ve had our eye on “calculus” for a few years now, and our opinion is that it originated as gobbledygook. It got its start as a pseudo-scientific usage, one intended to dress up simple language with a gloss of technical erudition.

Like you, we have a low opinion of this use of “calculus.” We place it in the same category as the nonscientific use of “parameter,” which we’ve written about before on our blog.

But we may have to adjust our thinking (our “calculus”?) on this looser sense of the word. It isn’t recognized by most standard dictionaries, but it’s become so ubiquitous—and it’s found in such respectable circles—that acceptance seems almost inevitable.

The Big Kahuna of linguistics, Noam Chomsky himself, uses “calculus” this way.

In an essay posted on Bill Moyers’s website, Moyers & Company, Chomsky commented on “the moral calculus of contemporary Anglo-American state capitalism.”

“Calculus” came into English in the 17th century from Latin, in which it meant “small stone,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Latin calculus was a diminutive form of calx (stone, pebble, limestone), a word whose echoes can be seen in English words like “calcium” and “chalk” as well as “calculus,” “calculate,” and “calculation.”

While the Romans used “calculus” to mean any small stone, they also used it in a more specific sense. It meant “a stone or counter” used in playing games, in reckoning on an abacus or counting board, or in casting a vote, the OED says.

Thus in Latin, Oxford adds, “calculus” also came to mean a reckoning, an account, or a vote.

The earliest verifiable appearances of “calculus” in English are from the late 17th century, when it was used in its mathematical sense. It meant “a system or method of calculation” or “a branch of mathematics involving or leading to calculations,” the OED says.

In standard dictionaries, the mathematical definitions of “calculus” vary.

For example, Cambridge Dictionaries Online has “the mathematical study of continually changing values.” But The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has three definitions, including “a method of analysis or calculation using a special symbolic notation.”

The first use given in the OED is from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (1672): “I cannot yet reduce my Observations to a calculus.”

In a more detailed example, Charles Hutton’s A Mathematical and Philosophical Dictionary (1796) refers to “the Arithmetical or Numeral Calculus, the Algebraical Calculus, the Differential Calculus, the Exponential Calculus, the Fluxional Calculus, the Integral Calculus, the Literal or Symbolical Calculus, etc.”

In medical English, “calculus” has a more literal meaning—at least one that’s closer to its early Latin roots. In this sense, it means a stony deposit created in the body, as in “renal calculus” (kidney stone), “vesical calculus” (bladder stone), “biliary calculus” (gallstone), and “dental calculus” (for tartar, a hardened deposit on the teeth).

The medical sense of the word made its appearance in the 18th century, the OED says (an earlier citation, from 1619, is debatable).

The earliest example cited in the OED is from John Arbuthnot’s Practical Rules of Diet in the Various Constitutions and Diseases of Human Bodies (1732): “A Human Calculus, or Stone.”

As we mentioned above, nontechnical definitions of “calculus”—senses that are neither mathematical nor medical—are scarce in standard reference books.

While “calculus” was briefly used to mean merely any computation or calculation, that sense of the word disappeared in the early 1800s, the OED says. But even then, there was a sense of numbers being juggled.

The OED’s earliest example is from Thomas Burnet’s The Theory of the Earth (1684): “Suppose the abyss was but half as deep as the deep ocean, to make this calculus answer, all the dry land ought to be cover’d with mountains.”

The only standard dictionary we’ve found that includes a mushier, entirely nontechnical definition is Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, which says the word can mean “calculation” in a general sense, as in “the calculus of political appeal.”

But the usage is so common these days that it may eventually find a place in other standard dictionaries. Participatory web-based dictionaries, whose readers contribute and edit the entries, are already recognizing this use of “calculus.”

Wiktionary, for example, has this among its definitions: “a decision-making method, especially one appropriate for a specialised realm.”

The example given in Wiktionary is from a 2008 issue of the Financial Times: “The Tory leader refused to state how many financiers he thought should end up in jail, saying: ‘There is not some simple calculus.’ ”

While this use of “calculus” has certainly increased in recent years, it isn’t as new as you might think. For decades, it’s been known in academic writing in the humanities and social sciences.

In Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (2014), the authors Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont discuss scientific terms (“algorithm,” “topology,” etc.) that are often used by academics to give weak ideas a “veneer of rigor.”

The authors give examples of loose uses of “calculus” going back to the 1950s. Since then, it has escaped the ivory tower and it’s on the loose.

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