English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Ruminations on chewing the cud

Q: Some sources list “cud” as an uncountable noun while others say it’s countable. What’s your opinion?

A: A countable or count noun, as you know, is one that can be modified by an indefinite article (“a” or “an”) or a number: “a book,” “three dogs,” “seven dollars,” etc.

A mass or uncountable noun represents something that can’t be counted—a substance, a quality, an abstract idea, and so on. In ordinary usage, it’s singular and not modified by indefinite articles or numbers, like “water,” “fragility,” and “happiness.”

“Cud” is a substance (partly digested food that’s chewed again), so it’s a singular mass noun in the ordinary sense: “The cow seems contented to chew its cud.”

But the plural “cuds” is sometimes used, especially by agricultural writers, when referring to more than one cow (“the Jerseys were chewing their cuds”) or to several instances of cud chewing by a single cow (“the ailing Holstein spit out three of her cuds”).

We’ve checked seven standard dictionaries, and all the examples given use “cud” as a mass noun and refer to a singular cow chewing its singular cud.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary and farming journals have examples of multiple cows chewing multiple cuds. And the journals also have examples of a single cow chewing multiple cuds.

The OED entry for “cud” has this definition: “The food which a ruminating animal brings back into its mouth from its first stomach, and chews at leisure.” The word usually appears, the OED adds, in the verbal phrase “to chew the cud.”

The word “cud” is derived from old Germanic sources meaning glue or a glutinous substance. It’s been part of our language since Old English, and was later adapted to mean anything held in the mouth and chewed repeatedly, such as chewing tobacco.

As John Ayto notes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the word “quid,” which means a plug of chewing tobacco, is a variant of “cud.”

The OED’s examples for written uses of “cud” date back to about the year 1000. In most of them, the noun is in the singular, “cud,” but there are plural examples too, like these:

“The whiles his flock their chawed cuds do eate.” (From a poem by Edmund Spenser, Virgil’s Gnat, 1591.)

“They … began grazing and chewing their cuds.” (From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance, 1852.)

We notice that all the uses of “cuds” in the OED refer to plural animals. But in checking journals devoted to cattle raising and dairy farming, we find both “cud” and “cuds,” with the plural used to refer to multiple instances of cud chewing.

In one farm journal, a sick cow “frequently spit out her cuds”; in another, a cow “was chewing her cuds all right.”

As you know, there’s more than one way to “chew the cud.” As far back as the 14th century, the phrase has been used in a figurative sense to mean to meditate, ponder, or reflect.

We like this 18th-century example from Tobias Smollett’s novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771): “I shall for some time continue to chew the cud of reflection.”

And of course to meditate or turn something over in one’s mind is to ruminate.

As you probably suspect, the verb “ruminate” literally means to chew the cud. Its etymological ancestor is the Latin rumen (gullet), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

A “ruminant” is an animal, like a sheep or cow or goat, that gets nutrients from plant roughage by chewing it, then swallowing it so fermentation can take place, then regurgitating and chewing it again.

Chambers says we owe both “ruminate” and “ruminant,” as well as the Latin verb ruminare (to chew the cud or to think over), to a prehistoric Indo-European root, reconstructed as reu-, that had a humble meaning—to belch.

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The original tiger mother?

Q: I’m curious to know if Amy Chua originated the phrase “tiger mother” or if it’s something that was around before her book. I (a possible Tiger Mom) can’t remember if I ever used it before Ms. Chua’s book and the subsequent media blitz.

A: No, Amy Chua didn’t coin the phrase in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a 2011 memoir about her strict parenting techniques, but she did help popularize the term.

Saul Bellow, for example, used the phrase several times before Ms. Chua’s book appeared in print. Here’s an example from his 1975 novel Humboldt’s Gift:

“When she was in her busy mood, domineering and protecting me, I used to think what a dolls’ generalissimo she must have been in childhood. ‘And where you’re concerned,’ she would say, ‘I’m a tiger-mother and a regular Fury.’ ”

And here’s one of two examples in his 1989 novella The Bellerosa Connection: “They were married and, thanks to him, she obtained her closure, she became the tiger wife, the tiger mother, grew into a biological monument and a victorious personality.”

In fact, the phrase “tiger mother” has been around since the 19th century, although many early examples use it in the sense of a protective mother rather than one who is strict or domineering, a meaning reinforced by Ms. Chua’s memoir.

The earliest example we’ve found is from an 1878 English translation of Bilder aus Oberägypten, an 1876 book about upper Egypt by the German zoologist and physician Karl Benjamin Klunzinger.

In the English translation, Klunzinger says the fear of mothers-in-law among the Bedouin of upper Egypt “perhaps naturally arises from the relationship itself, being expressed also in our proverb ‘Mother-in-law—tiger mother’ or ‘Devil’s darling.’ ”

In the original German, Klunzinger refers to the expressions as “Schwiegermutter—Tigermutter” and “Schwiegermutter—Teufelsunterfutter.”

Comrades Two, a 1907 novel by Elizabeth Fremantle (the pseudonym of Elizabeth Rockfort Covey), has an early example of the phrase used in its protective sense.

In the novel, which is set in Saskatchewan, the mother of a son suffering  from typhoid fever says “the instinct of the tiger-mother is tearing my heart to pieces.”

This more recent example of the protective usage appears in an article (“Be My Baby,” by Jane Hutchinson) published on May 8, 2005, in the Sunday Telegraph Magazine: “My sister calls us ‘tiger mothers,’ because we’re so protective.”

Interestingly, the phrase is used with the words reversed in Mother Tiger, Mother Tiger (1974), the title of Rolf Forsberg’s short film about an angry mother who struggles to accept the fact that her child is severely handicapped.

Although “tiger mother” didn’t show up in English until the 19th century, the word “tiger” itself has been used figuratively since the 1500s in reference to someone who is fierce, cruel, active, strong, or courageous.

The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, cites a 1585 prayer that thanks God for foiling a plot against Queen Elizabeth and saving “her from the jaws of the cruel Tigers that then sought to suck her blood.”

The OED also has citations from around the same time of the word “tiger” used adjectivally and adverbially in a similar sense.

Here’s one from The Theatre of Gods Iudgements, a 1597 book by the English clergyman Thomas Beard about divine retribution: “The poore old man thus cruelly handled … departed comfortlesse from his Tygre-minded sonne.”

And the OED also has examples from the 1500s of “tigerlike” used both adjectivally and adverbially.

In The Historie of England (1587), Raphael Holinshed writes of men who avenged the wrongs of the past with “more than tigerlike crueltie.”

And in “The Complaynt of Phylomene,” a 1576 poem about Philomena’s murder of her son in Greek mythology, George Gascoigne writes that she took the boy “Tygrelike” and stabbed him in the heart.

We’ll end with an example of “tiger mother” from a 2014 review of Daniel E. Sutherland’s biography of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Here’s how the New York Times reviewer describes the artist’s mom:

“So there she sits, old Mrs. Whistler, in her black dress and lacy bonnet. Call her the original tiger mother. If she looks back to dour Puritans, she looks forward to an American culture of self-display, where you are only as good as your most recent publicity.”

Note: Amy Chua tells us that she used the term “tiger mother” in her memoir because she was born in Year of the Tiger. She also reminds us that Jacqueline Kennedy once used the term to refer to her father-in-law, Joseph P. Kennedy. In an interview with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. for a 1964 oral history, she said, “I always thought he was the tiger mother.”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Is there a disconnect here?

Q: Is the word “disconnect” properly used as a noun?

A: Yes, “disconnect” has been a noun for more than a century, though the contemporary sense of a difference or an incompatibility is relatively new.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) considers the newer sense informal, but the other six standard dictionaries we’ve checked list it without comment, indicating that it’s used in formal as well as informal English.

Although the noun “disconnect” is a relative newcomer (it dates from the early 1900s), “disconnection” has been a noun since the mid-1600s, meaning lack of connection, separation, or detachment.

The earliest example for “disconnection” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Jasper Mayne’s 1663 translation of Lucian’s Dialogues:

“He still raises the derision of the auditory by his disconnections, and tautologies, and Nonplusses.”

The shorter word “disconnect” first showed up in English in the mid-1700s as a verb meaning to destroy the logical connection between things or to cause things to become disjointed.

The verb ultimately comes from Latin: the prefix –dis (apart) and the verb conectere (to join together).

The earliest example in the OED is from Moravian Heresy, a 1751 treatise by John Roche denouncing the Moravian Church:

“And if the Text does not chance to have Words enough sufficient to make a full Answer to the Question put, then the Sense is defective; if too many Words, then do they disconnect the Tenor, and confound the Sense.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

Over the years, according to OED citations, the verb took on many related senses, including to break a physical connection (1758), to detach an electrical device from its power supply (1826), to end a telephone call (1877), to withdraw from society or reality (1961), and to terminate a computer connection (1977).

When the noun showed up in the early 20th century, the dictionary says, it referred to an “act or instance of disconnecting something; esp. a break of an electrical or telephone connection.”

The OED’s earliest example of the noun is from Telephony, a 1905 book by A. V. Abbott about the design, construction, and operation of telephone exchanges: “These signals must appear as a disconnect as soon as the receivers are replaced.”

The noun took on its contemporary sense of “a lack of consistency, understanding or agreement; a discrepancy” in the early 1980s, according to Oxford.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1982 issue of Parameters, a journal of the US Army War College: “The result was the same: a disconnect between the security policy and the military strategy needed to achieve the political objective.”

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Who put the “X” in “Xmas”?

[We’re repeating this post for Christmas Day. It originally ran on Dec. 26, 2006.]

Q: I haven’t seen the word “Xmas” much for the last few years, probably because of all the attacks on it as part of a secularist plot against Christmas. In any case, what is the origin of “Xmas” and how did an “X” come to replace “Christ”?

A: Anybody who thinks “Xmas” is a modern creation that represents the secularization and/or commercialization of Christmas should think again. The term “Xmas” has been around for hundreds of years and “X” or “Xp” stood in for “Christ” for many hundreds of years before that.

But don’t blame secularists. Blame the medieval scribes who used the abbreviations while copying Old and Middle English religious manuscripts.

In the the Oxford English Dictionary‘s first recorded example, “Christmas” is written as Xpes mæsse (Christ’s mass) in an Old English entry for the year 1021 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“And se eorl Rodbeard her oð Xpes mæsse forneal mid pam cynge wunode” (“And Earl Robert stayed here [in Westminster] with the king [William II] almost until Christmas”).

The Xp at the beginning of Xpes mæsse comes from the Greek letters Χ (chi) and ρ (rho), the first letters of the word for “Christ” in ancient Greek, ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ or χριστoς (christos, anointed one).

In a Middle English citation dated around 1380, “X” alone stands for Christ in a homily by the English theologian John Wycliffe: “X betokens Christ.”

So for ten centuries, books and diaries and manuscripts and letters routinely used “X” or “Xp” for “Christ” in words like “christen,” “christened,” “Christian,” “Christianity,” and of course “Christmas.”

The OED’s earliest example for the exact spelling “Xmas,” which we’ve expanded, is from an early 18th-century letter  by an English landowner to a son who was away at school:

“I hope you will eat at Xmas some roast beef out of the old kitchen” (from John Buxton, Norfolk Gentleman and Architect: Letters to his son 1719-1729, edited by Alan Mackley and published by the The Norfolk Record Society in 2005).

One other point. Although the St. Andrew’s Cross is shaped like an “X,” there’s no basis for the belief that the “X” used in place of “Christ” is supposed to represent the cross on Calvary.

[Note: This post was updated on March 9, 2023.]

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English English language Etymology Slang Usage Word origin

Bogus origins

Q: I keep seeing “bogus” used in ways that seem too colloquial. Somehow saying Colin Powell made bogus claims about WMDs just doesn’t possess the right connotation. So is my claim of excessive informality correct or bogus?

A: We’ve checked seven standard dictionaries and none of them suggest that “bogus” is anything but standard English when used to mean counterfeit, fake, or spurious.

But one of the sources, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), considers “bogus” slang when used in two less common senses:

(1) “Not conforming with what one would hope to be the case; disappointing or unfair” and (2) when used as an interjection “to indicate disagreement or displeasure with another’s actions or a circumstance.”

American Heritage gives this example of the first slang sense: “It’s bogus that you got to go to the party, and I had to stay home.” It doesn’t have any example for the second.

Although “bogus” is considered standard English today when used in its false sense, the word did originate in the late 1700s as US slang.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says the term was originally underworld argot for “counterfeit coins; counterfeit money,” and in the early 1800s it came to mean “a machine for coining counterfeit money.”

The earliest Random House citation for “bogus” is from Band of Brothers (circa 1798): “Coney means Counterfeit paper money … Bogus means spurious coins, &c.”

The slang dictionary’s first example of “bogus” used for a machine to make phony money is from the July 6, 1827, issue of the Painesville (Ohio) Telegraph: “He never procured the casting of a Bogus at one of our furnaces.”

The earliest Random House cite for “bogus” used as an adjective to mean fraudulent or phony is from The Banditti of the Prairies, an 1855 book by Edward Bonney about his work as a private detective to expose criminal gangs in Illinois:

“I have a little bogus gold but have been dealing mostly in horses.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has several earlier citations for the adjective, including this one from A New Home—Who’ll Follow? (1839), by Caroline Matilda Kirkland, writing under the pen name Mrs. Mary Clavers:

“And in the course of the Tinkerville investigation the commissioners had ascertained by the aid of hammer and chisel, that the boxes of the ‘real stuff’ which had been so loudly vaunted, contained a heavy charge of broken glass and tenpenny nails, covered above and below with half-dollars, principally ‘bogus.’ ” (We’ve expanded on the citation.)

The OED says “many guesses have been made, and ‘bogus’ derivations circumstantially given” about the origin of the word.

The dictionary notes, for example, that Eber D. Howe, editor of the Painesville, Ohio, newspaper cited above, wrote in his 1878 autobiography that “bogus” might “have been short for tantrabogus, a word familiar to him from his childhood, and which in his father’s time was commonly applied in Vermont to any ill-looking object.”

We suspect, however, that Howe’s suggestion as well as several others we’ve seen (a forger named Borghese, the French word bagasse, etc.) are bogus.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Hark! the Herald Angels Sing

Q: Is the subject grammatically correct in the title “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”? That’s how it appears in our hymnal. Astonishingly, this is a practical issue, since we display the words during church services via video projection.

A: Yes, the subject is grammatically correct.

The plural subject “Angels” (part of the noun phrase “the Herald Angels”) agrees with the plural verb (“Sing”). The word “Hark!” in the title is a stand-alone imperative verb meaning “Listen!”

Although the grammar is correct, the punctuation and capitalization might seem odd to modern readers. If the title were written today, it would probably be either “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” or “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

However, we see no reason to modernize the title. In fact, we prefer the old-fashioned punctuation and capitalization. It gives the 18th-century hymn a patina of age.

Interestingly, the original hymn, written by Charles Wesley, was entitled “Hymn for Christmas-Day” and had nothing in it about “Herald Angels.”

Here are the opening lines from the earliest version of the hymn, as published in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), a collection of verse compiled by Charles and John Wesley, leaders of the Methodist movement:

Hark how all the welkin rings
“Glory to the King of kings,
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconcil’d!”

George Whitefield, a preacher and friend of the Wesley brothers, rewrote the first two lines in A Collection of Hymns for Social Worship (1753):

Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the new-born King!”

In 1855, the English musician William H. Cummings made several other changes, including adding the refrain, when he set the hymn to music by Felix Mendelssohn.

The hymn has had other titles over the years (“On the Nativity,” “Christmas Hymn,” “An Ode,” “The Song of the Angels,” and so on), but it was often referred to simply by either its first line or a number in a hymnal.

The earliest examples we’ve found for “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” used as the title are in a list of sheet music for Christmas hymns in the Nov. 1, 1864, issue of the Musical Times.

In five different arrangements of the hymn for four voices, the title is written in all capital letters: “HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING.”

In an article that discusses the editing of Charles Wesley’s hymn, C. Michael Hawn, a sacred-music scholar, notes that changes in the texts of hymns are quite common.

“The average singer on Sunday morning would be amazed (or perhaps chagrined) to realize how few hymns before the twentieth century in our hymnals appear exactly in their original form,” Hawn writes.

He considers the replacement of the term “welkin” in the first line as “perhaps the most notable change” in the Wesley hymn.

And what, you’re probably wondering, is a welkin? As Hawn explains, it refers to “the sky or the firmament of the heavens, even the highest celestial sphere of the angels.”

Hawn cites a light-hearted comment by the Wesley scholar Ted Campbell that suggests the term may not have been a household word even in the 18th century:

“I have wondered if anybody but Charles knew what a welkin was supposed to be.”

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Bread and dripping

Q: The next time Pat appears on the Leonard Lopate Show, she should tell Leonard that here in England we don’t all eat “drippings” (“dripping” in British English) for breakfast! The last time I tasted dripping was after the Second World War when food was still rationed. I’ve certainly never heard of it for breakfast. Fried bread is still popular, though my GP wouldn’t be too pleased if I indulged.

A: We do recall that Leonard once mentioned “drippings” in a discussion of British breakfast habits. Like us, he probably enjoys vintage British fiction, stories in which kids slip away from Nanny and sneak into the kitchen, where Cook gives them a treat of “bread and dripping.”

We’re big fans of Angela Thirkell, and we recall such scenes in her Barsetshire novels, which begin in the early 1930s and end in the late ’50s. In either kitchen or nursery, children are indulged with lavish helpings of “dripping,” spread on fresh warm bread.

We always assumed “dripping” meant bacon grease, but we should have consulted the Oxford English Dictionary! We would have found it defined this way: “the melted fat that drips from roasting meat, which when cold is used like butter. Formerly often in pl.”

The Cambridge Dictionaries Online says the noun is singular in the UK and plural in the US, though all the American dictionaries we’ve checked list “dripping” as the principal noun, with “drippings” as a common variant.

Gravy, as every cook knows, is made from the drippings (we prefer the variant) that come from roast meats—hot fat plus crispy morsels and bits of meat than have fallen off.

In many parts of the US, “biscuits and gravy” is a staple, and you can order it for breakfast in diners, alongside your eggs. (Tell THAT to your GP!)

So from now on, we’ll think of “dripping” as a sort of pre-gravy, before the flour and extra liquid are stirred in.

We’ve occasionally skipped the flour and used this pre-gravy with bread or mashed potatoes, but we’ve never used the cold congealed stuff like butter, as the OED suggests.

The British have used the noun “dripping” since as far back as the 15th century. The word is implied in a reference to “drepyngpannes” (dripping-pans) that was published in an Act of Parliament in 1463, according to the OED.

References to “dripping” itself began appearing in 1530 (“drepyng of rost meate”) and continued until well into modern times.

The OED’s citations conclude with this one, from Rosa Nouchette Carey’s novel Uncle Max (1887): “A piece of bread and dripping.”

However, the tradition has apparently lived on. We’ve found plenty of subsequent references to “bread and dripping,” eaten at breakfast or tea or even for supper, in the works of George Orwell, Doris Lessing, Somerset Maugham, P.D. James, Margaret Atwood, and too many others to mention.

And the online Oxford Dictionaries offers this example of the usage: “I still carry around a hankering for bread and dripping, steamed pudding, and sweet macaroni, but I know they will do me no good, so I avoid them.”

Contributors to British cooking websites often wax nostalgic about “bread and dripping.” Some recall it as a humble working-class dish, or as a byproduct of food rationing. But others still eat it with relish (that is, with enjoyment) just because they like it.

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Deconstructing “it”

Q: I’m flummoxed by the word “it” in a sentence such as “I like it when you sing.” What in the world is “it” doing there?

A: The sentence that puzzles you, “I like it when you sing,” is a familiar construction, especially in spoken English. We find nothing grammatically wrong here, as we’ll explain later.

But you’re right—on close examination, this familiar old pattern seems curiouser and curiouser.

In sentences like this a verb, often one expressing a state of mind (“like,” “love,” “hate,” “appreciate,” etc.), has as its object the pronoun “it,” followed by a clause beginning with “when.” (A clause, as you know, is a group of words that has a verb and its subject.)

Here are some similar examples: “She loves it when he smiles” … “I hate it when people swear” … “Mom and dad appreciate it when you do the dishes” … “He always regrets it when he’s rude.”

All of these examples seem quite innocent on the surface. But what’s happening underneath?

As you can see, there are two clauses here. Using your original sentence as our model, the clauses are “I like it” and “when you sing.”

In the main clause, “it” is the direct object of the verb “like.” And to identify what “it” is, the speaker follows with a subordinate clause that begins with “when” and names an event or circumstance.

So the “when”-clause is an object too, in a sense. It explains what the object “it” refers to: an occasion on which someone sings. So in that sense the “when”-clause resembles a noun clause.

But it also seems to have an adverbial use, since it says when something happens. It describes the condition required for the main clause to be true. So instead of referring to a time, this “when” refers to a situation.

Often sentences like these can be reversed: “I like it when you sing” neatly corresponds to “When you sing, I like it.” In the second version, “it” refers back, instead of forward, to the explanatory “when”-clause.

But you wouldn’t want to move a “when”-clause to the front unless it’s fairly short and simple. Here’s a sentence that would sound clunky if flipped:

“I hate it when a birthday invitation says ‘No gifts, please’ and then everyone but you brings one anyway.” There’s no felicitous way to move “I hate it” to the end.

Linguists have interpreted this kind of construction in many different ways over the years. For example, they’ve used a variety of terms in discussing the role played by “it.”

In A Grammar of the English Language (1931), George O. Curme interprets this “it” as “an anticipatory object” that points forward to a fuller object clause.

In his book When-Clauses and Temporal Structure (1997), Renaat Declerck calls this a “cataphoric” or “anticipatory” pronoun, one that depends on the “when”-clause for its meaning. (A “cataphoric” pronoun is one that refers to a following word or phrase.)

Other commentators have described this “it” as an “expletive” or “pleonastic” pronoun—one with no meaning of its own, but merely a sort of placeholder required by the word order.

But we’ve also found arguments that the pronoun is not “pleonastic”: it’s not without meaning, since it refers to an event.

Linguists have also disagreed in their views of the “when”-clause in sentences like these—is it a relative clause, a noun clause, an adverbial clause, or perhaps some combination of those?

Declerck regards these clauses as adverbial. And when preceded by “it” acting as an object, he writes, they are “extraposed when-clauses.” (Essentially, an element is “extraposed” when the pronoun takes its place and shoves it aside.)

Without the “it” (as in “I don’t like when people argue”), the “when”-clause itself “fills the object position,” Declerck writes. So in that case the clause is not “extraposed.”

As we mentioned above, we find nothing grammatically wrong with sentences such as “I like it when you sing.” They seem natural and idiomatic, and they work well. But they do seem more at home in informal or spoken English.

No usage authorities, to our knowledge, have condemned the use of a “when”-clause to describe an event. And the use of “it” as an object that’s then echoed by the “real” object is also a common feature of English, as in “I like it, this movie,” and “He loathes it, that old eyesore.”

So we have no quarrel with these “when”-clauses in spoken or informal English, but if you prefer to avoid them you certainly can. Many constructions are similar, though in some cases they may be subtly different.

Declerck says, for example, that “I hate it when you talk like that” will generally be interpreted as similar to “I hate your talking like that.”

But the two don’t mean precisely the same thing. One refers to an occasion, the other to what could be habitual behavior. If the person you’re addressing always talks like that, then either construction would be appropriate.

Another kind of substitution comes to mind. You can often replace “when” by “that” and still make grammatical sense.

But again, your meaning may be changed. “I like it when you sing” isn’t the same as “I like it that you sing.” In the first sentence, the object of the liking—“it”—is not the fact that the person sings, but occasions when the person sings.

A few years ago we wrote a post on a similar subject, the use of “when”-clauses in definitions after forms of the verb “be.” (Example: “Despair is when you see no way out.”)

As we wrote then, this construction is common and has a long history, but it’s been considered colloquial since the mid-19th century. It’s common in speech and casual writing, but it’s generally avoided in formal English.

If you see “when”-clauses after the verb “be” in formal writing, it’s usually in reference to time, as in “Yesterday was when I heard the news” or “This is when you should change the oil.”

And now is when we should sign off.

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

Have you got rhythm?

Q: Near the bottom of your home page, you ask, “Have you GOT rhythm?”  No, Simple Simon Babblers, I AIN’T GOT NO rhythm. I’m sick of YOU GOT. What ever happened to YOU HAVE? Correct English would be “Have you rhythm?”

A: Calm down.

The title “Have you got rhythm?” on our home page uses “got” quite correctly. “Have you got” here is the present-perfect form of the verb “get,” used in the second person.

The present-perfect of “get” has been used to denote mere possession (that is, to mean “have”) since the 16th century, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

The earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, written in the late 1590s:

“What a beard hast thou got; thou hast got more haire on thy chinne, then Dobbin my philhorse hase on his taile.”

Merriam-Webster’s also cites examples from Jane Austen, Charles Lamb, Lord Byron, Lewis Carroll, Emily Dickinson, and others.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some language commentators objected to the usage, complaining that “got” was superfluous. However, contemporary usage guides accept “have got,” though some consider it informal.

There are two theories about why English speakers began using “have got” to mean “have.”

One is that the verb “have” began losing its sense of possession because of its increasing use as an auxiliary.

The other theory is that “got” was originally inserted because of the tendency to use contracted forms of the verb “have.” So a clunky sentence like “I’ve a cat” became “I’ve got a cat.”

Philip Boswood Ballard, writing in Teaching the Mother Tongue (1921), argues that the “have got” version “implies a stronger sense of possession”  than a simple “have.” We tend to agree.

In case you didn’t know, the headline on our home page was a play on words, a reference to the song “I Got Rhythm,” by George and Ira Gershwin.

Granted, the song title used “got” in a deliberately slangy, nonstandard way. The technically correct version would have been “I’ve Got Rhythm,” though as we’ve said before, song lyricists are allowed poetic license.

The title we wrote, however, is correct. In Teaching the Mother Tongue, Ballard dismisses the objection to “have got” as “a counterfeit invented by schoolmasters.”

Sir Ernest Gowers, writing in the second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1965), cites Ballard’s comment and adds, “Acceptance of this verdict is here recommended.”

Nobody objects, of course, to the use of “have got” to mean “have acquired,” though Americans generally use “have gotten” in this sense. The British once used “have gotten” too, as we pointed out back in 2006.

Keep in mind that “get” is an entirely separate verb from “have,” though some of its tenses use the auxiliary “have,” as we wrote on our blog in 2008 and 2010:

We’ve also examined the modern colloquial usage “I got this” (meaning something akin to “This one is mine” or “I’ll take care of this”).

And you may be interested in a comparison of two “have got” usages in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language: “She has got a swimming pool” and “She has got to swim each day.”

In examples like the first, the Cambridge Grammar notes, “have got” appears “with an NP [noun phrase] object … expressing possession and similar relations.”

In examples like the second, according to Cambridge, it’s “a catenative verb with a to-infinitival complement  … where the meaning is of obligation or necessity, much like must.”

A catenative verb is one linked to another verb form—in this case, “has got” and “to swim” are linked in meaning “must swim.”

We’ll end with an example of the “have got” usage you asked about, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), by Lewis Carroll:

“Oh dear! I’d nearly forgotten that I’ve got to grow up again! Let me see—how is it to be managed?”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Why shavers are little

Q: In respect to your article about “little shaver,” the phrase actually comes from bitti chavo (“little boy”) in Romanichal, the Romany language spoken in England. It’s ultimately derived from chavo, Romany for “youth.”

A: Yes, the English word “shaver” resembles the Romany (and Romanichal) word chavo, but resemblance alone is not sufficient evidence to prove that the two terms are related.

In serious etymology, one has to do more than show that words in one language sound or look like those in another.

We haven’t found any authoritative reference that accepts chavo as the source of “shaver,” though one questionable 19th-century book does suggest as much.

Charles G. Leland, writing in The English Gypsies and Their Language (1874), says the use of “shaver” for a child “is possibly inexplicable, unless we resort to Gipsy, where we find it used as directly as possible.”

However, the Oxford English Dictionary, the most authoritative guide to English etymology, says “shaver” is simply derived from the verb “shave” and the suffix “-er.”

When the verb “shave” first showed up around 725 in a glossary of Latin and Old English terms, it meant to scrape or pare away the surface of something by removing thin layers.

If you think of those layers, or shavings, as little pieces of the original, the figurative use of “shaver” to mean a boy makes perfect sense, much like the 17th-century expression “chip off the old block.”

The word “shaver” referred literally to someone who shaves when it showed up around 1425, according to the OED.

In the late 1500s, the term came to mean a fellow or chap or joker, but that sense is now dialectal. Today, according to Oxford, this usage generally refers to “a youth, with the epithet young, little.”

The OED’s first citation for “shaver” to mean a fellow or joker is from a conversation between Barabas and a slave in The Jew of Malta, a 1592 play by Christopher Marlowe:

Slave: “I can cut and shaue.”
Barabas: “Let me see, sirra, are you not an old shauer?”
Slave: “Alas, Sir, I am a very youth.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the phrase “young shaver” is from Love and a Bottle, a 1699 comedy by the Irish dramatist George Farquhar: “Who wou’d imagin now that this young shaver cou’d dream of a Woman so soon?”

And the OED’s first example of “little shaver” is from The World Went Very Well Then, an 1887 novel by Walter Besant: “Forty-five years ago I was just such a little shaver as this.”

We’re sorry if this answer disappoints you, but we try to be as exacting as we can about language.

For example, a reader of the blog once wrote to suggest that hundreds of American slang words come from Irish. This isn’t so, as we wrote in a post last year.

While a phonetic similarity might provide a starting point, it shouldn’t be the conclusion.

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

How educated is your English?

Q: On this morning’s news show, someone said people should “educate” themselves on the dearth of women in computer science. To my mind, people should “inform,” not “educate,” themselves on issues. Am I wrong?

A: In modern English, the verb “educate” can mean either to teach or to inform, so one can be educated in the field of computer science as well as on the issue of women in computer science.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives these two definitions: (1) “to teach (someone) especially in a school, college, or university,” and (2) “to give (someone) information about something.”

However, “educate” didn’t mean either to teach or to inform when the verb first showed up in English in the 1400s.

It originally meant to bring up a child “so as to form his or her manners, behaviour, social and moral practices, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

English adopted the usage from educare, Latin for to rear children or young animals.

The OED’s earliest example is from a 1445 translation in Middle English of a Late Latin elegy, Claudian’s De Consulatu Stilichonis: As grete cure also thou haddist his brothir to mayntene / To educate and to brynge forthe.

In the early 1500s, the verb took on its modern sense of to teach someone at a school, college, or university.

The first Oxford citation is from a 1536 act by King Henry VIII: “Where yowth and good wyttes be educate and norysshed.”

In the late 1700s, the verb “educate” took on its sense of to inform.

The earliest OED example is from The Quartern Loaf for Eight-Pence (1795), a pamphlet by the pseudonymous Jack Cade: “This must spur you on to the most daring exploits to educate the public mind.”

(Bread was commonly sold in the 18th and 19th centuries as a quartern loaf, which was made from 3.5 pounds of wheat flour. The author of the pamphlet apparently took his pen name from the leader of the Jack Cade Rebellion in 15th-century England.)

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An interview with Pat

She discusses books, blogs, and journalism in an interview with Grammarist.


English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

How pie became à la mode

Q: We had cherry pie with vanilla ice cream on Thanksgiving, which inspires this question: Who is responsible for the use of a French expression at even the most humble American diners to describe such desserts?

A: The use of the expression “à la mode” to mean “served with ice cream” first showed up in the late 19th century, but it’s uncertain who coined the usage.

Despite the uncertainty, you’ll find lots of claims online that one person or another or still another was the first to use “à la mode” in this sense.

The three alleged contenders (none of whom we accept) are John Gieriet, who briefly owned the Hotel La Perl in Duluth, MN; Charles Watson Townsend, a diner at the now-defunct Cambridge Hotel in Cambridge, NY, and Mrs. Berry Hall, another Cambridge Hotel diner.

Gieriet supposedly used the phrase “à la mode” in the 1880s to describe a dessert of blueberry pie and ice cream. Townsend reputedly used it in either the 1880s or ’90s (depending on the story) after ordering a slice of apple pie with ice cream. And Mrs. Hall is said to have suggested the phrase to Townsend.

However, the only evidence that exists for these events is a handful of poorly sourced accounts written dozens of years after the events supposedly took place.

There’s no report in writing from the 19th century showing that Gieriet actually served pie and ice cream together, or that Townsend ordered them as a dessert.

More to the point (since this is a language blog), there’s no account in print from the 19th century that either man (or Mrs. Hall) used the phrase “à la mode” in the 1880s or ’90s to mean “served with ice cream.”

Etymologists trying to track down the source of a word or phrase look for the earliest written example of the usage, not comments about the usage made years after the fact.

We’ll return later to the sources of these suspect etymologies, but let’s first look at a few facts about “à la mode.”

The expression was borrowed from French, where it means “in the fashion.” It’s been used in English since the mid-1600s as an adjective to mean fashionable and as an adverb to mean fashionably, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It’s also been used adjectivally since the 17th century in the name of “beef à la mode,” a dish consisting of beef braised with vegetables and wine, then served in a rich sauce.

The earliest written example that we could find for the phrase “à la mode” linked to a dessert  is from an article in the April 26, 1893, issue of the St. Paul Daily News about the price of food at the upcoming Chicago World’s Fair, which opened on May 1.

The article, headlined “Chicagoans Indignant at Probable High Prices for World’s Fair Pie,” reports that the city’s residents “are inclined to kick at the impending raise in life’s necessities.”

Among the “necessities” listed, “apple pie, a la mode, was raised 20 cents—10 cents for apple pie and ten cents for a la mode.”

However, the article is unclear about what “à la mode” actually meant at the World’s Fair (officially the World’s Columbian Exposition). Did it really mean “served with ice cream” at that time? Not necessarily.

An article in the April 6, 1896, issue of the Duluth (MN) News Tribune, for example, has a recipe for “Apple pie a la mode” that’s actually an apple meringue pie, served with a dollop of whipped cream, not ice cream.

The recipe calls for stewed apples, strained through a sieve, then poured into a pie pan and baked. Here’s the rest of the recipe, picking up after the initial baking:

“Spread over the apple a thick meringue made of the whites of the eggs and tablespoonfuls of pulverized sugar beaten stiffly and not flavored. Brown slightly in the oven and serve with a large spoonful of whipped cream stirred with candied cherries and flavored with almond.”

The earliest example we could find for “à la mode” clearly used to mean “served with ice cream” is from an article in the Aug. 4, 1895, issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune that describes a diner chowing down at a Windy City restaurant:

“He’s got a glass of beer and a great big piece of pie with a chunk of ice cream on top of it. Pie a la mode, I believe they call it.”

Now let’s examine those questionable etymologies about “pie à la mode.”

As we’ve said, there’s no written evidence from the 1880s or ’90s that John Gieriet, Charles Townsend, or Mrs. Berry Hall had any role in inventing or naming pie à la mode.

The belief that Townsend concocted the dessert at the Cambridge Hotel and that Mrs. Hall named it was primarily inspired by newspaper and magazine articles published in the 1930s and 1950s—many years after the alleged events.

The earliest written source of the Townsend story is an Associated Press obituary for him that appeared  in various newspapers, including the May 20, 1936, issues of the Schenectady (NY) Gazette and the Emporia (KS) Gazette as well as the May 21, 1936, issue of the New York Times.

The AP obituary in the Times, incorrectly datelined Cambridge, Mass. (it should have been Cambridge, NY), says Townsend “inadvertently originated pie a la mode here 52 years ago.”

The obituary states that Townsend “amazed waiters at a local hotel by asking for ice cream on his pie,” and that the Cambridge Hotel “here specializes in the dish and points at the table at which Townsend was dining when he created it.”

The AP article doesn’t cite any evidence beyond the hotel’s questionable claim to be the birthplace of pie à la mode.

Well, Townsend may have ordered the dish “52 years” before he died (that is, in 1884), but not at the Cambridge Hotel, which was built in 1885 and closed in 2012.

However, another account says the “blessed business” of the pie occurred in the mid-1890s.

Before it closed, the hotel used to provide each guest room with a folder of information that included a page entitled “The History of the Pie a la Mode.”

A patron who stayed at the hotel shortly before it closed posted a photo online of this dubious history. Here’s how it begins:

“With Apple Pie a la Mode holding such a special niche in the taste of the American public, it is appropriate at this time that we turn to historians long enough to record for posterity the origin of this delectable delicacy of the day.

“We have it that the late Professor Charles Watson Townsend, who lived alone in a Main Street apartment during his later years and dined regularly at the Hotel Cambridge, now known as the Cambridge Hotel, was wholly responsible for the blessed business.

“One day in the mid 1890’s, Professor Townsend was seated for dinner at a table when the late Mrs. Berry Hall observed that he was eating ice cream with his apple pie. Just like that she named it ‘Pie al a Mode’ [sic], and we often wondered why, and thereby brought enduring fame to Professor Townsend and the Hotel Cambridge.”

The “history” goes on for four more paragraphs, but does not provide any evidence to support its claims that in the 19th century Townsend ordered apple pie and ice cream, or that Mrs. Hall suggested the name “pie à la mode.”

The hotel characterized this account as a “Reprint from Sealtest Magazine.” No date was given, but the Sealtest Dairy didn’t exist until dozens of years after the events described. Sealtest began life in 1935 as a research division of National Dairy Products, which was founded in 1923.

The hotel also passed along the story to the Ice Cream Review magazine in 1951, and it was later picked up by newspapers, websites, and other news media.

In our own searches of newspaper and literary databases, we could find no written evidence from the 19th century to support the claims that Townsend ordered pie à la mode in the 1880s or ’90s, or that Mrs. Hall suggested the name “pie à la mode” at that time.

The primary source for the story that Gieriet created pie à la mode in Duluth is a local historian, Mike Flaherty, who wrote a March 1, 2012, report that’s on file with the Duluth Public Library.

Flaherty’s report was cited on Wikipedia’s “Pie a la mode” page on March 27, 2013, and the so-called inventor of the dessert was changed on the page from Townsend to Gieriet on April 2, 2013.

In his unpublished report, which the Duluth library copied for us, Flaherty says pie à la mode is believed to have been invented on March 26, 1885, at the grand opening of the Hotel La Perl on West Superior Street in Duluth.

Flaherty discussed this in a May 21, 2013, interview with the Fox News TV station in the Twin Ports area of Duluth, Minn., and Superior, Wis.

He based his claims primarily on a May 23, 1936, article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press and an advertisement in the March 26, 1885, issue of the Duluth Daily Tribune. But neither item said John Gieriet invented or named pie à la mode.

The Pioneer Press article, headlined “An Invention in Doubt,” makes note of the AP report crediting Townsend “with having been the originator of this method of glorifying apple pie some 50 years ago.”

“However, there is some doubt as to where the distinction for this discovery really belongs, for Minnesota has a candidate,” the article says.

In the 1880s, it goes on, “the owner of a Superior Street café in Duluth introduced a delicacy which made an instant hit under a name which, in common parlance, was pronounced ‘pylie mode.’ ”

The article doesn’t identify the Duluthian, but notes that “he used blueberry pie precisely warmed to an exact degree of heat” as a “foundation for the ice cream,” as opposed to the apple pie favored by “the Townsend school.”

Like the AP article, however, the one in the Pioneer Press doesn’t offer any evidence to support the claim that  pie à la mode originated in Duluth in the 1880s or that it was pronounced “pylie mode” at the time.

And it doesn’t mention John Gieriet, who supposedly invented and named pie à la mode.

The March 26, 1885, advertisement in the Duluth Daily Tribune does mention Gieriet (it refers to him as “J. Gieriet”), but says nothing about pie à la mode. Here’s how it begins:

Hotel La Perl

The Hotel La Perl, formerly the Commercial, will be ready to receive guests Thursday, March 26th. The opening will be celebrated with a palatable dinner, from 12 o’clock till 2:30. A hearty welcome is tendered to the people of Duluth by the proprietor.

J. Gieriet, Proprietor.

The ad continues with a “Bill of Fare” that includes sections entitled “Pastry” and “Dessert.” The Pastry section includes blueberry pie and the Dessert section includes vanilla ice cream. But there’s no indication that two would be served together, and there’s no mention of “pie à la mode” or “à la mode.”

Gieriet sold the hotel a year later when his wife became ill, according to an article in the Aug. 13, 1886, issue of the Duluth Weekly Tribune.

If the date 1886 rings a bell, it’s because (as we mentioned earlier) the term “à la mode” was used in Duluth that year to refer to a meringue pie topped with whipped cream, not ice cream.

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

How wonderful is wonderment?

Q: Which is more wonderful: “wonder” or “wonderment”? I wonder.

A: Standard dictionaries generally define the nouns “wonder” and “wonderment” much the same way: astonishment, awe, puzzlement, or something that arouses such emotions.

Is there a difference between the two words, aside from the extra syllable? Well, the Oxford English Dictionary describes the longer noun as “chiefly literary.”

Internet searches indicate that “wonder” is overwhelmingly more popular than “wonderment.” And many examples of the longer noun may seem stilted or affected to readers.

Of the two nouns, “wonder” is by far the oldest, dating back to Old English, Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old Norse, and other early Germanic languages.

When the word “wonder” (wundor or uundra in Old English) first showed up, it meant “something that causes astonishment,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is a reference to uundra gihuaes  (“wonder’s things”) from a hymn written around 700 by the Northumberland poet Cædmon.

And in the epic poem Beowulf, which is believed to date from the early 700s, many nobles travel great distances to “gaze upon the wonder” (wundor sceawian) of the monster Grendel’s tracks.

When the noun “wonderment” first appeared in the 1500s, it meant a wonder or the state of wonder.

The OED’s first citation is from a 1535 letter by William Barlow, prior of Haverfordwest Priory, to Thomas Cromwell, chief secretary of King Henry VIII.

In the letter, Barlow complains about the “most shamefull rumors raysed uppe to theyre dyffamacion, with slaunderouse wonderment of the towne.”

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Getting along famously

Q: Any idea where the “get along famously” phrase originated? I like to use it as much as I can, but sadly I have the feeling that most people don’t know what I mean when I say it these days.

A: When the adverb “famously” showed up in English in the 16th century, it meant in a famous (that is, a widely known) manner, a sense that fell out of favor in the 19th century but had a revival in the 20th century.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1579 religious tract by the Puritan theologian William Fulke: “Rome doeth set foorth the merites of Peter and Paule the more famously and solemnly.”

And here’s a more famous example from Shakespeare’s historical play Richard III (1597): “This land was famously enricht / With pollitike graue counsell.”

The OED doesn’t have any 20th-century examples of this sense, but here’s one from the Nov. 23, 2014, issue of the New York Times: “New Yorkers, both in lore and reality, can be hard to please, and famously outspoken about their grievances.”

The first Oxford citation for “famously” used in your sense of the word—to mean excellently or splendidly—is almost as old as the original meaning.

It comes from Coriolanus, a tragedy that Shakespeare wrote in the early 1600s: “I say vnto you what he hath done Famouslie, he did it to that end.”

The only Oxford example of “famously” used in a phrase similar to the one you’re asking about (“get along famously”) is from Edward Bannerman Ramsay’s Reminiscences of Scottish Life & Character (1858): “We get on famously.”

However, we’ve found a couple of earlier examples in Google Books, including this one from Strathern, an 1844 novel by Marguerite Blessington (the Countess of Blessington):

“The postboys get along famously. I had no notion that these cursed Italians, or their horses either, could go at such a pace.”

And, finally, here’s an example from The Watchman, an 1855 novel by James A. Maitland:

“George Hartley is getting along famously at Messrs. Wilson and Co.’s, and for two years past has been the managing clerk of the concern, with a salary of two thousand five hundred dollars a-year.”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Craven images

Q: Standard dictionaries define “craven” as cowardly, but I can’t recall hearing or reading it used that way in the last 10 years. It’s usually used to mean brazen or shameless. Are the dictionaries just not keeping up on this one?

A: We’ve checked eight standard dictionaries and all of them define the adjective “craven” as meaning cowardly, though a couple include secondary senses. Collins lists mean-spirited and Random House lists dastardly.

You’re right that many people now use “craven” to mean brazen or shameless, but many others still use it in the traditional sense of cowardly.

For example, a recent column in the Portland Mercury, an alternative weekly in Oregon, uses the brazen or shameless sense when it refers to “a craven attempt” by industrialists to take over the city’s utility bureaus.

But a Nov. 10, 2013, article in the Atlantic uses the traditional meaning in commenting on the “craven decision” of Bloomberg News to curb critical stories from China to avoid angering the Chinese government.

We assume that lexicographers have the new sense on their radar. And if enough people use “craven” brazenly or shamelessly, we’ll be seeing the usage in dictionaries one of these days.

When the adjective “craven” first showed up in the 1200s (spelled crauant in early Middle English), it meant vanquished or defeated, but the Oxford English Dictionary says that sense is now obsolete.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says “craven” probably comes from cravente, Old French for defeated, but the OED is doubtful and describes the etymology of the term as “obscure.”

The earliest Oxford citation for “craven” is from a West Midland manuscript, dated sometime before 1225, about the perhaps apocryphal life of St. Margaret the Maiden and Martyr:

Ich am kempe ant he is crauant þet me wende to ouercumen (“I am a warrior, and he that expected to overcome me is craven”).

The cowardly sense of “craven” apparently showed up sometime before 1400 in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, an anonymous Middle English poem about King Arthur: Haa! crauaunde knyghte! a cowarde þe semez! (“Ha, craven knight! A coward you seem!”)

The OED has a question mark in front of the citation above, apparently unsure whether “craven” here is being used in the sense of defeated or cowardly. We lean toward the cowardly sense, since earlier in the poem the “craven knight” is described as one of a group of Romans who “cowered like puppies before the King’s person.”

We’ll end with a few lines from “The Ballad of High Noon” (perhaps better known as “Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin’ ”), as performed by Tex Ritter in the movie. It won the Oscar for best original song in 1952:

The noonday train will bring Frank Miller.
If I’m a man I must be brave.
And I must face that deadly killer
Or lie a coward, a craven coward,
Or lie a coward in my grave.

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