English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Slang Usage Word origin

Was the storm a shoo-shoo?

Q: I woke up in my Hell’s Kitchen apartment the other day, looked out the window expecting to see a storm-wracked New York, and thought, “Well, that was a shoo-shoo.” Growing up in New Orleans, we learned that an unexploded firecracker was a shoo-shoo. I wondered if this went beyond my hometown and I found an article saying the reduplicative usage was brought home to Louisiana by doughboys returning from World War I.

A: Yes, the recent “storm of the century” was indeed a shoo-shoo in New York City as well as in our part of southern New England. And “shoo-shoo” is a fine example of reduplication—a subject we recently discussed on the blog.

However, we doubt that doughboys from Louisiana brought the usage home with them from the battlefields of World War I. Or that the usage was inspired, as the article says, by problems with the Chauchat light machine gun.

The Dictionary of American Regional English has an example of the usage in Louisiana dating from 1917, when the doughboys were still heading for Europe, not returning home.

The first members of the American Expeditionary Force arrived in Europe in June of 1917, and the force wasn’t involved in significant combat until 1918, the last year of the war.

DARE defines “shoo-shoo” as “a failed firecracker that is later broken open and lit.” The dictionary suggests that the name is probably “echoic”—an imitation of the hissing sound made when the powder from a split firecracker is ignited.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a list of Louisiana terms submitted by James Edward Routh of Tulane University to Dialect Notes, a publication of the American Dialect Society:

“A fire-cracker that has failed to go off. The ‘shoo-shoo’ is broken and lighted for the flare of the loose powder.”

DARE says the usage is “chiefly” seen in Louisiana. Nearly all of its most recent reports of “shoo-shoo” (1967-68) are from Louisiana, though the dictionary does have a couple from Hawaii for “shoo-shoo baby.”

We suspect that the Hawaiian reports were inspired by “Shoo Shoo Baby,” an Andrews Sisters hit, or by a B-17 Flying Fortress named after the song. The World War II plane is now on display at the National Museum of the US Air Force in Ohio.

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English English language Etymology Expression Usage

Can’t win for losing

Q: Is the expression “You can’t win for losing” as simple as it sounds? Or is there a deeper meaning and significance?

A: We don’t see anything particularly deep about the expression. It’s just another way of saying “You can’t win if you’re losing all the time.”

The Dictionary of American Slang (4th ed.) says the usage refers to someone  “entirely unable to make any sort of success” or “persistently and distressingly bested.”

The authors, Barbara Ann Kipfer and Robert L. Chapman, give this example: “We busted our humps, but we just couldn’t win for losing.”

Kipfer and Chapman date the expression from the 1970s, but we’ve found earlier examples in Internet searches.

The earliest is from a 1955 issue of the Postal Supervisor, a journal of the National Association of Postal Supervisors:

“You can’t win for losing, it seems. Who are our friends, and who is the snake in the grass in Congress. There must always be a villain in the plot. Will it be the outer-space missile this time?”

A search with Google’s Ngram viewer indicates that the use of the expression increased sharply in the 1960s, reaching a peak in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

We’ll end with a more recent example of the usage from Any Woman’s Blues: A Novel of Obsession (2006), by Erica Jong:

“I want to be the best man for you, but you’re never satisfied. Whatever I do, it’s not enough—I can’t win for losing!”

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

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

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

No problem at all

[Note: A May 30, 2022, post discusses “all,” “albeit” and “although.”]

Q: I’m struck by the strangeness of the phraselet “at all.” It seems to pop up everywhere, with a clear connotation but not much denotation at all. Is it shorthand for “at all events”? Seems to me it’s used in cases where the full phrase wouldn’t work at all.

A: “At all” is one of those phraselets (we like your term) that defy literal interpretation.

It functions as an adverb, but taken individually the words “at” and “all” don’t seem to add up to what the idiom means. And what exactly does “at all” mean?

The Oxford English Dictionary says “at all” has been used three ways since it showed up in the mid-1300s: in negative or conditional statements, in interrogative usages, and in affirmative statements (though this sense has generally died out).

When used in negative or conditional “if” statements, according to the OED, “at all” means “in any way,” “to any degree,” “in the least,” or “whatsoever.”

Examples date back to the 15th century and include “stryve not at al” (1476); “no peace at all” (1535); “If thy father at all misse me” (1611); “not at all visible” (1664); “If he refuses to govern us at all” (1849), and “no problem at all” (1975).

When used in questions, the OED says, “at all” has somewhat similar meanings—“in the least,” “in any way,” “for any reason,” “to any extent,” and “under any circumstances.”

Interrogative usages date back to the 16th century, and among the OED’s citations are “what power can it haue on you at all?” (1566); “shall I not vse Tabacco at all?” (1600); “why should he at all regard it?” (1683), and “Why should people care about football at all?” (2008).

But before these negative, conditional, and interrogative usages came into being, “at all” was used in affirmative statements to mean “in every way,” “altogether,” “wholly,” and “solely,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest example, from about 1350, is  “I þe coniure & comande att alle” (I thee conjure and command at all).

The affirmative use of the phrase has died out in common usage, however, and now survives only in some regional dialects of American and Irish English.

A 1945 article in the journal American Speech says this affirmative use “lives on in Irish dialect and in colloquial speech in certain parts of America, especially after a superlative.”

The article, which gives “We had the best time at all” for an example, says the usage was reported in Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, elsewhere in the South, and the Midwest.

The Dictionary of American Regional English has 20th-century examples of the affirmative usage from Virginia, Louisiana, West Virginia, Indiana, and Wisconsin.

In affirmative constructions in US regional English, “at all” means “of all” or “only,” according to the DARE.

The regional dictionary cites such examples as “He is the greatest man at all” (1916), “We had the best time at all” (1936), “She’s the finest girl at all” (1942), and “Use one statement at all” (1976).

As for the preposition in “at all,” the OED has this to say: “At is used to denote relations of so many kinds, and some of these so remote from its primary local sense, that a classification of its uses is very difficult.”

Well, we hope this sheds a little light on an idiomatic phrase (or phraselet) that today eludes a word-for-word interpretation.

Finally, a few words about “all,” an extremely useful word.

It functions as many parts of speech: adjective (“all day” … “we all went”); pronoun (“all you need” … “all is well”); noun (“he gave his all” … “the one versus the all”); and adverb (“all dirty” … “it’s all a dream”).

For many centuries, since the days of Old English, the adverb has been used with prepositions in interesting ways to emphasize, affirm, or otherwise modify a verb.

This is where “at all” comes in. But there are many other such phrases, too many to mention in all (there’s one now!).

For example, we use “all” with prepositions to mean “the entire way” or “fully.” The OED’s citations, dating back to early Old English, include quotations from Lord Nelson (“all round the compass,” 1795); Thomas Macaulay (“all down the Rhine,” 1849); and Bob Dylan (“all along the watchtower,” 1968).

We use both “all of” and “of all,” but for different purposes. Similarly we use “in all” and “all in” (as in “I’m all in”). And we often use “all” with “for” and “to”—as in “all to [or for] nought,” “all to hell,” “a free for all,” “all for it,” “all for one and one for all,” and many others.

“All” is also used with words that look like prepositions but are in fact adverbs: “I knew all along” … “they’re all alone” … “go all out” … “look all over” … “fall all round” … “lie all around,” hemmed all about,” and more.

“All” is such an ancient part of the language that its fossilized traces were evident in words from as far back as early Old English, when it appeared as ael– in compounds.

Remnants are seen today in words like “also,” “always,” “although,” “altogether,” “almighty,” and others.

We mentioned above that “all” can be an adjective, a pronoun, a noun, or an adverb. But once upon a time it was a conjunction as well.

The use of “all” as a conjunction is almost unknown today, but a trace of the old conjunction lives on in the word “albeit,” which is derived from the old phrase “all be it.”

With that, we’re all done.

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

In our humble opinion

Q: The new CEO of a local organization recently emailed this: “It is with humbleness and excitement that I take on this leadership role.” Why back-form a clumsy-sounding noun from an adjective when we already have a perfectly good noun—“humility”?

A: One of the blessings of English is its flexibility. We have umpteen different ways of saying something with umpteen different shadings.

That CEO could have taken on his new job with humility, humbleness, modesty, diffidence, meekness, selflessness, and so on.

Clumsiness is in the eye (and ear) of the beholder. It’s not even clear whether “humility” or “humbleness” is conciser, let alone nicer. “Humility” has two fewer letters, but “humbleness” has one less syllable.

More important, both nouns showed up in English around the same time (back in the 1300s!) and writers have been choosing one or the other ever since, depending on tone, cadence, intonation, and so on.

Shakespeare, for instance, used “humbleness” in the late 1500s in The Merchant of Venice (“With bated breath, and whispring humblenes”) and he used “humility” in the early 1600s in Coriolanus (“Enter Coriolanus in a gowne of Humility, with Menenius”).

He had a way with words, didn’t he? We especially like the idea of whispering humbleness.

Both “humility” and “humbleness” have Gallic roots, though “humbleness” has more of an Anglo-Saxon flavor because of its Old English suffix.

English got “humility” from the Middle French humilité, but the ultimate source is humilis, Latin for low or humble, according to the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged.

“Humbleness” comes from the Middle English adjective humble and the Old English suffix -ness. The adjective, in turn, is derived from the Old French umble or humble, which ultimately comes from humilis, the same Latin source as “humility.”

The first of these nouns to show up in English was “humility,” according to written examples in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest citation in the OED is from “The Five Joys of the Virgin Mary” (circa 1315), a poem by William of Shoreham: Thorȝ clennesse and humylyte (“Her pureness and humility”).

The dictionary’s earliest example for “humbleness” is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1388: “He knowynge her pride, and schewinge his owene humblenesse.”

We’ll end with these not-so-humble remarks by Uriah Heep to David Copperfield:

“Ah! But you know we’re so very umble. And having such a knowledge of our own umbleness, we must really take care that we’re not pushed to the wall by them as isn’t umble. All stratagems are fair in love, sir.”

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English English language Etymology Pronunciation Usage Word origin

On brooch, broach, and broccoli

Q: How come the ornament pinned over my wife’s clavicle, a “brooch,” is pronounced like “roach” and not like “smooch”?

A: Yes, “brooch” is usually pronounced in the US and the UK to rhyme with “roach,” but some American dictionaries recognize a variant pronunciation that rhymes with “smooch.”

And some US dictionaries also recognize the variant spelling “broach” when the word for the ornamental pin is pronounced like “roach.”

In fact, the noun was spelled neither “brooch” nor “broach” when it first showed up in Middle English in the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (The OED has a questionable citation from the 1100s.)

The word was originally spelled “broche” when Middle English adopted it from broche, Old French for a pointed weapon or instrument.

In Middle English, “broche” was pronounced with a long “o” (as in “hope”), which accounts for the pronunciation you’re asking about, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

For a few hundred years, the word “broche” referred to both the ornamental pin and a pointed implement (lance, spear, skewer, awl, and so on). However, “brooch” was occasionally used for the pin, as in the OED‘s earliest example of the ornamental usage.

In the 1500s, English speakers began routinely using the “brooch” spelling for the ornament and the “broach” spelling for the sharp implement, but the spellings weren’t consistent and were often reversed, according to Oxford.

The contemporary acceptance of “brooch” for the pin and “broach” for the tapered tool is relatively recent. As Oxford explains, “the differentiation of spelling being only recent, and hardly yet established.”

In the OED’s earliest definite example for “broche” (from Legends of the Rood, circa 1305, a collection of tales based on the Bible), the word refers to a lance or spear: “A Broche þorw-out his brest born” (“A lance borne through his breast”).

The dictionary’s earliest definite example for the ornamental usage is from The Legend of Good Women, a poem by Chaucer from around 1385: “Send hire letters, tokens, brooches, and rynges.”

The usage ultimately comes from the classical Latin broccus (pointed or projecting). In late Latin, brocca referred to a pointed tool.

The Latin and French sources have given English several other words, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The verb “broach,” for example, meant “to pierce” when it entered English in the 1300s, then came to mean to tap a keg in the 1400s. And English speakers began using “broach” metaphorically in the 1500s to mean “introduce a subject.”

The French verb brocher (to stitch), Ayto adds, has given both French and English the noun “brochure” (literally “a stitched work”).

Finally, the late Latin brocca has given English (via Italian) “broccoli.” (In Italian, brocco is a shoot or stalk, and broccolo is a cabbage sprout.)

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English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage Word origin

Hear Pat live today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 PM Eastern time to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Andy Borowitz will be filling in for Leonard as guest host. If you miss the program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.
English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin

Why wine drinks well

Q: Why does a wine critic say a Bordeaux “drinks well”? A food critic wouldn’t say the carpaccio “eats well.” Does this usage have a history or is it just recent jargon?

A: Yes, the usage has a history—a long history!

The verb “drink” has been used intransitively (that is, without an object) since the early 1600s to mean “have a specified flavour when drunk,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

All six examples of the usage in the OED refer to wine, though one of the wines is made from fermented plantains, not grapes.

The earliest Oxford citation is from A Woman Kilde With Kindnesse, a play by Thomas Heywood that was first performed in 1603 and published in 1607:

“Another sipped to give the wine his due / And saide unto the rest it drunke too flat.” (We’ve gone to the original text to expand on the dictionary’s citation.)

And here’s an 18th-century example from John Armstrong’s Sketches or Essays on Various Subjects (1758): “The Burgundy drinks as flat as Port.”

The dictionary’s most recent citation is from the May 23, 1969, issue of the Guardian: “Every one of these wines will drink well now: most of them will improve by keeping.”

This use of “drink” is often referred to as “mediopassive,” a middle voice somewhere in between active and passive. In a post last year,  we discussed mediopassives like “My new silk blouse washes beautifully” … “Your house will sell in a week” … “The car drives smoothly.” A friend recently sent us her favorite example: “That dress buttons up the back.”

Why, you ask, is this usage common among wine critics, but not other food critics?

The OED suggests that it may have been influenced by the passive use of se boire (the reflexive form of the French verb “drink”).

Other than that, we don’t know. Some questions can’t be answered. That’s one reason why etymology is so fascinating. Let’s drink to that.

The verb “drink” itself is of Germanic origin (drincan in Old English, drinkan in Old Saxon, trinkan or trinchan in Old High German, drekka, in Old Norse, and so on).

When the verb showed up in Old English around the year 1000, it was transitive (a transitive verb needs an object to make sense). It meant “to swallow down, imbibe, quaff” a liquid, according to the OED.

Oxford’s first example of the usage is from the Book of Luke in the West Saxon Gospels: He ne drinco win ne beor. (He drinks neither wine nor beer.)

We’ll end by returning to the usage you asked about. Here’s a poetic example from The Compleat Imbiber: An Entertainment (1967), by the wine and food writer Cyril Ray: “I sipped the wine, which drank like velvet.”

[Update, Feb. 13, 2015. A retired English teacher writes: “I was reminded of an old rural Alabama saying, circa 1940-’50, used by cooks who may have overcooked, over salted, or otherwise prepared food not up to their usual standards, but needed to serve said food anyway. ‘This will eat,’ or ‘It’ll eat,’ was used in those cases as a slight apology for the less than perfect dish.” We can think of another example, the advertising slogan for Campbell’s Chunky Soup: “The soup that eats like a meal.”]

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Goody goody

Q: I’m fascinated by reduplicatives, especially those whose segments have no particular meaning on their own: “bow-wow,” “choo-choo,” “flim-flam,” “helter-skelter,” etc. I’ve often wondered why we refer to them as “reduplicatives” rather than “duplicatives.”

A: We once wrote a post on the reduplicative copula (“the thing is … is”), a usage that bugs a lot of people. But we haven’t written about the kind of reduplicatives you’re talking about.

In their Dictionary of Linguistics (1954), Mario Pei and Frank Gaynor define “reduplication” as “the complete or partial repetition of an element or elements.” And “reduplicative words” are “words of recurring sound and meaning (e.g., chit-chat).”

In the 60 years since then, other linguists have defined “reduplication” in other ways. Some, for example, have drawn a distinction between repeated sounds and repeated meanings. But we won’t get into that.

Suffice it to say that “reduplication” is a technical term in linguistics, and that the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions for “reduplication” and “reduplicative” used in the linguistic sense are similar to those of Pei and Gaynor.

But as the OED says, “reduplication” in a more general, nonlinguistic sense simply means a doubling, repetition, or duplication.

So you ask a very good question—why do linguists use the “re-” prefix? If “duplication” means copying something once, then “reduplication” would imply copying something more than once, wouldn’t it?

Well, not necessarily, because “re-” doesn’t always mean “again” or “once more.” Sometimes it implies “back” or “backward,” as in words like “respect” (whose Latin roots mean to look back at), “revoke” (call back), “repay” (pay back), “remit” (send back), “remove” (move back), and others.

It could be that the “re-” of “reduplication” in the linguistic sense originally had this same meaning, implying “back” instead of “again.” Unfortunately, we can’t say for sure that this is the case; we can only suggest it.

The word ultimately comes from the classical Latin verb reduplicare, meaning to double. (The Latin verb duplicare also meant to double.)

In the Latin of the third century and later, reduplication– or reduplicatio came to be used as a rhetorical term for the repetition of a word, according to the OED.

But it’s difficult to tell how the Romans—classical or later—viewed the “re-” in these words, and whether it originally meant “back” or “again.”

As the OED explains, “The original sense of re– in Latin is ‘back’ or ‘backwards,’ but in the large number of words in which it occurs it shows various shades of meaning.”

“Even in Latin,” the dictionary continues, “the precise sense of re– is not always clear, and in many words the development of secondary meanings tends greatly to obscure its original force. This loss of distinct meaning is naturally increased in English, where a word has often been adopted in a sense more or less remote from its original sense.”

In English, “reduplication” has had several meanings since it first entered the language, perhaps as long ago as the early 1400s. Early on, it was used in anatomy and zoology, for instance, to mean a doubling over or folding.

The “reduplication” we’re talking about, the name we now use for words like “mishmash” and “namby-pamby,” came into English in the 16th century. It’s defined in the OED as the “exact or partial repetition of a word, phrase, etc.”

But in some early uses of “reduplication” in this linguistic sense, it meant something similar to “epanalepsis,” a rhetorical device in which a an earlier word or phrase is repeated at some later point. This might be interpreted as a looking backward. Here are two OED citations:

“Marke heere againe, how the Prophet resumeth his first admiration, by a Poeticall Epanalepsis or reduplication.” (From the undated Atheomastix, a posthumously published religious treatise by Martin Fotherby, 1560-1620.)

“Reduplication … is a figure in Rhetoric, when the same word that ends one part of a verse or sentence, is repeated in that which follows.” (From Thomas Blount’s dictionary Glossographia, 1656.)

So it’s reasonable to suggest that “reduplication” in poetry or rhetoric originally meant something like “backward duplication” instead of “repeated duplication.”

The modern linguistics terms “reduplication” and “reduplicative” are derived from those earlier literary and rhetorical uses. But though the words have been handed down intact, today the “re-” seems far removed from the “back” sense and apparently means simple repetition.

Here, for example, is a contemporary citation, from L. J. Brinton’s Structure of Modern English (2000): “In English, reduplication is often used in children’s language (e.g., boo-boo, putt-putt) … or for humorous or ironic effect (e.g., goody-goody, rah-rah).”

And this OED citation, for the adjective “reduplicative,” is from B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour (1959): “A fragmentary self-echoic behavior … may be shown in reduplicative forms like helter-skelter, razzle-dazzle, and willy-nilly.”

In the end, what we’re suggesting is that the “re-” in “reduplication” and “reduplicative” may have originally implied “back” or “backward.” And the modern terms in linguistics have preserved the “re-” prefix even though the meaning of it has changed. That would explain why today the prefix looks redundant.

In our readings about reduplication, we came across an interesting use of the term in art criticism to refer to a visual doubling.

In an essay on photography, the art critic Craig Owens uses the word “reduplication” to characterize a mid-19th-century “double portrait” of a woman who is seen alongside her reflection in a mirror:

“If we speak of this image, and of others like it, as reduplicative, it is because reduplication signifies ‘to reproduce in reflection,’ ” he says in his book Beyond Recognition (1994).

Owens seems to be using the term in the going-back sense to refer to an image seen in reflection. In fact, he draws a parallel to rhetorical reduplication.

“In classical rhetoric,” he writes, “reduplication was a species of repetition, distinguished by the reiteration of a word or phrase within the same part of a sentence or clause.”

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English English language Etymology Pronunciation Spelling Usage Word origin

REZ-oo-may or RAY-zoo-may?

Q: You say in your post about the American term for a curriculum vitae that it can be spelled “resume,” “resumé,” or “résumé.” But how is it pronounced? If one uses two accents, for example, is it pronounced REZ-oo-may or RAY-zoo-may?

A: British dictionaries (which define the term as a summary, not a list of accomplishments) use two accents.  But American dictionaries (which accept both definitions) are all over the place.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), as we noted in our earlier post, lists the spellings in this order: “résumé” or “resume,” also “resumé.” (The wording indicates that the first two are equal in popularity, and the third is somewhat less common.)

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) lists the spellings this way: “resumé” or “resume” or “résumé.” (The wording indicates that the three are equally popular.)

In spite of differences in spelling, all the dictionaries we’ve consulted (three British and three American) list REZ as either the only or the primary pronunciation of the first syllable.

When English borrowed the word from French in the early 19th century, it meant only a summary of something.

The earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Feb. 21, 1782, letter from Samuel Andrews to Benjamin Franklin: “I have taken the Liberty to send your Exellency two of my Résumé memoirs.”

The next example, from an 1804 issue of the Edinburgh Review, is clearer: “After a short resumé of his observations on coffee-houses and prisons, Mr. Holcroft leaves Paris.”

The word wasn’t used for a career summary until the 20th century, when this sense began appearing in the US and Canada.

The OED’s first citation is from an advertisement in the Jan. 10, 1926, issue of the Lincoln (Neb.) Sunday Star: “Send resume of previous business connections in letter of application.”

However, the dictionary encloses the entire citation in brackets, which “indicates a quotation is relevant to the development of a sense but not directly illustrative of it.”

The first unequivocal example is from an April 3, 1938, ad in the Hartford Courant: “Recent insurance company experience. $1800-$2000. Send full resume with snapshot.”

In Britain and France, a “résumé” is a summary while a list of accomplishments is a “curriculum vitae.”

Although some Americans also use the term “curriculum vitae” for a list of accomplishments, most refer to it as a “resume,” “resumé,” or “résumé.”

We prefer “resume.” Since the word is usually pronounced REZ-oo-may in English, it seems silly to keep the first accent and even sillier to leave only the second.

Yes, the noun and the verb would then be spelled the same, but it seems unlikely that anyone would confuse them in an actual sentence.

When English borrows words from other languages, they typically become anglicized over time, losing their accents and taking on new pronunciations. We think the time has come for “résumé” to be naturalized as “resume.”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

When “inept” is inapt or unapt

Q: I recently wrote a criticism of a certain individual, calling him “incompetent,” then escalating to “inept.” Or so I thought. Are those two terms in fact synonyms, as some on the Internet claim? I thought ineptitude was a step further than incompetence.

A: When “inept” and “incompetent” took on their usual modern meanings in the 1600s, “inept” was the more negative term, but the two words have grown closer over the years, and a few standard dictionaries now define “inept” as “incompetent.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, says one of the senses of “inept” is “generally incompetent” while the online Collins English Dictionary gives one meaning as “awkward, clumsy, or incompetent.”

In the 17th century, both “inept” and “incompetent” meant incapable of doing something, but “inept” had the additional sense of silly or foolish.

Some standard dictionaries still include the silly or foolish sense in their definitions of “inept,” so you’re right to think that “inept” is “a step further,” as you put it, than “incompetent.”

A complication is that “inept” is sometimes confused with “inapt” (not suitable or appropriate) and “unapt” (not likely or inclined)—three words that overlap somewhat.

An “inept” job seeker, for example, may be “inapt” for a certain position or “unapt” to be hired for it.

Some usage guides say “inept” is the more negative of the three terms, and consider its use rude or insulting.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) describes “inept” as an “impolite use” while “inapt” and “unapt” are “reasonably polite.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) says “inept” is “usually intended as an insult” and “it’s an inapt choice in other contexts.”

When “inept” first showed up in English in 1603, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “not adapted or adaptable; not suited [for or to] a purpose; without aptitude; unsuitable, unfit.”

The OED’s first citation is from John Florio’s 1603  translation of a Montaigne essay: “A maner peculiar vnto my selfe, inept to all publike Negotiations.”

A year later, “inept” was recorded in the sense of “absurd; wanting in reason or judgement; silly, foolish,” according to the dictionary.

The first example is from A Counterblaste to Tobacco, a 1604 treatise by King James I of England (James VI of Scotland), expressing his distaste for tobacco:

“As to the Proposition, That because the braines are colde and moist, therefore things that are hote and drie are best for them, it is an inept consequence.”

Later in the 1600s, “inept” came to mean “not suited to the occasion; not adapted to circumstances; out of place, inappropriate.”

The OED’s earliest example is from a 1675 religious treatise by Richard Baxter: “If they mean Negative Propositions, it’s true, but inept.”

We’ll skip the legal senses of “incompetent” (not qualified as testimony or lacking the mental ability to stand trial), which showed up in English in the late 1500s.

In the mid-1600s, “incompetent” took on its modern sense of “inadequate ability or fitness; not having the requisite capacity or qualification; incapable.”

The first Oxford citation is from Fragmenta Regalia, Robert Naunton’s 1641 account of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I: “Sir Francis Knowles was somewhat neare in the Queenes affinitie, and had likewise noe incompetent issue.”

We’ve written before on our blog about the Latin origins of “inept” (also “ept,” “adept,” and “apt”): As we wrote, there was no English word “ept” until it was deliberately created as a humorous antonym to “inept” in the 1930s.

“Inept,” as we said, can be traced to the Latin ineptus, which the OED defines as “unsuited, absurd, foolish.” The Latin word is composed of the negative prefix in- plus the noun aptus, meaning a general tendency.

“Competent,” the opposite of “incompetent,” has been part of the language since the 1400s. It comes from the Latin adjective competentem (suitable, fitting, proper, lawful), which is derived from the verb competere (from which we get “compete”).

So etymologically, the notion of  being “competent” is related to the idea of being “competitive,” and an “incompetent” person can’t “compete.”

The classical Latin competere, by the way, was formed from com– (together) and petere (aim at, fall upon, strive, reach for). To the Romans, competere originally meant to fall together, coincide, or be suitable.

But in medieval Latin competere came to mean “strive together,” as John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins. That’s the sense that gave us our word “compete.”

This is a reminder that Latin, while it was still a living language, grew and changed with the times—just as English does today.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Is “basis” loaded?

Q: I had hoped your “ongoing” article would opine about “on an ongoing basis” and similar constructions. I see phrases like “on a going-forward basis” and “on an expedited basis” more and more (perhaps because I read a lot of documents written by government lawyers). They set my teeth on edge and seem at best wordy.

A: Yes, many of these “basis” expressions could be replaced by simpler modifiers.

Instead of “on a going-forward basis” (which to our surprise produced 90,000 hits on Google), how about “in the future” or “from now on”? And instead of “on an expedited basis” (235,000 hits), why not “quickly”?

We’re not surprised that you find “on an ongoing basis” (a whopping 6.3 million hits!) annoying. It often serves no purpose (other than to give one’s writing an air of stuffiness) and could be deleted.

Here are some recent examples from news stories. Just imagine them without the underlined phrase:

“It is the most common anti-clotting drug, and most people with heart disease are advised to take it daily in low dose on an ongoing basis” (from the New York Times).

“The Red Cross hopes to have 15 to 20 Canadians cycling through West Africa on an ongoing basis for the next six to 12 months” (from Canada’s CTV News).

“Mobile platforms have changed not only how people shop, but have also enabled them to look for deals and bargains on an ongoing basis and make the most of them on the spot” (from Retail Times online).

To be fair, we did find some examples in which “on an ongoing basis” served a legitimate purpose. But even then, it could have been replaced with something simpler. For example:

“It’s no longer about selling them a game once every year. It’s about being able to offer value on an ongoing basis” (quoted in the Washington Post). That one could be replaced with “every day.”

These “basis” constructions also serve a useful purpose when a writer or speaker wants to emphasize an underlying condition or state of affairs: “She was hired on a trial basis” or “They’re on a first-name basis.”

And the constructions are handy when used to emphasize a fixed pattern or system for doing something: “Our employees are paid on a monthly basis.” Though in normal usage, “I’m paid monthly” seems more felicitous to us.

The Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for the phrase “ongoing basis,” but in searches of various databases we found examples dating from the late 1950s.

The earliest was from the September 1959 issue of the journal Biometrics: “providing meaningful data to the clinician on an ongoing basis as opposed to providing him with results based on mere endpoint observations.”

The expression cropped up occasionally during the 1960s, then with increased frequency throughout the 1970s and beyond. It has proved especially popular among scientific, corporate, and governmental writers.

For instance, it appeared no less than six times in a 119-page instructor’s guide, “Professional Career Systems in Housing Management,” published in 1979 for a workshop sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In each of the passages (you’ll have to trust us on this, since we’re in no mood to quote them), the phrase could have been replaced by the adverb “regularly.”

The OED has no discussion on the use of “basis” with temporal adjectives. (The last new citation in the “basis” entry is from 1958.)

But throughout the dictionary, in citations for other words, there are scores of examples in which “basis” is modified by “daily,” “hourly,” “weekly,” “monthly,” “yearly,” “annual,” “regular,” “irregular,” and “continuing.” So “ongoing basis” was probably inevitable.

A final word about “basis,” which English adopted directly from the Latin noun basis (foundation). The earlier Greek noun basis (something to step or stand on) is derived from the verb bainein (to step or go), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

When “basis” entered English in the 1500s it meant the same as “base,” a word that had come into the language through Old French in the 1200s. And for a time, “base” and “basis” had the same meaning—the foundation, pedestal, support, or foot of some material thing.

But around 1600, according to OED citations, “basis” acquired several figurative or transferred meanings in respect to immaterial things: a principal ingredient or constituent, an underlying foundation, a principle, or a fact.

The result is that today “basis” retains only its newer meanings, and it’s no longer used in its original, material sense.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

A hit and a lick

Q: I’m trying to find the origin of “a hit and a lick,” a saying I learned while living in East Texas. I found an article about “a lick and a promise” on your site. I suspect the meaning is similar, but I’d like to have your input.

A: We haven’t been able to find “a hit and a lick” in any of our slang or idiom references, and it doesn’t seem to be used much.

In searches of news and book databases, we’ve found only a couple of dozen examples of the usage, with the earliest dating back to the late 19th century.

We suspect that the usage may be a conflation of two similar expressions: the adjectival phrase  “hit-or-miss” (meaning sometimes successful and sometimes not) and the noun phrase “a lick and a promise” (a superficial effort).

Or it may be a variation on the verbal expression “hit a lick,” which Green’s Dictionary of Slang says can mean, among other things, “to make an effort; usu. in negative combs. implying laziness on behalf of the subj. of the phr. e.g. He hasn’t hit a lick all week.”

Whatever its origin, the expression “a hit and a lick” seems to be used, as you suspect, in the same sense as “a lick and a promise.”

The earliest example of the usage we could find is from the Feb. 27, 1891, issue of the biking journal Wheel and Cycling Trade Review:

“X Bones will plead that, like other members of the club, he has not seen enough of the gentleman recently to be able to tell as much about him as he would like, and so, in the homely old phrase, he will give this sketch ‘a hit and a lick’ and let it go.”

And here’s an example from a 1920 issue of the Institution Quarterly, the journal of the Illinois Department of Public Welfare:

“A hit and a lick here and there have been all it has ever received. Much improvement could be made in its typographical appearance and in the character and preparation of its contents.”

We’ll end with a comment on the Ticketmaster website about a B. B. King concert at the Horseshoe Southern Indiana Hotel on Nov. 16, 2013:

“His band started out the first 15 minutes with instrumentals. He was on stage himself 75 minutes, and only sang parts of two (2) songs with a hit and a lick on both. Most of the time he spent conversing with people on the first row and asking band members if they remembered things and asking his number one back up rhythm guitar player to take over and play some instrumentals.”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

When “George” was “Geo.”

Q: Why are certain men’s names abbreviated in old books and records? Examples: “Geo.” for George, “Thos” for Thomas, “Jos.” for Joseph, “Wm” for William, and “Chas” for Charles?

A: Men’s names aren’t the only ones. Women’s names are shortened in old writing too: “Abig.” for Abigail, “Const.” for Constance, “Lyd.” for Lydia, “My” for Mary, “Urs.” for Ursula, and so on.

Names and other words were abbreviated in old documents to save time and writing material. A census taker, tax collector, or scribe could speed up his work and cut down on paper, parchment, vellum, or papyrus.

Writing material was expensive until the introduction of steam-driven machines to mass-produce paper out of wood pulp in the 19th century.

However, the abbreviating of names and other words didn’t die out with scribes and parchment. Writers now abbreviate in email, texts, tweets, and instant messages.

And some analog types still abbreviate the old-fashioned way. We have a friend in Iowa City who writes only letters for personal correspondence, using every last inch of her stationery and abbreviating like a scribe of yore.

Paleographers, philologists, and linguists have studied  the practice of shortening names and other words over the years.

In a 2013 paper, “Manuscript Abbreviations in Latin and English,” the language researcher  Alpo Honkapohja discusses the practice in classical and medieval times.

“The two main reasons to use abbreviations are the economy of time and the economy of space,” Honkapohja writes.

He says economy of time “was the more important one in Ancient Rome, where abbreviations were needed for making quick transcriptions of spoken language.”

“In late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages,” he adds, “saving parchment became the driving principle.”

In The Handwriting of English Documents (1958), L. C. Hector writes that medieval abbreviations “saved time and space by allowing the scribe to drop letters from his writing of individual words.”

“A word of which the beginning is written and the end omitted is said to be suspended: the most extreme form of suspension is, of course, the representation of a whole word by its initial letter alone,” he says.

When a writer “omits a letter or letters from the middle of a word, so that its beginning and end remain, the word is said to be contracted,” Hector says.

When an abbreviated name is contracted, the last letter can appear in either normal type or superscript. So a contraction of the name William is seen as “Wm” or “Wm” while a contraction of Jonathan (or John) is “Jno.” or “Jno.” in old writing.

When letters are eliminated from the end of an abbreviated name, the shortened form is often followed by a colon or a dot, but the punctuation is often dropped with a contracted name. We’re using dots in this post for all abbreviated names except contractions.

Several genealogical websites include lists of names that are often shortened in old documents.  GeneologyInTime, for example, has a page of abbreviated first names, minus the dots.

And the Treasure Maps Genealogy site has a page that shows how some common abbreviated given names look in handwritten manuscripts.

We’ve had many items on our blog about abbreviations, including a posting in 2013 about the singer-songwriter Prince’s use of letters and numbers in his lyrics as shorthand for sound-alike words.

On a related subject, we wrote a post in 2012 about palimpsest and crossed (or cross) writing, two techniques used to conserve writing material in bygone days.

In crossed writing, a poor or frugal letter writer would fill a page of paper with writing, then turn it sideways and fill the page again with text running perpendicular to the original.

In palimpsest, old writing is scraped or rubbed away from parchment or vellum, so the material can be recycled. Documents made of more fragile papyrus were sometimes washed and used again.

On still another related subject, we’ve discussed nicknames several times on the blog, including posts in 2008, 2011, and 2013.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

A hand in the game

Q: Do you have any idea as to the origins of the expression “a hand in the game” and how old it might be?

A: We’ve found examples of “a hand in the game” in British and American writing—fiction as well as collections of letters and so on—dating back to the early 1800s.

The word “hand” had been used for centuries before that to mean involvement, or “a part or share in doing something,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

That sense of the word is chiefly used, the OED says, in the expression “to have a hand in,” which was first recorded in the 1580s.

This 18th-century quotation from the OED is a good example: “I solemnly protest I had no hand in it,” from Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766).

And here’s a contemporary citation from the OED by Queen Elizabeth, quoted in the Coventry Evening Telegraph (2012):

“Prince Philip and I want to take this opportunity to offer our special thanks and appreciation to all those who have had a hand in organising these Jubilee celebrations.”

So the notion of having “a hand in” may have led to the longer expression “a hand in the game,” with “game” used literally to mean a card game or figuratively to mean some activity or project.

Since the mid-1500s, the OED says, “hand” has been used to mean the set of cards held by a player. And this sense of “hand” has been used figuratively since 1600 to mean one’s lot or fate.

So by extension, to have “a hand in the game” may refer to being a player—if not in an actual card game, then in some other enterprise, good or bad. 

This interpretation seems to make sense, considering the contexts in which 19th-century writers used the expression. Some of them also threw in metaphorical references to cards or gambling.

For instance, this passage describing the character of a miser comes from an essay written in 1815 by Conrad Speece, a newspaper columnist in Staunton, Va.:

“He is capitally skilled in the making of bargains, and makes a great many. On this subject his maxim is, ‘all the world is a cheat, and he is a fool that has no hand in the game.’ ”

And this quotation is from a letter written in 1824 by the Scottish painter Sir David Wilkie. Here he writes to a fellow artist, mentioning that the two of them had promised to do a joint drawing of a nobleman’s stately home:

“I successfully showed his Lordship that the delay did not rest with me, that you were the first hand in the game, and that it was not my turn till you had played your card.” (Notice that Wilkie also uses the image of “playing a card” to mean “making a move.”)

The expression cropped up a few years later, in 1827, when Thomas Carlyle translated a passage from the German writer Jean Paul Friedrich Richter:

“However, I could not speak to her, nor as little to the Devil, who might well be supposed to have a hand in the game.”

And later in the century, we find this example in Robert Louis Stevenson’s travelogue An Inland Voyage (1878): “In a place where you have taken some root you are provoked out of your indifference; you have a hand in the game.” 

Over the centuries, card games have given us many phrases that have acquired meanings beyond the poker or bridge table:

to “show [or declare] one’s hand”; to “lay the cards on the table”; to “be dealt a bad [or good] hand”; to “trump” someone; to play to one’s “strong [or weak] suit”: to “have a difficult hand to play,” and others.

Our guess is that “a hand in the game” is one more.

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