English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

A conspiracy or an intrigue?

Q: In a New Yorker story, Isaac Bashevis Singer writes, “Morris Krakower is clever at conspiracy, but intrigue isn’t necessary here.” I’ve googled and thesaurused, but I’m apparently too dense to get the distinction. I’m hoping you will clarify it for me.

A: The story, “Inventions,” describes a visit by Krakower, a representative of the Communist International, to Warsaw in the 1930s to address a leftist conference on world peace.

In his speech, Krakower defends Stalinism and “proclaims that only the dictatorship of the proletariat can insure peace.”

Although the Polish police have spies in the audience, Krakower isn’t concerned about secrecy. “A few weeks of prison,” he thinks, “can only enhance the prestige of a Party worker.”

So what does Singer mean when he writes that Comrade Krakower “is clever at conspiracy, but intrigue isn’t necessary here”?

We suspect he means that Krakower doesn’t have to resort to convoluted skullduggery to keep his work for the Communist Party secret.

Of course Singer, who died in 1991, was writing in Yiddish, not English. The translator of his story, Aliza Shevrin, is responsible for the English wording.

But is there really a distinction between “conspiracy” and “intrigue”? Not much, as far as we can see, at least not when the two words are used in the cloak-and-dagger sense.

Standard dictionaries generally define “conspiracy” as a secret plan by two or more people to do something illegal or harmful. And the dictionaries define “intrigue” as a secret plot or scheme.

About the only difference we can see is that it takes at least two people to conspire, but only one to intrigue.

When English adapted “conspiracy” from the Latin conspiratio in the 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word meant pretty much what it does today—a “combination of persons for an evil or unlawful purpose.”

The OED’s earliest citation, from “The Monk’s Tale” (circa 1386) by Chaucer, says Brutus and Cassius “Ful privately hath made conspiracie / Agains this Julius in subtil wise.”

When English borrowed “intrigue” from French in the mid-17th century, it referred to “intricacy, complexity; a complicated contrivance; a maze, a labyrinth,” according to Oxford, though that sense is now obsolete.

Before the century was over, the dictionary says, the English term took on the contemporary sense of “underhand plotting or scheming.”

Here’s an early example from The Usurper, a 1668 play by Edward Howard: “Intregue (the true Soul and Genius of the Stage).”

And here’s another, from a 1692 English translation of an essay by the French writer Charles de Saint-Évremond: “He was made Cardinal by Intrigues, Factions, and Tumults.”

Around the same time, “intrigue” took on its sense of “clandestine illicit intimacy between a man and a woman; a liaison,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for this usage is from The Ephesian and Cimmerian Matrons (1668), by Walter Charleton: “She in like manner falls into an Intrigue (as they nowadays call it).”

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English English language Expression Grammar Usage

If only …

Q: I’m confused about the tense of verbs in “if only” sentences. For example: “The world would be better if only people would understand each other.” Does this sound OK to you?

A: The phrase “if only” is used in this hypothetical way “to express a strong wish that things could be different,” according to Cambridge Dictionaries Online.

When used to discuss a wish about the present, Cambridge says, the “if only” part of the sentence should be in the past tense.

So your example, according to the dictionary, should read: “The world would be better if only people understood each other.”

When used to discuss a wish about the past, Cambridge says, the “if only” part should be in the past perfect.

Example: “The world would have been better if only people had understood each other.”

And to discuss a wish about the future or to contrast how things are with how we’d like them to be, the “if only” part should be in the conditional.

Example: “The world could be a better place if only people would understand each other.”

We’ll add that in the US, “if only” is used with the subjunctive to express a wish about the present. However, this is obvious only when the verb is “be.”

Example: “If only the world were better, people would understand each other.” (In Britain, where the subjunctive is on the decline, “was” would generally be used.)

The Cambridge entry for “if only” is borrowed from English Grammar Today, a Cambridge University Press guide written by Ronald Carter, Michael McCarthy, Geraldine Mark, and Anne O’Keeffe.

The online Oxford Dictionaries defines this wishful use of “if only” somewhat differently (the example expresses a wish about the past): “Used to express a wish, especially regretfully: if only I had listened to you.”

Oxford gives this example of “if only” used in a more complex construction: “Most salmon anglers have a wish list of places they would love to fish if only they could afford it.”

Oxford notes that the phrase “if only” has an additional meaning: “Even if for no other reason than: Willy would have to tell George more, if only to keep him from pestering.”

The dictionary has several other examples of the usage, including this one about Kingsley Amis’s novel Lucky Jim and the poet Philip Larkin:

“It has also prompted me to get Lucky Jim out of the library if only for the shallow reason that Larkin is the dedicatee.”

Finally, an “if” sentence never needs more than one “would,” as in this common error: “If I would have shown him, he would have believed me.” We wrote a post a few years ago about how to juggle two different tenses in one “if” sentence.

In short, here’s the drill:

(1) When the first verb is in the simple present, the second is in the simple future: “If I show him, he will believe me.”

(2) When the first verb is in the simple past, the second is in the simple conditional: “If I showed him, he would believe me.”

(3) When the first verb is in the past perfect, the second is in the conditional perfect: “If I had shown him, he would have believed me.”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

“Accede” vs. “concede”

Q: We have been thinking about the difference between “accede” and “concede.” Can you concede something without acceding to it? Or vice versa? Thanks for any help/guidance you can provide.

A: Both of these verbs express a kind of giving in or acquiescence. The difference is that “concede” has an element of defeat, while “accede” implies a more ready acceptance.

Standard dictionaries define “concede” as to yield, surrender, or admit defeat, or to acknowledge—perhaps grudgingly—that something is true.

And they define “accede” as to give consent or approval, or to agree to a request or demand.

(We’re summarizing the modern definitions in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.)

So yes, it’s possible to “concede” without “acceding,” because the verbs represent different levels of acquiescence. You might reluctantly agree to something without approving of it.

The truth is that few people use “accede” in ordinary English. “Concede” is much more common. Instead of “accede,” a speaker or writer is more likely to use a common synonym—agree with, approve of, or consent to.

On the surface, it would appear that the two words were derived from “cede,” but in fact neither of them were.

It’s true that at the heart of all three English words is the Latin cedere, a verb that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “to go away, give way, yield.”

But “accede” predated “cede” by a couple of centuries, while “concede” appeared on the scene around the same time as “cede” or a bit earlier.

What’s more, the prefixes (“con-” and “ac-”) are no help in figuring out the different meanings of “accede” and “concede,” so the words are easy to confuse.

“Accede” came into English from the Anglo-Norman and Middle French verb acceder, meaning to approach, accept, or agree to.

That verb’s counterpart in classical Latin, accedere, had several meanings, Oxford explains, including “to go or come (to), draw near, approach, to enter, to resort (to), to attach oneself, join, to agree, assent.”

The Latin suffix ac- (“to” or “toward”) was a variant of ad– that was used before certain letters.

It’s difficult to say just how old “accede” is in English writing. The OED says it could date back to 1425 or even earlier.

But the first definite citation, Oxford says, was recorded in 1465, when the verb meant “to come forward, approach, or arrive (at a place or state).”

Another early meaning of “accede” was to join with or give support. But those early senses of the word are long dead.

The meaning of “accede” that’s still with us, a sense first recorded in 1534, is “to assent, agree, give way,” according to Oxford.

A later meaning, to come into office or assume a position, came along in the mid-1700s and is often used in reference to royalty, as when a monarch “accedes” to the throne. (We also refer to a king or queen’s “accession.”)

Now for the latecomers, “cede” and “concede,” which came into English in the 17th century.

“Cede” first appeared in 1633, the OED says, a borrowing either from French or (more directly) from Latin.

Originally, “cede” meant “to give way, give place, yield to”—as in “a servant cedes to his master.”

But that early meaning is now obsolete, Oxford says, and since the 1750s to “cede” has meant “to give up, grant; to yield, surrender: esp. to give up a portion of territory.”

The modern sense of the word first appeared in the travel writings of Alexander Drummond in 1754: “That honour was entirely ceded to the Parthian royal race.”

“Concede” was first recorded in 1632, so it and “cede” showed up at virtually the same time.

“Concede” came either from the French conceder or directly from the Latin concedere, which Oxford defines as “to withdraw, give way, yield, grant, etc.”

The essential meaning of “concede” was—and still is—“to grant, yield, or surrender” something like a right or a privilege, Oxford explains. (Here the prefix “con-” means “altogether.”)

In the 1640s, according to the OED, a new sense of “concede” was recorded: “to admit, allow, grant (a proposition), to acknowledge the truth, justice, or propriety of (a statement, claim, etc.).”

For example, in an argument a speaker might “concede” a point or “concede” that a statement is true.

The “concede” that means to admit defeat in an election was first recorded in 1824, when a Kentucky newspaper, the Commentator, reported:  “This state is generally conceded to General Jackson.”

And of course when a candidate  “concedes,” a “concession” speech is not far behind.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Beside yourself? Where’s that?

Q: I’ve been wondering about the origin of the phrase “beside myself.” Any idea where it comes from? And where am I when I’m beside myself?

A: The earliest example of “beside oneself” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1490 translation by William Caxton of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Mad and beside herself.”

The OED defines the phrase as “out of one’s wits, out of one’s senses,” and compares it to expressions in French (hors de soi) and German (ausser sich) that mean the same thing.

Here’s a 1611 example from Acts 26:24 in the King James Bible: “Festus saide with a lowd voyce, Paul, thou art beside thy selfe, much learning doeth make thee mad.”

And this example is in More Leaves From the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, an 1884 collection from Queen Victoria’s journals: “I felt quite beside myself for joy and gratitude.”

The preposition “beside” literally meant “by the side of” when it showed up in Middle English in the late 1200s. By the late 1300s, it had taken on the sense of “outside of.”

So someone who’s “beside himself” is “outside himself”—that is, “out of his mind.”

In fact, the expression “beside oneself” showed up around the same time as “out of one’s mind,” which the OED defines as “having lost control of one’s mental faculties; insane, deranged, delirious.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for “out of one’s mind” is from Polychronicon (c. 1342), a chronicle of history and theology written in Latin by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden and posthumously translated into Middle English in 1387: “And fil anon out of his mynde.”

Oxford notes that the expression is now used in the “weakened” slang sense of “stoned (also bombed, pissed, etc.),” as well as “stupefied, extremely intoxicated, or incapacitated by drink or drugs,” and “bored out of one’s mind.”

Here are a few OED citations for the newer senses:

“He was bombed out of his mind,” New York Times Magazine, Aug. 23, 1964.

“He would only be taken in charge if he was drunk: were he to spend his ten shillings on getting stoned out of his mind the police would happily accommodate him,” the Listener, Nov. 28, 1968.

“She was bored out of her mind, she said, by winter in Glengarriff,” from Round Ireland in Low Gear (1987), by Eric Newby.

“Not when I’m pissed out of my mind,” from “Summer Girl,” a short story by John MacKenna  in The Fallen and Other Stories (1992).

Finally, we shouldn’t overlook “out of it,” an expression that meant “not involved” when it showed up in the early 1800s, the OED says, but that evolved into a 20th-century slang term meaning “confused, stupefied, or unconscious, esp. after consuming drink or drugs.”

Here’s a 1963 example from the journal American Speech: “Drunk: soused, out of it, stoned, bombed.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Bragging rights

Q: I often use the phrase “brag on” when I speak of praising or boasting about my friends. One of those friends feels “brag on” is too slangy. What are your thoughts?

A: Your use of “brag on” as a verb phrase meaning to praise or to boast about isn’t slang, but it’s considered an American regionalism.

In standard usage, “brag” is paired with a different preposition—“about” or “of”—and it’s usually used in the sense of boasting, not praising.

The Dictionary of American Regional English combines both senses in its definition of “brag on” as “to praise or boast about someone or something.”

Today the usage is chiefly heard in midland America, according to DARE, but in the 19th century it was also heard on the East Coast.

The dictionary has examples ranging as far back as this one from Massachusetts in 1850: “It would have been somethin’ to brag on, I know.” In that citation, “brag on” clearly means the same as “brag about” or “boast about.”

DARE also has examples from other parts of the Eastern United States, including New York, Baltimore, and South Carolina.

But most of the examples recorded since the 1940s are from farther west: Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Louisiana. All these speakers use “brag on” the way you do, meaning either to boast about or to praise.

Here are a few of the examples: “(He) brags on himself” … “He bragged on how big and how pretty my horses were” … “I bragged on all the kids and dogs and he invited me in.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “brag” as “to vaunt, talk boastfully, boast oneself,” a usage first recorded in 1377.

When “brag” is followed by a preposition, the OED says, it’s generally “about” or “of.” In earlier times, though, the prepositions “in” and “on” were occasionally used with “brag,” according to the dictionary.

The OED, which describes the use of “brag in” and “brag on” as obsolete, doesn’t mention the regional American usage.

A sense of “brag” that arose in the 17th century—meaning “to declare or assert boastfully, to boast”—doesn’t need a preposition. It’s often followed by a clause introduced by “that,” according to Oxford citations.

Here’s an early example: “The verie meanest … bragged that they had bathed their hands in the bloud of a Lutheran” (from a 1631 edition of John Foxe’s Actes & Monuments).

Before we close, we can’t resist mentioning an etymological curiosity. No one has ever figured out the origin of “brag,” which dates back to around 1300 in one form or another (it’s been an adjective, an adverb, a noun, and a verb).

French has some similar words but they weren’t recorded until the 1500s, so French probably got braguer (to brag) from English rather than vice versa.

However, as the OED notes, a couple of 16th-century English derivatives, “braggart” and “braggery,” may have been borrowed from the French bragard  and braguerie.

In case you’re tempted to suggest that the Italians got there first with braggadocio, that’s a great suggestion but it’s not true. “Braggadocio” is an English word, a mock-Italian invention of the poet Edmund Spenser.

The story, as described in the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, is that in The Faerie Queene (1590), Spenser combined “brag” with the Italian suffix -occhio to form the name of a character who personified boastfulness.

Spenser spelled the name “Braggadocchio,” and no doubt intended the end to be pronounced as in Italian—“kyo.” Today “braggadocio” is spelled, and pronounced, as if  it ended in “sheeo” or “sho.”

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

Let there be light

Q: After reading your post about the imperative use of “let,” I have a question. What is the function of “let” in the biblical command “Let there be light”? God can’t be addressing the light, since it doesn’t exist yet. So who or what is being addressed? And what purpose does “let” serve here?

A: The English expression “Let there be light” isn’t a literal translation of the Hebrew wording in Genesis: יהי אור. A word for word translation would be “exist light” or “light will be” or some variation.

So a literal translation of the full Hebrew text of Genesis 1:3, ויאמר אלהים יהי אור ויהי־אור, could be “And God said, ‘Light will be,’ and light was.” (We’ve added capitalization and punctuation.)

However, let’s not get too literal. The usual English translation (“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light”) accurately and elegantly reflects the sense of the Hebrew.

Although the Hebrew phrase יהי אור may literally mean “light will be,” it’s in the jussive mood, which in Semitic languages expresses a weak or an indirect command.

Biblical translators have generally felt that “Let there be light” is the best wording to represent the jussive mood of יהי אור in Genesis 1:3. And we can’t think of a better one.

The biblical scholar Nahum M. Sarna, in the JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, discusses the use of יהי (“be” or “exist”) in Verse 3: “The directive yehi, found again in Verses 6 and 14, is reserved for the creation of celestial phenomena.”

In our opinion, you’re right that God isn’t addressing the light. He’s not addressing anyone or anything here. He’s simply creating light—that is, ordering that light exist.

In fact, it’s not clear that God is even speaking. The Hebrew verb אמר may mean “intend” as well as “say.” In this case, it may simply be a way to express divine will in human language.

(We won’t get into the old question of where the light came from, since the sun hadn’t been created yet. Biblical scholars have spent a lot of time on this already.)

What purpose, you ask, does “let” serve in the expression “Let there be light”?

When the imperative “let” is used in the sense of “allow” or “permit” or “cause,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it can function as an auxiliary to the infinitive that follows—“be,” “bring forth,” and so on.

The OED gives several examples of the usage, including this one from The Mariner’s Magazine, a 1669 book by Samuel Sturmy about nautical navigation: “Let there be an hole about an Inch deep, which shall serve to Prime it with Powder-dust.”

The English scholar and clergyman William Tyndale is credited with introducing the expression “Let there be light” in his 1525 translation of the Bible.

His Bible was the first to appear in print in English, though John Wycliffe and others translated full or partial versions in English before the advent of printing.

Tyndale’s poetic biblical writing has given us such familiar phrases as “flowing with milk and honey,” “the apple of his eye,” “eat, drink, and be merry,” “the salt of the earth,” “the powers that be,” and “my brother’s keeper.”

And his translation heavily influenced the King James Version. In The Social Universe of the English Bible (2010), Naomi Tadmor writes that “about 83 per cent of the New Testament is deemed to be based on Tyndale and 76 per cent of the Old.”

But Tyndale ran afoul of Henry VIII by opposing the king’s plan to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. As a result, Tyndale met a grisly end.

On Oct. 6, 1536, he was convicted of heresy and put to death at Vilvoorde Castle near Brussels by being strangled and burned at the stake.

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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.

Pat on writing

Pat discusses the writing life in an interview with the novelist Jenna Leigh Evans.

English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Is “redouble” to quadruple?

Q: I hear many politicians vow to “redouble” their efforts. When did this become an acceptable term and what does it literally mean—to quadruple one’s efforts?

A: The verb “redouble” has been an acceptable term since the mid-1400s, when it did indeed mean to quadruple.

But today “redouble” generally means to double or increase greatly, or to double an opponent’s double in bridge.

When English borrowed the term from Middle French in the mid-15th century, it meant to double for the second time or to double repeatedly.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Reule of Crysten Religioun (circa 1443), in which the English prelate Reginald Pecock writes that one should “double þis and ȝitt redouble it” (double this and still redouble it).

Although this sense of “redouble” isn’t seen much now, the OED does have a citation for the usage from the January 2003 issue of Wired magazine:

“Even worse are the dupers–counterfeiters who look for software bugs that let them double and redouble their gold on command, turning a single piece into into billions with just a few mouseclicks.” (We’ve expanded the Oxford citation.)

By the late 15th century, “redouble” was being used in the looser sense of “to increase, multiply; to intensify,” according to the OED.

The dictionary has a questionable 1473 citation from the writer-printer William Caxton as well as this definite example from Caxton’s 1490 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Redoublen her sorowes and her trystesses enforce more vpon her.”

The looser sense of “redouble” is similar to the usage in Middle French and Old French, where redoubler could mean “to continue with greater intensity” or “to multiply (something) by two,” according to Oxford.

Although “re-” often has the sense in English of doing something for a second time, the OED notes a “loss of distinct meaning” for the prefix in some English words and even earlier in some Latin terms.

(In a recent post, we discussed a question about a similar subject, the apparently unnecessary  “re-” in the word “reduplicative.”)

In other words, it’s not at all surprising that a politician would now use the verb “redouble” to mean merely to double or to increase greatly.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Pay attention!

Q: Have you done a piece on the blog about why we “pay attention” rather than “give attention” or, as the French say, “do attention”?

A: No, we haven’t explored this yet, so thanks for the suggestion.

You’re right that the verb phrase “pay attention” is more common and idiomatic than “give attention” when the speaker means “be attentive.” However, we can “give” someone our attention as well as “pay” attention to someone.

But getting back to your question, “paying” doesn’t always imply money changing hands.

The verb “pay,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has long meant “to render, bestow, or give,” and what’s bestowed can be attention, a compliment, even one’s allegiance or homage, to mention just a few examples.

For instance, you can “pay your respects,” “pay a compliment,” “pay heed” to advice, and “pay a visit.” In times gone by, a suitor would “pay his addresses” to a young lady. And she might either “pay attention” or “pay him no mind.”

These citations from the OED illustrate how “pay” has been used in this way over the centuries.

1600: “Not paying mee a welcome” (from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

1667: “You deserve wonder, and they pay but praise” (from a poem by the Earl of Orrery).

1711: “After having paid their Respects to Sir Roger” (Joseph Addison in the Spectator).

1711: “Let us pay Visits, but never see one another” (Richard Steele in the Spectator).

1724: “many Honours were paid to the worst of Princes” (from a translation of an epistle by Pliny the Younger).

1766: “Farmer Williams … had paid her his addresses” (Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield).

1792: “the privileges of friendship, or the momentary homage which the heart pays to virtue.” (Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman).

1796: “The Gentlemen paid her many compliments” (Eliza Parsons’s novel The Mysterious Warning).

1847: “Miss Murray was gone in the carriage with her mamma to pay some morning calls” (Anne Brontë’s novel Agnes Grey).

1866: “Too little attention being paid to the progress of opinion” (The Reign of Law, by the Duke of Argyll).

1882: “They paid little heed to the sermon” (The Revolt of Man, by Walter Besant).

1939: “ ‘Pay her no mind, Moses,’ Jethro said, dropping into the vernacular” (Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Moses, Man of the Mountain).

English acquired the verb “pay” in the early 1200s by way of Anglo-Norman and Old French (it was paiier or paier in Old French), according to the OED.

The Old French verb meant, among other things, “to be reconciled to someone,” Oxford says, reflecting its classical Latin ancestor pacare (to appease or pacify), derived from pax (peace).

As the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology explains, “The meaning in Latin of pacify or satisfy developed through Medieval Latin into that of pay a creditor, and so to pay, generally, in the Romance languages.”

Some of the earliest meanings of “pay” in English are obsolete today—including to pacify, or to be pleasing or satisfactory to someone.

But senses relating to handing over money—or whatever is figuratively owed to someone—are just as old, and of course they’re still with us.

In modern English, “pay” is also used with adverbs in such phrasal verbs as “pay up,” “pay over,” “pay down,” “pay in,” and “pay out” (in speaking of a line or rope as well as money).

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Cultural learnings of America?

Q: The word “learnings” is popular in scientific settings, but to some of us it’s just bad grammar. Your thoughts please?

A: The word “learnings” is popular not only in science, but also in academia, business, finance—in fact, it’s common with all the usual suspects when the subject of unidiomatic English comes up.

Perhaps the most popular use of the term is in the broken English of Sasha Baron Cohen’s mockumentary Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

We’ve found hundreds of other examples of the usage online, including the “Best Practices & Key Learnings” page about diversity on the University of Cincinnati’s website.

Here’s one from the website of the Center for Sustainable Energy: “Learnings from California’s Market Transformation Programs.”

And this example is from Worldreader, a site that encourages literacy around the world: “Learnings From Libraries.”

The word “learnings” is being used here as a synonym for plural nouns such as “findings,” “conclusions,” and “results” as well as singulars like “upshot” and “takeaway.”

We wouldn’t describe this as bad grammar. Rather we’d say it’s an unidiomatic usage, or perhaps a possible new usage in its infancy, or even the revival of an old usage from the 17th century.

In Cymbeline, Shakespeare uses the word “learnings” in the sense of “lessons” or “instructions,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the play, written around 1611, the King takes an orphaned baby into his protection and “Puts to him all the learnings that his time / Could make him the receiver of.” (We’ve expanded on the OED citation.)

Francis Bacon, in The Elements of the Common Lawes of England (1630), uses the term in the sense of teachings or doctrines: “Particular and positive learnings of lawes doe easily decline from a good temper of iustice.”

The OED also has examples from the 1600s of “learnings” used to mean a branch of learning or a science, but the dictionary doesn’t have any citations for the plural word after the 17th century.

Yes, “learnings” has a history, but it sounds to contemporary ears (at least to our contemporary ears) as bureaucratese, academese, or corporatese.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

By Jove, here comes the coroner

Q: In your “by George” article, you fail to mention that the expression “by Jove” was probably a precursor to “by George.” Just thought I’d point that out.

A: Yes, you’re right that “by Jove” was a precursor to “by George”—chronologically speaking, if not etymologically.

We’ve written several times about mild oaths that use euphemistic substitutes for the name of God (“gosh darn it,” “for Pete’s sake,” “by George,” “good golly,” and others), including posts in 2008, 2011, and 2012.

However, we haven’t discussed “by Jove,” which wasn’t a euphemism when it first showed up in English. Here’s the story.

The phrases “by Jove” and “by Jupiter” were originally Latin oaths, pro Iovem and pro Iuppiter. These were used quite literally—not euphemistically—by the Romans to mean something like “my God!” or “good God!”

The supreme deity of the Romans was Jove or Jupiter, wielder of thunderbolts (he was Zeus to the Greeks).

In classical times, the name was written as Iovis or Iuppiter (Iuppiter was a compound of the archaic Latin Iovis and pater). There was no “j” in classical Latin. The letter “i” was both a consonant and a vowel; as a consonant, it sounded like the English letter “y.”

The Roman playwright Terence used the exclamation pro Iuppiter! several times in his plays.

In The Interjections of Terence (1899), Walter Russell Newton writes, “Pro generally indicates pain or grief, but sometimes anger, and less frequently joy.” In English, he says, it should be translated as “O.”

The exclamations “by Jove” and “by Jupiter” eventually filtered into poetic and literary English, but they were not euphemisms at first, since they invoked the name of an actual Roman deity.

The earliest English example for “by Jupiter” in the Oxford English Dictionary (spelled “Iuppiter” in Middle English) clearly uses the term in reference to the Roman god. Here’s the passage, from Chaucer’s poem Troilus & Criseyde (circa 1374):

“By þe goddesse Mynerue And Iuppiter þat maketh þe þonder rynge … ye be the womman … That I best loue.” (“By the goddess Minerva and Jupiter that maketh the thunder ring … you be the woman … that I best love.”)

The OED’s earliest example for “by Jove” also uses the term in reference to the Roman deity. Here’s the citation, from Apius and Virginia, an anonymous 1575 play set in classical times:

“By Ioue master Marchant, by sea or by land / Would get but smale argent if I did not stand, / His very good master, I may say to you.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

In Elizabethan times, the exclamation “by Jove” was being used both as a mild euphemistic oath and as a reference to the Roman god. Shakespeare used it in eight of his plays, sometimes literally and sometimes euphemistically.

In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Lord Berowne, an attendant to the King of Navarre, uses “Jove” euphemistically when he jokes about arithmetic with Costard, a country bumpkin: ”By Ioue, I all wayes tooke three threes for nine.”

And in Antony and Cleopatra (circa 1607), Antony refers to the actual Roman god when he addresses Thyreus, a messenger from Caesar to Cleopatra: “Favours, by Jove that thunders!  / What art thou, fellow?”

As for “by George” (a mild oath with “George” as a euphemism for God), the phrase began life in the late 1500s in a slightly different form. It was originally “for (or fore) George,” and later appeared as “before George,” according to OED citations.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Ben Jonson’s 1598 play Every Man in His Humor: “I, Well! he knowes what to trust to, for George.”

The next Oxford citation is from John Dryden’s 1680 comedy The Kind Keeper: “Before George, ’tis so!”

The OED’s first “by George” quotation is from a 1694 translation of Rudens, a comedy by Plautus: “By George, you shan’t be a Sowce the better for what’s in it.”

Did the phrase “by Jove” influence “by George”?

Well, the use of “by Jove” as a euphemistic oath showed up about the same time as the euphemistic use of “for George.” But it took almost a century more for the “by George” version to show up.

We’ll skip ahead a bit now and give a couple of OED citations for “by Jove” from 19th-century novels:

“ ‘Venus and the Graces, by Jove!’ exclaimed Sir Sampson.” (From Marriage, 1818, by Susan Edmonstone Ferrier.)

And this one, from Wyllard’s Weird (1885), by Mary Elizabeth Braddon: “By Jove! here comes the Coroner.”

Since we can hardly improve on that, we’ll stop.

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English English language Grammar Punctuation Usage

Comma relief

Q: Do I need a comma after the word “expert” in this sentence: “I spoke with an expert and if I were a betting man, I would pick the Cowboys.” The few “experts” I have consulted seem unsure of the rule for punctuating a complex sentence like that.

A: Sometimes commas are optional, and your sentence is a good example. There’s no specific “rule” for punctuating a sentence like that.

If it were up to us, here’s what we would suggest: “I spoke with an expert, and if I were a betting man I would pick the Cowboys.”

Why? Because of the three clauses, the last two are more closely connected than the first two. We would separate the first clause from the rest, because we sense a natural division there.

However, other writers might disagree; they might prefer a differently placed comma, or two commas, or none at all.

Even when only two clauses of this type are involved, the use of commas is a matter of preference rather than correctness.

You might choose this, for example: “If I were a betting man I would pick the Cowboys.” But this would be equally correct: “If I were a betting man, I would pick the Cowboys.”

There’s a certain amount of flexibility in the use of commas to separate clauses. As The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says, “punctuation practice is by no means entirely uniform.”

For example, the Cambridge Grammar notes the “distinction between light and heavy punctuation styles.” It gives these examples:

light or “open” style: “On Sundays they like to have a picnic lunch in the park if it’s fine.”

heavy or “closed” style: “On Sundays, they like to have a picnic lunch in the park, if it’s fine.”

“This distinction,” the authors explain, “has to do with optional punctuation, especially commas: a light style puts in relatively few commas (or other marks) in those places where they are optional rather than obligatory.”

When in doubt, let your ear decide. If you feel a pause is in order, exercise your option and stick in a comma.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Do you party hardy or hearty?

Q: Throughout my life, I have thought that “hardy” meant being able to withstand hard things, while “hearty” referred to doing things heartily. Why do so many people say “party hardy” when I would say “party hearty”?

A: Well, “party hearty” is the older of the two phrases, but both of them have been around for dozens of years, and “party hardy” is slightly more popular on the Web.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the colloquial verb phrases “party hearty” and “party hardy” mean the same thing: “go to parties, celebrate, drink, etc., esp. unrestrainedly.”

The OED’s earliest citation for “party hearty” is from a headline in the Dec. 24, 1955, issue of the Washington Post: “Young set still party hearty.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for “party hardy” is from the July 7, 1977, issue of the same newspaper: “ ‘Party hardy! Yeehaw!’ yelled Brenda Stephens, 14.”

Oxford says the “hardy” form “seems likely to derive from the expression party hard,” with the “-y” suffix added “for reduplicative effect.”

(We’ve written several times on the blog about reduplicatives, terms with recurring sounds. A recent post discusses examples like “goody goody,” “bow-wow,” and “choo-choo.”)

The OED also has citations for “party hearty” and “party hardy” used as adjectival phrases, including these two:

“Those party-hearty people who manage, somehow, to take in four and five debuts a day are complaining,” from the Dec. 24, 1955, issue of the Washington Post.

“The Gang cranks up one of its party-hardy grooves,” from the Jan. 14, 1985, issue of People Weekly.

And the Dictionary of American Slang (4th ed.) has an entry for the noun phrase “party hearty.” The dictionary defines the noun as a “party animal” and gives this example:

“He attracted a Hollywood set of Hawaiian-shirt party hearties who sunned themselves like alligators down in Key West.”

We suspect, as you do, that “party hardy” was initially the result of an eggcorn, the misinterpretation of a word or phrase as another word or phrase. The linguists Geoffrey Pullum and Mark Liberman coined this term for a substitution—like “egg corn” for “acorn.”

The OED suggests that the American accent may have contributed to the substitution of “hardy” for “hearty.”

“The interchangeability of hardy with hearty is likely to have arisen because their U.S. pronunciation is frequently identical,” the dictionary says. It notes that the usage originated in the US and is chiefly seen there.

The Eggcorn Database, a collaborative collection of eggcorns, has a Feb. 20, 2005, entry on “party hardy” submitted by the linguist Ben Zimmer.

Zimmer cites two songs released in 1977: “Party Hardy,” by the funk band Slave, and “We Party Hearty,” by the funk band L.T.D.

Ten years ago, when Zimmer wrote his entry for the Eggcorn Database, he said the usage was running “about 1.3:1 in favor of party hearty.”

Our Internet searches indicate that Web usage is now running slightly in favor of “party hardy,” indicating that the “hardy” version is gaining in popularity. And popularity is what ultimately determines common usage in English.

Which, you ask, makes more sense: “party hardy” or “party hearty”?

Colloquial expressions don’t always make sense, but if we’re talking about people who party hard until they drink themselves under the table (as the OED’s definition suggests), then the partyers had better be hardy.

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Is a “nor’easter” full of hot air?

Q: “Nor’easter”: A phony? I await your comment.

A: Yes, “nor’easter” has been exposed. It’s not the charming regionalism that it pretends to be.

We wrote a post to this effect back in 2007, and we’ve also written about it in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“New England has given us plenty: Boston baked beans, Vermont maple syrup, the Red Sox, Robert Frost, L. L. Bean, and the image of a Maine lobsterman, his yellow slicker flapping in the wind as he braves a menacing nor’easter. The only problem with this stormy picture is that no self-respecting Penobscot Bay lobsterman would use the term ‘nor’easter.’ No, it’s not, as many TV weather people have led us to believe, a quaint New England regionalism.

“The word ‘nor’easter’ is a contraction of ‘northeaster,’ a blustery storm with northeasterly winds. The storm has long been associated with New England, but the term ‘nor’easter’ isn’t native to the land of clam chowdah, according to many linguists and a great many coastal New Englanders. The locals, they say, have always pronounced the word by dropping the two r’s, not the th, making it sound something like ‘nawtheastah.’

“As for where ‘nor’easter’ comes from, it all started in England, not New England. The earliest published reference to ‘nor’easter’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1837 translation of an Aristophanes play, The Knights: ‘Slack your sheet! A strong nor’easter’s groaning.’ ”

Hmm. Doesn’t sound very Greek, does it? At any rate, as we go on to say in Origins:

“The OED has even earlier citations for the abbreviations ‘nor’ and ‘nor’east,’ which have been used to refer to compass points since Elizabethan times.

“So how did ‘nor’easter’ cross the Atlantic and end up in the mouth of that mythical Maine lobsterman? The linguist Mark Liberman, who grew up in southern New England, says the term ‘seems faker to me than the lederhosen at the Biergarten in Walt Disney World.’ He attributes the usage to overimaginative journalists who probably embraced ‘nor’easter’ as a ‘literary affectation’ (like ‘e’en’ for ‘even’). ‘However,’ Liberman says, ‘as a linguist I have to admit that a nor’easter is what storms like this have become, in the English language at large, whether we like it or not.’”

We conclude that when a regionalism is just too charming not to exist, then it has to be invented.

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