English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

A disruptive spelling

Q: Is “disruptor” emerging as an alternative spelling for the traditional “disrupter”? Or do the editors at Forbes and Vanity Fair err when they spell it with an “o” instead of an “e”?

A: Dictionaries give “disrupter” as the usual spelling, but some do give “disruptor” as an acceptable variant.

You can find the variant spelling in the Oxford English Dictionary as well as Merriam Webster’s Unabridged, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), and the Collins English Dictionary online.

No matter how you spell it, this is a relatively recent agent noun (agent nouns represent doers—people or things that do something).

It was first recorded in the late 19th century and is defined in the OED as “one who breaks up” or “one who causes disruption.”

Agent nouns, which we’ve written about on our blog, usually end in either “-or” or “-er.” As a general rule, the “-er” nouns come from Germanic sources while those ending in “-or” come from Latin.

But there are many exceptions, and some agent nouns (like “advisor” and “adviser”) come in both forms. Apparently “disrupter”—when it’s spelled like that—is one of the exceptions.

The noun is ultimately derived from the Latin verb disrumpere, which means to break into pieces or burst asunder, as the OED says. And since it comes from Latin, one would expect it to have an “-or” ending in English.

But the noun had strayed far from its Latin roots when it arrived in the 1880s. That may explain why there was apparently some confusion as to its spelling early on.

Here are the two OED citations from that time, and you’ll note that the spellings differ:

1881: “These eminent Disrupters had been passionate advocates for the nationality of the Church.” (From the Saturday Review.)

1886: “They denounced Mr. Gladstone as a betrayer of his country and a disruptor of the Empire.” (From the Pall Mall Gazette.)

We wouldn’t worry too much about the different spellings. The editors at Forbes and Vanity Fair apparently don’t, since you can find many examples of the word spelled both ways in each magazine.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

“Hunker” or “bunker” down?

Q: I keep hearing the phrase “bunker down” during storms. Shouldn’t it be “hunker,” not “bunker”?

A: If your meaning is to settle in for a long time or wait for a difficult situation to end, the customary verb phrase is “hunker down.”

The verb “bunker” (minus the adverb “down”) usually means to hit a golf ball into a sand trap or to store fuel in a tank.

We checked the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as six standard dictionaries, and didn’t find a single entry for “bunker down” used to mean “hunker down.”

As you’ve noticed, however, a lot of people do indeed use “bunker down” in the sense of “hunker down,” never mind the dictionaries.

Here’s an example from New Moon (2006), the second novel in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight vampire romance series: “The skies had a ferocious plan in store for today. The animals must be bunkering down.”

Language types have been discussing the usage since it showed up in an October 2003 article in LA Weekly that described how liberals ended up on the losing side when Gov. Gray Davis lost a recall election in California:

“By bunkering down with the discredited and justly scorned Gray Davis, they wound up defending an indefensible status quo against a surging wave of popular disgust.”

Within a few days, contributors to the Linguist List forum were discussing whether “bunker down” was a syntactic blend or an eggcorn.

A syntactic blend is an unusual combination of two similar constructions (“it’s not rocket science” + “it’s not brain surgery” = “it’s not rocket surgery”). An eggcorn is a word or phrase substitution (like “egg corn” for “acorn”).

In 2004, the linguist Arnold Zwicky included “bunker down” in a list of “fresh eggcorn candidates” that he submitted to the Language Log in a post entitled “Postcards From Eggcornea.”

In 2008, Greg C. Clarke explained the usage this way on the Eggcorn forum: “A bunker is a place you hunker down in to protect yourself, so I think it’s pretty clear how the substitution came about.”

When the verb “hunker” showed up in English in the early 18th century, according to the OED, it meant (and still means) to “squat, with the haunches, knees, and ankles acutely bent, so as to bring the hams near the heels, and throw the whole weight upon the fore part of the feet.”

Oxford says “hunker” is of unknown origin, but it notes similar verbs in other Germanic languages, such as húka in Old Norse, hucken in Middle Dutch, and hûken in Middle Low German.

The dictionary’s first English example is in Streams From Helicon: or, Poems on Various Subjects, a 1720 collection by the Scottish physician and poet Alexander Pennecuik: “And hunk’ring down upon the cald Grass.”

In the early 20th century the verb phrase “hunker down” took on new, figurative meanings, the OED says: to “concentrate one’s resources, esp. in unfavourable circumstances; to dig in, buckle down.”

Oxford says the phrase, which appears chiefly in American English, is frequently used in military contexts in the sense of “to shelter or take cover, lie low.”

The dictionary’s first example for the new meanings (used here in the buckling-down sense) is from a 1903 issue of Dialect Notes, a journal of the American Dialect Society:

“Hunker or hunker down, v.i. To squat down. To get down to one’s work.” (We’ve expanded the citation from Dialect Notes.)

The word “bunker” first showed up in the 18th century as a noun meaning a seat or bench, according the dictionary. In the 19th century, it came to mean a sand trap in golf as well as a receptacle for coal on a ship.

The military sense didn’t appear until the 20th century. The first Oxford citation is from the Oct. 13, 1939, issue of War Pictorial: “A Nazi field gun hidden in a cemented ‘bunker’ on the Western front.”

When the verb “bunker” (also of uncertain etymology) showed up in the 19th century, it meant either to hit a golf ball into a bunker or to fill the bunkers on a ship with coal or oil.

In the late 19th century, according to the OED, the verb took on a colloquial sense similar to the one you’re asking about: “To be placed in a situation from which it is difficult to extricate oneself. Also, to place in such a situation.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for this sense is from the Sept. 6, 1894, issue of the Westminster Gazette: “The Liberal peers were powerless. To use a golfing simile, they were bunkered.”

Did the golfing “bunker” or the military “bunker” give us the eggcorn “bunker down”? We don’t know. We’re bunkered!

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Round about sennight

Q: In my readings of older material, I often see the word “sennight” (a k a, a week). Is it still used in British English, like “fortnight” (two weeks), or is “sennight” now archaic?

A: The word “sennight,” an old construction meaning “seven nights,” is now archaic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. So you wouldn’t use it today unless you were writing historical fiction or drama.

In the OED’s definition, it means “a period of seven (days and) nights; a week.” So a “sennight” is the same thing as a week.

The term is derived from the Old English words seofon (seven) and nihta (nights), and it was originally written as two words. Some early forms recorded in the OED are “VII nihta” (800s), “sefenn nahht” (circa 1200), and “seuen nyght” (c 1386).

The first one-word version in the OED, “seoueniht,” may date from the late 1100s. It’s from Layamon’s Brut, a Middle English poem written sometime before 1200: “Seoueniht he wes þære.” (“Seven nights he was there.”)

Other one-word (or sometimes hyphenated) versions followed, and they continued to show up in English writing into the 19th century. Here, for example, are some widely separated sightings:

“A sefenneghte after that Murdok of Fyche was take away” (from 43rd Reports of the Deputy Keeper of Public Records, dated 1414).

“The crosse windes … held him in the Downes almost a seavennight before they would blow him over” (from Sir John Finett’s Finetti Philoxenis, recollections written sometime before 1641).

“My love for Nature is as old as I; / But thirty moons, one honeymoon to that, / And three rich sennights more, my love for her” (from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Edwin Morris, 1851).

The word was also used to mean “a week from” or “a week ago” in constructions like these: “this day sennight” (a week from today); “Tuesday sennight” (a week from Tuesday); “Friday come a sennight” (a week from Friday); “Monday was a sennight” (a week ago Monday).

The OED’s first known example of this usage is also from Layamon’s Brut. Here’s the Middle English: “Ȝif ȝe spekeð mid rihte comeð to-dæi a seouen-nihte.” (“If you speak with right, come today sennight.”)

As you might expect, just as a “sennight” meant seven nights (one week), “fortnight” means fourteen nights (two weeks).

The OED explains that “fortnight,” which dates from the late 900s, is a “contracted form of Old English feowertyne niht” (fourteen nights).

“Fortnight,” unlike “sennight,” has survived into our own time and is a household word in Britain, where it’s found every day in news reports. In the US, however, “fortnight” is much less common and conveys an air of quaintness.

You may be wondering why these words used “nights” instead of “days” as a measurement of the passage of time. This is a remnant of a tradition that was observed in many ancient civilizations.

Max Müller, a 19th-century philologist and a renowned Sanskrit scholar, wrote that “time was measured by nights, and moons, and winters, long before it was reckoned by days, and suns, and years” (Lectures on the Science of Language, 1861).

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Something shocking

Q: A colleague recently emailed that he was “shocked and saddened” to hear of the death of an 83-year-old. How can one be “shocked” at the death of someone who’s 83?  Saddened, yes. Surprised, maybe. But shocked? I wonder. Ever since Casablanca, the word “shocked” seems to have become diluted.

A: Yes, the adjective “shocked” isn’t as shocking as it used to be, but its dilution began long before Captain Renault said, “I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

When “shocked” showed up in English in the 17th century, it meant “shaken violently,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest citation is from a 1642 poem in Remains of the Early Popular Poetry of England (1864-66), edited by William C. Hazlitt:

“The women did stand by and quake, / As did the people, in old Æsops time, / At the shockt mount, whereforth a Mouse did clime.” (The reference is to “The Mountain of Labor,” an Aesop fable in which a mountain violently gives birth to a mouse.)

By the 19th century, the adjective “shocked” had weakened to mean “scandalized, horrified,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example of the more temperate usage is from a Jan. 21, 1840, letter from Queen Victoria to her Foreign Secretary, Viscount Palmerston:

“The Queen also sends a letter which she found in a box which had been put by, and which she has kept near three years, she is shocked to say.”

The meaning of the adjective has weakened even more in some modern standard dictionaries.

The Cambridge Dictionaries Online, for example, defines it as “feeling very upset or surprised,” and gives this example: “He was shocked to discover that he had no money left in his account.”

However, the online Macmillan Dictionary sounds quite Victorian in its definitions: (1) “very surprised and upset by something bad that happens unexpectedly,” and (2) “very offended or embarrassed by something that you consider immoral.”

The source of the violent beginnings of “shocked” was the verb “shock,” which the OED says meant “to come into violent contact, to collide, clash together; esp. to encounter in the shock of battle” when it first showed up in the 16th century.

In the late 17th century, the verb took on its sense of to offend, scandalize, and horrify. And in the 18th century, it came to mean to give someone an electric shock.

We’ll end with a few electrifying lines from “Anything Goes,” one of our favorite Cole Porter songs:

In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
But now, Heaven knows,
Anything goes.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Fish or cut bait

Q: In a New Yorker article about Google, Nicholas Lemann writes: “The company is built to launch new products very quickly and to cut bait right away if they aren’t working.” Is this use of “cut bait” fishy? It seems to imply merely abandoning something. But I always thought it meant, metaphorically, something like “put up or shut up.”

A: You seem to think that this use of “cut bait” in the New Yorker has strayed too far from the original sense of the full expression, “fish or cut bait.”

Should Lemann have used an expression like “cut its losses”? Or has the meaning of “cut bait” changed? Before answering, let’s look at the history of “fish or cut bait.”

Interestingly, both the literal and the figurative uses of the phrase showed up at about the same time in 19th-century American writing, as far as we can tell from searches of news and literary databases.

In fact the earliest example we’ve found uses the expression in its figurative sense, meaning more or less what you suggest, “put up or shut up.”

However, we expect that even earlier examples of the usage, both literal and figurative, will emerge as more books and periodicals are digitized.

The earliest example we’ve found is this figurative version from the July 31, 1837, issue of the Oneida Observer in Albany, NY: “Politicians cannot shilli-shalli along now. They must either ‘fish, cut bait, or go ashore.’ ”

We found another early metaphorical example in a letter written in 1846 by a Wisconsin judge, Levi Hubbell, who said the wife in a divorce case “will neither fish nor cut bait”— that is, she would neither live with her husband nor agree to divorce him.

On a literal level, the phase means something like this: If you don’t intend to fish, go cut up bait and let someone else do the fishing.

The first example we’ve found for the literal usage is from a letter published in the July 25, 1845, issue of the Boston Courier. The writer joked that “Antihookarians,” people opposed to using hooks to catch fish, “would neither fish nor cut bait.”

This more straightforward example of the literal meaning comes from Joseph Warren Smith’s book Gleanings From the Sea (1887). In describing how large fishing trawlers operate in the waters around Boston, Smith wrote:

“The men are never idle. All either fish or cut bait, and, soon as free from any special toil, over go their lines to see what response may come from below.”

It’s clear that in the 19th century, “fish or cut bait” had two either/or meanings. Literally, it meant do one fishing job or the other. Figuratively, it meant act or let someone else act in your place.

So is there something fishy about the use of “cut bait” in reference to Google’s abandoning unsuccessful products?

Well, the newer usage strikes us as awkward, but the “fish or cut bait” entries in some standard dictionaries seem to support it.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, says “fish or cut bait” is an informal idiom meaning “to proceed with an activity or abandon it altogether.”

And Oxford Dictionaries online says it’s an “informal North American” expression meaning to “stop vacillating and act on something or disengage from it.”

Finally, we’ve seen a lot of speculation that “cut bait” originally meant to cut your fishing line—hook, bait, and all. We haven’t found a shred of evidence to support this theory. Toss it back.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Why is the color green off-color?

Q: There’s a dictionary of slang in which the word “green” is said to mean sexual intercourse.  Ever heard of this usage?

A: Yes indeed.

You must have heard Pat when she spoke on WNYC in March about the arrival of spring, a season that’s always been associated with the color green.

As Pat said on the Leonard Lopate Show, green has other associations as well. We think of it in connection with youthful inexperience, newness, freshness, naiveté, gullibility, envy, and jealousy. It’s also the color of money (“greenbacks”), and of marijuana.

Then there’s sex.

Centuries ago, to “give someone a green gown” was to have sex outdoors. Why? Just imagine frisky wenches rolling in the meadow and getting grass stains on their dresses.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “green gown” as an archaic and historical term for “a dress stained green from rolling in grass.”

The phrase is found, the OED says, “chiefly in to give a woman a green gown: to engage in amorous play with a woman; (euphem.) to deflower, deprive a woman of her virginity.”

An early example of this usage is cited (appropriately!) in Green’s Dictionary of Slang. A 1351 indictment for rape in the county of Nottingham, written in Latin, includes the phrase induentes eam robam viridem (“giving her a green gown”).

The OED’s earliest sighting in English is from Sir Philip Sidney’s poem The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, written sometime before 1586: “Then some grene gowns are by the lasses worne / In chastest plaies, till home they walke a rowe.”

This blunter example is from the playwright Anthony Munday’s 1596 translation of Palmerin of England: “At length he was so bolde as to giue her a greene gowne, when I feare me she lost the flower of her chastitie.”

By the 19th century, “green” (or “greens”) was a slang term for “sexual activity, esp. intercourse,” the OED says.

The term frequently appeared in the phrase “to get one’s greens and variants, with implication of something which is (like vegetables in the diet) needed regularly,” Oxford explains.

The OED’s earliest example of this usage is from a suggestive poem in Swell’s Night Guide (1846): “She kept the greens, for very few she sold; / And, as her customers, the greens refuse, / Why, then, the greens gave this fair maid the blues.”

Green’s Dictionary mentions a few other uses of “green” in relation to sex. In 1773, Green’s reports, “greengrocer” was a euphemism for a prostitute. And in the 1960s, “green thumb” was gay slang for the penis.

Before we close, a note about the long association of “green” with envy.

Shakespeare did coin the expression “green-eyed monster” (Othello, circa 1603), but he was not the first to link the color with envy.

The English poets Geoffrey Chaucer, John Lydgate, and Stephen Scrope made the connection in the 14th and 15th centuries, according to the University of Michigan’s online Middle English Dictionary.

The MED notes that the color green (written as grene) was “symbolic of inconstancy or envy” in Middle English, the language of those earlier poets.

Why? It’s been suggested that a greenish complexion, thought to be caused by an excess of bile, was indicative of “fear, envy, ill humour, or sickness,” according to the OED.

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English English language Etymology Spelling Usage Word origin

Seoul searching

Q: Why is there an “e” in Seoul? What’s it for, anyway?

A: Europeans are responsible for putting the “e” in “Seoul.” This spelling represents the commonly accepted transliteration of the word from the Korean alphabet into the Roman.

We’ve found mentions of the name “Seoul” or “Séoul” dating from the 1840s in French, German, Italian, and English writing.

The spelling was considered an approximation of the way native Koreans pronounced the word, which means “capital” in their language.

The first Europeans in Korea were French Roman Catholic missionaries who arrived in 1836, according to the Korea scholar James Huntley Grayson. (We’re citing a chapter he wrote in the anthology Christianity in Korea, 2006.)

It’s probable that these French priests were the first to spell “Seoul” with an “e.” We say this because the earliest example we’ve found is from a letter written in Italian on July 18, 1846, by a French priest, Antoine Daveluy, a missionary in Korea at the time.

In naming the provinces of “la Corea,” Father Daveluy gives the fifth province as “Kiang-kè, capitale, Han-iang, o Seoul, che è pure capitale di tutto il regno.” (Translation: “Kiang-kè, capital Han-iang or Seoul, which is also the capital of the entire kingdom.”)  His letter was published in a Catholic periodical in Italy in 1848.

British missionary publications—the Rambler (1849) and the Gleaner in the Missionary Field (1850)—used nearly identical language, though in English, to describe this province of “Corea,” except that they reversed the accent in “Kiang-ké.”

The Korean Repository, an English monthly published in Seoul in the 1890s, printed an exchange of letters in 1892 about the spelling “Seoul.”

One letter-writer expressed the opinion that “the transliteration Syoul as given in the Dictionnaire Coréen-Français is probably nearer correct than Seoul.”

Another correspondent said that attempts to reproduce the word in Roman letters had produced “kaleidoscopic variations that are as curious as they are perplexing.”

He mentioned “Seoul,” “Söul,” “Sowl,” “Sôwl,” “Sool,” “Sole,” “Sau-ull,” “Saw-ool,” “Sye-oul,” and “Syö-ul.”

He gave his own preference: “Söul, not a perfect medium it is true, but an intelligible and practical rendition, and one which will at least leave the public in the neighborhood of the correct pronunciation.”

The editor of the Korean Repository replied: “The word Seoul means Capital to the Koreans and is used as the name of the capital of Korea by foreigners. It is, as all admit, a word of two syllables, commonly transliterated Sye-oul. Unfortunately this does not help those who do not study the language to anything like a correct pronunciation because it does not spell it phonetically any more than Séoul, Sool, Soul &c.”

“Any attempt however to pronounce it as a monosyllable must necessarily lead astray and is as unintelligible to the uninitiated Korean as N’jork would be to the mass of the people in New York,” he added.

After discussing the word’s history as rendered in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean writing, the editor noted that “the populace said Syeoul” at a time when the only writing “used in the peninsula was the Chinese ideogram, and it is probable that the word was not written as it had long been spoken until the general adoption of the Korean alphabet, with its phonetic spelling.”

He insisted that “the pronunciation of the word as a monosyllable is not like that of the Koreans ‘who speak the dialects’ nor, for that matter, like that of any Koreans.”

Foreigners, he added, usually stress the first syllable, with “the o as in long, or aw in law.” This vowel sound, he said, might be written with an “ó” (Sóul).

That rendering “would probably come nearest the native sound,” he said, “but there is always the danger of these top-knots [i.e., accent marks] being discarded after a brief season’s handling by the busy public, in which case we should have Soul left, than which nothing could be farther from the correct pronunciation. We have seen the name of our city written in this way by advocates of the ö (Söul) having ‘forgotten the umlaut’ and we fear Sóul would fare no better.”

The editor’s conclusion: “We are therefore inclined to think it just as well to continue to write Seoul, though Sóul is nearer the native pronunciation.”

Despite the 19th-century admonitions against a monosyllabic pronunciation, English speakers today pronounce the name of the capital like “soul” or “sole.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Curses! Foiled again.

Q: Did the defeated villain’s epithet “Curses!” originate as a euphemistic way of indicating curse words in comic books for younger readers?

A: No on all counts. The usage didn’t originate as a euphemism or in comic books.

The epithet “Curses!” began life as a melodramatic stage epithet that 19th-century dramatists put into the mouths of dastardly villains.

Typically, the foiled villain would spit “Curses!” near the end as his evil scheme unraveled. By the early 20th century, the cry had been expanded to “Curses! Foiled again.”

However, we haven’t found any evidence that “Curses!” was a euphemism for something stronger. And by the time it showed up in 20th-century cartoons and comic books, it had long been regarded as a humorous cliché.

In its entry for the noun “curse,” the Oxford English Dictionary says the plural form was used “as an imprecation, expressing irritation or frustration; esp. (histrionically or as a stage-aside) curses, foiled again!

The OED’s earliest citation for this use of “curses” (minus the “foiled again”) is from Khartoum! (1885), a military drama by William Muskerry and John Jourdain: “Ha! they’re here. Ah, curses!”

But we found an earlier example in a dramatic monologue for the stage, The Death of Chatterton, published anonymously in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine in September 1839.

The scene takes place in a London garret, where the young Thomas Chatterton, about to commit suicide, delivers these lines: “Why should I seek to live? I’ve lived already long enough to know I cannot live for that I love the best. Curses—curses—curses!”

Here’s a non-stage example, from Ada, the Betrayed: Or, The Murder at the Old Smithy, published in Lloyd’s Penny Weekly Miscellany (London, 1843):

“To be foiled by a half-starved hound! I, Jacob Gray, with my life hanging as it were by a single thread, to be prevented from taking the secret means of preserving myself by this hateful dog! Curses! curses!”

Note in that example that cursing is associated with being “foiled.” This was a common motif in overheated plays, stories, and novels of the 19th century.

We found many examples like this one, from F. C. Thompson’s Nythia, a novel serialized in a British children’s magazine, The Boy’s Athenaeum, in 1875: “Oh, curses light upon them all! I am foiled—foiled—utterly foiled!”

And here’s a stage example, from Benjamin W. Hollenbeck’s After Ten Years (1885): “Foiled again! Curse my ill luck.”

By the late 19th century the cursing-and-foiling device had become a cliché, a fact not overlooked by humorists.

We found this passage in Charles Gurdon Buck’s “Mervorfield,” published in an American humor anthology in 1886:

“ ‘We are foiled! foiled!’ ‘Are we?’ said Bill. ‘What ought we to do when we are foiled?’ ‘Why, I suppose we ought to go away, muttering hideous curses.’ ”

Here’s a later example, from J. M. Barrie’s memoir of his life as a smoker, My Lady Nicotine (1890): “When they are foiled by the brave girl of the narrative, it is the recognized course with them to fling away their cigars with a muffled curse.”

It wasn’t long before the appearance of the full phrase “Curses! Foiled again.”

The earliest example we’ve found is from the Nov. 25, 1911, issue of a Michigan newspaper, the Flint Daily Journal. This is the item in its entirety:

“It is presumed that when Uncle Jud Harmon read in his morning paper that another ship had taken Col. Bryan off the stranded Prinz Joachim, he muttered between his teeth, ‘Curses! Foiled again.’ ”

The earliest stage example we’ve found is from Foiled, by Heck! (1917), a comic play by Frederick G. Johnson.

In the play, a villain named Sylvester Brewster says “Curses! Foiled again!” no fewer than four times. (In a scene involving an oilcan, he also mutters, “Curses! Oiled again!”)

The full phrase appeared around the same time in the caption of a “Jerry on the Job” cartoon strip in the Harrisburg (PA) Patriot on Aug. 11, 1917: “ ‘Curses, Foiled Again,’ Says the Dog.”

Soon afterward, the expression turned up in the Jan. 18, 1918, issue of Judge, a New York humor magazine. In an article called “The Stage Crook Goes Straight,” Roy K. Moulton mourns the passing of the villains of old:

“The old-time crook remained true to his traditions. You could bank on him. Of course he would always be obliged to hiss: ‘Curses! Foiled again!’ for he was always foiled.”

And “Curses! Foiled Again!” was the headline on a sports story published on June 29, 1922, in the Lexington (KY) Herald. (The Herald’s baseball team lost to the newsboys.)

When we began our researches, we expected to find that the epithet was common in intertitles, those bits of dialog that were projected on silent-film screens. We still suspect this is true, but we haven’t been able to find examples in the sketchy databases of silent-film scripts that we’ve searched.

At any rate, long after silent movies were history the phrase “Curses! Foiled Again!” was given new life by melodramatic cartoon villains.

One famous comic-book example was the mad scientist Dr. Sivana, who made his diabolical debut as the foe of Captain Marvel in 1940.

A generation later came television’s dastardly Snidely Whiplash of Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties, a series that aired in the 1960s as  segments of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.

Snidely Whiplash, archenemy of the heroic Dudley, usually exited on the line (voiced by the actor Hans Conried) “Curses! Foiled Again!”

And as the OED notes, the expression “Curses, foiled again!” can be heard in the ’60s novelty song “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” by Phil Gernhard and Dick Holler. (Oxford dates it from 1967 but in fact the song was recorded in 1966.)

You ask whether publishers of cartoon strips and comic books used “Curses!” euphemistically, perhaps to avoid shocking young readers. The answer is no.

As we’ve written on our blog, for more than a century cartoonists used another euphemism to represent swearing in the funnies. This was an arbitrary string of symbols (like %&*&##@!!) called a grawlix.

Finally, a note about the word “curse.” It’s something of a mystery, or as the OED puts it, of “unknown origin.”

In late Old English, when “curse” entered the language, it was spelled curs, and “no word of similar form and sense is known in Germanic, Romanic, or Celtic,” according to the dictionary.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

She gave him the air

Q: In his 1955 recording of “Can’t We Be Friends?” Frank Sinatra sings “Why should I care though she gave me the air.” Am I right that to “give someone the air” comes from the telephone technology of the day? I picture a guy holding an old fashioned phone in one hand and asking “Where did she go?”

A: We doubt that the telephone has anything to do with giving (or getting) the air. The use of “air” to mean a rejection, a curt snub, or a jilting dates back to the turn of the century, when phones were not common household equipment.

In its earliest appearances, to “give (or get) the fresh air” meant to be fired from a job, and soon afterward to “give (or get) the air” meant to dump (or be dumped by) a love interest.

The usage first appeared in a collection of short sketches entitled More Fables in Slang (1900), by George Ade.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang and the Oxford English Dictionary cite the title of one sketch: “The Fable of Why Essie’s Tall Friend Got the Fresh Air.”

We located the piece, which is only a page long, and it’s about a young man who’s fired from his job. There’s no mention of telephones.

George Ade, who was known for eccentric capitalization, used the term again in another collection of his short sketches, True Bills (1904):

“A man who had been given the Fresh Air by a Soulless Corporation was out rustling for another Job.” (This citation comes from Green’s Dictionary of Slang, Vol. 1.)

Why “fresh air”? Perhaps because in its original sense of firing someone, “give him the fresh air” is somewhat like “show him the street”—in other words, boot him outdoors.

In fact, the boss who fires the inattentive young man in Ade’s 1900 collection hints at this. He “told him he needed more Outdoor Life and Exercise, and he had better find it by moving around Town and looking for another Job.”

By the early 1920s, according to slang dictionaries, the “fresh” was dropped from the expression, though to “give (or get) the air” was still used in reference to firing or being fired.

But soon the expression came to be used for rejections of a more personal nature—romantic breakups.

Random House has a 1922 citation, but we like this later example, which the OED cites from P. G. Wodehouse’s novel Thank You, Jeeves (1934): “Surely you don’t intend to give the poor blighter the permanent air on account of a trifling lovers’ tiff?”

This use of “air” makes a certain amount of sense, given the many meanings of the word.

The original “air,” as in the atmosphere we breathe, came into English in the 1200s from Anglo-Norman and Old French. It ultimately goes back to classical times—aer in Latin and Greek.

However, the word has been used since Shakespeare’s day to mean a person’s attitude, manner, demeanor, or appearance.

This meaning of the word, the OED says, was probably a borrowing from Middle French, in which aire was used to mean things like nature or character (as in de bon aire, the source of our word “debonair,” literally “of good disposition”).

Here’s an English example from The Winter’s Tale, which Shakespeare probably wrote around 1611: “Your Fathers Image is so hit in you (His very ayre) that I should call you Brother.”

Beginning in the late 1600s, “air” took on haughty overtones in the phrase “airs and graces,” meaning affectations or pretensions.

The OED’s earliest use of the phrase is from the playwright John Vanbrugh’s Æsop (1697): “He made a thousand ugly Faces, / Which (as sometimes in Ladies cases) / Were all design’d for Airs and Graces.”

Similar phrases from the early 1700s were “to give oneself airs” and “to put on airs,” which the OED defines as “to assume an unnatural or affected manner, esp. an unjustified air of superiority.”

These can be traced to the late 17th-century French phrases se donner des airs and prendre des airs, the OED says.

So all in all, the 20th-century use of “give (or get) the air” doesn’t seem so odd.

Since we still use the old expressions “give oneself airs” and “put on airs,” it seems natural that “the air” (whether you’re giving it or getting it) could mean a snub or rejection by a haughty or superior-acting person.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Punctuation Usage Word origin

A “sell-through” date

Q: Do you think “sell-through” should be hyphenated when it’s used as a marketing term? One of my associates argues that “sell-through” should only be hyphenated if it’s an adjectival phrase, not a noun phrase.

A: The phrase “sell-through” is hyphenated in most dictionaries. And the hyphen is there whether the phrase is used as a noun (“We were hoping for a quick sell-through”) or as a modifier (“The sell-through numbers were good”).

Both the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam Webster’s Unabridged give the term as hyphenated. So do the Cambridge Dictionaries Online and the Collins English Dictionary.

Only one standard dictionary, as far as we know, disagrees. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) gives it as one solid word, “sellthrough.”

However, we think a hyphen makes the term easier to read, so we’d recommend “sell-through.”

The OED defines the noun phrase “sell-through” as “the retail turnover of a product” or “the proportion of goods (of a particular type) purchased wholesale which is successfully sold to consumers at retail, typically expressed as a percentage.”

The term has been around since the late 1970s, according to citations in the OED. The earliest example is from a 1978 article in Business Week: “The sell-through on our Time-band watches was nearly complete.”

This later example is from a 2001 issue of the New York Times: “We look at the weekly sell-through of our products … and listen to what our customers are saying.”

Oxford describes another meaning of the noun phrase that dates from 1985: “the practice of marketing videotapes or DVDs for retail rather than rental,” or “a videotape or DVD marketed in this way.”

Here’s an early example, from a 1988 issue of the Sun, a newspaper in Brisbane, Australia: “Slackening sales of pre-recorded video cassettes for rental purposes have forced many small video publishing companies to sharpen their focus on ‘sell-throughs.’ ”

And in this 1994 example from the Face, a London magazine, the phrase is used attributively (that is, adjectivally): “Arthouse films have become more readily available on sell-through video.”

If you’re using “sell” as a verb in its usual sense, of course, the words “sell through” aren’t hyphenated: “I sell through eBay” or “His car was sold through Craigslist.”

In such constructions, “sell” is a verb and “through” is an adverb describing the manner of selling.

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English English language Etymology Grammar Usage Word origin

How fake is a fakir?

Q: I tremble as I step on the tracks of the linguist Mark Liberman, whom you cite in your “nor’easter” post, but “faker” as an adjective of degree just doesn’t sound right to me. And it’s not in the dictionary built into my computer.

A: We don’t see anything wrong with using “faker” as the comparative form of the adjective “fake,” and the spell-checker in our computer doesn’t either.

A bit of googling finds quite a few examples of the usage, such as “faker than the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park” and “faker than a Louis Vuitton bag on Canal Street.”

Is “faker” standard English? Well, most standard dictionaries don’t include the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives.

One that does, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), doesn’t include “faker” and “fakest” within its entry for “fake.” The lexicographers at American Heritage apparently agree with you.

However, we don’t see why “faker” is any less legitimate than “phonier,” a comparative adjective that’s included in the dictionary.

People have been using the suffix “-er” to form comparative adjectives since Middle English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Old English, the comparative suffix was “-ra” or “-re.”

And writers have often stuck “-er” on adjectives to form unusual comparatives for literary effect, as Lewis Carroll did with “curiouser and curiouser.”

As we’ve said, we think the use of “faker” in our “nor’easter” post is legit, though some lexicographers might describe it as informal.

We quote Liberman, who grew up in southern New England,  as saying “nor’easter” seems “faker to me than the lederhosen at the Biergarten in Walt Disney World.”

By the way, Liberman wrote an interesting item on the Language Log about whether the use of “fakir” in the noun sense of “faker” (one who fakes) is an error or a shift in the meaning of the term.

The OED says English borrowed “fakir” in the early 1600s from faqīr, Arabic for a “poor, poor man.”

The dictionary, citing Sir Henry Yule, a 19th-century Orientalist, defines the term this way: “Properly an indigent person, but specially applied to a Mahommedan religious mendicant, and then loosely, and inaccurately, to Hindu devotees and naked ascetics.”

The earliest OED citation is from A True Historicall Discourse of Muley Hamets Rising to the Three Kingdomes of Moruecos, Fes, and Sus, a 1609 work of questionable authorship: “Fokers, are men of good life, which are onely given to peace.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the noun used to mean a “faker” is from Buckboard Days, an 1882 book by Sophie A. Poe about pioneer life: “Thieves, Thugs, Fakirs and Bunkco-Steerers.”

The most recent Oxford example of the usage is from Devil Take the Hindmost: A Year of the Slump (1932), by Edmund Wilson: “Some listen to a patent-medicine fakir.”

The OED describes this newer sense as erroneous. Liberman, though, says it may have begun life as an eggcorn, the misinterpretation of one term for another, but it should now be considered an ordinary change in meaning.

“There’s a whiff of the eggcorn about all of this; at least, the similarity in spelling and sound is likely to have played a role in encouraging what is otherwise an ordinary process of historical meaning shift,” he writes.

Most standard dictionaries still define “fakir” as an itinerant Muslim or Hindu holy man who lives by begging.

But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) now accepts as standard English the use of “fakir” to mean an impostor or a swindler.

Merriam-Webster’s gives two examples of the usage: “a traveling carnival that was run by fakirs preying on small-town rubes” and “a fakir peddling patent medicines that were mostly liquor and sugar.”

As for the verb “fake,” it “has a rather slippery semantic history,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto says it’s derived from feague, a long-obsolete verb that referred to “any number of nefarious operations, including beating up and killing.” The verb “fake” had a similar sense when it showed up in the 19th century.

But he says the current sense of “fake” (to “do up something spurious to make it seem genuine”) may be traced “back in a straight line to its probably ultimate source”—fegen, a German verb meaning to polish, clean, sweep, or refurbish.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Do we know the ropes?

Q: I’ve heard that “show ’em the ropes” is of theatrical origin, not nautical, as Pat suggested on WNYC. The ropes controlled the stage machinery. Sailors didn’t use the term “ropes.”

A: The Oxford English Dictionary defines “know the ropes,” “learn the ropes,” and “understand the ropes” as to “be experienced in or familiar with some customary action, practice, etc.”

And “show someone the ropes,” the OED adds, means “to teach or explain to someone the customary ways of doing something.”

The dictionary has both nautical and theatrical examples of these expressions dating from the 19th century, but the nautical examples are somewhat older.

That’s not conclusive, of course, and the earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t help—it’s not nautical or theatrical, but merely uses the expression in the sense of being experienced.

In the 1802 entry from James Skene’s diary of a trip to Italy, the author asks a local merchant for advice about how to meet the Pope: “I am a stranger and … I beg you to show me how I ought  to proceed…. You know the ropes and can give me good advice.”

However, the OED’s next two citations for the usage are clearly of nautical origin.

In his 1840 memoir, Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana writes, “The captain, who had been on the coast before and ‘knew the ropes,’ took the steering oar, and we went off in the same way as the other boat.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

And in The Green Hand, a sea story by George Cupples in the December 1848 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, the third mate says, “He’s in my watch, and the captain wants him to rough it out; so show him the ropes, and let him taste an end now an’ then.”

The OED’s earliest example for the theatrical usage is an 1850 sketch by John Timon in The Opera Goer (1852), by Ike Marvell: “The belle of two weeks standing, who has ‘learned the ropes.’ ”

In our searches of literary and news databases, we found a somewhat earlier example, from an 1846 issue of the Musical Gazette, that combines the two usages:

“As a ‘land lubber’ must learn the ropes to be a sailor, so must an ‘unmusical lubber’ learn a proper mode of guiding his hand and arm, to be a player.”

And we’ve also found an example in which the usage appears in a punning reference to tightrope walking. A report in the Dec. 3, 1859, issue of Punch discusses a European trip by P. T. Barnum and the French daredevil Charles Blondin, who crossed the Niagara Gorge on a tightrope:

“Barnum has bought up Blondin, ropes and all, and takes him to Europe to show him the ropes there, and to let him wander upon foreign strands (as the poet says) till he gets a good balance at his banker’s, and of course a man who can keep his balance anywhere will have no difficulty in doing that.”

We’ve also come across an interesting paper by Frederic D. Allen in the 1893 issue of Harvard Studies in Classical Philology that notes a similar usage in ancient Greece.

“The smith’s tools are called the ‘ropes of his art’—a figure borrowed from seamen’s parlance. So our figurative expression ‘know the ropes.’ ”

We doubt that the classical usage is the source of our figurative expression. But is ours of nautical origin?

The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says flatly that “know the ropes” is derived “from the days of sailing ships, when skill in handling ropes was essential for any sailor.” We’ll merely say perhaps.

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