English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

We have some ideas to share

Q: How about the use of the word “share” to mean communicate, as in “I want to share my concerns with you”?

A: People have been sharing opinions and feelings since Shakespeare’s time, but the more personal sense of sharing that’s common today dates from the 1930s. Here’s the story.

When the verb “share” showed up in the mid-1500s, it meant to cut into parts or cut off, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s ultimately derived from scearu, an Old English term for cutting.

By the late 1500s, according to the OED, “share” was being used in the sense of dividing something into portions or shares.

And by the start of the 1600s, the dictionary says, the verb had taken on the sense of sharing “an action, activity, opinion, feeling, or condition.”

Oxford’s earliest example for this sense, from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600), refers to “all the counsell that we two haue shar’d.”

The contemporary sense you’re asking about (to share one’s personal experiences or feelings with others) dates from the early 1930s.

The first example in the OED is from Arthur James Russell’s For Sinners Only (1932), a book about the Oxford Group, a Christian organization founded by the American missionary Frank Buckman:

“They [the Oxford Group] defined Sharing as meaning two distinct things—further definable as Confession and Witness.”

And here’s an example from The Challenge of the Oxford Groups (1933) by S. A. King: “What does the Bishop think a man feels when he has ‘shared’ for ‘witness’ and finds that God has used that ‘sharing’ to bring a brother out of … bondage?”

The Oxford Group evolved in the late 1930s into Moral Re-Armament, a moral and spiritual movement headed by Buckman.

In “the language of Moral Re-Armament,” according to the OED, the verb “share” had the sense of “to confess one’s sins openly; to impart to others one’s spiritual experiences.”

However, the verb was soon being used loosely to describe the sharing of quite secular feelings and experiences.

The dictionary cites two early nonreligious examples from Going Abroad, a 1934 novel by Rose Macaulay:

“She would, thought he, be able to share with another girl in a way she could not with him.” And this one, from later in the book: “I must say, I did annoy my father a bit by sharing with him a few things I’d thought about him.”

We’ll end with an example from Your Eyelids Are Growing Heavy, a 1982 crime novel by Barbara Paul:

“She ‘shared’ with the group the fact that she’d begun to have severe bouts of depression.”

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English English language Etymology Spelling Usage Word origin

Why “disastrous” isn’t a disaster

Q: When did the “e” disappear from “disastrous”? In other words, why don’t we spell it “disasterous”?

A: English borrowed both the noun and the adjective from French, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The source of the noun was désastre while the source of the adjective was désastreux (masculine) and désastreuse (feminine)

However, both “disaster” and “disastrous” are ultimately derived from astron, Greek for star and the source of the English word “astronomy.”

Etymologically, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, the underlying meaning of the adjective is ill-starred and of the noun a “malevolent astral influence.”

The adjective, which showed up in the late 1500s, was originally spelled “desastrous” or “dysastrous.” Although an “er” version, “disasterous,” showed up briefly in the early 1600s, it didn’t catch on.

The earliest example in the OED is from Ciuile Conuersation, a 1586 translation of a work by the Italian writer Stefano Guazzo about economics and society:

“If she aford mee but one sparkle of hope and favour, she doth it to no other ende, but to make mee more desastrous.”

The noun, which first appeared in the early 1600s, was spelled “disaster” from the beginning. Shakespeare, who used it in seven of his plays, was probably responsible for popularizing the Anglicized spelling of the French noun.

The OED’s earliest example is from Hamlet (1604): “Starres with traines of fier and dewes of blood / Disasters in the sunne; and the moist starre, / Vpon whose influence Neptunes Empier stands, / Was sicke almost to doomesday with eclipse.”

Why, you ask, is the “e” in “disaster” missing from the modern adjective “disastrous”?

We suspect that the pronunciation of the adjective in French may have influenced its spelling in English. And Shakespeare’s decision to Anglicize désastre as “disaster” probably influenced the spelling of the noun.

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English English language Etymology Linguistics Spelling Usage Word origin

Not every “uu” is a “double-u”

Q: I’ve read your article about why a “w” is called a “double-u.” What puzzles me is why we still have words with “uu”—i.e., “vacuum,” “continuum,” and “triduum.” And why the “w” in “weltanschauung” is pronounced like a “v.” Just curious.

A: As we said in that 2011 post, English words were written in runic letters until the seventh century, when the Latin alphabet was introduced.

But the Latin alphabet of that time had no symbol for the sound of “w,” so such a symbol had to be invented.

At first the symbol used was “uu” or “double u.” But in the eighth century the runic letter ƿ (called a “wyn”) was borrowed for this purpose and was used in English writing for several centuries.

In the meantime, the old “uu”, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “was carried from England to the continent.”

There, the OED explains, it was used to represent the “w” sound “in the German dialects, and in French proper names and other words of Germanic and Celtic origin.”

It was Norman scribes who introduced a ligatured version of the old “uu,” forming the letter “w.” This new letter traveled from France to England in the 11th century, and by about 1300 it had replaced the old rune ƿ in English writing.

Although this new “w” was probably regarded as a single letter from the beginning, “it has never lost its original name of ‘double U,’ ” the OED says.

Now for your question about why some English words continue to be written with “uu.” The reason is that they have retained the “uu” spellings they had in Latin.

For example, “vacuum” is from the Latin noun spelled the same way: vacuum.

However, the “uu” combination in English does not sound like “w.” In the case of “vacuum,” it can sound like “yoo” or like “yoo-uh.”

The latter pronunciation is a diphthong—two syllables merged into one sound. This double sound is observable in the spelling of the word in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese: vacuo.

A handful of similar words spelled with “uu” also come from Latin words with identical spellings. And in these the “uu” is pronounced as a diphthong: “continuum,” “residuum,” and the uncommon “triduum,” meaning three days (or specifically the last three days of Lent).

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Happy hour

Q: I noticed a sign yesterday outside a bar that listed “Happy Hour” as being from 4 to 7. Besides wondering about the oddity of describing a three-hour-period as an hour, I became curious about the history of “happy hour” as an expression. Any ideas?

A: The phrase “happy hour” showed up in the early 20th century as a US Navy term for a period of entertainment offered the crew on a ship.

Interestingly, the earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary describes this nautical happy hour as lasting several hours.

Here’s the citation from the May 8, 1914, issue of the Day Book, a short-lived Chicago newspaper whose most famous reporter was Carl Sandburg:

“The happy hour is really several hours set apart three nights a week for the entertainment of the crew. … The entertainment consists of moving pictures, boxing bouts … and dramatics from vaudeville to tragedy.”

The OED defines the sense of the phrase you’re asking about as “a period of time (originally hour, now often longer), usually in the early evening, during which drinks are served in a bar or other licensed establishment at reduced prices.”

The dictionary’s first example for this modern sense—from the Nov. 26, 1951, issue of the Los Angeles Times—describes “the stampede at a Valley tavern during its ‘Happy Hour’ from 5 to 6 p.m. when all drinks are 25 cents.”

Here’s a more recent citation, from the March 24, 2011, issue of Time Out New York: “You can … indulge in the anytime happy hour—just drop $20 to drink as many beers and bottom-shelf mixed drinks as you’d like for two full hours.”

English borrowed the word “hour” from Old French in the mid-1200s, but it’s ultimately derived from hora, Latin for “hour” and Greek for “season” or “time of day.”

The OED says the English word originally meant—as it does now—“a space of time containing sixty minutes; the twenty-fourth part of a civil day.”

But by the early 1300s, according to the dictionary, the word “hour” was being “used somewhat indefinitely for a short or limited space of time, more or less than an hour.”

Oxford’s first citation for this usage, from a Middle English manuscript written around 1325, refers to “Þis hure of loue” (“this hour of love”).

So it’s not at all surprising that the Happy Hour sign you saw at a bar referred to three hours. Time passes quickly when you’re drinking.

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English English language Etymology Usage

A bad yegg

Q: Would you be able to help? I’m trying to find the origin of the word “yegg.” It seems to be an Americanism, but so far all I’ve been able to learn is that its origin is unknown.

A: The word “yegg” apparently began life in the late 1800s as a noun for a beggar and as a verb meaning to beg.

A reader of our blog tracked down both usages in the Jan. 14, 1894, issue of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

An article about drifters waiting near a railyard to hop a train includes a glossary of tramp talk that defines “mooch, or yegg” as to “beg money.”

The article also cites a song in which drifters who ride the rails refer to themselves as “yeggs”:

Watch ’er, grab her:
Jump on ’er joob-i-joo;
T’row off de brake an’ let ’er go;
We yeggs’ll ride her troo.

It’s uncertain how the begging sense of “yegg” originated, though Green’s Dictionary of Slang says it may be a corruption of “yekk,” a word for beggar “from one of the many dialects spoken in Chinatown” in San Francisco.

The word “yegg” soon came to mean a burglar or a safecracker, a usage that’s also of uncertain origin, though there are several theories about its orgin.

The most common suggestion is that this slang usage is derived from John Yegg, the alias of a bank robber in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As far as we can tell, the name “John Yegg” appeared in this context for the first time in an account of the annual convention of the American Bankers’ Association on Oct. 2-4, 1900, in Richmond, VA.

A report on crimes involving banks describes how “$540 stolen from the Scandinavian American Bank (member A. B. A.), St. Paul, Minn., on August 9, 1899, by professional sneak thieves, was returned to the bank in an express package.”

A letter accompanying the money, signed “JOHN YEGG & CO.,” reportedly said, “having been hounded by the detectives all over the country, we concluded the wisest thing to do was to make restitution.”

The account adds that “Wm. Barrett, one of the thieves believed to have been concerned in this robbery, was arrested at Milwaukee, Wis., on August 26, 1899, for this and another crime.”

This story about fearful outlaws returning their loot sounds too good to be true. We suspect that Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, which handled security for the ABA, may have embellished it.

However, Pinkerton’s is probably responsible for popularizing the use of the terms “yegg” and “yeggman” for a burglar or bank robber, especially one who roams the country and cracks safes with explosives.

In a Sept. 15, 1901, interview with the New York Times, Robert Pinkerton, who ran the detective agency’s New York office, said, “This class of men have become very expert in the use of explosives.”

“The stuff for blowing open safes is carried from place to place in rubber bottles or hot water bags, and if they are discovered by the police, the ‘Yeggs’ claim that they are lung protectors,” Pinkerton added.

He noted that “many of the banks robbed are in small towns, where there is no police protection, and mostly in towns where lights are turned out at midnight or before.”

We lean toward the “John Yegg” theory for that sense of the term. And the The Oxford English Dictionary appears to lean that way too.

The dictionary describes the usage as an Americanism and adds: “Said to be the surname of a certain American burglar and safe-breaker.”

The earliest example of “yegg” in the OED is from the June 23, 1903, issue of the New York Evening Post: “The prompt breaking up of the organized gangs of professional beggars and yeggs.”

However, we found an earlier example for “yegg” used in the criminal sense, in the February 1901 issue of McClure’s Magazine. Josiah Flynt, writing about the criminal population in Chicago, said the “great majority are what certain detectives call ‘Yegg-men.’ ”

You don’t see the terms “yegg” and “yeggman” much nowadays. They rose in popularity during the early 1900s, reached a peak in the ’20s, and then quickly fell out of favor, according to Google’s Ngram viewer.

[This post was updated on June 12, 2017.]

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

When “stay” means stop

Q: Why does “stay an execution” mean stop it, rather than “stay with it” or “stay the course” or “stay put”?

A: Phrases like “stay an execution” or “stay one’s hand” make sense once you know that the original meaning of “stay” was to halt or stop.

“Stay” can be traced by way of Old French back to the Latin verb stare (to stand).

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the earliest meaning of the English verb, recorded in writing around 1440, was “to cease going forward; to stop, halt; to arrest one’s course and stand still.”

That sense of the word is now defunct, but “stay” soon evolved into related meanings that are still in use today.

For example, several uses of “stay” in the sense of stopping an activity emerged in the 16th century. One of these meant to cease, delay, or prevent an action or a process, a usage that’s often found in legal terminology, according to the OED.

The earliest recorded examples are from the papers of King Henry VIII in the 1520s to 1540s. This one dates from 1542-43: “Item that no execucion of any iudgement geuen … be staied or deferred.”

This later example, also cited in the OED, is from Edmund Burke’s last writings on the French Revolution (often called Letters on a Regicide Peace, 1796):

“When a neighbour sees a new erection, in the nature of a nuisance, set up at his door … the judge … has a right to order the work to be staid.”

We also mentioned the phrase “stay one’s hand,” a usage that the OED describes as “somewhat” archaic.

The dictionary says it literally means “to cease or cause to cease from attack,” though it’s chiefly used figuratively in the sense of to restrain someone from doing something.

The OED’s earliest citation is from the Geneva Bible of 1560 (Daniel 4:35): “And none can stay his hand, nor say vnto him, What doest thou?”

In short, “stay” originally meant to stop. The sense of remaining in place or being stationary—today’s more common meaning—evolved in the 16th century from the earlier one.

Here’s an example of the new usage from The Taming of the Shrew, which Shakespeare wrote in the early 1590s: “Your ships are stay’d at Venice.

And here’s one from Romeo and Juliet, which may have been written around the same time: “Upon a rapier’s point: stay, Tybalt, stay!”

Those three expressions you mentioned—“stay with it,” “stay the course,” and “stay put” showed up in the 19th century.

Before we sign off, a couple of side issues that you might find interesting.

You’ll notice that in his quotation, Edmund Burke used the past participle “staid,” a common spelling of “stayed” in the 16th through 19th centuries.

This is the source of the 16th-century adjective “staid,” which we use for people who are steady or sedate—or, as the OED says, “free from flightiness or caprice.”

Finally, there’s an entirely different verb “stay,” which is Germanic instead of Latin in origin and means to secure by ropes or “stays.”

The source of this verb is the 11th-century noun “stay” (stæg in Old English), originally a thick nautical rope for supporting a mast.

A related word is the 14th-century noun that means a prop or support, as in the stiff whalebone or metal “stays” (early 1600s) that ladies once laced themselves up in.

A more distant relative is “steel,” a Germanic noun that was recorded as far back as 725 in Old English (stæli).

The ancient ancestor of “steel” as well as these two “stays” (the rope and the support) is a prehistoric Germanic base, stagh or stakh (“be firm”), according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

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English English language Grammar Usage

When participles are perfect

Q: Driving myself nuts over this sentence: “Not having heard of it, I was confused.” What is “having”? We have a present participle followed by a past participle! Please help this struggling English grammar teacher.

A: In that sentence, “having” is an auxiliary verb (sometimes called a “helping verb”). When combined with a past participle—like “heard”—it forms what’s called a perfect participle: “having heard.”

You may be puzzled because you’re trying to figure out what tense this is. In fact, we aren’t dealing with tenses here but with participial phrases. And participial phrases act as adjectives, not verbs.

In your sentence—“Not having heard of it, I was confused”—the phrase “not having heard of it” modifies the subject, “I.”

This might be better explained with a simpler sentence: “Stopping to chat, Tom was late for work.” Here, “stopping” is a present participle, and the participial phrase “stopping to chat” modifies the subject, “Tom.”

If we use a perfect participle instead of a present participle, the sentence looks like this: “Having stopped to chat, Tom was late for work.” Here, “having stopped” is a perfect participle, and the participial phrase “having stopped to chat” again modifies “Tom.”

You can use either version, of course—with a present participle or a perfect participle. So why use a construction that sounds more complicated?

A perfect participle, as in “having stopped to chat,” serves to emphasize not only the sequence of events but also their causal relationship. The “having” part underscores the fact that Tom’s stopping to chat not only preceded but also caused his being late for work.

Verbal phrases that include some form of “have” are called “perfect” because their action is complete rather than ongoing. This is true whether the verbal phrase functions as a verb (“have heard”) or as a modifier (“having heard”).

The perfect tenses of the verb “hear” are “have heard” and “has heard” (present perfect); “had heard” (past perfect); “will have heard” (future perfect); and “would have heard” (conditional perfect).

The perfect infinitive is “to have heard,” and the perfect participle is “having heard” or, in its negative form, “not having heard.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

How French is your onion soup?

Q: Can you shed some light on the origin of the term “French onion soup”? A colleague of mine claims that the word “French” refers not to the origin of the soup but rather to the manner in which the onions are chopped (“frenched”).

A: Well, the onions in French onion soup are often frenched—that is, cut into thin lengthwise strips. And some people add “frenched” to the name of the dish.

But as far as we can tell the name of the soup originally referred to its place of origin, not the way the onions were sliced.

That’s not surprising, since the adjective “French” usually refers to France, its people, its culture, or its language, according to standard dictionaries.

In fact, English speakers were eating “French onion soup” for dozens of years before the term “frenched” was used to describe vegetables cut into thin strips.

The earliest example for the soup that we could find—from The Cook and Housewife’s Manual (1828), by Christian Isobel Johnstone—refers to Potage à la Clermont as “a French Onion Soup.”

The recipe doesn’t include cheese, one the typical ingredients today in French onion soup. More to the point, it calls for the onions to be “cut in rings,” not frenched.

In Dinners at Home: How to Order, Cook and Serve Them (1878), the recipe for “French Onion Soup” is also cheese-less. And the pseudonymous author, referred to as “Short,” says the onions should be cut “crossways,” not frenched.

The earliest English example we could find for a “French onion soup” recipe similar to the modern one—with cheese, butter, bread, flour, broth, and so on—is from Every-Day Helps (1892), a collection of household tips published by Wells, Richardson & Co.

However, the recipe, which calls for pouring the onion broth over a slice of fried bread and sprinkling grated cheese on top, makes no mention of how—or even if—the onions should be sliced.

The use of the term “frenched” to describe thinly sliced veggies first showed up in the early 20th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary describes the usage as chiefly North American. The earliest example is from the Feb. 25, 1903, issue of the Ottumwa (Iowa) Daily Courier: “Dinner … Frenched Potatoes with Parsley.”

Here’s a more recent citation from the Vancouver (British Columbia) Sun: “Blanch cut or frenched beans for 1½ minutes, whole beans for two minutes.”

Interestingly, the word “soup,” like its cousin “sop,” originally referred to a “piece of bread soaked in liquid,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

English borrowed the word from the French soupe, but it’s ultimately derived from the Latin verb suppare (“soak”).

“One way of making such sops was to put them in the bottom of a bowl and pour broth over them,” Ayto writes, “and eventually soupe came to denote the ‘broth’ itself—the sense in which English acquired it.”

The term “onion” has a somewhat fuzzy etymology. It’s derived from unio, a Latin word for a single large pearl, but Roman farmers also used the term for a variety of onion without shoots.

The OED speculates that the use of unio for a single pearl may be traced to unus, Latin for “one,” or that it may come from the pearl’s similarity in shape to an onion.

Ayto suggests that the use of unio for an onion may be the result of “a proud onion-grower comparing his products with pearls” or “an allusion to the ‘unity’ formed by the layers of the union.”

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English English language Etymology Pronunciation Spelling Usage

Plovers lane

Q: I was at a loss to explain the pronunciation of “plover” to the son of a friend. Some sources say it rhymes with “lover” and others with “rover.” A poll of birders indicates that PLUH-ver is favoured over PLOH-ver by a small majority. I bet there’s a worthwhile post lurking here.

A: You betcha! Both the PLUH-ver and PLOH-ver pronunciations are listed in standard dictionaries. Some have one, some the other, and the rest include the two of them.

So both pronunciations are standard English, though the eight dictionaries we’ve checked usually give only PLUH-ver for an online audio pronouncer.

(Some British dictionaries describe PLOH-ver as an American pronunciation, but the three US dictionaries we consulted include both PLUH-ver and PLOH-ver.)

Interestingly, the common name of the shorebird was spelled all sorts of ways  for hundreds of years after it showed up in English in the early 1300s. Those spellings undoubtedly reflected different pronunciations.

In fact, the first syllable was spelled—and pronounced—two different ways (plo- and plu-) in medieval Latin, the source of the English word. Here’s the story.

The Oxford English Dictionary notes several theories about the origin of “plover,” a collective name for any of various wading birds of the family Charadriidae.

One theory is that the name was influenced by the classical Latin word for rain, pluvia, because plovers arrived with the rainy season, or were active then, or were easily hunted in the rain.

Another theory is that the upper plumage of some plovers appears to be spotted with raindrops.

However, the OED leans toward the theory that the name “plover” is simply imitative of the cries of various plovers.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “plover” is a reference to “pluvers” from a manuscript, dated 1304-05, in the British Museum.

Over the next three centuries, the word was spelled in dozens of ways, including plouier, ploware, plowere, pluwer, plovere, plower, pluuer.

Here’s an example from The Unfortunate Traveller, a 1594 novel by Thomas Nashe: “As fat and plum euerie part of her as a plouer.”

It wasn’t until the mid-17th century that English speakers settled on “plover” as the proper spelling of the bird’s name.

For example, Robert Lovell’s 1661 translation of a Greek work on zoology and mineralogy has an entry for “plover” with this description: “The flesh is very pleasant, and better than the green Lapwing.” (The feathers were also used in hats.)

Plover populations were devastated by hunting in the 19th century, but the Migratory Bird Treaty Act now protects them in the US, Canada, and Mexico.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Well, look

Q: I’ve been driven crazy from listening to Josh Earnest, Marie Harf, and Jen Psaki answer questions by beginning with the words “Well, look,” as if the listener was a moron who needs further simplification. Is this something new or am I late to the game again?

A: No, this isn’t something that began with officials in the Obama Administration. People have begun sentences and clauses that way—or very similarly—since Anglo-Saxon days.

In Old English, for example, the interjection wella was used to introduce a remark or statement. It was a combination of the adverb well and lo, a vague interjection similar to the modern “oh,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s first citation is from a damaged early Old English manuscript, but let’s skip ahead to an example from King Alfred’s translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ of Boethius:

“Wella wisan men, wel, gað ealle on þone weg … ” (“Well oh, wise men, well, go all of you on the way …”).

If one “well” wasn’t enough at the beginning of a remark, two or three would be used: “well, well” or “well, well, well.” The OED says this “reduplicated” usage expressed “surprise, anticipation, resignation, or acquiescence.”

The dictionary has an Old English example of a double “well” from the Lambeth Psalter (circa 1015), but we prefer this one from a 15th-century translation of Aesop’s fable of the two mice: “ ‘Weil, weil, sister,’ quod the rurall mous.”

Similarly, the Old English version of the imperative “look” was used with adverbs and pronouns for emphasis much the way we use it now. The phrase lōca nu, for example, was the Anglo-Saxon version of “look now.”

Here’s an example from Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s 897 translation of Cura Pastoralis, a sixth-century Latin treatise by Pope Gregory I:

“Lociað nu ðæt ðios eowru leaf ne weorðe oðrum monnum to biswice” (“Look now, lest this liberty of yours turns into a stumbling block to other men”).

Getting back to your question, we hadn’t noticed the overuse of “Well, look” among Obama Administration officials, but we suspect that you’re reading too much into their words.

We’d guess that the phrase is similar to “you know,” “I mean,” and other fillers that speakers use when pausing to consider their next words.

Try not to let the usage get on your nerves. It too shall pass. When a usage is overused, a fresher one is sure to come along—and eventually be overused and drive you crazy!

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English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin

“Threap” show

Q: For many generations, my family has used the word “threap” as a mild threat, as in “If you don’t eat that, I’ll threap it down your throat.” This comes down through my Scots and Irish side of the family. Can you tell me of its origin?

A: The verb “threap,” which the Oxford English Dictionary says is “of uncertain history,” dates back to Anglo-Saxon days, when it was spelled ðreapian in Old English. (The letter ð, or eth, was an early version of “th.”)

The OED says “threap” originally meant to rebuke, scold, or blame. The earliest example in the dictionary is from Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s 897 translation of Cura Pastoralis, a sixth-century Latin treatise by Pope Gregory I:

“Ðonne he to suiðe & to ðearllice ðreapian wile his hieremenn” (“When he reproves his subjects too severely”).

The OED lists many other meanings for “threap,” including to argue (1303), to insist obstinately on something (circa 1386), to fight (c 1400), to prod someone to give up something (1677), and to persuade someone to believe something (c 1440).

The sense of “threap” that you’re asking about—“to thrust, obtrude, press (something) upon a person”—showed up in the 16th century, according to citations in the dictionary.

The earliest example is from a 1571 English translation of Calvin’s Latin commentary on the Book of Psalms: “If Sathan threpe any feare uppon us, it may be kept farre of from enterance.”

And here’s another religious example, from A Compleat History and Mystery of the Old and New Testament (1690), by Christopher Ness: “Araunah had a princely spirit … but generous David threaps upon him fifty shekels.”

The OED says “threap” now occurs in Scottish and northern English dialects, which supports the idea that Scots may have brought the usage into your family.

Although some standard English dictionaries have entries for “threap,” they generally agree with Oxford that the usage is Scottish or northern English dialect.

The Scots Language Centre has an example of the word in action, Daena threap doun ma thrapple, which it defines as “Don’t try and dictate to me.” (A thrapple is a throat in Scots; an American might say, “Don’t shove it down my throat.”)

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English English language Expression Grammar Usage

Is your spouse possessed?

Q: I am concerned about the possessive connotation of referring to one’s spouse as “my wife.” Is there a reasonable substitute for “my” in this context? I am curious as to your views.

A: We could come up with some clunky substitutes, but we don’t see any reason for avoiding the word “my” in referring to a spouse.

In fact, we wouldn’t describe the pronoun “my” as a possessive in phrases like “my wife” and “my husband.”

A better term would be “genitive,” a case that includes the possessive as well as many other kinds of relationship, as we’ve written before on our blog.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language would label “my” in the phrase “my wife” as a “genitive pronoun” rather than a “possessive pronoun.”

In such a phrase, according to Cambridge, the genitive “my” acts as a “determiner,” a word or phrase that determines the context of the noun that it modifies.

Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, the Cambridge authors, say that in the sentence “My father has arrived,” the word “my” is a “subject-determiner,” a genitive construction that gives the subject context—that is, it describes whose father has arrived.

Huddleston and Pullum suggest that in a sentence like that, the word “my” may combine both “the syntactic functions of determiner and subject”—that is, it may be acting as a subject as well as a modifier.

The authors add that this analysis is “justified by a significant structural resemblance” between such genitives and the subjects of clauses.

We could go on, but the Cambridge Grammar is heavy going. Let’s just say that you shouldn’t  worry about referring to your spouse as “my wife.” Yes, she’s yours, but you don’t possess her—genitively speaking.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Punctuation Usage Word origin

A lowering sky

Q: How is “lowering” pronounced when used to describe a threatening sky? And is this usage related etymologically to things descending?

A: The “lowering” that we use to describe a threatening sky is not related to the “lowering” that means descending. It’s a different word entirely, with a different origin and a different traditional pronunciation.

The word found in expressions like “lowering clouds” or “a lowering sky” traditionally rhymes with “flowering,” “towering,” and “showering.” It was originally spelled “louring,” with the “our” pronounced as in “hour” or “sour.”

Its source was the verb “lour,” which was first recorded in the late 13th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. This verb initially meant “to frown, scowl; to look angry or sullen,” the OED says.

The earliest example Oxford cites is from The South English Legendary (circa 1290), a chronicle of the lives of the saints:

“He … lourede with sori semblaunt: and þeos wordes out he caste.” (“He loured with an angry countenance and these words he cast out.”)

By the late 16th century, people were using “lour” and “louring” in reference to menacing skies as well as to menacing looks. The OED’s earliest examples are from the stage:

“O my starres! Why do you lowre vnkindly on a King?” (from Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, written sometime before 1593).

“The cloudes that lowrd vpon our house” (Shakespeare’s Richard III, 1597).

Note that by this time a “w” had crept into the spelling, and the old “lour” became “lower.” But thanks to poets and to early pronouncing dictionaries, we know that its pronunciation stayed the same.

For example, the Middle English poet Geoffrey Chaucer rhymed “loured” and “devoured” in The Hous of Fame (circa 1384). Centuries later, John Milton rhymed “hour” and “lowre” in Samson Agonistes (1671).

And in the 19th century, a satirical poet known only by the pseudonym Quiz wrote these lines in The Grand Master (1816): “His tone of insolence and pow’r, / Made all the passengers to low’r.”

Even today, the original pronunciation is the only one recognized by the OED and some standard dictionaries, like The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

But some others, like Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), say this sense of “lower” now has two acceptable pronunciations. It can rhyme with “flower” or with “knower.”

Perhaps it was inevitable that with two words spelled “lower,” the more common one would influence the pronunciation—and even the meaning—of the lesser-known word.

As the OED notes, “The spelling lower (compare flower) renders the word identical in its written form with lower v., to bring or come down, and the two verbs have often been confused.”

In speaking of clouds, Oxford says, the “lower” that means to look threatening “has some affinity in sense” with the “lower” that means to descend, “and it is not always possible to discover which verb was in the mind of a writer.”

In fact, pronunciation may be a moot point here. It’s been our experience that the threatening sense of the word is seldom if ever used in speech. Most of the time we encounter it in writing—and rather elevated writing at that.

The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English describes “lower” or “lour” as a literary term in British English. Longman gives as examples “lowering clouds” and “The other driver lowered at us as we passed him.”

As for its origins, the verb “lower” (to look threatening) has corresponding forms in old and modern Germanic languages. These words, the OED says, mean to frown, knit the brows, watch stealthily, spy, or lie in wait.

The other “lower”—the verb and adjective referring to height or position—comes from the adjective “low.” This word, the OED says, is descended from early Scandinavian, where it meant short, near to the ground, humble, or muted in voice.

Finally, a little detour to the barnyard.

That last sense of “low,” descriptive of a quiet or muted voice, may lead you to think of the “lowing” of cattle. But that’s another “low” entirely; it has nothing to do with the “low” that’s the opposite of “high.”

The “low” that refers to the sound of cattle (it rhymes with “toe”) was recorded in Old English (hlowan), but is much older. It’s been traced back to proto-Germanic (khlo) and to an even more ancient Indo-European root (kla), according to etymological dictionaries.

As you might suspect, the Old English hlowan and its predecessors were imitative in origin—they mimicked the resonant moo of a cow. As John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the Indo-European root, kla, was onomatopoeic.

That ancient root was also the origin of noise-making words in Latin and Greek, specifically the verbs that mean something like “call”—clamare and calare in Latin, kalein in Greek.

Ayto says the Indo-European root that gave us the bovine “low” also produced these words: “Latin clarus (which originally meant ‘loud’ and gave English clear and declare), clamare ‘cry out’ (source of English acclaim, claim, exclaim, etc.), and calare ‘proclaim, summon’ (source of English council).”

But getting back to the barnyard, the old Germanic verbs corresponding to “low” meant “to moo, bellow,” the OED says. But nowadays, Oxford says, the English word represents “a more subdued sound than bellow, being roughly equivalent to moo but somewhat more literary.”

So now we know. Ordinary cows “moo,” but literary ones “low.”

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