English English language Etymology Grammar Usage Word origin

Full, fuller, fullest

Q: I heard a comment on WNYC about helping students reach their “fullest” potential. How can this be correct?  If I pour water into a glass until it’s “full,” how can I make it “fuller” or “fullest”? There’s no entry for “fuller” or “fullest” as an adjective in my old Webster’s Second (my back still hurts from lifting it). What’s up?

A: We don’t want you to get a hernia, but if you check the entry for the adjective “full” in your unabridged Webster’s Second, you’ll find that the comparative “fuller” and the superlative “fullest” are listed as inflected forms.

You apparently think that “full” is an “absolute adjective,” which is what some usage writers call a modifier that shouldn’t be used in the comparative (“fuller”) or the superlative (“fullest”), or with other qualifiers (“very full”).

So something can be “full,” in your opinion, but not “fuller” or “fullest.” However, some so-called absolute adjectives are routinely used as comparatives and superlatives, and “full” is a good example.

A glass that’s half full, for example, is obviously “fuller” than one that’s a third full. And a glass that’s filled to the brim is the “fullest” of the three.

Yes, “full” generally means containing as much as possible, but the adjective has many other senses, as in “full of energy,” “full of himself,” “full-fledged,” “a full heart,” and so on.

And some standard dictionaries define “full” in its primary sense as something less than full. Cambridge Dictionaries Online, for example, says it means “holding or containing as much as possible or a lot.”

We’ve written several times on the blog about absolute adjectives, including a post in 2008 that briefly discusses such phrases as “a more just society” and “a more perfect union.”

Getting back to your question, we see nothing wrong with that comment on WNYC about helping students reach their “fullest” potential.

Technically, “full” would be the proper adjective. The comparative “fuller” would be used to compare two things of varying degrees of fullness, and the superlative “fullest” to compare three or more.

But “fullest” is often used idiomatically as an emphatic version of “full.” The expression “to the fullest extent of the law,” for example, is notably more popular than “to the full extent of the law,” according to Google searches.

In fact, we’ve found many early examples of “fullest” used in this sense. State papers from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I concerning Scotland, for example, contain a March 1, 1564, comment by guests at a banquet that they “were merriest when the table was fullest.”

In Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), R. W. Burchfield defends the idiomatic use of superlatives:

“Use of the superlative is idiomatic in such phrases as Put your best foot foremost; May the best man win; Mother knows best. And who would wish to introduce a comparative into Milton’s Whose God is strongest, thine or mine?”

When the adjective “full” first showed up in Old English, according to the OED, it meant (as it does today) “having within its limits all it will hold; having no space empty; replete.”

But for centuries, writers have felt the word needed something extra—using it, as Oxford says, “often with intensive phrases, as full as an egg, full to the brim, full to overflowing, full up (colloq.), etc.”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

To honor or to celebrate?

Q: Already this season, I’ve heard three people who ought to know better “celebrate” the retirement of treasured old guys. They meant to “honor” the guys, not “celebrate” their retirements. But maybe I’m the only one who notices.

A: For hundreds of years, the verb “celebrate” has meant to observe or acknowledge a significant event—such as a retirement—as well as to honor or praise someone or something.

In our opinion, not many people would construe the celebration of a retirement as a backhanded way of saying, “Good riddance. We’re better off without him.”

Readers can tell the difference between celebrating (that is, applauding) the overthrow of a tyrant in Mitteleuropa and celebrating (that is, publicly acknowledging) the retirement of a “treasured old guy” at the Booth School of Business.

The word “celebrate” is ultimately derived from the Latin verb celebrare, which originally meant to attend in great numbers, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Chambers says the Latin verb is also the source of such English words as “celebrity” (about 1380), “celebration” (1539), and “celebrant” (1839).

When “celebrate” first showed up in English in the mid-1500s, it meant (among other things) to observe with solemn rites or to honor with religious ceremonies.

The earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the 1560 edition of the Geneva Bible: “From euen to euen shall ye celebrate your Sabbath.”

In a little more than a century, however, writers were using “celebrate” for more secular observances.

In The Conquest of Granada, a 1672 play by Dryden, the King of the Moors says: “With pomp and Sports my Love I celebrate.”

Finally, here’s an updated example of the usage from the 1937 first edition of Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English:

Celebrate, v.i., to drink in honour of an event or a person; hence, to drink joyously.”


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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

A happy ending

Q: I’m Dutch and I recently read (from someone claiming to be a native English speaker) that the use of “happy end” is a common mistake made by those not intimately familiar with the language. Instead “happy ending” should be used. Can you enlighten me?

A: In the phrase “happy ending,” as you know, “ending” is a gerund, an “-ing” word that’s formed from a verb but functions as a noun.

Both the noun “end” and the gerund “ending” mean, among other things, a conclusion. So “happy end” and “happy ending” would seem to mean the same thing.

Although both are technical correct, “happy ending” is the idiomatic phrase (the one used naturally by a native speaker) when referring to the happy conclusion of a novel, play, movie, and so on.

The earliest example of the expression in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Memorable Conceits, a 1602 translation of a book by the French writer and printer Gilles Corrozet:

“A good entrie or beginning is not all, without it haue a happie ending.” (In the original French, “happie ending” is heureuse issue.)

And here’s a citation from a May 10, 1748, letter by Samuel Richardson in which he discusses a scene from his recently published novel Clarissa:

“The greater Vulgar, as well as the less, had rather it had had what they call, an Happy Ending.”

The OED defines “happy ending” as “an ending in a novel, play, etc., in which the plot achieves a happy resolution (esp. by marriage, continued good health, etc.), of a type sometimes regarded as trite or conventional.”

The dictionary adds that in the US the phrase is also used for “an orgasm, esp. one experienced by a man after sexual stimulation given after (or during) a massage.”

The OED doesn’t have an example of this usage, but the comedian Jim Norton uses the phrase in the sexual sense in the title of his 2007 book, Happy Endings: The Tales of a Meaty-Breasted Zilch. The cover shows him lying on a massage table.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

A first-generation American?

Q: As an immigrant and an American citizen for nearly 70 years, I have always considered myself a “first-generation American,” and I dislike seeing the term applied to the first generation born in the US. If you haven’t addressed this, would you, please?

A: Your usage is fine, but so is the one you dislike. “First generation” can mean either the first to arrive in a new country or the first to be born there. Here’s the story.

When the noun “generation” showed up in English in the 1300s, it meant offspring or family as well as the descendants of one family or one period of time.

English borrowed the term from the Old French generacion, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, but the ultimate source is generare, Latin for to bring forth.

Chambers says all these early senses of the English noun were first recorded in Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1325.

The use of the adjectival phrase “first-generation” to describe the first “generation of a family to do something or live somewhere”—showed up in the late 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from a September 1896 letter by Cannon Samuel Barnett, Warden of Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in London.

In the letter, Cannon Barnett writes of meeting an American who described himself as a “first-generation man.”

Oxford has only one citation for the phrase you’ve asked about, but it’s a relatively recent example. It comes from Then We Came to the End, a 2007 novel by Joshua Ferris that describes “first-generation Americans” power-spraying the asphalt at a loading dock.

However, we’ve found several earlier examples of the usage, including one from Descendants of Aaron and Mary (Church) Magoun, of Pembroke, Mass., an 1891 book of genealogy.

Aaron’s great-grandfather, John Magoun, who came from Scotland to Massachusetts in 1670, is described in the book as “the first generation, American.”

This would support your use of the expression to describe an immigrant who becomes a US citizen. However, we’ve found another 19th-century example that uses the phrase “first-generation” to describe American-born citizens.

In No Enemy (but Himself), an 1895 book, Elbert Hubbard writes that only foreign women were willing to work in the cornfields in Indiana: “The first generation American-born, go on a strike.”

In fact, the OED says the phrase “first-generation” can be used to designate “a naturalized immigrant or a descendant of immigrant parents, esp. in the United States.”

So it’s correct (at least in the opinion of Oxford’s editors) to refer to a naturalized American citizen like you as well as an American-born child of immigrants as a “first-generation American.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Did Stella die?

Q: Two dinner companions recently got into a spirited debate about using “died” in referring to a euthanized pet. Leaving aside the general advisability of being specific, is there any authority for characterizing “died” as incorrect or misleading here?

A: As two long-time owners of Golden Retrievers and Labs, we’ve had to put down several ailing dogs over the years.

If someone asks about them, we usually say they died. In the rare instances when we have to be specific, we’ll say we put them down or we euthanized them.

If a friend were to ask whether our debilitated, 12-year-old Labrador Retriever Stella died a natural death, for example, we’d say she was put down. In speaking to a vet, we might say she was euthanized.

If there’s no reason to be precise, however, we aren’t. If a friend were to ask if Stella is still alive, for example, we’d simply say, “No, she died.”

Is this use of “die” incorrect?

No. The primary meaning of the verb “die” in standard dictionaries is to stop living. And that’s what Stella did (with a little help from her best friends).

Is the usage misleading? Yes, but English speakers are often deliberately imprecise or misleading.

The usual answer to the question “How are you?” is “fine” or “OK” or “good” or something similar. Only rarely is precision expected: “the CT scan was negative” or “the stitches are coming out tomorrow.”

If someone dies, is it really necessary in casual conversation to mention that he was wearing a “Do not resuscitate” band or that his family had ended life support?

In other words, if it’s relevant, add the painful details. If not, don’t. Save yourself and others the discomfort.

Interestingly, the verb “die” doesn’t generally appear in Old English literature. Instead, an Anglo-Saxon might have said someone “is dead” (wesan déad ) or “was dead” (wæs déad).

However, “die” does exist in Old Norse, Old Frisian, Old Saxon, and other early Germanic languages, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the verb “is generally held to have been early lost in Old English” and “re-adopted in late Old English or early Middle English from Norse.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the verb (deȝen in Middle English) is from the History of the Holy Rood, a Christian manuscript written around 1135 about the Cross.

We’ll end with an example of the verb “die” from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 68:

Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn,
When beauty lived and died as flowers do now,
Before the bastard signs of fair were born,
Or durst inhabit on a living brow.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Out of the question

Q: Every once in a while an expression that I’ve heard all my life suddenly sounds strange. Why, for example, do we refer to something unthinkable or impossible as “out of the question”?

A: When the word “question” showed up in English in the early 1200s, it meant (as it does today) something that’s asked about, discussed, or debated.

English adopted the word from Anglo-Norman, but it’s ultimately derived from Latin. In classical Latin, a quaestio was, among other things, a subject for discussion, which is a clue to the expression you’re asking about.

When “out of the question” first showed up in the early 1600s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “not relevant to the matter under discussion.”

The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from a 1607 religious tract in which the English Puritan clergyman Robert Parker argues that the effective use of the sign of imposing hands (that is, the laying on of hands) “is out of the question.”

And here’s an example from A Defence of the Right of Kings, a 1642 tract in which Edward Forest attacks the writings of the Jesuit priest Robert Persons:

“This cunning and curious Composer of Bookes, and Contriuer of cases, doth in this his chiefe proposition, worke himself quite out of the question.”

Over the years, according to the dictionary, the expression came to mean “not to be considered or countenanced; impossible.”

This is an example of the new usage from The History of Betsy Thoughtless, a 1751 novel by Eliza Haywood: “A marriage with miss Betsy was, therefore, now quite out of the question with him.”

The OED’s latest citation is from James Ryan’s 1997 novel Dismantling Mr Doyle: “And the yellow and red checkered head scarf Mrs Doyle produced as a possible necktie was, he insisted, out of the question altogether.”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Is ubiquitousness ubiquitous?

Q: The question herein to be addressed centers around the so-called word “ubiquitousness” (I frankly contest its claim to the title). Do you agree with the editor who changed my use of “ubiquity” to “ubiquitousness”?

A: We prefer the simpler “ubiquity.” It’s more ubiquitous than the clunky “ubiquitousness.”

You can find “ubiquitousness” in a few standard dictionaries, but “ubiquity” appears in more. And the people who use the English language clearly prefer the shorter word.

Here’s the Google scorecard: “ubiquity,” 5.4 million hits; “ubiquitousness,” 90,000.

When the noun “ubiquity” showed up in English in the early 1570s, it referred to the omnipresence of God.

The word comes from ubiquitas, post-classical Latin for “the omnipresence of Christ or of his body,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In classical Latin, ubique meant  anywhere, everywhere, wherever.

The OED’s earliest citation for “ubiquity” is from A Booke of Christian Questions and Answers, Arthur Golding’s 1572 translation of a work by the French Protestant theologian Théodore de Bèze:

“The Vbiquitie or Eueriwherbeing of Christs manhod mainteined by Brentius and certeine others.”

By the late 1500s, according to Oxford, the term “ubiquity” was being used secularly to mean “the ability, or apparent ability, to be everywhere at once.” Today that sense generally refers to “being seen or encountered everywhere.”

By the early 1600s, the term had widened to mean the state of “being present everywhere or apparently everywhere; widespread presence; prevalence, pervasiveness.”

Most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked now define “ubiquity” loosely as the fact that someone or something is widespread or seems to be everywhere.

This is an example of the freer usage from Oxford Dictionaries online: “I heard more gnatcatchers, but I never did see one, which was a bit surprising given their general ubiquity.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines it loosely as the “existence or apparent existence everywhere.”

American Heritage has this example from the 20th-century critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno: “the repetitiveness, the selfsameness, and the ubiquity of modern mass culture.”

The adjective “ubiquitous” showed up two centuries after the noun “ubiquity,” with a similar theological sense: “Of God, Christ, the soul, etc.: present in all places; omnipresent.”

The earliest example in the OED is from Remarks on an Introduction to the History of Great Britain and Ireland (1772), by the Scottish writer James Macpherson:

“When we think him [sc. God] in some matter straitned, or abdridged of room, for his Omnipresence, on the supposition of his essence not pervading this ubiquitous nothing, we seem to forget who he is.”

By the early 1800s, according to Oxford citations, the adjective was being used more generally in reference to a person, thing, quality, and so on that’s widespread, predominant, very common, popular, or omnipresent.

The first OED example is from an 1802 survey of Londonderry by G. V. Sampson: “The almost ubiquitous and perennial daisy, bellis perennis.”

The latecomer in this lot, the noun “ubiquitousness,” was coined in the 1850s by adding “-ness” to the adjective. (The suffix “-ness” is used with adjectives, participles, adjectival phrases, and some other terms to form abstract nouns.)

The dictionary’s first example of the usage is from the April 1852 issue of Colburn’s United Service Magazine and Naval and Military Journal:

“In vain you would track their course … and cry ‘Eureka’, at each bend, fancying you have at length found it [sc. a winding river]. Hopeless delusion! You have yet to learn the ubiquitousness of its character.”

The most recent OED example—from the April 10, 2009, issue of the Daily Telegraph in London—refers to the ubiquitousness of unavoidable ‘musak.’ ”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

An anonymous artery?

Q: I’m puzzled about why the “brachiocephalic artery” is commonly referred to as the “innominate artery.” In other words, why is an artery with a precise name vaguely referred to as an anonymous artery?

A: Let’s first look at the adjective “innominate,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “not named, unnamed, anonymous.”

English adapted the term in the 17th century from the late Latin innominatus, which was used in the writings of the early sixth-century philosopher Boethius.

The earliest example in the OED is from Some Yeares Travels Into Divers Parts of Asia and Afrique (1638), by Thomas Herbert: “Zeyloon … was not innominate to the Antients.” (Zeyloon, once an alternate spelling of Ceylon, is now known as Sri Lanka.)

By the 19th century, the term was being used, sometimes in English and sometimes in Latin, to refer to various bones, arteries, and veins in the human body.

The first Oxford example is from Phillips’s New World of Words, a 1706 edition edited by John Kiersey: “Innominata Ossa … the Nameless Bones, two large Bones plac’d on the sides of the Os Sacrum.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of “innominate artery” is from George Rolleston’s Forms of Animal Life (1870): “The aorta [in birds] divides after a very short course into three great trunks, by giving off two subequal innominate arteries.”

Interestingly, the term “brachiocephalic artery” appeared in print dozens of years before “innominate artery,” according to OED citations.

The Cyclopædia of Anatomy and Physiology (1836-39), edited by Robert Bentley Todd, has an entry for the “brachio-cephalic artery.”

So the term that you consider more precise apparently showed up before the one that you consider fuzzier. Hmm!

So why is the “brachiocephalic artery,” which supplies blood to the right arm, the head, and the neck in humans, commonly referred to as the “innominate artery”?

Mosby’s Medical Dictionary (8th ed.) says the term “innominate” is sometimes used for body parts that have descriptive names rather than precise ones (like the aorta, the femur, or the tibia).

“The term is traditionally applied to certain anatomic structures, often identified by their descriptive name, such as the hip bone and brachiocephalic artery,” the medical dictionary explains.

In other words, the “brachiocephalic artery” is referred to as nameless because “brachiocephalic” here merely indicates that the function of the artery involves the arm and head.

We can understand if you’re still puzzled by all this. The idea of a descriptive name being nameless strikes us as odd too. But who are we to complain, no matter what it’s called—as long as surgeons can find it?

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English English language Etymology Spelling Usage Word origin

Judgment (or Judgement) Day

Q: I’ve noticed that you spell “judgment” without the extra “e” in the middle. I use the same spelling, but “judgement” is increasingly popular. During my law school days, I encountered the word with no small regularity, and both American and English texts used “judgment.” If I never saw the written word, though, I would assume “judgement” was correct. It seems right. Could you shed any light on the situation?

A: The word “judgment” has been spelled many different ways since it showed up in Middle English in the 1200s, sometimes with an “e” and sometimes without.

Here’s a small sampling of early spellings: “gogement,” “gugement,” “iugegement,” “iuggyment,” “iugment,” “iugumen,” “jugment,” “judgment,” and “jugmente.”

The word initially had an “e” when it was adapted from Anglo-Norman, where it was variously spelled judgement, jugemen, juggement, juggment, jogement, jougement, jujement, and gugement.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the “e”-less spelling with “dgm” in the middle appeared in the early 16th century, “and by the late 17th cent. judgment had become the prevailing spelling, although judgement  was still commonly found.”

During the 19th century, the OED adds, “the form judgement gained in frequency in British contexts, and is now the usual spelling in general British use.”

However, the dictionary notes that “judgment  has remained the standard spelling in British legal contexts when used to refer to a judicial decision, as well as in U.S. usage.”

No doubt the version of the word with “e” in the middle looks right to you because it begins with “judge,” the spelling of the verb and noun.

However, the word “judge” didn’t give us the word “judgment.”

The noun “judge” didn’t appear until a century after “judgment,” while the verb “judge” showed up for the first time in the same manuscript as “judgment.” All the early spellings were in Middle English.

So what, you’re wondering, is the situation today?

Well, standard dictionaries in the US and the UK generally include both “judgment” and “judgement” for the non-legal usage. But “judgment” is more popular in the US and “judgement” in the UK.

So the two spellings are standard English on either side of the pond, though the presence of “e” might raise a few eyebrows in the US while its absence might raise some in the UK.

We’re not aware of an increase in the popularity of “judgement” in American English, but given the word’s shifting history, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the “e” become fashionable in the US one day, as it did in the UK during the 19th century.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Up and at ’em!

Q: The phrase “up and at ’em” is older than you suggest—at least in Spanish. Is it borrowed? The Spaniards who conquered the New World used arriba y a ellos as a battle cry.

A: Although “up and at ’em” has a Spanish equivalent—arriba y a ellos—we’re doubtful that the English expression came from Spanish. In fact, the English version apparently appeared first.

In our 2010 post, we mentioned an Oxford English Dictionary citation (“the up-and-at-’em aspect of things”) dating from 1909.

In addition, the OED has examples like this one, found in a letter written by Katharine Mansfield in 1919: “Lets up and at em this winter.”

Oxford also has examples of “up and at” from the late 19th century that are followed by other pronouns, like “up and at it” and “up and at him.”

But in our own searches, we’ve found published examples of the uncontracted “up and at them” from early 19th-century England. And while Americans borrowed language from Spanish in the early 1800s, the British generally did not.

The earliest examples we’ve found appeared in 1815 in hastily published accounts of the Battle of Waterloo, which had been fought in June of that year.

The Duke of Wellington, according to these sources, used the expression as a war cry on the famous battlefield. This example is from The Battle of Waterloo (1815), written “By a Near Observer”:

“The Duke, who was riding behind us, watched their approach, and at length, when within a hundred yards of us, exclaimed, ‘Up, Guards, and at them again!’”

Another, from A Short Detail of the Battle of Waterloo (1815), was said to have been “collected on the spot” (apparently by a British officer). It has this passage:

“ ‘Up, Guards, and at them,’ cried the Duke of Wellington, who was then with a brigade of the Guards. In an instant they sprung up, and, assuming the offensive, rushed upon the attacking columns with the bayonet.”

But while Wellington’s words were indeed published in 1815—and in different accounts—he denied late in life that he’d said them.

In an 1852 letter to his friend John Wilson Croker, a former Secretary to the Admiralty, Wellington wrote:

“What I must have said, and possibly did say was, Stand up, Guards! and then gave the commanding officers the order to attack.” (Published in The Croker Papers, 1884.)

Whether authentic or not, the battle cry became instantly famous and was widely quoted from 1815 on. It was popular on playing fields, in the streets, and in sporting circles.

Christopher North’s novel Winter Rhapsody, serialized in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, describes a schoolboys’ game in which a character shouts, “Guards, up and at them!” (From the February 1831 issue.)

This example is from an eyewitness account of a riot that occurred on March 18, 1833, in the Irish city of Newry:

“Again these poor fellows came to the charge, ‘up and at them,’ and routed the mob completely.” (The testimony was published in the papers of the House of Commons in July 1835.)

And this sporting example is from a description of a four-mile steeplechase in Shropshire in December 1837:

“Tarporley, again all right, was up and at ’em across the ploughed field.” (The report was published in the January 1838 issue of a British magazine, the Sportsman.)

As for the Spanish phrase, arriba y a ellos, it seems to have originated later.

The earliest example we’ve been able to find is from an Oct. 10, 1889, speech by the Cuban national hero José Martí at Hardman Hall in New York.

In the speech, commemorating Oct. 10, 1868, the beginning of the Cuban wars of independence, Martí quotes “almirante Nelson” (not the Duke of Wellington) as using the battle cry:

Y el almirante le dijo, de una buena tronada de la voz: “¡Al diablo las maniobras: arriba y a ellos!” (“And the admiral told them, in a thunderous voice, ‘The hell with maneuvers, up and at them!’ ”)

We haven’t been able to find any examples of arriba y a ellos from the days of the Conquistadors—at least not in Spanish.

But it appears that the Aztecs who resisted the Spanish conquest may have used a version of “up and at them” as a battle cry in their native language, Nahuatl.

In The Human Record: Sources of Global History (4th ed.), Alfred J. Andrea and James H. Overfield provide firsthand accounts of the events that made history.

One of these is the battle for Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, in 1519, as Cortés and his forces set out to conquer Mexico.

The account the authors quote, compiled by Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan missionary, was written in Nahuatl and Spanish some 25 years after the battle.

Sahagún mastered Nahuatl and collected oral histories from Aztec survivors of the battle.

This is from Sahagún’s account in La Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva Espanã, translated into English from Nahuatl:

“When they [the Spaniards] got to Tlilhuacan, the [Aztec] warriors crouched far down and hid themselves, hugging the ground, waiting for the war cry, when there would be shouting and cries of encouragement. When the cry went up, ‘O Mexica, up and at them!’ the Tlappanecatl Ecatzin, a warrior of Otomi [elite] rank, faced the Spaniards and threw himself at them, saying, ‘O Tlatelolca warriors, up and at them, who are these barbarians? Come running!’ ”

(We searched the Spanish text in various versions of Sahagún’s account and couldn’t find the expression arriba y a ellos.)

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Are two head better than one?

Q: No grammarian I/me, but why is “head” singular as well as plural when referring to cattle?

A: In both the singular and the plural, the noun “head” has long been used numerically.

It’s used for a number of animals (“twenty head of cattle,” “each head of sheep”) as well as measuring (“two heads taller,” “leading by a head,” and so on).

The earliest written example of “head” used for a number of animals comes from an Old English land charter, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The document contains the phrase “mid xii heafdon sceapa” (“with 12 head of sheep”).

This sense of “head” is defined in the OED as “an individual animal, esp. a herd animal.” And Oxford notes that the word is used “usually with plural unchanged after a numeral or other quantifier.”

Here are a couple of 19th-century examples in which “head” is used in reference to singular or plural animals:

“The low grounds were laid under water, and many head of cattle drowned” (from The Annual Register for the year 1772).

“Every head of cattle about the place had died” (from Anthony Trollope’s novel The Belton Estate, 1866).

But “head” isn’t used for animals exclusively. In English writing, the phrase “a head” has meant “per person” since at least as far back as the 900s, according to citations in the OED.

And this usage is still with us. A report in a British newspaper, the Independent, noted in 2000: “Delegates will start the day with a ‘coffee, tea and danish’ at £5.95 a head.”

The English word “head” has ancestors in more than a dozen old Germanic languages.

It can “probably” be traced, according to the OED, even further back to a prehistoric Indo-European root that means “cup” or “vessel.” Oxford draws a comparison to the Sanskrit noun kapāla (“cup,” “skull”).

The “shift of meaning from ‘vessel’ to ‘skull, head’ ” is in fact “quite common” in other languages, the linguist Winfred Philipp Lehmann writes in A Gothic Etymological Dictionary (1986).

Lehmann points out, for instance, that the semantic resemblance between a skull and a vessel can be seen in the nouns tête in French and kopf in German. They once meant something like “bowl” or “vessel” but today only the meaning “head” has survived.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the ancient Indo-European root of “head” (kauput- or kaupet-) “probably had connotations of ‘bowl’ … as well as ‘head,’ although which came first is not clear.”

Ayto says kaput-, a variant of the Indo-European root, “seems to be responsible for the Latin word for ‘head,’ caput (source of a wide range of English words).”

Thus, our word “head” is distantly related to such English words as “capital,” “captain,” “capillary,” “chief” and (yes!) “cup.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

The rub of the green

Q: In golf, the expression “rub of the green” basically means bad luck—as when a putt for a birdie is knocked off line by a dive-bombing red-winged blackbird. Does “rub” in this case have any link to Shakespeare’s “Aye, there’s the rub”?

A: When the noun “rub” showed up in regional English in East Anglia in the early 1500s, it referred to a stone used for sharpening a scythe—that is, a whetstone.

But by the 1570s, the noun was being used to mean an unevenness of the ground in the game of bowls, or lawn bowling.

In the 1580s, “rub” came to mean “an obstacle, impediment, or difficulty of a non-material nature,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Shakespeare was using “rub” in that sense in the early 1600s when he wrote Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” soliloquy, which includes “there’s the rub.”

Is there a link, you ask, between Shakespeare’s use of “rub” and the golfing expression “rub of the green”?

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the early sense of an obstacle in the game of bowls gave us the “extended sense of any obstacle or hindrance (as in Hamlet’s there’s the rub).”

We’d add that the usage in lawn bowling no doubt gave the golfing world the expression “rub of the green,” which showed up in the early 1800s, according to citations in the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example of the golfing usage is an 1812 entry from The Story of R & A (1956), J. B. Salmond’s book about the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews:

“Whatever happens to a Ball by accident must be reckoned a Rub of the green.”

The OED says the expression has two meanings, the one you’re asking about and a wider one: “a) Golf an accidental interference with the course or position of a ball; (b) fig. good (also bad) fortune, esp. as determining events in a sporting match.”

Here’s an example of the wider sense from the Dec. 31, 1931, issue of the Times Literary Supplement:

If he is unfortunate in having finished his task before his problem was knocked completely out of shape by England’s suspension of the gold standard, that is just the ‘rub of the green.’ ”

By the way, when the expression “aye, there’s the rub” first showed up in Hamlet, the interjection “aye” was spelled “I.”

The expression doesn’t appear in the First Quarto (1603), the earliest print edition of Hamlet. (Some scholars consider the abbreviated text in the First Folio unreliable.)

But in the Second Quarto (1604), the expression is written as “I there’s the rub,” and in the First Folio (1623), it’s “I, there’s the rub.”

In fact, the word “aye”was spelled “I” when it suddenly showed up around 1575, according to the OED, and it appeared that way well into the 1600s.

The dictionary discusses several theories about the source of the word “aye,” but ultimately describes it as “origin unknown.”

However, Oxford Dictionaries online says that “aye” is “probably from I, first person personal pronoun, expressing assent.”

The online Collins Dictionary agrees that it’s “probably from pronoun I, expressing assent.”

And we’ll add our aye.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

My foot!

Q: Can you please tell me the origin of the expression “my foot!”?

A: The word “foot” has traveled quite a bit since it showed up in Anglo-Saxon days as a noun for the part of a leg, below the ankle, that a person stands on.

It has meant a foot in measurement (since sometime before 1000), a foot of verse (around 1050), the foot of a bed (sometime before 1400), the bottom of a page (1669), a presser foot on a sewing machine (1877), and so on.

In the early 20th century, it showed up in “my foot!” (or “your foot!”), a colloquial expression of “contemptuous contradiction,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest example is from Mary the Third, a 1923 play by Rachel Crothers:

“Mother: She was honest enough to tell me that—and I could have persuaded—

“Father: Honest your foot! She’s fooled you—deceived you.”

And here’s a “my foot!” example from Hay Fever, a 1925 comedy by Noël Coward:

“Judith: It’s so silly to get cross at criticism—it indicates a small mind.

“David: Small mind my foot!”

Jonathon Green, writing in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, describes the phrase as a euphemistic variation on “my arse!”

The earliest example of the usage in Green’s Dictionary is from the April 1, 1905, issue of the Sporting Times. In the item cited, one man apparently corrects another for using “my hat!” instead of “my foot!”

“Said No. 2: ‘My hat! this is a really nice girl!’

“Said No. 1: ‘She is a nice girl, old chap, but that was
my foot!’ ”

(The phrase seems to be used here as a mild version of “my God!”)

The next example in Green’s (from The Harvester, a 1911 novel by Gene Stratton-Porter), clearly uses the phrase to suggest contemptuous rejection:

“ ‘She can’t leave her people. Her grandmother is sick.’

“ ‘Grandmother your foot!’ cried the old woman.”

In looking into your question, we came across a related exclamation that might interest you. Chaucer uses the oath “Christ’s foot!” in “The Miller’s Tale,” the second of the Canterbury Tales (circa 1386):

“Ey, Cristes fote! what wil ye do therwith?”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Can “since” mean “because”?

Q: In your “disrupter”/“disruptor” post, you use the word “since” in the sense of “because.” To me, “because” indicates cause and effect, while “since” indicates time. Am I being hypercritical?

A: Yes, you’re being hypercritical. The word “since” has been used as a conjunction in the sense of “because” for hundreds of years.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors (1593): “Since mine own doors refuse to entertain me, / I’ll knock elsewhere, to see if they’ll disdain me.”

Bryan A. Garner, one of our more traditional grammarians, says it’s a “canard that the word properly relates only to time.”

“In modern print sources, the causal sense is almost as common as the temporal sense,” he writes in Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.).

We’d caution, however, that the use of “since” for “because” can be ambiguous if both causal and temporal readings are possible.

As Pat writes in Woe Is I, her grammar and usage guide, “Just be sure the meaning can’t be confused, as in, Since we spoke, I’ve had second thoughts. In that case, since could mean either ‘from the time that’ or ‘because,’ so it’s better to be more precise.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage adds that “since” may be “a bit less emphatic” than “because” when used in the causal sense. Perhaps, but that’s for the writer to decide.

The word “since” has been an adverb, adjective, preposition, and conjunction since it showed up in Middle English in the 1400s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It had various early meanings (then, thereupon, immediately afterward, etc.) before the modern temporal and causal senses showed up in the 1500s.

The earliest “because” example in the OED is from The Comedye of Acolastus, a 1540 translation by John Palsgrave of a Latin play about the Prodigal Son by the Dutch writer Gulielmus Gnapheus: “Go to, let it be … syns it lyketh so.”

We’ll end with this example from Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766):  “Then what signifies calling every moment upon the devil, and courting his friendship, since you find how scurvily he uses you?”

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