English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Pronunciation Usage Word origin

Hallowe’en be thy name

(Note: This post originally appeared on the blog on Halloween a year ago.)

Q: My husband grew up in New York and says “HOLLOW-een.” I grew up in Chicago and pronounce it “HALLOW-een.” Which is right?

A: We answered a similar question five years ago, but this is a good day to revisit it!

As we wrote in 2009, dictionaries accept both pronunciations, but your preference (“HALLOW-een”) is more historically accurate. We’ll expand on our earlier post to explain why.

Back in the seventh century, the early Christians had more saints than they had days in the year. To commemorate the leftover saints who didn’t have a day all to themselves, the church set aside a day devoted to all of them, and in the next century the date was standardized as Nov. 1.

The Christian holiday became known as the Day of All Saints, or All Hallows Day. “Hallow,” an old word for a holy person or a saint, evolved from the Old English word halig, meaning “holy.”

Meanwhile, the pagan Celts of northwestern Europe and the British Isles were already celebrating Oct. 31, the final day of the year in the Celtic calendar. It was both a celebration of the harvest and a Day of the Dead, a holiday on which the Celtic people believed it was possible to communicate with the dead.

As Christianity spread, these celebrations neatly dovetailed. The pagan Day of the Dead was transformed by Christianity into the Eve of All Saints, or All Hallows Eve. This later became All Hallow Even, then was shortened to Hallowe’en and finally Halloween.

Pat spoke about this recently on Iowa Public Radio, and mentioned some of the whimsical names for the night before Halloween. Like the pronunciation of “Halloween,” these regional names vary across the country: Devil’s Night … Cabbage Night … Goosey Night … Clothesline Night … Mischief Night … Hell Night, and so on. (Sometimes, these occasions are excuses for vandalism and general bad behavior.)

Several Iowa listeners called and tweeted to say that in the small rural towns where they grew up, kids went “corning” on the night before Halloween, throwing handfuls of corn at neighbors’ windows and doors. Well, perhaps that’s better than throwing eggs or strewing trees with toilet paper!

Pat also discussed the etymologies of some of the more familiar Halloween words:

● “Ghost” came from the Old English gast (spirit, soul). It has roots in ancient Germanic words, and you can hear it today in the modern German geist (mind, spirit, ghost). The word “poltergeist” is from German, in which poltern means to rumble or make noise.

People didn’t begin to spell “ghost” with an “h” until the 1400s, probably influenced by the Dutch word, which began with “gh-.”

● “Ghastly,” from the old verb gast (frighten), didn’t always have an “h” either. It was written as “gastliche” or “gastly” in the 1300s. The “gh-” spelling 200 years later was influenced by “ghost,” but otherwise they’re unrelated.

● “Haunt” is derived from an Old French verb meaning “to frequent,” and in the English of the 1200s it meant to do something habitually or frequently. Later, in the 1500s, a figurative use emerged in reference to supernatural beings who would “haunt” (that is, frequently visit) those of us on earth.

● “Goblin” has a spooky history dating back to the fourth or fifth century in France. Legend has it that an extremely ugly and very nasty demon was driven out of the town of Évreux by an early Christian bishop. When the story was recorded later in a medieval Latin manuscript, the demon was called Gobelinus. Thus the word gobelin passed into Old French to mean an evil demon, and in the early 1300s “goblin” came into English.

● “Ghoul,” a relative latecomer, came into English in the late 18th century from Arabic, in which ghul means an evil spirit that robs graves and feeds on corpses. The Arabic word comes from a verb that means to seize.

● “Mummy” also has an Arabic ancestry. It can be traced to the Arabic mumiya (embalmed body), derived from mum, a Persian word for wax. The word passed into Egyptian and other languages, then into 14th-century English, where “mummy” first meant a medicinal ointment prepared from mummified flesh. By the 17th century, it had come to mean a body embalmed according to Egyptian practices.

● “Witch” has its roots in an Old English verb, wiccian, meaning to practice sorcery. There were both masculine and feminine nouns for the sorcerers themselves: a man was a wicca and a woman was a wicce. The “cc” in these words was pronounced like “ch,” so they sounded like witchen, witcha, and witchee. (Wicca, the pagan religion of witchcraft that appeared in the 20th century, is spelled like the Old English masculine wicca though its followers pronounce it as wikka.)

Eventually the nouns for male and female sorcerers (wicca and wicce) merged, the endings fell away, and the word became the unisex “witch” in the 13th century. Later in its history, “witch” came to be more associated with women, which explains a change in this next word.

● “Wizard” literally meant “wise man” when it entered English in the 1400s. But in the following century it took on a new job. It became the male counterpart of “witch” and meant a man who practices magic or sorcery.

● “Vampire” may have its roots in ubyr, a word for “witch” in the Kazan Tatar language spoken in an area of what is now Russia, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins. The OED suggests an origin in Magyar (vampir), the language of modern Hungary. However it originated, the word is now very widely spread and has similar-sounding counterparts in Russian, Polish, Czech, Serbian, Bulgarian, Ruthenian, German, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and even modern Latin (vampyrus). When it came into English from French in the 1740s, it was spelled “vampyre,” which for some reason looks scarier in writing (perhaps it seems more gothic).

● “Werewolf” has come down from Old English more or less intact as a word for someone who can change (or is changed) from a man into a wolf. It was first recorded as werewulf around the year 1000. In those days, wer or were was a word for “man,” so “werewolf” literally means “wolf man.”

● “Zombie” has its roots in West Africa and is similar to words in the Kongo language, nzambi (god) and zumbi (fetish), as the OED notes. Transferred to the Caribbean and the American South in the 19th century, “zombie” was part of the language of the voodoo cult. It first meant a snake god, and later a soulless corpse reanimated by witchcraft.

● “Hocus-pocus” can be traced to the 1600s, when it meant a juggler, trickster, or conjuror. It may even have been the name of a particular entertainer who performed during the reign of King James I (1601-1625), according to a citation in the OED.

This man, the citation says, called himself Hocus Pocus because “at the playing of every Trick, he used to say, Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo, a dark composure of words, to blinde the eyes of the beholders, to make his Trick pass the more currantly without discovery.” (From A Candle in the Dark, a 1655 religious and political tract by Thomas Ady.)

It has also been suggested that “hocus-pocus” was a spoof on the Latin words used in the Eucharist, hoc est corpus meum (“this is my body”), but there’s no evidence for that. At any rate, the phrase “hocus-pocus” eventually became a famous incantation. “Hocus” by itself also became a verb and a noun for this kind of hoodwinking, and the word “hoax” may be a contracted form of “hocus.”

● “Weird” once had a very different meaning. In Old English, the noun wyrd meant fate or destiny, and from around 1400 the term “weird sister” referred to a woman with supernatural powers who could control someone’s destiny. This is how Shakespeare meant “weird” when he called the three witches in Macbeth “the weyard sisters.” It wasn’t until the 19th century that “weird” was used to mean strange or uncanny or even eerie.

● “Eerie,” another much-changed word, is one we owe to the Scots. When it was recorded in writing in the early 1300s, “eerie” meant fearful or timid. Not until the late 18th century did “eerie” come to mean inspiring fear—as in spooky.

● “Jack-o’-lantern,” a phrase first recorded in the 17th century, originally meant “man with a lantern” or “night watchman.” It became associated with Halloween and carved pumpkins in the 19th century. And incidentally, the British originally hollowed out large turnips, carving scary eyes and mouths and putting candles inside. Americans made their jack-o’-lanterns out of pumpkins.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Usage Writing

So … as, so … that, so what?

Q: I’m confused by the “so … as” and “so … that” constructions in these sentences: “The word is so rare as to be almost obsolete” and “The word is so rare that it is almost obsolete.” Are they both correct? Do they mean the same thing?

A: Your two examples are grammatically correct. The adverb “so,” used to modify an adjective or adverb, can be followed by either “as” or “that.”

These “so … as” and “so … that” constructions can be similar in meaning, though they aren’t identical.

For instance, (1) “Mites are so small as to be invisible” tells us much the same thing as (2) “Mites are so small that they are invisible.” But #2 is the stronger statement, as we’ll explain below.

The difference is clearer when the consequence or result is more stark, as in (3) “The dose was so large as to be fatal” versus (4) “The dose was so large that it was fatal.” Again, #4 is the stronger statement.

Why is this? Because the “so … as” constructions indicate extent or degree, while the “so … that” constructions indicate an actual consequence—in other words, a theoretical versus a real result.

There are grammatical differences as well. The two constructions, “so … as” and “so … that,” require different sentence endings.

In #1 and #3, the preposition “as” is followed by an infinitive phrase (“to be invisible” … “to be fatal”). In #2 and #4, ”that” is followed by a subordinate clause, complete with subject and verb (“they are invisible” … “it was fatal”).

It’s also important to note that in sentences like #1 and #3, “as” is necessary and cannot be omitted. But in #2 and #4, “that” is optional and can be omitted: “The mites are so small they are invisible” … “The dose was so large it was fatal.”

In the #2 and #4 examples, “that” is what the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language would call “a marker of subordination.”

In other words, it marks the subordinate clause that follows. And subordinate clauses don’t always require such a marker.

Both of these “so” formulations are common in negative statements, as in this line from Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece (1594): “No perfection is so absolute, / That some impuritie doth not pollute.”

Sometimes a single sentence combines the two: “It was so hot as to melt concrete, but not so hot that we stayed inside.”

We’ve used adjectival examples here but, as we mentioned above, “so” modifies adverbs as well: “She spoke so loudly as to embarrass us, but not so loudly that the maître d’ asked us to leave.”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Words with a checkered past

Q: What is the difference between “plaid” and “tartan”? I’ve found many answers online, but they’re not consistent. Can you help?

A: We can see why you’re confused. The terms “plaid” and “tartan” are often used interchangeably, and the definitions in standard dictionaries differ in one way or another.

To confuse things more, the same design or fabric may be “plaid” in one place and “tartan” in another. The popular checked design called Buffalo plaid in the US, for instance, is Rob Roy tartan in Scotland.

Despite their differences, dictionaries in both the US and the UK generally describe “plaid” as a pattern or fabric with a crisscross motif that includes “tartan” designs associated with Scotland.

Oxford Dictionaries online, for example, broadly defines “plaid” (the fabric) as “Chequered or tartan twilled cloth, typically made of wool.”

Oxford defines “tartan” more precisely as “a woollen cloth woven in one of several patterns of coloured checks and intersecting lines, especially of a design associated with a particular Scottish clan.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines “plaid” broadly as “a pattern on cloth of stripes with different widths that cross each other to form squares.”

But Merriam-Webster’s defines “tartan” more narrowly as “a traditional Scottish cloth pattern of stripes in different colors and widths that cross each other to form squares.”

The two of us use “plaid” as a general term for a design or cloth with a criss-cross pattern of stripes of various widths. But we use “tartan” for a design or fabric in a Highland clan pattern or one that’s similar.

Interestingly, the “traditional” association of tartan patterns with specific Scottish clans isn’t all that traditional. We’ll have more to say about this later, but first let’s talk about what makes a “plaid” design “tartan.”

On House Beautiful magazine’s website, the designer Scot Meacham Wood provides an explanation for why “All tartans are plaid, but not all plaids are tartan.”

“All plaids and tartans are comprised of stripes (in varying sizes and colors) that meet at a 90-degree angle,” he says. “We start heading into ‘tartan’ territory by looking at the geometry on the pattern.”

With nearly every tartan, he writes, “the pattern on the stripes running vertically is exactly duplicated on the horizontal axis too. Basically, this matching pattern in both directions will create a grid.”

“When looking at a simple plaid,” he adds, “you’ll notice that the stripes—either in color, size, or pattern—are not the same in both directions.”

Although the “tartan” pattern is now associated with Scotland, cloth has been woven with similar designs for thousands of years, according to the textile archeologist Elizabeth Wayland Barber.

In The Mummies of Ürümchi (1999), she discusses similarities between the tartan-like leggings on a 3,000-year-old mummy found in China and the plaid textiles produced in Central Europe some 2,500 years ago.

As for the etymology, “plaid” and “tartan” had overlapping meanings when they showed up in Scottish English in the early 1500s, much as the two terms do today, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the origins of the words are uncertain, but “plaid” may perhaps be related to the verb “ply” (to bend or fold cloth or other material) and “tartan” to tiretaine, an Old French term for a cloth made of wool mixed with linen or cotton.

When “plaid” first appeared, the OED says, it referred to “a twilled woollen cloth, usually with a chequered or tartan pattern.” Later, the term could also mean “any fabric having a tartan pattern.”

The dictionary’s earliest example, from a 1510 entry in the accounts of the diocese of Dunkeld in central Scotland, refers to an expense of two shillings for dying four ells of “plaidis.” (In Scotland, an ell was a length of 37.2 inches.)

About the same time, Oxford says, a “plaid” could also mean a length of such material “worn in the north of England and all parts of Scotland, later mainly in the Scottish Highlands, and now chiefly as part of the ceremonial dress of the pipe bands of Scottish regiments.”

The dictionary adds that outside the Highlands the material was “worn as a shawl by women, and as a cloak or mantle by men, but in the Highlands also as the principal article of dress.”

The OED’s earliest example for this usage is from a 1512 entry in the accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland:

“Item, the vj day of Maij, in Air, for ane plaid to be the King ane coit” (“Item, the sixth day of May, in Ayr, for one plaid to be the King’s own coat”).

As for “tartan,” the OED defines it as a woolen cloth, associated with the Scottish Highlands, that is “woven in stripes of various colours crossing at right angles so as to form a regular pattern” or “the pattern or design of such cloth.”

Oxford has one questionable citation dating from sometime before 1500, but the first definite example is from a 1533 item in the accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland: “For fresing of ane tartane galcot” (“For shearing of one tartan jacket”).

The dictionary notes that each Scottish Highland clan generally has a distinctive “tartan” pattern, “often preceded by a clan-name, etc. denoting a particular traditional or authorized design.”

However, the earliest example in the OED for a tartan pattern linked to a specific clan dates back only to the 19th century. Here’s the citation from David Stewart’s Sketches of the Character, Manners and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland (1822):

“The pipers wore a red tartan of very bright colours, (of the pattern known by the name of the Stewart tartan).”

The earliest known tartan in Scotland can be dated to the third or fourth century AD, according to the Scottish Tartans Museum.

“Originally, tartan designs had no names, and no symbolic meaning,” the museum says on its website.  “All tartan cloth was hand woven, and usually supplied locally.”

Although “certain colors or pattern motifs were more common in some areas than others, no regulated or defined ‘clan tartan’ system ever existed,” according to the museum.

“Tartan, in general, however came to be extremely popular in Scottish Highland culture,” the museum adds. “So much so that by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, tartan clothing is seen to be characteristic of Highland dress.”

In fact, Britain briefly prohibited the wearing of tartan (except in British military uniforms) after defeating the Jacobite forces, primarily Scottish Highlanders, at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

It wasn’t until the early 1800s that specific tartan designs began to be associated with the various Highlands clans, thanks to the commercial production of tartan and the interest of expatriate Scots in preserving what they mistakenly thought of as an old tradition.

“In 1815 the Highland Society of London wrote to the clan chiefs asking them to submit samples of their clan tartans,” the museum says. “Many chiefs had no idea what ‘their clan tartan’ was supposed to be.”

So the clan chiefs “either wrote to tartan suppliers” for a design “or asked the older men of their clan if they recalled any particular tartan being worn.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

When “for sale” isn’t “on sale”

Q: I am wondering why everything being sold is “for sale,” but only promoted items with special pricing are “on sale.” Can you help?

A: We’ve often wondered about this ourselves. As all shoppers know, everything that’s “on sale” is “for sale.” But the reverse isn’t necessarily true. How did this come about?

The explanation requires a detour into etymological history.

The noun “sale” first appeared in late Old English writing around 1050, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It has ancient Germanic roots, and probably came into English by way of Old Norse.

It’s always meant more or less the same thing—the disposal of a commodity for a price. Here’s the OED definition:

“The action or an act of selling or making over to another for a price; the exchange of a commodity for money or other valuable consideration.”

Oxford’s citations include this one from a will written in 1411: “Þ’ forseyd sale of my londes and tenementes.” (“Th’ foresaid sale of my lands and holdings.”)

The phrase “for sale,” which dates back to Elizabethan times, has always meant “intended to be sold” or “with a view to selling,” according to citations in the OED.

The earliest example given in Oxford is from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (circa 1611): “The other is not a thing for sale.”

This later example is from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Our Old Home: A Series of English Sketches (1863): “We went into a bookseller’s shop to inquire if he had any description of Boston for sale.”

Another phrase that’s just as old, “on (or upon) sale,” has meant the same thing as “for sale.” We’ll quote a pair of the OED’s modern English examples:

“A book which has been upon sale ever since it was published, twelve years ago” (from Robert Southey’s The Life and Works of William Cowper, 1835).

“The Times is on Sale for 3d. per Copy at all railway bookstalls in England and Wales” (from a 1901 issue of the Times, London).

So far so good. For hundreds of years, the noun “sale” and the phrases “on sale” and “for sale” were pretty straightforward.

But in the hubbub of the mid-19th century marketplace, as department stores began to flourish, “sale” took on another meaning—the selling of something at a discount.

Here’s the OED definition: “A special disposal of shop goods at rates lower than those usually charged in order to get rid of them rapidly, e.g. at the end of a ‘season.’ ”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an advertisement that ran in an 1866 issue of Chambers’s Journal:

“Enormous and incredible sale … for ten days only!!!” (As you can see, hyperbole and multiple exclamation marks are nothing new in advertising.)

Lady Laura Troubridge used “sale” this way in an 1875 entry in her journal, published in Life Amongst the Troubridges (1966):

“We … found a vague little shop where a sale was going on and everything was too ridiculously cheap. We bought some little silk scarves for a penny three farthings each.”

Standard dictionaries, as well as the OED, recognize that in modern English, a “sale” is a two-edged proposition. It means a disposal of goods, either at or below the usual price.

So things were becoming confused even before the phrase “on sale” took on a new sense: available for purchase at a discount.

The OED has no entries for this newer meaning of “on sale,” but standard dictionaries have taken notice of it.

Both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) say “for sale” has only one meaning (available for purchase), but “on sale” has two (available for purchase or available at a discount).

Shoppers, of course, are good at translating the language of ads, so they’re aware of the difference. And as we all know, even a discounted “sale price” isn’t always a bargain.

(“Bargain,” by the way, has been around since Middle English and can be traced to the Old French verb bargaignier, “to haggle.”)

We can’t sign off without mentioning that the original meaning of “sell” was to give—a meaning that, needless to say, is now defunct! It was recorded that way in Beowulf, which probably dates to the mid-700s.

In the late 10th century, “sell” acquired another meaning—to give up or hand over someone to an enemy. This usage is still with us, generally in the verb phrase “sell out,” which developed in the 19th century.

The most common meaning of “sell,” to hand over something for a price, was first recorded around the year 1000.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

At the instance of a reader

Q: My boss and I have a disagreement about the phrase “at my instance,” which I think should be “at my insistence.” The first time he wrote “at my instance,” I thought it was an auto-corrected version of “at my insistence,” but he insists it’s a common phrase.  I’ve never heard it before, and to me, it grates. Who’s right?

A: Your boss is using “instance” correctly, though it’s not an everyday usage in American or British English.

The phrase “at the instance of” means something like “at the urging of,” “at the suggestion of,” or as you propose, “at the insistence of.”

Today, this sense of “instance” is found chiefly in legal documents, legislative transcripts, and formal business correspondence.

Oxford Dictionaries online includes this example: “In criminal causes, an appeal lies to the House of Lords at the instance of the defendant or prosecutor.”

Although four of the five standard dictionaries we’ve checked include “at the instance of,” the expression is no longer common in ordinary usage in the US or the UK. It still turns up, however, in everyday African and Indian English.

This meaning of “instance” has been in use since the 14th century. Here are a few representative examples of the exact phrase you asked about (“at my instance”) that we found in online searches:

1742: “It was at my instance that he was first made a page, then a querry [equerry], and afterwards groom of the bed-chamber to the Prince” (from a memoir by Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough).

1852: “At my instance he called on me several times, and entered at length into the discussion of subjects on which he proposed to employ his pen” (from a Baltimore editor’s reminiscence of Edgar Allan Poe).

1886: “In 1878, at my instance and largely through my efforts, the present Trades Assembly of Chicago and vicinity was organized” (from Autobiography of Albert R. Parsons).

2006: “At my instance we did a reorganisation that improved matters but unfortunately did not eliminate delays completely” (from The Story of My Life, by the Nigerian novelist T. M. Aluko).

2013: “His vision had become impaired and only the day before, at my instance, he had got his eyes examined by Dr. B. S. Rathke” (from an interview in an Indian daily newspaper, The Hindu.)

So how did an “instance” come to mean an urging or an entreaty? The story begins with the Latin verb instare, which means to be present—literally to stand (stare) upon (in-).

By extension, the notion of being present, at hand, or on the spot came to imply urgency, as John Ayto notes in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

Latin derivatives of instare reflect this complexity—like instantia (presence, urgency, a judicial pleading, an objection) and instantem (present, pressing, urgent).

In medieval times, Old French borrowings from the Latin included instancier (to plead), instant (imminent), and instance (eagerness, anxiety, solicitation, objection).

It was the Old French noun instance, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, that gave us the English “instance,” meaning an entreaty or an “urgency in speech or action.”

This sense of the word is now archaic, the OED says, except in the phrase “at the instance of (a person),” which means “at the solicitation, suit, instigation, or suggestion of.”

The OED’s earliest written example is from Prose Treatise (circa 1340), by the Yorkshire hermit and mystic Richard Rolle of Hampole: “At þe prayere and instaunce of oþer.”

And here’s a 19th-century citation: “The Emperor, at the Pope’s instance summoned Flavianus to Rome” (from Robert Hussey’s The Rise of Papal Power, 1851).

As we said, the noun “instance” has died away except in such phrases. In fact, most senses of the noun are now obsolete.

A notable exception is the use of “instance” to mean an example or illustration, a sense that came into English writing in the late 16th century.

The earliest such usage in the OED is from Angell Day’s The English Secretorie (1592), a letter-writing manual: “I will but giue you an instance of the same.”

This is the noun we use in the phrase “for instance,” which dates from the mid-17th century.

(We wrote a post in 2012 about “for instance” versus “for example,” and a post in 2011 about “instance,” “incident,” “incidence.”)

Oxford’s first written example of “for instance” is from Richard Ligon’s A True & Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657): “The proof of this I found, by looking on the Stars. … For instance; There is a little Star, called Auriga [etc.].”

As a verb, too, “instance” is all but dead. One sense of the verb, to urge or entreat, has died out; another, to cite as an example, is still with us though seldom used today.

Here’s a 19th-century illustration of the latter usage, cited in Oxford: “I may instance olive oil, which is mischievous to all plants” (from Benjamin Jowett’s 1871 translation of Plato’s Dialogues).

Finally, since your boss uses “at my instance” in his official correspondence, you may be interested in a related business usage that has a venerable history, but isn’t seen much these days.

Since the mid-16th century, the word “instant”—in this case meaning “present”—has been used by letter writers to mean “of the current month.” So, as the OED explains, “the 10th instant” means “the tenth day of the current month.”

When the usage is seen, it’s generally abbreviated (“I received your invoice of the 15th inst.”). Similarly, “ult.” (for “ultimo”) means “of last month” and “prox.” (for “proximo”) means “of next month.”

When we see these terms now, they evoke images of ink-stained clerks copying letters by lamp light.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Spinning a yarn

Q: I assume the “yarn” one tells is somehow related to the “yarn” one knits with, but how are they related?

A: Terms from sewing, knitting, weaving, and other textile crafts have long been used in a literary sense, though the relationship between the “yarn” one tells and the “yarn” one knits with is somewhat murky. Here’s the story.

When the word “yarn” showed up in writing around the year 1000 (spelled “gearn”), it referred to spun fiber, as from cotton, silk, wool, or flax. (In Old English, “g,” before “e” “i,” or a diphthong, sounded like “y.”)

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology notes that the Old English word and similar ones in other Germanic languages were ultimately derived form ghorna, a reconstructed Indo-European term for gut.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins adds that a sailors’ expression, “spin a yarn” (tell a story), “led in the 19th century to the use of yarn for ‘story, tale.’ ”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “Hence yarn = a (long) story or tale: sometimes implying one of a marvellous or incredible kind; also, a mere tale.”

The earliest OED example for the expression is from a list of criminal slang in the Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux (1819): “Yarning or spinning a yarn, signifying to relate their various adventures, exploits, and escapes to each other.”

OK, “spin a yarn” gave us the noun “yarn” used in the story sense, but how did the nautical expression come to mean “tell a tale”?

The OED, Chambers, and Ayto don’t offer an explanation, but one theory is that the expression evolved from storytelling by sailors while spinning yarn—for example, in rope-making.

As Eric Partridge writes in Origins, an etymological dictionary, the usage arose “from the sailors’ and deep-sea fishers’ practice of reminiscing and story-telling while they are sedentarily engaged, e.g. in yarn-twisting.”

That’s possible, though we haven’t seen any evidence to support it. It makes sense, however, since many textile terms have long been used figuratively in reference to writing.

In fact, the words “text” and “textile” come from the same Latin source, texere (to weave). In classical Latin, textus (literally that which is woven) could refer to the style or  texture of a literary work.

The verb “weave” has been used since the 1300s “in metaphorical expressions relating to the contriving of plots or deception,” according to the OED. And “a richly woven tapestry” is now considered a cliché of book reviewing.

Since the 1600s, the noun “thread” has referred to a narrative train of thought, according to OED citations. Here’s an example from James Howell’s Instructions for Forreine Travell (1642):

“If one read skippingly and by snatches, and not take the threed of the story along, it must needs puzzle and distract the memory.”

Indeed, the OED has an example for the expression “spin a thread” used as far back as the 1300s in the sense of “tell a tale.”

This citation is from Kyng Alisaunder, a medieval romance written sometime before 1400: “He hath y-sponne a threde, / That is y-come of eovel rede.”

Interestingly, the literary use of “thread” has adapted itself to the information age, where the term is now used for a linked series of posts or messages relating to the same subject.

As we wrote last year, the OED’s earliest citation for the usage is from a May 30, 1984, comment on a newsgroup for beta testers: “When following subject threads, the next article with the same subject is located while the last page of the previous article is being read.”

And let’s not forget knitting! We’ve found examples of the terms “well knit” or “tightly knit” used since the early 20th century to describe literary works. Here’s an example from a 1910 article in The Bookman, an American literary journal:

“The conception of a well-knit plot without irrelevant characters and episodes and with the interest strongly focussed upon some one main issue is distinctly modern.”

(The author, Winston Churchill, was an American novelist, not the British statesman.)

Well, it’s time to wrap things up. Pardon us if we’ve left any loose ends.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Laudy, Laudy!

Q: Which is correct: “lord it over” or “laud it over”?

A: The verb here is “lord” (to act in a lordly manner), not “laud” (to praise).

Interestingly, the two usages first appeared in writing in the same work, Piers Plowman (1377), a Middle English allegorical poem by William Langland, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s the earliest OED example for the verb “lord” used to mean play the lord or act lordly: “Þe more he … lordeth in londes þe lasse good he deleth.” (“The more he lords in land the less he shares in good.”)

And this is the first OED citation for “laud” used in the sense of singing or speaking praise: “Neyther for loue laude it nouȝt ne lakke it for enuye.” (“Neither laud love naught, nor be troubled by its defects.”)

An early version of “lord it over” (minus the “over”) showed up in The Shepheardes Calender, a 1579 poem by Edmund Spenser: “They reigne and rulen ouer all, and lord it, as they list.”

And here’s an example from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2 (believed written in the early 1590s): “I see them Lording it in London streets.”

The earliest example in the OED for the full expression is from a Nov. 13, 1775, entry in the journal of the novelist Fanny Burney: “He disdains submitting to the Great, or Lording it over the little.”

And here’s a scenic American example from The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, an 1819 collection of essays and short stories by Washington Irving:

“The Kaatskill mountains … are seen … swelling up to a noble height, and lording it over the surrounding country.”

As for the etymology, the verb “lord” is derived from the noun, which was spelled hláford when it showed up in Old English in the ninth century.

The Old English noun was a combination of hlaf (loaf or bread) and weard (keeper). Keeper of the loaf? Here’s how the OED explains the usage:

“In its primary sense the word (which is absent from the other Germanic languages) denotes the head of a household in his relation to the servants and dependents who ‘eat his bread.’ ”

The Old English word for “lady,” in case you’re wondering, was hlæfdige, literally “kneader of the loaf.” And not surprisingly, the Old English word for a servant was hlaf-æta, literally “bread eater.”

As for the title of this post, the interjection “Lordy” (used to  express surprise, dismay, annoyance, and so on) showed up in the US in the mid-19th century, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

The earliest example in DARE is from an 1853 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger: “On the sofa … you sank down and bounded up and said Lordy!”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “Lordy, Lordy” is from Ida Cox’s Lawdy, Lawdy Blues (1923), but we’ve used an Ida Cox recording of the song for this example:

Lord, Lord! Lordy, Lordy, Lord!
You know the man I love treats me like a dog.

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English English language Punctuation Usage

Where are all the apostrophes?

Q: I am directed to address my dental contract queries to an office in St Annes Road, Eastbourne (sic). Being a grumpy old pedant, I often insert an apostrophe as I understand “St Anne’s” to be genitive. Whilst I understand that “St Annes” is in common usage, surely frequency does not make it correct, or does it? Sent with a great big smile.

A: You are correct. “St. Anne’s” is a genitive usage and deserves the apostrophe. However, the use of apostrophes in place names is controversial.

As we wrote in a post last year, postal authorities and governmental agencies commonly eliminate apostrophes in place names and street names as a matter of policy.

They do this not because they believe the usage is grammatically correct, but for reasons of  efficiency.

Of course, such bureaucratic edicts fly in the face of grammatical correctness. In ordinary writing, this use of “St. Annes” would be considered an error.

So while governmental bodies may use “St. Annes” on street signs, maps, addresses, and in their own documents, that shouldn’t prevent you from including the apostrophe in your own writing.

We assume that the addition of an apostrophe won’t confuse a clueless postal computer.

In case you’re interested, we wrote on our blog last year about why schools named for saints employ the genitive (St. Mary’s Academy) rather than an ordinary attributive construction (St. Mary Academy).

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Happy quinquennial

Q: My wife and I belong to a group of 15 couples that celebrate each couple’s wedding anniversary divisible by five—the fifth, tenth, fifteenth, and so on. Can you invent a word for this? My attempts include “cincoversary,” “quinqueversary,” and “cinqueversary.” Any clever ideas?

A: There’s already a word, “quinquennial,” which is both a noun (“we’re celebrating our quinquennial”) and an adjective (“our quinquennial celebration”).

This isn’t exactly a household word, so it’s understandable that you didn’t know it. Only three of the standard dictionaries we checked recognize both the noun and the adjective.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and the online Collins English Dictionary say the noun “quinquennial” can mean either “a fifth anniversary” or a period of five years.

The Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary doesn’t use the words “fifth anniversary,” but it describes a “quinquennial” as “something that occurs every five years.”

All three say the adjective “quinquennial” means occurring once every five years or lasting for five years.

Some other dictionaries recognize the adjective but not the noun.

For instance, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) give the usual definitions for the adjective “quinquennial.”

Those two dictionaries don’t recognize the noun “quinquennial.” But they do have entries for “quinquennium,” a noun that came into English in the early 1600s and means simply a period of five years, not something occurring every five years.

The Oxford English Dictionary, a comprehensive dictionary that traces the historical development of the language, has examples for the adjective “quinquennial” dating back to the 15th century.

The earliest OED citations for the noun “quinquennial” are from the 19th century, but the dictionary has examples of a noun “quinquenal” dating back to the 15th century, when it meant “an ecclesiastical office held for five years.”

For a time in the 1500s and 1600s, an adjective spelled “quinquennal”  meant the same thing as “quinquennial”—that is, occurring once every five years or lasting for five years.

Eventually the “-ennial” spelling won out for both the noun and the adjective when used in the sense you’re asking about—a five-year anniversary.

The OED says the English word “quinquennial” is derived from Latin, either from quinquennalis (occurring every five years or lasting five years) or from quinquennis (of five years or five years old). The roots are quinque (five) and annus (year).

The OED’s many written examples of “quinquennial” extend well into modern English. However, most of the noun uses are described as “rare” today, including the one meaning a fifth anniversary. Here are two of the OED’s citations for that usage:

“The hospital only begs widely every five years, and this year is our quinquennial” (from the Westminster Gazette, 1903).

“She does not wait for quinquennials or decennials. She celebrates every anniversary with all the zest of a child” (from a Tennessee newspaper, the Kingsport Times, 1934).

For the most part, according to OED citations, “quinquennial” is used as an adjective to mean covering a period of five years, lasting for five years, or occurring every fifth year. Here are modern citations for each meaning:

“He was a realist. Quinquennial Plans, Personal Development Schemes, Bribes, marriage deals—the barbarians are vanquished” (from Andrew Waterman’s poetry collection The End of the Pier Show, 1995).

“Each of the 163 minority groups documented … was scored for the most widespread and intense event reported during each quinquennial period” (from the Journal of Peace Research, 2000).

“A quinquennial valuation of the ‘Royal’ life and annuity business was made at December 31” (from the Times, London, 1955).

Despite the “rare” label in the OED, “quinquennial” is listed without comment in American Heritage, Collins, and Random House as a noun for a five-year anniversary or occurrence. So you can certainly use it.

But this is your celebration—you invented it, and you can call it what you want (we rather like the sound of “cinqueversary”). Whatever you decide, here’s a toast to all 30 of you!

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Character analysis

Q: What do you call a character created to represent a class of people? I remember roaring with laughter many years ago when I read an article that referred to Marvin Moped, a generic rude moped rider. It doesn’t take much to make me crack up.

A: We don’t know of a technical term for such a character, but there are many common words or phrases with that sense: “stereotype,” “caricature,” “archetype,” “generic character,” “cartoon character,” “stock character,” and so on.

In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster says there are two basic character types, the flat character and the round character.

The flat character is the simple, two-dimensional stereotype you’re talking about, while the round character is a complex one with various characteristics.

Forster says a flat character, sometimes called a “type” or “caricature,” is “constructed round a single idea or quality.”

As an example, he cites Mrs. Micawber from Dickens’s novel David Copperfield. Her flat character, Forster says, can be described in one sentence: “I never will desert Mr. Micawber.”

Of the various terms for such a character, we find “stereotype” the most common in linguistic literature.

In “The Notion of Stereotype in Language Study” (an article posted to the Internet on May 22, 2013), the Russian linguist Elena L. Vilinbakhova notes “two major traditions” in linguistics for understanding stereotypes.

“The first approach defines stereotype as a fixed form, fixed expression, or even fixed text,” she writes. “According to the second approach, stereotype is seen as a fixed content, a fixed mental image of a person, an object or an event.”

Other linguists have referred to “formal stereotype” versus “semantic stereotype,” “‘stereotype of speech” vs. “stereotype of thought,” and “stereotype of language” vs. “stereotype of thought.”

Many writers have categorized character types, going back at least as far as the fourth century BC, when Theophrastus listed 30 types, including kolakeia (a sycophant), kakologia (a scandalmonger), and alazoneia (a braggart).

Interestingly, George Eliot borrowed his name for the scholarly narrator of her last published work, Impressions of Theophrastus Such, a meditation on life in the form of character sketches.

When the noun “character” showed up in English in the 14th century it referred to “a distinctive mark impressed, engraved, or otherwise made on a surface; a brand, stamp,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, the OED indicates that the word was used from the start both in the literal sense of an actual mark and in the figurative sense of “the indelible quality which baptism, confirmation, and holy orders imprint on the soul.”

English borrowed the term from Middle French, where it was spelled caractere, carrectere, or charactere. But the ultimate source is the Latin noun character, which could refer to a branded or impressed letter or mark as well as a characteristic.

In the early 17th century, the English noun took on the sense of one’s individuality and personality. But it took a few decades more for it to develop the meaning you’re asking about—a fictional portrayal.

The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from The Rival Ladies, a 1664 play by John Dryden: “He may be allow’d sometimes to Err, who undertakes to move so many Characters and Humours as are requisite in a Play.”

As for “stereotype,” it showed up in the late 18th century as a noun for a method of printing in which a solid plate is formed from a mold of composed type. It’s ultimately derived from the classical Greek words for “solid” and “type.”

As we wrote in a May 8, 2013, post on the blog, the modern sense of a preconceived and oversimplified idea of someone or something showed up in the early 20th century.

When “caricature” appeared in the mid-1700s, according to the OED, it referred to “a portrait or other artistic representation, in which the characteristic features of the original are exaggerated with ludicrous effect.” That’s pretty much what it means today.

Is “caricature” derived from character, the Latin source of the English word “character”?

No, “caricature” comes from the late Latin carricare (to load) and the classical Latin carrus (wagon), the source of the English word “car.”

One might assume that “car” and “cart” are related. Not so. “Cart” comes from Germanic sources: cræt in Old English; cratto, Old High German; kart-r, Old Norse.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

On dogs and dogcarts

Q: In reading The Last Chronicle of Barset, I noticed several references to “dogcart,’’ a term I often see in 19th-century fiction. My dictionary defines “dogcart” as a horse-drawn cart, but I’ve always wondered whether these carts were ever pulled by dogs in England.

A: Yes, “dogcarts” were once pulled by dogs in England, but the use of dogs to draw carts was prohibited during the Victorian era.

The Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 barred the use of “any Dog for the Purpose of drawing or helping to draw any Cart, Carriage, Truck, or Barrow” in London. And an 1854 statute prohibited the practice “by any person on any public highway” in England.

By the time Trollope published his last Barsetshire novel in 1865, the light two-wheeled carriages known as “dogcarts” were pulled by horses, not dogs, as the context of the novel makes clear.

At one point, for example, Mrs. Grantly finds her son “settling himself in his dog-cart, while the servant who was to accompany him was still at the horse’s head.”

However, dogs were still pulling carts in much of Europe well into the 20th century. We came across a webpage with photos of dogs pulling carts carrying people, milk cans, artillery pieces, and so on.

In fact, dogs pull carts today in the US and the UK—as a competitive activity. Bernese Mountain Dog clubs, for example, consider carting and drafting canine sports.

When the term “dogcart” first showed up in the 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to “a small cart drawn by a dog or dogs.” However, that sense of the word is now considered historical.

The earliest OED example of the usage is from a June 13, 1668, entry in The Diary of Samuel Pepys that describes the city of Bristol: “No carts, it standing generally on vaults, only dog carts.”

The latest example of the term used when canine dogcarts were still a common sight in England comes from the July 8, 1854, issue of the Illustrated London News: “The dog-cart nuisance … the use of carts drawn by dogs.”

The OED has a couple of recent examples, but they use the term in historical references.

In the late 18th century, according to the dictionary’s citations, the term “dogcart” took on the sense of a horse-drawn cart with a box under the seat for a hunter’s dogs.

The OED’s earliest example for the new usage is from an Oct. 15, 1799, advertisement in the Times of London: “A neat modern built Chariot, by Hatchett, with patent wheels; a Gig, and a Market Cart, a Dog Cart.”

In later use, the dictionary says, the term referred to “an open carriage with two transverse seats back to back, the rear seat originally converting into a box for dogs.”

Here’s an example from The Romance of a Dull Life, an 1861 novel by Anne Judith Penny: “The closed carriage being better than the dog-cart, for the weather had changed, and it was cold.”

Finally, this is a contemporary example from a website that sells dogcarts to “exercise your pet and have fun with the entire family”:

“The K-9 Dog Cart is for you! Crafted with super-strong tubular steel framing and three-wheel construction for superior balance and ease of use. Your dog will love it!”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin Writing

A usage to diary for?

Q: Is “diaried” the past tense of the verb “diary”? Example: “I diaried a notation this morning that Ms. Heard did not show up for her Aug. 12th appointment.”

A: If “diary” is used as a verb, then “diaried” would be the expected past-tense form.

But there’s not a trace of the usage in standard dictionaries, though Internet searches turn up a few hundred examples.

The only source we’ve found is Wiktionary, which describes “diary” as an intransitive verb meaning “to keep a diary or journal.” An intransitive verb doesn’t have a direct object, as in “She diaries every evening before going to bed.”

Wiktionary lists “diarying” as the present participle and “diaried” as the past tense and past participle. It gives only one published example:

“As part of her mindful movement practise, diarying is important to Sarah,” from Mindful Walking (2015), by Hugh O’Donovan.

It’s difficult to tell how widespread the verb “diary” is, since misspellings get in the way of Internet searches. Many hits for “diarying” and “diaried” are in fact about milking cows.

[Update, Sept. 14, 2016. A reader of the blog writes: “ ‘Diary’ as a verb is a very common usage in the US in the legal profession. It is used synonymously with ‘calendar,’ as in ‘I will calendar our next meeting up for one week’ or ‘I diaried her file up for a follow-up in 30 days’ (‘up’ in this usage is synonymous with ‘forward’). I haven’t heard it much outside the legal profession.”]

However, we’ve found that “to diary” may mean different things to different people. That’s because the noun “diary” has different meanings, depending on where you live.

In American English, a diary is a personal journal of one’s reflections and experiences. But in current British English, it often means something else—an appointment book or datebook.

The differing uses of the noun “diary,” British versus American, are given in several dictionaries published in the UK—Cambridge, Longman, Macmillan, Oxford Dictionaries online.

And the linguist Lynne Murphy has discussed them on her blog Separated by a Common Language.

Consequently, it’s likely that an American using “diary” as a verb would mean it in the Wiktionary sense—to keep a diary or journal. But to a British speaker it would also mean to make a note in a calendar, appointment book, or business planner.

We’ve found the verb “diary” used both ways on British websites, but most often it’s used transitively in the business sense, as in “He diaried a sketch of the proposed tower.”

Some British commentators have said the verb “diary” is common in offices, but we’ve also found an online tutorial by a British video blogger on “How to diary”—that is, how to keep a personal journal of one’s “deepest hopes and fears.”

In your question, you use the verb in a transitive way—with a direct object (“I diaried a notation”). So you mean it in the sense of “make a note,” and you intend it in a businesslike way. (Perhaps you’re British?)

We’re in new territory here and we won’t speculate further.

As we mentioned above, none of the US or UK standard dictionaries we usually consult accept “diary” as a verb, and neither does the Oxford English Dictionary.

But a similar verb, “diarize,” has been around for a while.

The OED defines “diarize” as a verb meaning “to write a record of events in a diary.” However, it lists only a couple of intransitive examples from the 19th century.

Another source, Oxford Dictionaries online, labels that OED usage as obsolete now, and describes “diarize” (or “diarise”) as a transitive verb meaning to note an appointment in a diary. These are among the examples it gives:

“Mr Williams said he had diarised the invite and hoped to attend” … “He diarised them as recurring ‘team update’ meetings for 10:30 a.m. daily.”

The Cambridge Business English Dictionary gives this definition of how “diarize” is used today: “to write down your future arrangements, meetings, etc. in a diary” and “to record in a diary events that have happened during a period of time.”

The granddaddy of the verbs is of course the noun “diary,” which first appeared in English writing in 1581 as a borrowing from Latin. The Latin noun diarium, derived from dies (day), originally meant “daily allowance” and later “a journal, diary,” the OED says.

Many other English words can be traced back to the Latin dies. They include “diurnal” (daily); “sojourn” (etymologically, to spend a day in a place); “journey” (which once meant a day’s work or travel); “journeyman” (originally one qualified to do a day’s work); and even “journal” (daily happenings).

So how, you’re probably asking, did a Latin word beginning with “d” result in all those English words spelled with “j”?

The consonant change occurred as Old French was developing from Latin, according to August Brachet in An Etymological Dictionary of the French Language (3rd ed., 1882).

In the 8th and 9th centuries, the French began replacing some “d” words derived from Latin with “j” words, which eventually begat all those “j” spellings in English.

So “diary” and “journal” are related in their ancestry as well as in their meaning.

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Is a chant enchanting, or cant?

Q: After seeing a Puerto Rican license plate with the motto Isla del Encanto, a thought struck me: encantocantar, and that of course led me to “enchantment” … “chant.” Are all these words related?

A: Yes, they’re all ultimately derived from canere, a Latin verb meaning to sing, and its frequentative, cantare. A frequentative is a verb form indicating repeated action.

In Spanish, as you know, encanto means enchantment, while cantar means to sing, but let’s look at the two English words, “enchantment” and “chant.”

When “enchantment” showed up in the late 13th century, it referred to a magic spell. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Chronicle (1297), Robert of Gloucester’s account of British, English, and Norman history:

“A clerk þoru enchantement hym bi gan to telle” (in modern English, “A cleric through enchantment begins to tell him”).

The OED says English adopted “enchantment” from the Old French enchantement, but the ultimate source is the Latin incantare (in-, upon, plus cantare, to sing). With the addition of the prefix, the verb meant to chant a magic spell upon someone, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that the noun “enchantment” took on the figurative sense of “alluring or overpowering charm,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example of the new usage is from Hudibras (1678), a satirical narrative poem by Samuel Butler: “Th’ Inchantment of her Riches.”

When the verb “chant” showed up in the late 14th century, it meant simply to sing. No magic here.

The earliest example in the OED is from “The Miller’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1390):

Herestow noght Absolon / That chaunteth thus vnder oure boures wal” (“Don’t you hear Absalom chant this way under our bedroom wall?”).

The noun “chant” meant a song or melody when it showed up in Milton’s Paradise Regained (1671): Chaunt of tuneful Birds.”

It didn’t take on its religious sense of a simple melody in a psalm, canticle, or dirge until the late 18th century.

The OED‘s first citation is from Charles Burney’s General History of Music (1789): The Chants, or Canto Fermo, to some of the hymns of the Romish church.”

We have cantare and incantare to thank for many other terms, including “canticle” (1250), “enchantress” (about 1380), “incantation” (1390), “enchant” (bewitch, 1377; delight, 1593), “cantor” (before 1552), “enchanting” (magical, 1555; charming, circa 1607), and “cantata” (1724).

As for “cant,” in its jargony, insincere, or sanctimonious senses, the usage is probably derived from cantare, but the etymology is fuzzy.

Those senses of “cant” developed in the 16th, 17th, and early 18th centuries, first as a verb and later as a noun.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says, “It is usually assumed that the usage derives from an ironic transference of the singing of church congregations or choirs to the wheedling ‘song’ of beggars.”

The OED points out that the Latin cantare and its Romance offshoots “were used contemptuously in reference to the church services” as early as the late 12th century.

The dictionary notes that Thomas Harman, a 16th-century writer, suggested that the usage might have been influenced by the language of religious mendicants or the jargon of itinerants.

Oxford also cites theories that “cant” may be derived from the Irish and Gaelic word cainnt, or from the name of Andrew Cant or his son Alexander Cant, Presbyterian ministers in the 17th century.

However, the OED generally supports the idea that the noun “cant” comes from cantus, a derivative of cantare.

“This and its accompanying verb presumably represent Latin cantus singing, song, chant,” the dictionary says, but adds, “the details of the derivation and development of sense are unknown.”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

When Pomicide isn’t cricket

Q: England (Poms) recently “murdered” Australia (Aussies) on the cricket field. The response in the Australian press was to coin the word “Pomicide.” But surely, if we follow the pattern of “homicide,” “fratricide,” “matricide,” etc., this means the opposite of what was intended. So wouldn’t a better coinage be “Aussicide”?

A: Of course you’re right—those “-cide” formations are composed from the word for the victim.

“Fratricide” refers to the murder of a brother, “regicide” to that of a king, and so on. Logically, “Pomicide” would refer to a trouncing of the Poms, not by the Poms.  So the usage displayed in the Australian press just wasn’t cricket.

The word-forming element “-cide” (plus the connective “i”) is used in “forming nouns with the sense ‘the killing of (the person, animal, etc., indicated by the initial element),’ ” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, such words have had dual meanings in the past, when “-cide” was used in reference to the slayer as well as the slaying.

Yes, the formation was once used in “forming nouns with the sense ‘a person who kills (the person, animal, etc. indicated by the initial element),’ ” the OED says.

In that sense, a person who killed a human being was a “homicide,” a person who killed his mother was a “matricide,” and so on.

But even with this interpretation, a “Pomicide” would be a killer of Poms, not a Pom who was a killer.

There are two sources of “-cide” in English: the classical Latin –cīda (for a cutter, killer, or slayer) and –cīdium (for the cutting or killing itself).

In classical Latin, Oxford says, the words “homicida, parricida, matricida, fratricida, sororicida, tyrannicida” meant the “slayer of a man, father, mother, brother, sister, tyrant.” And there were corresponding  words for the act itself: homicidium, parricidium, matricidium, etc.

Most of these Latin words—both sets of them—passed into French, then on into English, with the uniform ending “-cide,” whether they meant the slayer or the slaying.

For example, in the Middle Ages “homicide” was used to mean the killer as well as the killing of a human being.

We still sometimes refer to someone who takes his own life as “a suicide,” but today most of these words mean the act of taking life, not the responsible party.

Since the 16th century, similar English words have been created that use “Latin first elements,” Oxford says. The dictionary mentions “regicide,” from the Latin rex (“king”), and “suicide,” from sui (“of oneself”).

Here are some of the most common words of this kind, and the dates when they were first recorded in writing.

“homicide”: one who kills a human being (1382, used adjectivally); the act of killing a human being (circa 1386).

“fratricide”: one who kills a brother (c1450); the act of killing a brother (1569).

“parricide”: one who kills a near relation (perhaps 1545); the killing of a close relative (1559). Later used in reference to a father.

“regicide”: one who kills a king (1548); the killing of a king (1579).

“patricide”: one who kills his or her father (1593); the act of killing one’s father (1576).

“matricide”: one who kills his or her mother (1594); the act of killing one’s mother (1632).

“suicide”: one who takes his or her life (1727); the taking of one’s own life (1656).

“insecticide”: a person or thing that kills insects; the act of killing insects (both 1865).

“germicide”: something that kills microorganisms, especially bacteria (1870).

“fungicide”: something used to kill fungi (1889).

“herbicide”: something that kills weeds or other unwanted plants (1899).

“pesticide”: something used to kill pests, especially insects (1933). Some dictionaries also accept its use in the sense of “herbicide.”

“genocide”: the systematic killing of a national or ethnic group. The term was coined, probably in 1943, by the legal scholar Raphael Lemkin and appeared in print the following year in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. It incorporates the Greek genos (race or kind) and originally referred to the extermination of Jews by the Nazis.

In addition to the usual suspects, creative formations have been cropping up since the early 19th century. The OED has entries for inventions like “deericide” (1832), “suitorcide” (1839), “birdicide” (1866), and “verbicide” (1858), a coinage of Oliver Wendell Holmes.

In The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, Holmes declared: “Homicide and verbicide—that is, violent treatment of a word with fatal results to its legitimate meaning, which is its life—are alike forbidden.”

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