English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

School days, school days

Q: Could you tell me the origin of the compound word “schoolteacher”?  What is the reason for the redundancy?  My first thought was that the phrase distinguished schoolteachers from Sunday school teachers. I later theorized that it might’ve come from the Germanic preference for compounds.

A: We wouldn’t call “schoolteacher” redundant. We think of a schoolteacher as someone who teaches in elementary, middle, or high school. However, not all standard dictionaries make that distinction.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, defines “schoolteacher” as we do: a “person who teaches in a school below the college level.” But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), defines it simply as “one who teaches school.”

Both American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s define “teacher” loosely as someone who’s hired to teach. So a teacher may give piano lessons in a student’s home or lead a university seminar on literary theory (though we might use “professor” for the literary theorist).

The earliest citation for “schoolteacher” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Reliquæ Baxterianæ (1696), the autobiography of the Puritan clergyman Richard Baxter:

“The third sort is School-Teachers, which is not my Case (though I have also a License to Teach School).”

In discussing the etymology of the term, the OED points the reader to an earlier usage, “to teach school,” which showed up in a 1590 letter by the Elizabethan writer Christopher Ockland: “I teach schole at Grenewych.”

But we suspect that the term “schoolteacher” may have also been influenced by two even earlier terms, “schoolmaster” (circa 1225) and “schoolmistress” (1335). 

Two other early influences may have been the Old French tenir escoles (c. 1200) or the Middle French tenir escole (1366), verb phrases meaning to teach. In medieval Latin, according to the OED, scholam tenere meant  to run a school and scholas tenere meant to “engage in academic disputation.”

The source of all these usages is, of course, the word “school,” which ultimately comes from the classical Latin schola or scola, which referred to a teacher’s lecture on a subject or the place where the teacher lectured.

In medieval Latin, schola came to mean, among other things, a group of people of the same profession, the sense the word had when it showed up in early Old English spelled scola. (It’s also spelled scolu and scole in Old English manuscripts.)

The first OED example of the word used to mean an “institution for the formal education of children” is from Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints, believed to have been written in the late 990s: “Eac þær leornode on þære ylcan scole se æðela Gregorius” (“Also there learned in the same school the noble Gregory”).

The word “teacher”—derived from tǽc(e)an, to teach in Old English—first showed up in John Wycliffe’s 1382 translation of the Bible: “Oon of hem, a techer of the lawe, axede Jhesus, temptynge hym.”

In case you’re curious, Wycliffe’s use of “axede” for “asked” here is an example of an old usage that’s now considered nonstandard. As we wrote on the blog back in 2008, this wasn’t always the case.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Dribs and drabs

Q: In your recent post about dribbling, you talk about the long-dead verb “drib,” the source of “dribble.” Is that also the source of “dribs and drabs”?

A: Yes, that old verb “drib” gave us “dribs and drabs” as well as “dribble.”

As we noted in our post, the “dribble” we associate with basketball and drinking fountains comes from a defunct 16th-century verb, “drib.”

This old verb originally meant  “to fall in drops,” “to go on little by little,” and “to let fall or utter as in driblets,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

A noun form showed up in Scottish and dialectal English in the early 18th century. This “drib” meant a “drop” or a “petty or inconsiderable quantity,” the OED says. In other words, it meant the same thing as the earlier “driblet.”

The noun “drib” was first recorded in the Scottish poet Allan Ramsay’s Ode From Horace (circa 1730): “That mutchkin-stoup it hauds but dribs” (“That small flagon it holds only dribs”).

Soon afterward, Jonathan Swift used the word in his satirical poem On Dr. Gibbs’s Psalms. (1745): “Thy heavy hand restrain; / Have mercy Dr. Gibbs; / Do not, I pray thee, paper stain / With rhymes retail’d in dribbs.” (We’ve expanded to citation to get in more of the poem.)

The usage eventually migrated to America, where Abraham Lincoln used it in a letter to Gen. George B. McClellan on May 25, 1862: “We are sending such regiments and dribs from here and Baltimore as we can spare to Harper’s Ferry.”

But before Lincoln’s time, people were already using the expression “dribs and drabs” to mean bits and pieces (or, as the OED says, “small and intermittent sums or amounts”).

The earliest example in Oxford is from a letter written by an English governess named Ellen Weeton on March 17, 1809:

“Whether it be better to have a little [news] and often, or a great deal and seldom, I leave to your better judgment to determine…. You may have it in dribs and drabs if you like it better.” (From Miss Weeton’s Journal of a Governess, Vol. 1, 1807-11.)

So what is a “drab”? Interestingly, the noun “drab” made its first appearance (pluralized) in that very expression. Before “dribs and drabs,” it had no independent existence—at least in that sense of the word.

Two earlier senses of “drab,” which the OED says are probably unrelated to this one, were first recorded in the early 1500s: (1) “a dirty or untidy woman,” as in a “slattern”; and (2) a “harlot, prostitute, strumpet.”

Apparently the expression “dribs and drabs” later inspired a separate use of “drab” to mean a small amount of money, a usage first recorded, the OED says, in the late 1820s.

Oxford’s earliest citation is from William Carr’s book The Dialect of Craven, in the West-Riding of the County of York (2nd ed., 1828): “Drab, a small debt. ‘He’s gain away for good, and he’s left some drabs.’ ”

An entirely different “drab,” the adjective meaning dull, plain, or light brown, took on its various senses in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s believed to have evolved from a noun for plain, undyed cloth, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Druggist or chemist?

Q: In a pharmacy in the US, the person filling the prescriptions is often called a druggist. In England, that person is often called a chemist. How did this come about?

A: “Druggist” is one of many old words that Americans have preserved and the English have generally lost. Others include “skillet,” “sidewalk,” “apartment” (now a “flat” in the UK), “merry-go-round,” and “fall” (the season), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the 17th century, English speakers in both America and England used the word “druggist” for someone who prepares and dispenses medicine (the Scots still do), but the English began switching to “chemist” in the 18th century. (A somewhat older term, “drugger,” is rarely seen now.)

English borrowed the word “druggist” from the French droguiste in the early 1600s. The first example in the OED is from Lanthorne and Candle-Light, a 1608 pamphlet by the Elizabethan writer Thomas Dekker about the tricks of London confidence men:

“Tongues had rather Spit venome on thy lines, then from thy labours (As Druggists doe from poison) medicines gather.”

In the 1600s, according to the OED, a “chemist” was someone who practiced chemistry or alchemy. Here’s an example using both “chemist” and “druggist,” from The Magicall-Astrologicall-Diviner, a 1652 attack on magic by the English Puritan cleric John Gaul:

“Two Chymists had agreed upon a cheat, that one of them should turn druggist and sell strange roots and powders: the other to follow still his gold finding trade” (we’ve expanded the OED citation to add context).

In the mid-1700s, the English began referring to pharmacists as “chemists.” The earliest example in Oxford is from A New Improvement in the Art of Making the True Volatile Spirit of Sulphur (1744), by Ephraim Rinhold Seehl: “The Shops of the Druggists, Chemists, and Apothecaries.”

And here’s an example from Charles Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend (1865): “She arrived in the drug-flavoured region of Mincing Lane, with the sensation of having just opened a drawer in a chemist’s shop.”

By the way, the word “pharmacist,” which is used on both sides of the Atlantic, comes from pharmacia, classical Latin for the preparation of drugs.

The first OED citation is from Dr. Radcliffe’s Practical Dispensatory, a 1721 work by the English medical writer Edward  Strother:

“Who knows these, save the Philosopher, the Anatomist, the Chymist, the Mathematician, the Pharmacist, and the learned Observer?”

As for those other words, we’ve written about them (and many others) in “Stiff Upper Lips,” the chapter on US and UK English in Origins of the Specious, our book about language.

Since the Middle Ages, English speakers have used both “skillet” (1403) and “frying pan” (1382). Americans have kept both, but the British generally threw out the “skillet.” Both used to walk on a “sidewalk” (1739) or a “pavement” (1743), but Americans now use the former and the British the latter. (The dates are from OED citations.)

An “apartment” was the usual word for a suite of rooms in 17th-century England. The British didn’t start using “flat” for such a dwelling until the early 1820s.

Children generally ride on a “merry-go-round” in the US and a “roundabout” in the UK. Which is older? “Roundabout” (1763) is a roundabout way of saying “merry-go-round” (1729).

Finally, the season between summer and winter was once called “autumn” and “fall” on each side of the Atlantic. Americans kept both terms, but “fall” generally fell out of favor in the UK. If you’d like to read more, we’ve written about the subject on our blog.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

English English language Grammar Usage

Color us plural

Q: Some friends from work were wondering if it’s correct to use colors in the plural when they’re nouns. We have a team called “Amber,” and we’re usually referred to as the “Ambers,” like my neighbors, the “Greens.”

A: There’s nothing wrong with that terminology. Words for colors aren’t just adjectives, as in “a pink dress.” They’re nouns, too, and even verbs.

As nouns, they can refer to the colors themselves (“Mix blue and yellow to get green”) or to things of that color (“If I bring wine, do you want a white or a red?”).

Such nouns can of course be pluralized, as in “There are so many different greens in the landscape,” or “The carriage was drawn by two dappled grays.”

And groups of people are commonly referred to this way as well: “The Reds meet the Phillies tomorrow at 4 p.m.” … “Participants re-enacted battle scenes between the Blues and the Grays.”

So members of a team known as “Amber” would naturally call themselves the “Ambers.”

We also use some color words as verbs meaning to turn that color: “First, brown the chicken” … “The sun may yellow the drapes” … “The lawn has greened up nicely.”

As for those neighbors, the “Greens,” this is simply a pluralization of a surname, like “the Smiths” or “the MacGregors.”

Many surnames happen to be the names of colors: “Black,” “White,” “Gray,” “Green,” and “Brown” are probably the most common.

A reader once asked why people have those color words as surnames, but almost no one is “Mr. Yellow” or “Ms. Purple.” As you can see from our reply, there’s no black-and-white answer.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Page references

Q: I cannot help feeling that the word “page,” meaning a manservant, has something to do with the word “pageant,” which you discussed recently. Surely it was worth a mention.

A: Despite the similarity in appearance, the word “page,” in its servant sense, isn’t etymologically related to “pageant.” In fact, this “page” isn’t ultimately related to the “page” in a book either, though English borrowed both from the same French term.

The noun “page,” used in the sense you’re asking about, was adopted from French in the late 1200s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In Old French, Anglo-Norman, and Middle French, page meant a servant as well as one side of a sheet of paper.

The French acquired the servant sense of page (perhaps by way of Italian) from pagius, medieval Latin for a servant, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. Here the trail turns lukewarm.

Chamber’s says pagius “perhaps ultimately” comes from paidós, classical Greek for a child. The OED says only that such an etymology has been “proposed.”

But John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says pagius is “generally assumed”  to come from paidós, source of such English words as “encyclopedia,” “pediatric,” “pedagogue,” “pedophile,” and “pederast.”

The paper sense of the French word page showed up in English around 1485 as page references in the correspondence of the Celys, an English merchant family.

The OED says this sense of the French page is derived from pāgina, classical Latin for a written page or a piece of writing.

The word “pageant,” as we wrote on our blog, referred to a mystery play, a drama depicting biblical events, when it showed up in the late 1300s or early 1400s. It comes from multiple sources in French and Latin, none of them related to the servant sense of “page.”

The OED’s earliest example for “page” used in its servant sense is from The Lay of Havelock the Dane (circa 1280): “Was þer-inne no page so lite Þat euere wolde ale bite” (“Was therein no page so little that ever would ale bite”).

In the late 1300s, it came to mean a servant in a royal or noble household. And around 1400, it came to mean a youth in training for knighthood, ranking just below a squire.

The OED’s earliest citation for a knight’s “page” is from Kyng Alisaunder, a Middle English romance: “Fyue hundreþ þousynde Kniȝttes to armes … Wiþouten pages and squyers” (“Five hundred thousand knights in arms … not counting pages and squires”).

Finally, the American sense of a “page” as a young person who runs errands in a court or a legislative body showed up in the mid-19th century.

The first OED example is from the Feb. 18, 1840, issue of the Boston Evening Transcript: “A page took them to the Clerk—the Clerk handed them to the Speaker.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation And check out our books about the English language.


English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

The well-tempered reply

Q: I once asked you about the epidemic of people on radio and TV who respond to a question by beginning the answer with “so.” You sent me to a post that says this use of “so” goes back to Shakespeare. You guys have everything so nailed, but whatever happened to the well-established, reply-greasing introductory word “well”?

A: Well, people still use it, and we suspect that they’ll use it even more when they get tired of beginning statements with “so.” In fact, this use of “well” has an even longer history than the introductory “so.”

Since early Old English, more than a thousand years ago, people have begun statements with a “well” that’s unconnected with anything else in the sentence.

The earliest example in writing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is from King Ælfred’s translation of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiæ (circa 888):

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

(As we wrote on the blog last year, the Old English interjection wella was a combination of the adverb well and lo, a vague interjection similar to the modern “oh.”)

The OED describes “well” here as a “disjunctive use,” in which the word is sometimes “a simple interjection.”

This “well,” the dictionary explains, is “used to introduce a remark or statement, sometimes implying that the speaker or writer accepts a situation, etc., already expressed or indicated, or desires to qualify this in some way.”

But frequently, the word is “used only as a preliminary or resumptive word,” the dictionary says, adding:

Well functions as a discourse marker, often expressing an emotion such as surprise, indignation, resignation, or relief, but also used when pausing to consider one’s next words, to introduce an explanation or amplification, to mark the resumption or end of a conversation, etc., or to indicate that one is waiting for an answer or explanation from someone.”

So people who respond to a question with “Well …” are probably pausing to weigh their answer (either that or stalling for time).

Sometimes people begin a question this way if they’re asking it with an emotion like “surprise, indignation, resignation, or relief,” Oxford says.

The OED has this example from a Middle English poem, Sir Tristrem (circa 1300): “Wel, whi seistow so?” (“Well, why say you so?”)

And sometimes the entire question consists of that single word, as in this OED citation: “ ‘Well?’ said Mrs. Stanmere interrogatingly.” (From Mary Linskill’s novel The Haven Under the Hill, 1886.)

No matter how it’s used, this disconnected “well” has been extremely common from the beginnings of recorded English until the present day.

Interview subjects may use it in reply to a question, as in this OED example: “Why does he only cut short hair, I ask? ‘Well, I am good at it and short haircuts are more creative.’ ” (From a British newspaper, the Independent, 1999.)

Sometimes “well” isn’t used all by itself as a “disjunctive” beginning. Oxford has examples for “Well well” (circa 1015); “Well well well” (1563); “Well then” (before 1450); “Ah well” (1534); “Very well” (1529); “Oh well” (1582); and “Well now” (1550).

And as John Lennon sang, “Well, well, well. Oh, well. Well, well, well. Oh, well.” And so on.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Don’t sweat it

[Note: For updated information about this expression, see our Feb. 12, 2024, post about “don’t sweat the small stuff.”]

Q: As someone who ranks high on the perspiration index, I was wondering when the phrase “don’t sweat it” came about.

A: “Don’t sweat it” first showed up in print about 50 years ago, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but we’ve found a similar expression that appeared in writing 50 years before that.

The OED describes “don’t sweat it” as American slang for “don’t worry.” The dictionary says a positive colloquial version, “to sweat,” means “to experience discomfort through anxiety or unease.”

The earliest example for “don’t sweat it” in Oxford is from a 1963 issue of the journal American Speech: “Don’t sweat it means ‘don’t worry about it.’ ”

However, we’ve found this similar usage in the Dec. 12, 1914, issue of Happy Days, a New York weekly newspaper:

“ ‘What’s the meeting for, anyway?’ said Paul Braddon. ‘Keep your shirt on, and don’t sweat it off,’ said Deacon Small.”

The first positive citation (grammatically speaking) in the OED is from The Hungarian Game, a 1973 espionage thriller by Roy Hayes:

“ ‘Hold off for a moment. I want to watch him sweat.’ ‘The guy’s about to faint from pain.’ ”

As you can imagine, the verb “sweat” in its literal sense is very old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times. The infinitive was swætan in Old English and meant (as it does today) to emit perspiration through the pores of the skin.

The first example in the OED is from the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (circa 900):

He swa swiðe swætte swa in swole middes sumeres (“He so sweated strongly in the mid-summer heat”).

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says that “sweat” is ultimately derived from the proto-Germanic root swaita-, and that it has given us such words and phrases as “sweater” (1882, the garment), “sweatshop” (1889), and “sweatshirt” (1929).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Snacks and refreshments

Q: To me, “refreshments” can refer to food or drink. But in the last 10 years, at least in Cincinnati, I’ve seen it used exclusively for beverages. Often an event will mention “snacks and refreshments” or something similar, implying that the snacks are solid and the refreshments liquid. Have you noticed this, and what can you say about it?

A: All six of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked agree with you that the word “refreshments” refers to food or drink or both.

However, English speakers have been using the expression “food and refreshments” for nearly two centuries. Go figure!

The earliest example we’ve found is from an 1816 account in the New Evangelical Magazine about the last days of Thomas Paine, the American political activist and Founding Father, who died in 1809 in Greenwich Village.

A letter forwarded to the magazine describes how a family living near Paine “had contributed to his comfort by occasionally preparing and sending him food and refreshments more adapted to his situation than he usually enjoyed.”

The phrase “food and refreshments” has been used regularly since then, according to the results of a search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in millions of books.

However, the phrase you mentioned, “snacks and refreshments,” is a relative newcomer, showing up in the mid-20th century and increasing sharply in usage since then, according to an Ngram search.

The earliest example we’ve found for the new phrase is from a 1949 issue of the magazine Outdoor Indiana:

“The Division of State Parks, Lands and Waters, under whose supervision Mounds State Park is operated, maintains a service pavilion where snacks and refreshments may be obtained by park guests.”

As you’d expect, “food” is the oldest of these words, dating back to Old English, when it was spelled fóda. and meant a “nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink in order to maintain life and growth,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary offers this Old English example from the abbot Ælfric’s Interrogationes Sigewulfi (The Questions of Sigewulf): “On þære oðre fleringe wæs heora nytena foda gelogod” (“On another floor was the food for cattle”).

Although the noun “snack” is fairly old too, dating back to the early 1400s, it originally meant a snap or bite, especially from a dog. It evolved over the years to mean a snappish remark, a part of something, and in the mid-1700s a bite of food or a light meal.

The OED’s earliest example for the culinary sense is from a 1757 issue of the Monitor or British Freeholder: “When once a man has got a snack of their trenchers, he too often retains a hankering after the honey-pot.”

And here’s a figurative usage from a letter by the poet John Keats: “Having taken a snack or luncheon of literary scraps.”

Finally, the word “refreshment.” When English adapted the term in the 1400s from several Gallic sources, according to the OED, it meant “refreshing a person or thing physically, by means of food, drink, rest, coolness, etc.”

The use of the plural “refreshments” in the modern sense of a light meal or drink didn’t show up until the 1600s, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a 1639 entry in a notebook kept by Thomas Lechford, a Boston lawyer: “You must … have some refreshments besides the ships provisions … that is, some suger and fine ruske or bisket.”

Getting back to your question, one could argue that the expression “food and refreshments” is redundant, but we’d describe it as an idiomatic usage with a long history. In other words, relax and have a canapé.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

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

Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She will be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the English language and take questions from callers.

English English language Etymology Expression Linguistics Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Fold like a cheap X

Q: Is the expression “fold like a cheap suit” or “fold like a cheap suitcase”? Most of the people I’ve asked think it should be “suit,” but I remember it as “suitcase.”

A: The verb “fold” has been used for hundreds of years to mean “give way,” “collapse,” or “fail.” But it’s been used for only a few dozen years in expressions like the ones you’re asking about.

There are many variations on the “fold” theme, including “fold like a cheap tent,” “fold like a cheap lounge chair,” and “fold like a cheap camera” (a reference to the inexpensive folding cameras of days gone by).

These expressions, sometimes called “snowclones” by linguists, follow a verbal pattern (like “X is the new Y” or, in this case, “fold like a cheap X”) into which various words can be inserted by people too lazy to come up with new clichés.

In a 2004 post on the Language Log, the linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum credits the economist Glen Whitman with coining the term for “these non-sexually reproduced journalistic textual templates.”

The linguist Arnold Zwicky, in discussing the “fold like a cheap X” formula on his blog in 2009, questions the use of the word “suit” here, then suggests a possible explanation for the usage.

Suit would not have been my first choice as a filler for X, suits (even cheap ones) not being notable for ease of folding,” he writes. “But maybe the cliché ‘all over someone like a cheap suit’ promoted suit for X.”

Zwicky mentions several other choices as a filler for X, including “shirt,” “umbrella,” “cocktail umbrella,” “lawn chair,” “deck chair,” “card table,” “pocket-knife,” “wallet,” “blanket,” and “accordion.”

The earliest example in writing that we could find for any of these “fold like a cheap X” expressions is from White Rat: A Life in Baseball, a 1987 memoir by Whitey Herzog:

“The Phils, I think, were secretly rooting for the Cardinals to win the second half because they knew they could throw Steve Carlton at us in the mini-playoffs and we’d fold like a cheap tent.”

The earliest written example we’ve found for the “suitcase” version is from All Out, a 1988 novel by Judith Alguire: “She folded like a cheap suitcase.”

And the first written example we’ve found for the “suit” formula is from Another 48 Hours, Deborah Chiel’s 1990 novelization of the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte film: “Wilson folded like a cheap suit to the ringing applause of everyone present.”

And now we’ll fold like a cheap laptop and call it a day.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Why a canard?

Q: We were celebrating our 25th anniversary with confit de canard when this question came up: How did the French word for a duck come to mean a false story in English?

A: The short answer is that canard has both senses in French, and English borrowed one of them. But how did the word for a duck come to mean a false story in French?

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says “the sense of a false or exaggerated story comes from a French expression of the late 1500s vendre un canard à moitié to half-sell a duck (i.e., not to sell it at all), hence to take in, deceive, make a fool of.”

The “canard” entry in Chambers echoes the work of the 19th-century French lexicographer Émile Littré and the 17th century English lexicographer Randle Cotgrave.

Littré, in the Dictionnaire de la Langue Française (1863–77), has a 1612 citation for the expression bailleur de canards (literally deliverer of ducks), used to mean a teller of absurd stories.

And Cotgrave, in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), defines the French expression vendeur de canards a moitié as “a cousener, guller, cogger; foister, lyer.”

From these beginnings, Chambers says, “The sense of ‘false news spread to deceive the public’ appeared in French in 1750.”

The earliest English example of “canard” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1864 edition of An American Dictionary of the English Language, edited by Chauncey A. Goodrich and Noah Porter.

However, the OED quotes James Murray, the principal editor of its first edition, as saying, “I saw the word in print before 1850.”

Oxford suggests that the false sense of “canard” may have been popularized when it became the subject of a syndicated language column, “The Romance of Words,” that appeared in many American newspapers in the 1920s.

The column traced the phony sense of the French word “to an absurd fabricated story purporting to illustrate the voracity of ducks,” according to the OED.

We won’t go into details here, but the story—or, rather, the canard—concerns a scientist who supposedly got a bunch of ducks to eat each other until only one was left.

“As this account has been widely circulated,” the OED says, “it is possible that it has contributed to render the word more familiar, and thus more used, in English.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Dribbling, on court and on bib

Q: I was watching an NCAA game on TV after visiting a friend with a new baby. One of the players was dribbling when I had this thought. Did the “dribble” on the court and the “dribble” on the bib come from the same source?

A: Yes, the “dribble” that you use to move a ball around and the “dribble” that wets your shirt front are from the same fountain. 

The ultimate source is a long-dead verb, “drib,” which the Oxford English Dictionary says was “apparently an onomatopoeic formation” arising out of the nouns “drop” or “drip.” (An onomatopoeic word sounds like what it means.)

The defunct “drib,” which dates back to 1523 in English writing, had a number of meanings in its first couple of decades: “to fall in drops,” “to go on little by little” (a figurative usage), and “to let fall or utter as in driblets,” the OED says.

The verb may also have been used early on to mean “drool” or “slaver,” but Oxford’s example for that sense of the word, in a quotation about drunkards, appears with a question mark, indicating the meaning isn’t certain.

A sports usage emerged in the  mid-1500s, when “drib” was a term in archery meaning to shoot an arrow that falls short or wide of the mark.  But the verb “drib” in all its senses was about to die out.

In the latter half of the century, to “drib” became to “dribble,” a new verb the OED describes as a “frequentative of drib.” (A frequentative is a word, like “blabber” or “cackle,” that expresses a repetitive action.)

The first recorded example of “dribble,” in 1567, used the word in the old archery sense.   

But the common meaning of “dribble” since the later 1500s or the 1600s—whether literal or figurative—has been to let fall in drops, as in a trickle; to emit in driblets; and finally to drool or slaver, a usage probably influenced  by the verb “drivel,” the OED suggests.

Though “dribble” died out as a term in archery, other sporting senses came along in the 1700s, some of them not recorded in the OED.

For instance, we’ve found citations dating back to 1739 for “dribble” used in the game of dice, meaning to gently pour the dice from the cup or hand instead of tossing them.

This quotation is from the December 1739 issue of the Champion, a London political journal edited by Henry Fielding: “We often see a blundering Fellow, who scarce knows on which Side the Odds are, dribble out his bad Chance upon the Table, and sweep the whole Board.”

Apparently, “dribbling” at dice was a good way to cheat. This explanation is from Theophilus Swift’s annotated poem The Gamblers (1777):

“The Dribble (as the word imports) is when, with an easy but ingenious motion, the caster pours as it were the dice on the Abacus, or Black-board; when, if he chance to have been long a practitioner, he may suddenly cog with his fore-finger one of the cubes.”

We’ve also found that the verb was used in games of marbles at least as far back as a couple of centuries ago.

James Boaden, in his biography of the actor John Kemble, recounts a conversation the two men had in the fall of 1800 when they stopped to watch a group of chimneysweeps playing marbles in the street.

Kemble, according to Boaden, “suddenly called out, as he had when a boy, ‘Fain dribbling,’ and taking up a marble that lay at the greatest distance from the ring, he knuckled down, and in the real and true style struck out of it the marble he aimed at.” (From Memoirs of the Life of John Philip Kemble Esq., published in 1825.)

And we found this example from 1831, in an article satirizing newspaper reports of the doings of the children of the aristocracy:

“The Duke of Drumstick and the Marquis of Trundlehoop knelt down to a match of marbles at a quarter-past ten on Tuesday last, the 26th ult. His grace was heard to observe it was ‘fine fun.’ Lord Trundlehoop turns up his righthand sleeve at long taw—the Duke does not, and his marbles dribble, but his Grace plays excellently nevertheless.” (From the New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, August 1831.)

Besides marbles, the verb “dribble” was used in skittles, an early form of bowling. This definition is from The West Somerset Word-Book, or Glossary, published by the English Dialect Society, 1875-86:

“DRIBBLE: … To cause to move slowly. In playing at marbles, ‘to dribble up’ is to shoot the taw slowly so as to make it stop near some desired point. At skittles, ‘a dribbling ball’ is one that goes slowly up to the pins.”

And as the OED says, “dribble” has also been used in billiards, where it means “to give (a ball) a slight push.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Joseph Bennett’s book Billiards (1873): “To keep the white by the spot, and by the same stroke to dribble the red over the corner.”

But we found an older example, from 1869: “I … taught him to seek for safety, to dribble gently up to his adversary’s ball when attempting a ‘pot.’ ” (From John Roberts’s book Roberts on Billiards.)

Now we come to the more familiar sports uses of “dribble,” which have to do with ball handling in team sports. Here, to “dribble” means to propel the ball in a series of short moves.

The earliest such use involved 19th-century British football (what Americans call soccer, as we’ve written before on the blog).

As the OED explains, to “dribble” means “to keep (the ball) moving along the ground in front of and close to one by a rapid succession of short pushes, instead of sending it as far as possible by a vigorous kick.”

Here are Oxford’s two earliest citations for this sense of the word:

“The Eton game, when the ‘long-behind’ is dribbling the ball before his feet slowly forward.” (From the Sporting Gazette, 1863.)

“ ‘Dribbling,’ as the science of working the ball along the ground by means of the feet is technically termed.” (From the Football Annual, 1868.)

It was inevitable that with the American invention of basketball in the early 1890s, the verb “dribble” would make itself useful yet again.

As the OED says, the verb has two meanings in basketball: (1) “to bounce (the ball) continuously with one’s hand, esp. while moving around the court”; and (2) “to move along the court while bouncing the ball continuously with one’s hand.”

Here are the OED’s earliest recorded examples for each sense of the word:

“The ball may be dribbled along the ground with the hand.” (From an Indiana newspaper, the Daily Journal, of Logansport, April 1893.)

“ ‘Dribbling’ or bouncing the ball was a play they did not discover the excellence of until this year.” (From the publication Men, February 1898.)

And the rest is history, along with Villanova’s victory over North Carolina in the final seconds of this year’s NCAA championship game.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Lexical pageantry

Q: While I was in Texas for the recent MLA convention, the subject of beauty pageants came up at a dinner conversation. When did this secular use of “pageant” develop from the term’s medieval religious origins?

A: The word “pageant” didn’t become associated with beauty contests until the 20th century.

In the Middle Ages, a “pageant” was a mystery play (or an act or a scene in one). Mystery plays were dramas depicting biblical events, and they were especially popular in Europe from about the 12th through 16th centuries.

In fact, modern Christmas and Easter pageants are echoes of that medieval usage, since they include tableaus and scenes representing biblical stories.

The ultimate source of the English word is a bit blurry. It has “multiple origins,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, since it’s “partly a borrowing from French” and “partly a borrowing from Latin.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology gives “pagyn” as the earliest English example, recorded in 1386-87 “in an Anglo-French context.” The OED’s earliest example, spelled “pagent,” is from a 1403 document—and it’s notable that the quotation is mostly in French.

The word’s cousins in French (pagin, pagant), Anglo-Norman (pagin, pagine, pagyn), and post-classical Latin (pagina, pagens, pagenda) had various meanings: a stage, a play in a cycle of mystery plays, or a tableau.

Unfortunately, the source of the late Latin pagina is unclear. As the OED says, it may or may not be the same word as the earlier, classical Latin pāgina (page):

“Perhaps, if the sense ‘scene displayed on a stage’ were the original sense, it might be developed from ‘page’ or ‘leaf’ of a manuscript play, but if so there is no evidence to support this.”

Another explanation is that the post-classical pagina could have come from the classical Latin pangere (to fix), giving rise to the meaning “framework,” the OED suggests. By comparison, Oxford cites the classical Latin pēgma (a framework, movable stage, or scaffold in a theater).

However it developed, “pageant” in English originally meant a mystery play or part of one, whether we date it from the late 1300s or the early 1400s.

Some mystery plays, especially Easter pageants, have been criticized for their depiction of Jews. In “Anti-Semitism and the English Mystery Plays,” a 1979 paper in the journal Comparative Drama, Stephen Spender describes the plays as “vehemently anti-Jewish.”

By 1450, the OED says, “pageant” was recorded in a newer sense: a stage on wheels.

Here’s Oxford’s definition: “A stage or platform on which scenes were acted or tableaux represented.” Particularly in earlier usages, it meant “a movable structure consisting of stage and stage machinery, used in the open-air performance of a mystery play.”

That 15th-century usage is now seen only in historical writings. This 20th-century example is a good illustration:

“In the Middle Ages a pageant was the rough stage mounted on a cart on which the Mysteries and Miracles were played. To-day we have similar exhibitions in the tableaux arranged for the Lord Mayor’s Show, and it is easy to see how the word transferred from the moving stage to the whole procession.” (From  Volume 5 of Harold Wheeler’s  Waverley Children’s Dictionary, 1927-29.)

At around the same time, circa 1450, “pageant” was used to mean a tableau or “dumb show,” either fixed in place or erected on a movable float. This sense of “pageant” is rare today, the OED says.

The use of “pageant” widened around the beginning of the 19th century to mean “a brilliant or stately spectacle arranged for effect; esp. a procession or parade with elaborate spectacular display; a showy parade,” the OED says.

Oxford’s earliest example is from Robert Southey’s epic poem Madoc (1805):  “Embroidered surcoats, and emblazoned shields, / And lances whose long streamers played aloft, / Made a rare pageant, as with sound of trump, / Tambour and cittern, proudly they went on.” (We’ve expanded the citation to get in more of the pomp.)

This less celebratory example is from The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1820), by Washington Irving: “Few pageants can be more stately and frigid than an English funeral in town.”

Later in the 19th century, “pageant” was first used in connection with historical dramas. The OED’s definition: “A commemorative play depicting scenes from history (esp. local history), usually performed outdoors in the form of a procession in elaborate, colourful costumes.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from 1883, but we like this 1970 example: “A great many pageants have been so gruesome—Merrie Englande with rain—the form has earned itself a bad reputation.” (From New Directions: Ways of Advance for the Amateur Theatre, by Peter Burton and John Lane.)

Finally, the use of “pageant” for a beauty contest originated in the US in the early 20th century and is still chiefly American, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first citation is a pithy headline from a 1911 issue of the Syracuse (NY) Herald: “Pick blondes for beauty pageant.”

Here’s another example, from a 1929 issue of the Zanesville (Ohio) Signal: “The district winner chosen at Buckeye Lake next Thursday … is to be entered directly in the ‘Miss America’ pageant at Baltimore, Md. in September.”

In the US these days, “pageant” has almost replaced “beauty contest,” which was first recorded in 1880. As this example shows, “pageant” has become a byword in the beauty-contest biz.

“The former Little Miss Colorado’s wardrobe for 1997 was to have included half a dozen outfits for the different categories of  ‘pageants’—the term that organisers prefer to ‘beauty contests’—in which she would compete.” (From the Independent, London, 1997.)

A historical aside: Most early spellings of “pageant” (“pagyn,” “padgean,” “padgin,” “padgion,” and others) didn’t end in “t.” The “t” became established later, either for reasons of euphony or by analogy with “ancient,” which was spelled “auncien” or “auncian” in Middle English, ancien in French, and antiān in late Latin.

We’ll close with a look at “pageantry,” which Shakespeare is credited with using first in writing. Here’s the OED’s earliest citation, from Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1609):

“What pageantry, what feats, what showes, / What minstrelsie, and prettie din, / The Regent made … / To greet the King.” (We like the phrase “prettie din,” don’t you?)

Originally, “pageantry” meant what Shakespeare intended: “pageants or tableaux collectively,” or “the public performance or display of these,” says the OED.

But later in the mid-1600s, Oxford says, “pageantry” acquired the meanings it has today, both negative  and positive: (1) empty display or “show without substance,” and (2) “gorgeous, colourful, or spectacular show; pomp.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Linguistics Pronunciation Usage Word origin

Sizing up YOOGE

Q: Is the Bernie Sanders/Donald Trump pronunciation of “huge” as YOOGE strictly a New York thing?

A: The usual pronunciation of “huge” is HYOOGE, according to most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked. The “hy” sound at the beginning is a consonant cluster that combines the sounds produced by the letters “h” and “y.”

In the pronunciation you’re asking about, the “hy” sound at the beginning of “huge” is reduced to a “y” sound, resulting in the variant YOOGE.

Several standard dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.), accept the YOOGE pronunciation as an equal variant alongside HYOOGE.

However, the Dictionary of American Regional English says YOOGE occurs primarily in New York City and Long Island, NY, though it’s also heard in some other parts of the East Coast.

In the International Phonetic Alphabet, which linguists generally use in referring to these sounds, the “hy” cluster is written as /hj/ and the “y” sound as /j/.

Phoneticians, linguists that specialize in the sounds of speech, would say that the phoneme, or unit of sound, represented by the consonant cluster /hj/ is replaced by the phoneme /j/ when someone pronounces “huge” as YOOGE (judʒ in the IPA alphabet).

This process is similar to what linguists refer to as glide cluster reduction, in which the “wh” cluster (originally spelled “hw”) is reduced to “w” in words like “which,” “whether,” and “where.” We wrote about such “wh” words in our recent post about “h”-dropping.

To keep things as simple as possible here, we’ll use “hy” and “y” for the /hj/ and /j/ sounds, except when we quote linguists or lexicographers using the IPA alphabet.

The earliest evidence in DARE for the YOOGE pronunciation is from the early 1940s, but we suspect that the pronunciation is much older, perhaps dating back to the 1700s, and may have been more widespread.

The dictionary’s first citation for YOOGE is from a 1942 issue of the journal American Speech: “NYC, Long Island, Omission of initial [h] before [ju] … huge … This is a somewhat greater loss of [h] than in upstate speech.”

However, DARE has a much earlier example indicating that the word “humor” (now usually pronounced HYOO-mur) was pronounced YOO-mur in American English in the late 18th century.

In Dissertations on the English Language (1789), Noah Webster criticizes the pronunciation of “human, and about twenty other words beginning with h, as tho they were spelt yuman. This is a gross error.”

Webster doesn’t list the 20 other words, but we wouldn’t be surprised if they included “huge.”

Interestingly, Webster adds that the word “humor” should begin with a “y” sound: “The only word that begins with this sound, is humor, with its derivatives.” In other words, he considered the YOO-mur pronunciation of “humor” to be standard English.

In a footnote, Webster singles out for criticism the Scottish lexicographer William Perry, author of The Royal Standard English Dictionary (1775), which says “human” should be “pron. as if began with a y.”

“I am surprized that his pronunciation has found so many advocates in this country, as there is none more erroneous,” Webster says.

It’s apparent from Webster’s remarks that the “hy” pronunciation of “humor” and some similar words was unsettled in the late 18th century on both sides of the Atlantic, probably because of the difficulty some people had in pronouncing the cluster.

In fact, several 18th-century British language authorities agreed with Webster that “humor“ (“humour” in the British spelling) should be pronounced YOO-mur.

In An Essay Towards Establishing a Standard for an Elegant and Uniform Pronunciation of the English Language (1766), for example, James Buchanan endorses the YOO-mur pronunciation, as does John Walker in A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791).

Several readers of our blog have asked if the pronunciation of “huge” as YOOGE by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders (both native New Yorkers) is similar to the “h”-dropping in cockney, the working-class speech of England.

We don’t think so. In cockney, the “h” sound disappears and is not replaced by anything (as in “house” reduced to OUSE). In the New Yorkish pronunciation of “huge,” the consonant cluster “hy” is replaced by a “y” sound.

If the “h” in “huge” were a normal consonant, the word would be pronounced HOOGE, and dropping the “h” would result in the pronunciation OOGE. That’s not what is happening here.

Interestingly, people speaking the Norfolk dialect in England do change the “hy” sound in “huge” to “h,” resulting in the pronunciation HOOGE. Linguists refer to this phenomenon as yod-dropping, from the name of the Hebrew version of the letter “y.”

In fact, yod-dropping is heard on both sides of the Atlantic, but it’s more common in the US and helps differentiate standard American pronunciation from Received Pronunciation, the standard British accent.

Most Americans, for example, usually pronounce “tune” and “news” as TOON and NOOZ, while someone speaking RP pronounces them TYOON and NYOOZ. (In parts of the American South, people also say TYOON and NYOOZ, as we’ve written on the blog.)

We could go on—and on and on. There’s much to be said about yod-dropping, an ongoing process that the linguist John C. Wells dates from the early 18th century, but we’ll leave that for another day.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.