English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin

Does “concertize” sound odd?

Q: In an NPR piece, the owner of a violin business in Chicago plays a Stradivarius violin worth millions and says, “Joshua Bell has concertized with it on three occasions.” Turning the noun “concert” into a really odd-sounding verb stopped me. Is this just a classic case of trying to use fewer words by inventing an unusual term?

A: Is the verb “concertize” legit?

Well, the US and UK versions of Oxford Dictionaries online describe it as a North American usage—that is, seen in the US and Canada, but not in the UK.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary (a different entity) says “concertize” first showed up in a British publication and has appeared in print in both the US and the UK for more than a century and a half.

(Oxford Dictionaries is a standard, or general, dictionary that focuses on the current meaning of words while the OED is a historical dictionary that chronicles the evolution of words.)

Despite the history, “concertize” seems to be more at home now in the US than in the UK. Only two of the four British standard dictionaries we searched include the word, while all four American dictionaries searched have entries for it.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged, the largest current American dictionary, describes “concertize” as an intransitive verb (one without an object) that showed up in the 1840s.

Merriam-Webster, the updated online version of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, gives this contemporary example from Consumer Reports: “only 20 years old, yet he has been concertizing … for about a half a dozen years.”

The OED has citations for the word used intransitively (“to sing or play in concert; to perform in concerts”) as well as transitively (“to adapt or make suitable for concert performance”).

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which uses the verb intransitively, is from a March 1840 issue of the Theatrical Journal in London: “Which will take us into May, which month we shall very probably end by concertizing somewhere.”

And here’s an example from the Feb. 21, 1888, issue of the Pall Mall Gazette in London: “ ‘I cannot concertize any more. I am tired.’ So says little Hofmann.”

The dictionary’s most recent intransitive citation is from the September 1998 issue of the Strad, a British classical music magazine focusing on stringed instruments:

“I bought a Joseph Curtin violin in 1995 and concertized on it for two years.”

Four of the dictionary’s six intransitive examples are from British sources, but all four transitive examples are from American publications.

The OED’earliest transitive citation is from the Jan. 8, 1859, issue of the New York Musical Review and Gazette:

“A trained choir may so operatize, and dramatize, and concertize the closing hymn … as to divert the attention wholly from the hymn.”

This one is from A History of Jazz in America (1952), by Barry Ulanov: “The Rhapsody in Blue … represented the most serious attempt to concertize jazz.”

The most recent transitive example is from Zimbabwe Dance, a 2000 book by Kariamu Welsh Asante: “Newly liberated African nations began to concertize the dance.”

The verb “concertize” is derived from the much older noun “concert,” which the OED says meant “agreement or harmony between things” when it showed up in the 16th century.

The dictionary’s first citation is from The Historie of Man (1578), by John Banister: “An orderly consert of Ueynes [veins], and Arteries.”

By 1600, according to the dictionary, it was being used in the musical sense of “a harmonious combination of sounds produced by a number of performers singing or playing together.”

And in the late 1600s, “concert” took on its modern sense of “a (usually public) musical performance, typically consisting of a series of separate songs or pieces.”

The OED’s first example is from a 1689 issue of the London Gazette: “The Concerts of Musick that were held in Bow-street and in York-Buildings, are now joyn’d together.”

We’ll end with this June 8, 2016, example that we found on Vanity Fair’s website: “Beyoncé Sneezed During a Concert, and Fans Lost Their Minds.”

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English English language Grammar Usage

When a contraction won’t do

Q: I’m a non-native English speaker from Hong Kong. I read the following online: “Had I not had you in my life, I would not be who I’m today.” Is it correct? Wouldn’t it be better to begin with “If I had not had you in my life”?

A: The problem with that sentence is at the end, not the beginning.

So let’s start with the last part of the sentence (“… I would not be who I’m today”).

The contraction here isn’t idiomatic. The author should have written “who I am today.”

A native English speaker would hear what’s wrong. Spoken aloud, the contraction “I’m” is weak in that position because the important part, the verb, is swallowed up.

A weakened verb is all right if it leads to something stronger—say, another verb, as in a construction like “that’s where I’m going.”

But a contracted verb isn’t idiomatic when it’s the star attraction, which is why we say, “that’s where I am [not I’m] now.”

This is the reason why contractions of subject and verb—like “I’ve,” “he’s,” “they’ll,” “Jane’s,” and so on—generally appear toward the beginning rather the end of a sentence or clause.

We don’t say, “Yes, I’ve.” Or, “That’s what he’s.” Or, “They insist they’ll.” Or, “Bob’s not going but Jane’s.”

In those cases we use uncontracted forms: “I have” … “he is” … “they will” … “Jane is.”

There are exceptions of course, as when the final word is a strong adverb like “not” (‘Harry’s going, but I’m not.”)

And the contraction can go last if the subject isn’t part of it. This often happens with negative contractions:

“No, I haven’t” … “That’s one thing he isn’t” … “They insist they won’t” … “Bob’s going but Jane isn’t.”

Ultimately, this is a matter of phonology and how things “sound”—even when our English is written, not spoken.

Now let’s return to the first part of the sentence you asked about (“Had I not had you in my life …”).

There’s nothing wrong with that, though “If I had not had you in my life” is a more common way of saying the same thing.

The past perfect tense (as in “had had”) is often used, with or without “if,” to express a supposition, as we wrote at greater length in a post last year.

So “had I had breakfast,” for example, is comparable to “if I had had breakfast.”

This is easier to see with other verbs, since “have” uses forms of itself in the compound tenses and we get those confusing “had had” pileups.

Using the past perfect of “go” as an example, “had I gone there” is a slightly more literary way of saying “if I had gone there.”

Similarly, “had I seen him” is another way of expressing “if I had seen him,” and “had I known that” is a different version of “if I had known that.”

In the “had I gone” and “had I seen” and “had I known” forms, the subject and verb are reversed and there’s no “if.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Ye olde bookshoppe

Q: I assume that shopkeepers who refer to their shops as “shoppes” are trying to add a patina of Old English tradition to their establishments. But was “shop” really spelled “shoppe” in Anglo-Saxon times?

A: No, the Old English word was “sceoppa,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it was rarely used.

In fact, it showed up in writing only once, the OED says, in an Old English version of the Gospel of Luke, where the term referred to the temple treasury where visitors left their gifts.

In Middle English (roughly 1100-1500), the word was spelled many different ways, including “ssoppe,” “schopp,” “shope,” “shoppe,” “schoop,” “shoope,” and “shop.”

The earliest example in the OED is a 1297 entry from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, an account of early British history:

“Þe bowiares ssoppe hii breke & þe bowes nome echon” (“They broke into the bow maker’s shop and took all the bows”).

The OED defines “shop” here as a “house or building where goods are made or prepared for sale and sold.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the “shoppe” spelling is from “The Cook’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1386):

“He loued bet the Tauerne than the shoppe” (“He loved the tavern more than the shop”).

A survey of the OED’s citations suggests that “shop” has been the most popular spelling over the years, from the Middle Ages until modern times.

The use of “shoppe” that you’re asking about is a relatively recent phenomenon that the dictionary defines as “an archaic form of shop n. now used affectedly (as in the names of tea-shops, etc.) to suggest quaint, old-world charm.”

Most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked say “shoppe” is pronounced th same as “shop,” but the OED, a historical dictionary, says it can also be pronounced as if it were spelled “shoppee.”

The OED’s earliest example for this quaint usage is from Ghastly Good Taste: Or, a Depressing Story of the Rise and Fall of English Architecture, a 1933 book by the poet John Betjeman, a preservationist who helped save the St Pancras railway station in London:

“Arts and Crafts. Gentle folk weaving and spinning; Modern Church Furnishing; Old Tea Shoppes.”

But the affectation had attracted comment earlier. [See the update at the end of this post.] For example, we found this anonymous plaint in a 1925 issue of the Inland Printer, an American typesetters’ journal:

“Shoppe! Radio shoppe and beauty shoppe, candy shoppe and music shoppe, barber shoppe and bobber shoppe, men’s shoppe and women’s shoppe — shoppe, shoppe, shoppe! My stars, the pain! Who started this shoppey business?”

And in 1926 the “shoppe” trend was satirized by a poet in the Saturday Evening Post:

“Ye gods! Where’er I move or stoppe / I see a sign that marks a Shoppe — / A Beautie Shoppe, a Shoppe for food, / A Booke Shoppe, for the reading mood, / A Notion Shoppe, a Shoppe for gowns, / A Mappe Shoppe — guides for roads and towns.”

As for “olde,” the OED has an entry for its modern use “as an archaism, originally commercially, later also freq. ironically, for old” and “sometimes with other words spelt archaistically, as Olde English(e).”

The first example—from the March 1852 issue of the United States Democratic Review, a political and literary journal—comments on “the character of ‘the old fogy,’ or ‘ye olde fogie,’ as he at present exists.”

The OED doesn’t have an entry for the similar use of “ye,” but Oxford Dictionaries online (a different entity) defines it as a “pseudo-archaic term for the, and gives this example: Ye Olde Bookshoppe.”

“Pseudo” is right! Although “ye” was one of four old forms of the pronoun “you,” it was not an old form of the article “the” in either Old or Middle English.

As we wrote in a 2009 post, the modern use of “ye” in quaint names of businesses is the result of a mistaken interpretation of Old English writing.

The article “the” was originally “se” in Old English, but the “s” began to be replaced in the 10th century with an old Anglo-Saxon rune called the thorn (þ), which represented a “th” sound.

This þ, resembling a “p” with both an upper and a lower stem, was replaced by “th” in the 13th century.

So where did the “y” come from? Here’s how we explain it in our olde poste:

“Over the years, the thorn’s upper stem became less pronounced as it was copied by scribes, and the letter came to resemble a backward ‘y.’

“Even after the thorn was replaced by ‘th,’ the old letter was sometimes used in abbreviations. But it wasn’t available in printer’s fonts, so printers used ‘y’ instead. Thus ‘ye’ got its undeserved reputation as a defunct Old English article.”

[Update, June 26, 2016. A reader writes: “Since you are P. G. Wodehouse fans, you’ll be pleased to discover his early uses of the humorous ‘shoppe’ and ‘ye olde.’ ” He sent along two examples that appeared in serializations of Wodehouse novels.

This one is from an episode of The Adventures of Sally that was published in Collier’s Weekly, Nov. 5, 1921. Here young Sally is in search of a way to invest a legacy:

“What she had had in view, as a matter of fact, had been one of those little fancy shops which are called Ye Blue Bird or Ye Corner Shoppe, or something like that, where you sell exotic bric-à-brac to the wealthy at extortionate prices. … Ye Corner Shoppe suddenly looked very good to her.”

And this is from an installment of A Damsel in Distress that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post on June 28, 1919:

“Ye Cosy Nooke, as its name will immediately suggest to those who know their London, is a tea shop in Bond Street, conducted by distressed gentlewomen. In London, when a gentlewoman becomes distressed—which she seems to do on the slightest provocation—she collects about her two or three other distressed gentlewomen, forming a quorum, and starts a tea shop in the West End, which she calls Ye Oak-Leaf, Ye Olde Willow-Pattern, Ye Linden-Tree, or Ye Snug Harbor, according to personal taste.”

As the reader notes: “It’s not surprising to find Wodehouse completely on top of fads in language usage.”]

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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 Grammar Linguistics Phrase origin Usage Word origin

What with one thing and another

Q: What’s up with “what” in the following sentence? “What with two jobs, enormous debt and an unhappy marriage, he just could not cope.” And what part of speech does it play here?

A: What with one thing and another, we haven’t written about this age-old use of “what.” So what better time?

This construction has a folksy, contemporary sound, but it’s neither. It’s been around since the Middle Ages and appears in the most elevated writing.

Here “what” is used to introduce an adverbial phrase that starts with a preposition, and the preposition is generally “with.”

The resulting “what with,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, implies “in consequence of, on account of, as a result of,” or “in view of, considering (one thing and another).”

This use of “what” has been around since the 1100s, the OED says, although in the very earliest examples the preposition was “for,” as in this quotation from the Lambeth Homilies (circa 1175), a collection of Old English sermons:

“Alle we beoð in monifald wawe ine þisse wreche liue, hwat for ure eldere werkes, hwat for ure aȝene gultes” (“We are all in manifold woe in this wretched life, what for our elders’ deeds, what for our own guilts”). We’ve expanded the citation.

The “what with” construction began showing up in English writing in the 15th century, the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1476 letter that John Paston wrote from Calais to his family back home in Norfolk: “I ame some-whatt crased [ill], whatwyth the see [sea] and what wythe thys dyet [diet] heere.”

In earlier uses, the “what with” is repeated with each phrase, but later it appears only once, at the head of a series. Here are a few more examples:

“What with the war; what with the sweat, what with the gallowes, and what with pouerty, I am Custom-shrunke.” (From Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, possibly written in 1603 or ’04.)

“Alas the Church of England! What with Popery on one Hand, and Schismaticks on the other; how has she been Crucify’d between two Thieves.” (From Daniel Defoe’s pamphlet The Shortest-Way With the Dissenters, 1702.)

“So that what with one thing and another, when Mustapha came to review them afterwards … he found he had lost 40000 Men.” (From David Jones’s A Compleat History of the Turks, 1718.)

“What with hunting, fishing, canoe-making, and bad weather, the progress of the august travellers was so slow.” (From Francis Parkman’s The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, 1867.)

So you can see that “what with” has been a useful and natural part of English down through the centuries.

As for the role played by “what,” the OED lists it as “adv. or conj.”

But we like the explanation in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.). M-W calls this “what” an adverb introducing a prepositional phrase that “expresses cause and usually has more than one object.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Usage Word origin

Did you vigil for Orlando?

Q: I got an email the other day from Corey Johnson that said: “I hope to see you tonight at the Stonewall Inn as we vigil for the victims of the shooting in Orlando.” Could this be the first instance of “vigil” used as a verb? Sounds terrible to me, but who am I?

A: No, the New York City Council member did not coin the usage. The word “vigil” has occasionally been used as a verb since the late 19th century.

Although standard dictionaries don’t recognize this usage (at least not yet), the Oxford English Dictionary does.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the verb as “to keep a vigil or vigils,” but adds that the usage is “rare.”

The dictionary records only a handful of published examples, all of them poetic usages. Here they are, in order of appearance.

“So I’ve claim to ask / By what right you task / My patience by vigiling there?” (From Thomas Hardy’s Wessex Poems and Other Verses, 1898.)

“Two days and two nights has he vigiled—the doctor dozes and blinks.” (From Gilbert Frankau’s 1914 novel in verse Tid’apa.)

“We vigil by the dying fire, / talk stilled for once.” (From John Montague’s book of lyric verses A Slow Dance, 1975.) 

Obviously, examples from poetry do not suggest that “vigil” is commonly used as a verb by English speakers. But it does turn up in ordinary usage as well.

In the wake of the Orlando shootings, for example, the Press-Republican, a newspaper in Plattsburgh, NY, reported that several churches “planned to vigil” in honor of the victims and their families.

A local online news outlet in Ipswich, MA, quoted an organizer as saying, “We gather to vigil on Thursday night, grounded in the fundamental premise that everybody should feel safe where they live.”

In Kansas City, MO, a television reporter interviewed a transgendered man and commented: “When crime scenes like this come on the screen, he says it’s hard to keep faith. That’s why he came to vigil with his mom hoping to renew it.”

And a Topeka, KS, television reporter said, “Topeka resident and activist Mary Akerstrom says she came to vigil to help raise awareness about the need to educate today’s youth.”

We’ve also seen “vigiling,” the present participle of the verb, in news reports and on websites (“vigiling against climate change” … “vigiling for dying patients”).

Why use “vigil” as a verb? Perhaps because no other single word fits the bill, only verb phrases: “hold a vigil,” “keep vigil,” and so on.

People are often startled when nouns become “verbed,” but this is a normal characteristic of English and it’s one that has given us countless new words.

As we’ve written before on the blog, English acquired verbs like “cook,”  “thread,” “petition,” “map,” “jail,” “hammer,” “elbow,” “phone,” “hand,” and “farm” by adapting them from the earlier nouns.

(This works the other way, too. We’ve made nouns from the verbs “run,” “walk,” “worry,” “call,” “attack,” and others.)

The noun “vigil” has been around since the Middle Ages, though it developed its modern sense—as in a peaceful demonstration—only about 60 years ago.

The word came into English from Anglo-Norman and Old French (vigile) around the early 13th century.

But its ultimate source, as the OED says, is Latin: the noun vigilia (wakefulness, watchfulness, or a watch), derived from the adjective vigil (awake, alert).

When first used in English, “vigil” was a term in the medieval Christian Church for “a festival or holy day, as an occasion of devotional watching or religious observance,” Oxford says.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Ancrene Riwle, a guide for female religious recluses, believed to date from the early 1200s or possibly before:

“Ȝe schulen eten … eueriche deie twie bute uridawes and umbridawes and ȝoingdawes and uigiles.” (“You shall eat … twice each day except on Fridays and ember days and procession days and vigils.”)

This religious sense of “vigil” soon evolved into a new one, says the OED: “a devotional watching, esp. the watch kept on the eve of a festival or holy day,” as well as “a nocturnal service or devotional exercise.”

The religious meanings led to a secular usage in the 18th century, when a “vigil” came to mean “an occasion or period of keeping awake for some special reason or purpose,” in addition to “a watch kept during the natural time for sleep.”

That sense had no religious overtones and merely meant staying up late, as you can see from the OED’s citations:

“There is nothing that wears out a fine Face like the Vigils of the Card-Table.” (Joseph Addision, writing in the Guardian in July 1713.)

“With Studies pale, with Midnight Vigils blind.” (From Alexander Pope’s poem The Temple of Fame, 1715.)

“Soft airs, nocturnal vigils, and day dreams … Conspire against thy peace.” (From William Cowper’s poem Retirement, 1781.)

“He hath pursued long vigils in this tower.” (From Lord Byron’s dramatic poem Manfred, 1817.)

As we mentioned, the modern sense of “vigil” as a peaceful demonstration is relatively recent.

The OED’s first example in from an April 1956 issue of the Times (London):

“When [the South African] Parliament reassembled to-day … members found 300 black-sash women lined up in the grounds of Parliament House in renewed protest against undemocratic legislation…. A vigil of four black-sash members at a time will be maintained till the end of the session.”

The latest example is from a July 1985 issue of Peace News: “On the day of the air fair, around 40 people took part in a vigil at the main gate, giving out leaflets to incoming cars.”

Here’s the OED‘s definition for this newest sense of the word: “A stationary and peaceful demonstration in support of a particular cause, often lasting several days, which is characterized by the absence of speeches or other explicit advocacy of the cause, and freq. by some suggestion of mourning.”

That definition, drafted in 1993, could use an update.

Today’s vigils sometimes include speeches and “explicit advocacy.” And they can take place at any time. They don’t necessarily involve staying up late, though they’re often held in darkness and by candlelight.

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English English language Etymology Grammar Usage Word origin

Why is it “went,” not “goed”?

Q: Why is “went” the past tense of “go”? I don’t see the connection. Am I missing something?

A: The connection is another verb that means to move along—the old “wend,” which we don’t often hear today.

English speakers adopted “went,” the past tense of “wend,” because they apparently felt that “go” didn’t have a satisfactory past tense of its own.

In Old English the verb gān (“go”) had a past tense that didn’t come from its own stem. The past tense was completely unrelated: ēode (in Middle English, it was yode).

Even in the West Germanic languages it came from, “go” lacked a past tense based on itself. The reasons for this aren’t known, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Some authorities have suggested that the old past tense, ēode, has a prehistoric ancestor in common with the Latin ēo (go, leave). Others have speculated about a connection between ēode and iddja, the Gothic past tense of a similar verb.

But the OED is doubtful, saying only that the Old English past tense of “go” was formed from a base that is “of uncertain and disputed origin.”

No matter how it developed, English speakers apparently weren’t comfortable with ēode (later yode) as the past tense of “go,” because over the course of the 1400s they replaced it with “went.”

This was originally the past tense of wendan (to go, proceed, make one’s way), another Old English verb inherited from Germanic. By the 15th century the verb had long since been shortened to “wend.”

Through much of the 15th and 16th centuries, “go” and “wend” shared the same past tense, “went.” Eventually “wend” developed one of its own, “wended,” at the end of the 1500s.

Today “wend” is no longer used in the sense of “go.” As the OED notes, “wend” and “wended” in modern usage “often imply an indirect or meandering course.”

In this sense, “wend” today resembles another early meaning of the verb, one that’s now lost—to turn or twist. In fact, “wend” is a distant cousin of the verbs “wind” and “wander.”

“The semantic development from ‘to turn’ to ‘to go,’ ” the OED says, “was probably via a sense ‘to turn in a particular direction in order to go.’ It is clear that already in Old English the original idea of turning could sometimes be negligible or lost entirely (a prerequisite for the later use of the past tense went as a suppletive past tense of go).”

(The word “suppletive” refers to an unrelated word that’s used to replace a missing form.)

It’s interesting to note that the verbs “go” and “do” developed along similar lines: “go,” “goes,” and “gone” are parallel to “do,” “does” and “done.”

But “do” had a reasonable past tense from the start, “did” (dyde in Old English), which at least starts with the same letter as “do.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Bombshells, blonde & otherwise

Q: I was on a political website when up popped a hyperlink to “25-year-old blonde bombshell.” I resisted infecting my computer, but began thinking about “bombshell.” For the first time, a search on your blog did not yield a single hit!

A: Thanks for pointing out this deficiency and giving us a chance to remedy it.

Not surprisingly, “bombshell” literally meant a bomb—a container filled with explosives—when it showed up in English in the early 1700s. Today, we’d refer to such an explosive device as a “bomb” or a “shell” (as in “artillery shell”).

The earliest example of “bombshell” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1708 issue of the London Gazette: “Kill’d … by a piece of Bomb-Shell.” (The OED says “bombshell” here means “bomb,” but we think it could also mean shrapnel.)

The word “bomb” itself first appeared in English, spelled “bome,” in a 1588 translation of a work by Juan González de Mendoza, who had used the Spanish bomba.

The spelling with “b” showed up a century later, in a 1684 issue of the London Gazette: “They shoot their Bombes near two Miles, and they weigh 250 English Pounds a piece.”

As you point out, the word “bombshell” is generally used figuratively today to mean a shocking or unwelcome surprise, as well as a very attractive woman, especially a blonde.

In fact, “bombshell” has been used figuratively for more than 150 years, and only one of the OED’s nine citations (the one cited above) uses it literally.

The first figurative example in the dictionary, from the American writer John Lothrop Motley’s History of the United Netherlands (1860), refers to a “letter, which descended like a bombshell, in the midst of the decorous council-chamber.”

The earliest OED example for “bombshell” used in the hottie sense is from The American Thesaurus of Slang (1942), by Lester V. Berrey and Melvin Van Den Bark: “Blonde Bombshell (as a nickname).”

However, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, edited by Jonathan E. Lighter, has an earlier citation, from the title and screenplay of the 1933 Jean Harlow movie Bombshell: “I see Lola Burns, the bombshell herself.”

And here’s a colorful OED example from We Are Public Enemies, a 1949 book by Alan Hynd about famous American criminals: “Bonnie Parker was a rootin’, tootin’, whisky-drinking blonde bombshell.”

(“Blond” or “blonde”? We discussed this in a 2014 post.)

We’ll end with a more cerebral Oxford citation, from the Nov. 25, 1965, issue of the Times Literary Supplement: “The bombshell effects … of the intellectual and social crises of late antiquity.”

[Update, June 23, 2016:  A reader suggests that we should have used “bomb fragment” instead of “shrapnel” above, since “shrapnel” wasn’t used in that sense until Word War I. As we mentioned in a 2014 post, the original “shrapnel,” named for Henry Shrapnel, was an explosive projectile filled with bullets. However, that sense is now considered historical, according to the OED, and today the word usually refers to bomb or shell fragments.]

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

A lexical epidemic

Q: Why has “epidemic” become so widespread? I understand its metaphorical use (“an epidemic of Elvis impersonators in Vegas”), but now all sorts of medical “conditions” are being termed epidemics—obesity, drug abuse, even chronic pain.

A: The word “epidemic” is used so often to describe so many things that it’s lost much of its force.

The news is full of “epidemics” of football injuries, drug overdoses, mortgage fraud, accidental shootings, narcissism, loneliness, and cellphone thumb.

But to be fair, the word was never very specific, even in its medical sense. So while “epidemic”—both adjective and noun—is undoubtedly overused and suffering from exhaustion, it’s not being misused.

When “epidemic” entered English as an adjective in the early 17th century, it had a strictly medical meaning, but figurative uses soon appeared.

A disease was “epidemic,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, if it was “prevalent among a people or a community at a special time, and produced by some special causes not generally present in the affected locality.”

(The OED takes its definition from The New Sydenham Society’s Lexicon of Medicine and the Allied Sciences, 1879.)

The OED says the adjective was first recorded in 1603, as “epidemick” and “epidemich,” in A Treatise of the Plague, by Thomas Lodge, an Elizabethan physician:

Popular and Epidemich, haue one and the same signification; that is to say, a sicknesse common vnto all people, or to the moste part of them.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

The adjective was borrowed from the French épidémique, which in turn was derived from the French noun form, épidémie.

English had long had a noun form “epidemy,” borrowed from French in the late 1400s, but it was replaced by the modern noun “epidemic” in the late 1700s.

The French took the noun from the late Latin word epidemia, which came from the ancient Greek epidemios, whose roots are epi– (among, upon) and demos (people).

Interestingly, the Greeks didn’t originally use epidemios in a medical sense. It first meant something like “in one’s country” or “among one’s people.”

In the Odyssey, probably composed near the end of the 8th century BC, Homer used epidemios to mean “who is back home” and “who is in his country,” according to two French scholars, Paul M. V. Martin and Estelle Martin-Granel.

In their essay “2,500-Year Evolution of the Term Epidemic,” published in 2006 in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, the authors note that Plato, Xenophon, Demosthenes, and Socrates later used epidemios “for almost everything (persons, rain, rumors, war), except diseases.”

The physician Hippocrates, writing in the 5th century BC, was the first to adapt it as a medical term, according to the essay. He used the adjective “to mean ‘which circulates or propagates in a country.’ This adjective gave rise to the noun in Greek, epidemia.”

Since the mid-20th century, the authors write, the English word “epidemic” has been applied to both infectious and noninfectious diseases that affect “a large number of people.”

And it’s also used by journalists, according to the essay, “to qualify anything that adversely affects a large number of persons or objects and propagates like a disease.”

But this use of “epidemic” is nothing new. The OED’s examples of figurative uses date from the mid-17th century, beginning with “the Epidemicke trouble of our age” (from Edmund Waller’s A Vindication of the King, 1642).

And here’s another early example, from Nicholas Rowe’s tragic drama The Fair Penitent (1703): “Some Foe to Man / Has breath’d on ev’ry Breast Contagious Fury, / And Epidemick Madness.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

The OED also has early examples for the figurative use of the noun, including this one from Sir Benjamin Brodie’s Psychological Inquiries (1856): “There are epidemics of opinion as well as of disease.”

And as we all know, there are lexical epidemics as well.

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A hole that swallows things

Q: Soon after we had a sinkhole fixed on our street in Grand Rapids, an author friend asked for help on Facebook about the origins of the term. Some people thought it was a US version of the UK term “swallow hole.” Bring in the scholars.

A: This is a timely question for us, since we’ve just updated the sinkhole coverage in our home insurance policy.

Is “sinkhole” an Americanism? No, it dates back to an abbey in northwest England in the mid-1400s, and it’s the usual term today in both the US and the UK for that hole in the ground.

Several other terms, including “swallow hole,” “swallow pit,” and “swallow,” have shown up over the years, especially in the UK.

Why “swallow”? Because the word meant a gulf or an abyss in late Old English, where it was spelled geswelswelg, or swell.

Similar words in other old Germanic languages referred to a throat, a swallower, a devourer, a glutton, and a whirlpool—in other words, someone or something that swallows stuff.

All six of the standard American and British dictionaries we’ve checked have entries for “sinkhole,” but only one has an entry for “swallow hole,” and none include “swallow pit” or “swallow” used in this sense.

The Oxford English Dictionary, a historical dictionary, includes all four terms, and hyphenates “sink-hole.” However, none of the standard dictionaries use hyphens.

Searches of book and news databases indicate that “sinkhole” is overwhelmingly more popular than “swallow hole.” In searching the archive for the UK edition of the Guardian, for example, we got thousands of hits for “sinkhole” and only two for “swallow hole.”

When the term “sinkhole” showed up in the 15th century, according to the OED, it meant “a hole or hollow into which foul matter runs or is thrown.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from a 1456 document in the Chartulary of Cockersand Abbey, a collection of papers about the abbey’s founding and legal rights:

“Following the said strind [stream] to the Sinkehole, and fro Sinkeholl ye water running one while aboue the Earth and other while under ye Erth, into the Black polles [pools].” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

By the late 18th century, the OED says, the term was being used in the modern sense of a “hole, cavern, or funnel-shaped cavity made in the earth by the action of water on the soil, rock, or underlying strata, and frequently forming the course of an underground stream.”

The earliest example is from a March 20, 1780, diary entry in Travels in the American Colonies, a collection of 18th-century journals edited by Newton Dennison Mereness:

“Springs … appear again either in Sink holes immediately vanishing or bursting out.”

Oxford describes the newer usage as “chiefly U.S.,” but notes that its “entry has not been fully updated (first published 1911).”

As for “swallow hole,” the OED’s first citation is from Britannia Baconica (1660), by Joshua Childrey, who used the Baconian method to study scientific curiosities in Britain:

“About Badminton also are several holes (called Swallow-holes) where the Waters … fall into the bowels of the earth, and are seen no more.”

The OED doesn’t define “swallow hole” but says it’s derived from the now-obsolete Old English use of “swallow” to mean “a deep hole or opening in the earth; a pit, gulf, abyss.”

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Mixed feelings

Q: People seem to use “ambivalent” to mean not feel strongly about something, as in “I’m ambivalent about spinach.” But I was taught that it meant having strong feelings both for and against something, as in “I’m ambivalent about riding horses—I like riding but I hate saddle sores.” Can you shed some light?

A: The adjective “ambivalent” and the noun it came from, “ambivalence,” were borrowed a century ago from German psychiatric terminology.

But over the years, as the words moved into literary and general usage, they outgrew their original meanings. So it’s no surprise that the meanings are now often less than clear.

Today, someone who’s “ambivalent” can either (1) have conflicting or uncertain feelings about a single thing; or (2) be uncertain about choosing between two conflicting things. Those, more or less, are the meanings recognized in standard dictionaries.

We’ve noticed that people occasionally use “ambivalent” when they mean they don’t care. But if they simply lack interest in a subject—say, spinach—then we would call them “indifferent,” not “ambivalent.”

Your example about horseback riding falls under meaning No. 1, since it involves conflicting attitudes toward a single subject.

An illustration of meaning No. 2 would be indecision about choosing between two opposing things—like using an English versus a Western-style saddle.

The noun “ambivalence” (or “ambivalency” in early usage), came into English before the adjective.

As a psychological term, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “ambivalence” originally meant “the coexistence in one person of contradictory emotions or attitudes (as love and hatred) towards a person or thing.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from the December 1912 issue of the Lancet, the British medical journal:

“ ‘Ambivalency,’ a condition which gives to the same idea two contrary feeling-tones and invests the same thought simultaneously with both a positive and a negative character.”

But “in literary and general works,” the OED says, “ambivalence” has taken on diverse meanings, including “a balance or combination or coexistence of opposites,” and “oscillation, fluctuation, variability.”

Here’s one example of these wider (and vaguer) meanings, which Oxford quotes from a 1953 issue of the Times Literary Supplement:

“What social anthropologists call ‘plural belonging,’ what literary critics call ambivalence of attitude, and what the proverb calls having your cake and eating it, is a common human phenomenon.”

The adjective “ambivalent” has had a similar evolution.

It meant “entertaining contradictory emotions (as love and hatred) towards the same person or thing” when first recorded in English in a 1916 translation from a paper on analytical psychology by Carl Jung, according to the OED.

But “ambivalent” has also came to mean “equivocal,” or “acting on or arguing for sometimes one and sometimes the other of two opposites,” Oxford says.

Here are OED citations that exemplify both uses of “ambivalent.” The first illustrates conflicting feelings about one thing, the next a hesitation between two conflicting things:

“A second case where the falsehoods were … the result of ambivalent desire for and fear of the erotic life.” (From Phyllis M. Blanchard’s book The Adolescent Girl: A Study From the Psychoanalytic Viewpoint, first published in 1920.)

“Our deeper urges are strangely ambivalent, ready to spend themselves on love or hate, altruism or destruction.” (From a 1955 issue of the Listener, the former BBC magazine.)

As we mentioned, the source of these English words is German: the noun ambivalenz. It was coined by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler and first appeared in a long essay of his, published in the journal Psychiatrisch-Neurologisch Wochenschrift in 1910-11.

Bleuler formed ambivalenz from Latin elements, the prefix ambi– (around, both, or in two ways) and valentia (power, strength).

The new word was modeled, according to the OED, after “equivalence,” which has the etymological sense “equal in value or strength.”

It was Bleuler, by the way, who redefined the mental illness “dementia praecox” and renamed it schizophrenie (“schizophrenia”) in 1908.

He also coined the term autismus (“autism”) in 1910, but early on it had a different meaning (self-absorption) than it does in modern medicine.

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When “it” isn’t fit

Q: If I start a plant indoors and then move it outside, I can say either “I will harden off the plant” or “I will harden the plant off.” But if I use a pronoun, I can only say “I will harden it off,” not “I will harden off it.” What’s going on here?

A: Your question illustrates a characteristic of many phrasal verbs. By “phrasal verbs” we mean those consisting of a verb plus an adverb (like “bring in”), a preposition (“jump over”), or both (“watch out for”).

The phrasal verb in your example, “harden off,” is one of the verb-plus-adverb kind, a very common type that includes “bring up,” “give up,” “look up,” “hand out,” “take off,” “sort out,” “put on,” “put away,” and many others.

When this kind of phrasal verb has an object, and the object is a noun, the noun can go either in the middle of the phrase (“harden the seedlings off”) or at the end (“harden off the seedlings”).

But if the object is a personal pronoun, it has to go in the middle (“harden them off”), not at the end (“harden off them”).

You can see how this works with similar phrasal verbs. The first three versions are acceptable, the fourth is not idiomatic English:

“Bring in the mail” … “Bring the mail in” … “Bring it in.” But not: “Bring in it.”

“Put out the cat” … “Put the cat out” … “Put her out.” But not: “Put out her.”

“Give up desserts” … “Give desserts up” … “Give them up.” But not: “Give up them.”

(We should add that while personal pronouns can’t go at the end, demonstrative pronouns can: “this,” “that,” “these,” “those.” Nobody blinks when we say things like “Did you harden off those?” or “Please hand out these.”)

Here you may be wondering why the little words in those phrasal verbs (“in,” “out,” “up,” and so on) are adverbs and not prepositions. (Many linguists would call them “adverb particles” or simply “particles.”) Here’s why they aren’t prepositions in these usages.

In sentences like “Bring in the mail” and “Put out the cat” and “Give up desserts,” it’s obvious that “in the mail,” “out the cat,” and “up desserts” are not prepositional phrases.

On the contrary, each of those little words modifies a verb (“bring in,” “put out,” “give up”). And the objects (“the mail,” “the cat,” “desserts”) are objects of a verb, not objects of a preposition.

However, the kind of phrasal verb that consists of a verb plus a preposition behaves differently. (Many linguists would call this construction a prepositional verb to distinguish it from the verb-plus-adverb type.)

Examples of the verb-plus-preposition variety include “look through,” “listen to,” “jump off,” “go around,” “look for,” and others.

This kind of phrasal verb can’t be split by an object. When there’s an object—whether noun or pronoun—it goes afterward.

In this case, the addition of an object (as in “Jump off the bridge” … “Go around the pothole”) creates a prepositional phrase (“off the bridge” … “around the pothole”).

Finally, the third kind of phrasal verb combines the other two—verb plus adverb plus preposition. (This one is sometimes called a “phrasal prepositional verb.”)

Examples include “sit in for,” “put up with,” “watch out for,” “look forward to,” “get on with,” and “bear down on.”

With most of these three-part phrasal verbs, the object, whether noun or pronoun, follows the entire phrase: “A guest host sat in for Dr. Phil” … “He can’t put up with her.”

But a few of these three-part constructions, like “take out on,” “let in on,” and “fix up with,” have two objects, one after the verb part and one after the preposition:

“Take it out on him” … “Fix the couple up with an apartment” … “Let Harry in on the secret.” Again, the objects can be nouns or pronouns.

So that’s the story with phrasal verbs and how they work with objects.

But getting back to “harden off,” it’s a term that dates from the early 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the OED’s definition, to “harden off” means “to acclimatize (a plant) to cold or outdoor conditions by gradually reducing the temperature of a greenhouse, cold frame, etc., or by increasing the time of exposure to wind and sunlight.”

This phrasal verb is also used without an object (that is, intransitively). Here it means “to become acclimatized through this process.”

So you can say either “I’ve hardened off the plant,” or “The plant has hardened off.”

The verb was first used in writing, the OED says, in Robert Sweet’s book The British Flower Garden (1827):

“When rooted, the glass should be removed from them altogether, to harden them off for transplanting.” Here the verb is used transitively, with the object (“them”) inserted within the phrasal verb.

In the next citation, the phrasal verb has no object. This is from Edward Sayers’s book The American Fruit Garden Companion (1839): “As the weather grows warm … the plants should be placed into a separate frame to harden off.”

Happy gardening!

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Why “lucky me,” not “lucky I”?

Q: Why does the expression “lucky me” have an object pronoun?

A: Yes, it’s always “lucky me,” not “lucky I.”

But why is the pronoun in the objective (or accusative) case rather than the nominative?

The short answer is that a personal pronoun without a clear grammatical role—one that isn’t a subject or an object—is generally in the objective case.

As the linguist Arnold Zwicky explains, the basic rule is “nominative for subjects of finite clauses, accusative otherwise.”

(A finite clause is one with a subject and a tensed verb, as in “I feel lucky.”)

“This rule has to be understood literally,” Zwicky adds, “only subjects of finite clauses; things understood, or interpreted, as subjects of such clauses don’t count.”

In a Dec. 28, 2004, post on the Language Log, he writes, “So free-standing pronouns are accusative, even when they’re interpreted as subjects: Who did that? Me.”

This is especially true in speech or informal writing.

In A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1972), Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik write:

“The objective case form is preferred in familiar style in verbless sentences, e.g., ‘Who’s there?’ — ‘Me.’ ”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says this practice and similar ones “are generally accepted by commentators as historically justified.”

The usage guide adds that “they are most likely to be found in speech and writing of a relaxed personal or conversational style.”

Merriam-Webster’s gives several examples from 20th-century authors, including this one from a letter written by the poet Robert Frost on July 15, 1941: “Me, I am in transition from one college to another.”

Linguists and grammarians often refer to these free-standing pronouns as unmarked, undifferentiated, or default pronouns.

The objective case is generally used whether the verbless pronouns appear alone, as in the examples above, or with an adjective, like “poor me,” “lucky him” or “silly them.”

In the 1500s the pronoun “me” began showing up in various uses “without definite syntactical relation to the context,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest example is from the Earl of Surrey’s translation (sometime before 1547) of the fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Aime [Ay me], wyth rage and furyes.”

And here’s an example from an exchange between Duke Frederick and Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (believed written in 1599):

“Duk: And get you from our Court. / Ros: Me Vncle.”

Around the same time, according to the OED, “me” showed up in phrases “premodified by an adjective.”

The earliest citation in the dictionary is from Thomas Phaer’s 1558 translation of the first seven books of the Aeneid: “Where now away withdraw you wery me?”

This clearer example is from a 1580 translation by Philip Sidney of the Psalms of David: “How many ones there be / That all against poor me / Their numerous strength redouble.”

And here’s a citation from Pericles, Prince of Tyre, which the OED attributes to Shakespeare and dates to 1609: “To … make a conquest of vnhappie mee.” (Some scholars believe the play was co-written by Shakespeare and George Wilkins.)

As for “lucky me,” the OED says it expresses, “often ironically, acknowledgement of one’s own good fortune.”

The earliest Oxford example is from an 1821 issue of the Port Folio, a Philadelphia magazine: “I have seen, lucky me, what you all want to see.”

The most recent cite is from Paradise, a 1995 novel by Abdulrazak Gurnah, a Tanzanian writer living in the UK:

“As if your noisy dreams are not enough, you now hear music as well. I have two crazies on my hands, lucky me.”

Getting back to the technical side, the linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker says the objective case “is the default in English, and can be used anywhere except in the subject of a tensed verb.”

In The Sense of Style (2014), Pinker gives many examples of usage, including “What, me get a tattoo?” and “Molly will be giving the first lecture, me the second.”

The linguist David Denison, agrees, saying, “In general the objective forms have become the unmarked choice for personal pronouns, now used by default unless the pronoun has a particular syntactic function.”

In a 1996 paper, “The Case of the Unmarked Pronoun,” Denison gives as an example this exchange between Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley in Jane Austen’s novel Emma:

“ ‘You seem determined to think ill of him.’

“ ‘Me! – not at all,’ replied Mr. Knightley, rather displeased.”

And, as Denison points out, “Anything Mr. Knightley says (I feel) must have been fully standard for Jane Austen.”

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From “housewife” to “hussy”

Q: As you may know, the word “housewife” refers (in addition to a June Cleaver wannabe) to a sewing kit, also called a “hussif” or a “hussy.” But how did “hussy” come to mean a woman of some flamboyance (my definition)?

A: Yes, “housewife” is (or rather was) another word for a sewing kit. (Our acquaintance with such domestic trivia is what comes of reading old British novels.)

The sewing-kit sense of “housewife,” a meaning that originated in the mid-18th century, is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a small case or pouch for needles, thread, and other small sewing items.”

This often took the form of “a length of soft fabric, divided into pockets, that may be rolled up when not in use,” the OED adds.

There’s no explanation as to why a sewing kit was called a “housewife,” but the answer seems obvious—it contained items used by a housewife.

Perhaps for a similar reason, another word for the mistress of a household, “chatelaine,” was used in the 19th century to mean a bunch of decorative chains worn at a woman’s waist, for holding things like keys, ornaments, a watch, and small sewing articles.

The OED’s earliest citation for “housewife” to mean a sewing kit is from Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735), a compendium of true-crime stories.

In this passage, a thief has surreptitiously cut the pocket from a woman’s skirts: “Upon turning the Pocket out, he found only a Thread Paper, a Housewife, and a Crown piece.”

The word for the sewing kit, as well as for the woman who used it, was also written as “huswife,” “hussive,” “hussif,” and even “hussy,” spellings that reflected alterations in the pronunciation.

Oxford provides an example of “hussy” used this way in Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela (1740): “So I … dropt purposely my Hussy.”

And here’s a citation for “hussif,” from a 19th-century collection of regionalisms:

Hussif, that is house-wife; a roll of flannel with a pin-cushion attached, used for the purpose of holding pins, needles, and thread.” (From Edward Peacock’s A Glossary of Words Used in the Wapentakes of Manley and Corringham, Lincolnshire, 1877.) 

You asked how “hussy” got its bad reputation. It’s a long story, so we’ll begin at the beginning.

The word “housewife” was spelled “husewif” when it showed up in Sawles Warde, an early Middle English homily written around 1200:

“Inwið beoð his hinen in se moni mislich þonc to cwemen wel þe husewif aȝein godes wille” (“Indoors, both his servants have a great many miserable thoughts about how to please the housewife against God’s will”).

The OED says “housewife” originally meant pretty much what it does today: “A (typically married) woman whose main occupation is managing the general running of a household, such as caring for her family, performing domestic tasks, etc.”

However, the dictionary has this interesting note: “There is some evidence that in Middle English the word housewife in the general sense ‘housekeeper’ could be applied to both men and women.”

For example, a 1416 description of the duties of the housekeeper at a poorhouse, the OED notes, refers to the “husewyfe, man or woman.”

And the word was apparently used as a surname too, Oxford adds, pointing to names like “Richard Husewif” (1192), “Richard Huswyf” (1302), and “Johannes Hosewyfe” (1327).

But getting back to the feminine sphere, we mentioned earlier that “housewife” was spelled and pronounced many different ways, including “hussif,” “hussive,” and “hussy.” And for centuries the variations generally meant the same thing, the female head of a household.

For example, when when “hussy” first showed up in the early 1500s, it meant the “mistress of a household” or “a thrifty woman,” according to the OED. The first citation is from a 1530 entry in the records of the Burgh of Edinburgh:

“Na seruandis [shall] tak vther clathis than thar masteris and husseis and thar houshaldis clathis to wesche” (“No servants shall take other clothes to wash than the clothes of their masters and hussies and households”).

But in the mid-16th century, “housewife” (in various spellings and pronunciations) took on an additional, pejorative meaning: a “frivolous, impertinent, or disreputable” woman or girl, according to the OED.

Here’s a negative example from a 1546 collection of proverbs by John Heywood: “Ye huswife, what wind blowth ye hyther.”

And here’s one from a 1599 letter by Hugh Broughton: “Sampsons heyfer was his wife, a skittish huswife.”

“Hussy” first took on this pejorative sense in the 1600s, when it came to mean a disreputable woman.

The OED’s earliest negative example is from the writings of the English clergyman and theologian John Trapp (1647): “Such another hussy as this was dame Alice Pierce, a concubine to our Edward III.”

The development of positive and negative senses for “housewife” and its variations led to differences in how these words were pronounced and spelled.

When using the words in a pejorative sense, English speakers frequently pronounced the first syllable as HUSS, the OED says.

As a result, the dictionary suggests, speakers using the words positively began pronouncing the first syllable as HOWSE to differentiate between the positive and the negative meanings.

It took several hundred years, but when the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings sorted themselves out, English had two words: “housewife” (a female head of a household) and “hussy” (a brazen or promiscuous woman).

It wasn’t until the 19th century, the OED says, that the modern HOWSE pronunciation of “housewife” became the norm in pronouncing dictionaries and its derogatory meanings became extinct.

By that time, “housewife” and “hussy” had gone their separate ways. “Housewife” retained the purely domestic meanings while “hussy” had all the fun, keeping only its disreputable character.

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