English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Old-fashion or old-fashioned?

Q: What would you say is more acceptable as a modifier, “old-fashion” or “old-fashioned”? One hears both interchangeably.

A: The usual form, and the only one accepted in standard dictionaries, is “old-fashioned.”

We did find a mention of “old-fashion” in one standard dictionary, the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged. But it says that “old-fashion” is an “archaic” term meaning “old-fashioned.”

Both versions are given in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The two adjectives are well established—they were first recorded in the 1590s—but “old-fashioned” is more frequent in current usage, the OED says.

The adjective “old-fashioned” is defined in the OED as “of or resembling a fashion or style belonging to an earlier time,” or “antiquated in form or character.”

In the dictionary’s earliest citation, the term describes an antique ship: “Out of the medyan center … did ryse vp an olde fashioned vessell, and verie beautifull.” (From a 1592 translation of Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a romance originally written in Latinate Italian.)

The shorter adjective “old-fashion,” the OED says, means “resembling a fashion or style belonging to an earlier time.”

The dictionary’s earliest example comes only a few years later than the one mentioned above: “I sit like an old King in an old fashion play.” (From George Chapman’s comedy An Humerous Dayes Myrth, 1599.)

The two adjectives differ in their grammatical structure.

“Old-fashioned” combines “old” with the participial adjective “fashioned,” from the verb “fashion.”

“Old-fashion” combines “old” with the noun “fashion.” However, the OED notes that “in some instances” it is “perhaps shortened” from the longer version “by loss of the final consonant.”

We haven’t found much about these terms in usage guides. But the fact that standard dictionaries don’t recognize “old-fashion” is reason enough to prefer the longer version.

In fact, “old-fashioned” seems to have been the preference even in the 19th century.

We found this in George Crabb’s English Synonymes Explained (2nd ed., London, 1818): “OLD-FASHIONED signifies after an old fashion. … The manners are old-fashioned which are gone quite out of fashion . … The old-fashioned is opposed to the fashionable.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Faux French: un oeuf, already?

Q: Is there a term for a word like toupee that looks and sounds as if it’s taken from a foreign language (in this case, French) but doesn’t actually exist in that language?

A: We don’t know of a technical term for such words, but many of them, if not most, are faux French, so why not call them that?

We’ve written about such words on the blog as well as in “An Oeuf Is an Oeuf,” the chapter about fractured French in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths.

One of the words we discuss in the book is toupee, which doesn’t exist in French, where a hairpiece is a moumoute or a postiche. However, toupee may have Gallic roots.

Etymologists believe it was probably inspired by toupet, French for a tuft of real hair over the forehead, like a person’s bangs or a horse’s forelock.

Perhaps the phoniest of phony French terms is nom de plume, which the British invented in the 19th century to replace the real French expression. We’ve written about this one on our blog as well as in Origins, which we’ll quote here:

“The real French expression for an assumed name is nom de guerre, which the British adopted in the late seventeenth century. But in the nineteenth century, British writers apparently thought the original French might be confusing. One can see why nom de guerre, literally ‘war name,’ could puzzle readers. The French initially used it for the fictitious name that a soldier often assumed on enlisting, but by the time the British started using the expression, it could mean any assumed name—in English as well as French.

“The faux-French nom de plume was introduced in English in the nineteenth century. An obscure Victorian novelist, Emerson Bennett, is responsible for the first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (perhaps the only feather in his cap). In his 1850 novel Oliver Goldfinch, the title character is said to be ‘better known to our readers as a gifted poet, under the nom de plume of “Orion.” ’  Bennett could have used the word ‘pseudonym,’ which we had borrowed from the French around the same time nom de plume was invented. But perhaps he felt ‘pseudonym’ lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. Whatever his reasons, nom de plume was a hit with the literary crowd—such a hit that it inspired an English translation, ‘pen name,’ which made its debut in 1864 in Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language.

“The old French expression nom de guerre is still with us, though. It’s defined in English dictionaries as ‘pseudonym’ or ‘fictional name,’ but these days it seems to be used most often for the sobriquets of terrorists (or freedom fighters, depending on your point of view).”

Here are some other pseudo-French terms that we discuss in Origins of the Specious:

Double entendre. Although the expression, adopted into English in the seventeenth century, was once French for double meaning, there’s no exact equivalent in modern French. Two near misses, double entente and double sens, don’t have the suggestiveness of the English version. How should one pronounce our illegitimate offspring? Illegitimately, of course. Dictionaries are all over the place on this, but I treat ‘double’ as an English word (DUB-ul) and ‘entendre’ as if it’s French (ahn-TAN-dr).

Negligee. No, the French don’t call that frilly, come-hither nightie a négligée, though in the eighteenth century a négligé was indeed a simple, loose gown worn by a Frenchwoman at home. In France, the nightie is a peignoir or a chemise de nuit. The French verb négliger means to neglect, and a person who’s négligé is careless or sloppy or poorly dressed.

“Encore. The word we shout when we want Sam to play it again isn’t used that way in France, except by tourists. Although ‘again’ is one meaning of encore in French, a Parisian usually shouts ‘Bis!’ to call for a repeat performance. English speakers have been shouting ‘Encore!’ since at least the early 1700s, but nobody seems to know why. Perhaps we can blame the eighteenth-century vogue for all things French.

“Pièce de résistance. The French don’t use this for the main dish or the main part of something. In fact, they don’t use it at all. The closest thing to it in France is plat de résistance, meaning the main dish. But in the eighteenth century, when so many French expressions crossed the Channel, a pièce de résistance was a main dish or a dishy woman.

“Idiot savant. This invention would sound idiotic to a Frenchman, though the inventor may have been a French-born physician living in the United States, according to the OED. In ‘New Facts and Remarks Concerning Idiocy,’ an 1869 lecture to a New York medical association, Dr. Edouard Séguin used the term ‘idiot savant’ to describe someone with a ‘useless protrusion of a single faculty, accompanied by a woful general impotence.’ The actual French phrase for the condition is savant autiste, similar to the current medical term for the condition in English, ‘autistic savant.’

“Résumé. A job hunter in France doesn’t polish up her résumé. She updates her curriculum vitae, or CV. In French, a résumé is a summing up, as in a plot summary. And that’s what it meant when the word entered English in the early nineteenth century. The term wasn’t used for a career summary until the mid-twentieth century, when this sense began appearing in the United States and Canada. Maybe it was easier to pronounce than ‘curriculum vitae.’

“Affaire d’amour. This would be meaningless in France, where an affaire is a business deal, not a romance. The French for ‘love affair’ is histoire d’amour. Where did our faux French come from? It’s a froufrou version of an old English expression, ‘love affair,’ which dates from Elizabethan times, when Shakespeare used the original in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. (And by the way, it’s a myth that the term ‘love’ in tennis comes from l’oeuf, though an egg is more or less round like a zero. Mere folklore.)

“Risqué. Nope, risqué isn’t titillating or sexy in French. It’s merely ‘risky’ or ‘dangerous,’ which aptly describes the dubious practice of using these faux French expressions when you’re in France.”

We’ll end with a story from Origins of the Specious about the poet Coleridge, who used several noms de plume (“Cuddy” and “Gnome,” among others) as well as a nom de guerre.

When a young woman refused Coleridge’s hand, the rejected suitor dropped out of Cambridge and enlisted in the Fifteenth Light Dragoons under the assumed name “Silas Tomkyn Comberbache.” (He’d seen the name Comberbache over a door in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London.)

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Why is “have to” so needy?

Q: I know what the phrase “have to” means, but it doesn’t make sense if you take the individual words literally. For example, “I have to wash the dishes.” It would make more sense to say “need to” or “must.” Is “have to” a vestige of Old English?

A: You’re right in suggesting that the usage has its roots in Anglo-Saxon times. In early Old English, people who intended or needed to do something would say they had something to do—a forerunner of the usage you’re asking about.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “the duty or thing to be done was initially expressed as a direct object of the verb (to have something to do), then in an infinitive clause (to have to do something).”

The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from an early Old English translation of Historiarum Adversum Paganos, a comparison of pagan and Christian times, by the theologian and historian Paulus Orosius:

“Nu ic longe spell hæbbe to secgenne” (literally, “Now I long story have to say” or, more naturally, “Now I have a long story to tell you”).

The OED says this early use of “have to” expressed “something that is to be done or needs to be done, as a duty, obligation, requirement, etc.”

That usage developed into the modern sense of “have to” as an auxiliary phrasal verb expressing necessity or, as Oxford puts it, “to be under an obligation to do something; to be required to; to need to.”

“Because word order was unfixed in early periods, it is difficult to determine precisely when this sense arose,” the OED says, adding that some Old English citations “are syntactically ambiguous, and may be transitional.”

However, the dictionary notes, “It has also been suggested that in early use the construction may occasionally approach a periphrastic or modal future” — that is, “have to” may have been used in Old English much like a modal phrasal verb in its modern sense.

(Modal auxiliaries, like “can,” “could,” “will,” “would,” and “must” express necessity or possibility. A periphrastic construction uses a combination of words, like “have to” or “need to,” in place of one.)

The OED gives an Old English example from the West Saxon Gospels that may show “have to” used in its modern sense of “must.”

The citation is from a translation of the Latin text of Matthew 20:22, where Jesus asks Zebedee’s sons if they are able to drink the cup of suffering that he will drink (bibiturus sum):

“Mage gyt drincan þone calic ðe ic to drincenne hæbbe” (literally, “Can you drink the cup that I to drink have?” or, more felicitously, “Can you drink the cup that I have to drink?”).

Does “to drincenne hæbbe” here mean “will drink” (a literal translation of the Latin) or does it mean “must drink,” a theological interpretation of the Latin passage by Anglo-Saxon scholars?

We lean toward interpreting “to drincenne hæbbe” as “must drink,” since other Old English translations of the same passage are closer to the Latin, according to Andrzej M. Łęcki, a linguist at the Pedagogical University of Cracow in Poland.

In Grammaticalisation Paths of Have in English (2010), Łęcki cites Old English translations of bibiturus sum in Matthew as “I will drink” and “I am drinking.” The Rushworth Gospels, for example, translates it as “ic drincande beom” (“I am drinking”).

Enough Old English. We’ll end with a very contemporary “have to” example in the OED from the July 22, 2012, issue of the New York Times: “You will have to enter the user name and password that corresponds to your account.”

[Update, July 26, 2016. A reader in Ireland writes: “In Yorkshire to this day people will say ‘I have it to do’ where standard English would say ‘I have to do it.’ ”]

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Sports Usage Word origin

G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time)

Q: I can’t find to whom the appellation “G.O.A.T.” (Greatest Of All Time) was first applied: Michael Jordon, Muhammad Ali, etc. I’d like to learn it was Vin Scully, whose retirement this year after his last broadcast, in late September, will be a BIG deal. Can you figure it out?

A: The word “goat” has been used in American sports since the early 1900s, first as a derisive term for a player responsible for a team’s loss, and later, often in capital letters, as an acronym for “greatest of all time.”

It’s hard to pin down exactly when the term showed up as a positive acronym and which sports figure was the first to benefit from the new usage.

One problem is that it was used in sports as an initialism (an abbreviation made up of initial letters pronounced separately) about a dozen years before it showed up in sports as an acronym (an abbreviation formed from initial letters but pronounced as a word).

We’ll get to the sports usage in a bit, but let’s first look at the original use of “goat” as the name for, as dictionaries put it, the hardy domesticated ruminant Capra hircus.

In Old English, a male goat was a “bucca” and a female a “gat” (early versions of “buck” and “goat”). In early Middle English, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, “goat began to encroach on the semantic territory of buck.”

By the 14th century, Ayto says, “goat” had become the dominant form for both sexes, with “she-goat” and “he-goat” used to differentiate them (“nanny-goat” showed up in the 18th century and “billy-goat” in the 19th).

Over the centuries, the noun “goat” took on several figurative senses, including the zodiacal sign Capricorn (first recorded sometime before 1387), a licentious man (before 1674), and a fool (1916).

The earliest example we’ve found for “goat” used in the sports sense is from The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3rd ed.), by Paul Dickson:

“Catcher [Charles] Schmidt, who had been the ‘goat’ of the first game [of the World Series], redeemed himself at this time.” (From the Oct. 10, 1909, issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)

Dickson notes that most explanations for the origin of the baseball usage describe it as a clipped form of “scapegoat” that refers “to a player whose error is being blamed for a team’s defeat.”

However, he points out that one language researcher, Gerald L. Cohen, challenged this theory in the Dec. 1, 1985, issue of Comments on Etymology.

“A scapegoat is innocent, whereas the goat is not; he has blundered, usually at a crucial moment,” Cohen writes. “And the standard etymology of ‘goat’ as a shortening of ‘scapegoat’ is therefore almost certainly in error.”

He suggests instead that the usage might have been influenced by a goat used to haul a peanut wagon in the late 19th century. Perhaps, but we think the erroneous-shortening hypothesis seems more likely.

Getting back to your question, the earliest example we could find for “G.O.A.T.” used to mean ”greatest of all time” is from September 1992, when Lonnie Ali, Muhammad Ali’s wife, incorporated Greatest of All Time, Inc. (G.O.A.T. Inc.) to consolidate and license her husband’s intellectual properties for commercial purposes.

Lonnie Ali served as vice president and treasurer of the corporation until it was sold in 2006. (The business is now known as Muhammad Ali Enterprises, a subsidiary of Authentic Brands Group.)

Ali often referred to himself as “the greatest” and sometimes as “the greatest of all time.” In the May 5, 1971, issue of the Harvard Crimson, for example, he’s quoted as saying: “I wanted to be the world’s greatest fighter at 11-years-old … I wanted to be the greatest of all time.”

(Many other athletes have been called the “greatest of all time.” A 1924 issue of Vanity Fair, for example, uses the expression for the British tennis player Laurence Doherty, while a 1956 issue of Sports Illustrated uses it for the Basque jai alai player Erdoza Menor.)

The earliest example we know for the term used as an acronym (that is, pronounced like “goat” and meaning “greatest of all time”) is from “Lovely How I Let My Mind Float,” rap verse on a 1993 album by the hip hop trio De La Soul. (A reader of the blog pointed this out to us.)

At one point, the guest rapper Biz Markie (stage name of Marcel Theo Hall, says, “I got more rhymes than Muhammad Ali.” Later Trugoy the Dove (David Jude Jolicoeur) says, “Lovely how I let my mind float / Now I’m-a take my b-a-a-d ass home ’cause I’m goat.” From “Ego Trippin’ (Part Two),” a track on the album Buhloone Mindstate.

The rapper LL Cool J uses the term as an acronym in an album entitled “G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time),” released in 2000. In “The G.O.A.T.” track on the album, LL Cool J (James Todd Smith) repeatedly says, “I’m the G.O.A.T.” (pronounced “goat”) and “the greatest of all time.”

By 2003, the term was being used in the sporting sense, but it’s unclear from the early written citations whether it was pronounced like “goat” or spelled out (“G-O-A-T”).

The online Urban Dictionary, a slang reference site that relies on definitions submitted by users, has two Sept. 28, 2003, contributions:

“Greatest Of All Time: Michael Jordan is the G.O.A.T.” … “anacronym for G.reatest O.f A.ll T.ime Ultimate competitor G-O-A-T etc.,etc.”

Magic Johnson was apparently using “goat” in the old negative sense when he was quoted on an NBA website on March, 3, 2003, as saying Kobe Bryant has “plenty of great years ahead of him. He’ll be one of the best clutch players in NBA history. He wants it. He has no fear about whether he’s the goat or not.”

But the term is clearly being used in a positive way in this title from a July 21, 2004, post on the Basketball Forum comparing Wilt Chamberlain and Hakeem Olajuwon: “Wilt Chamberlain is overrated; Hakeem is the GOAT.”

And the term is positive in a July 12, 2004, article in the Los Angeles Times that describes the American sprinter Maurice Green’s victory in the 100-meter dash at Olympic trials in Sacramento:

“Maurice Greene released a shriek of joy and pointed to the tattoo on his right biceps, a stylized lion whose mane shelters the letters GOAT, for Greatest of All Time.”

Although Vin Scully has been referred to as “the goat,” most of the examples we’ve found came after an April 4, 2016, broadcast in which the sportscaster says he learned of the usage from the outfielder Jon Jay.

“Jon Jay had a big thrill,” Scully said. “He was in a shoe store buying some shoes and who came in? Michael Jordan.”

When Jay referred to Jordan as “the G.O.A.T.,” Scully was puzzled: “ ‘Goat’? Why is Michael Jordan ‘goat’? ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘G-O-A-T. Greatest of all time.’ ”

One last point: Some people believe the usage can be traced to Earl (the Goat) Manigault, a New York City playground basketball player who many thought was the greatest of all time, though his career was cut short by years of drug abuse.

However, Manigault, who died in 1998 at the age of 53, got the nickname because a teacher in junior high school pronounced his name “Mani-Goat,” according to his obituary in the New York Times.

[Update, July 22, 2016: A reader notes that in David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest, Joelle Van Dyne is referred to as “the P.G.O.A.T., for the Prettiest Girl of All Time.”]

[Update, Oct. 7, 2019: A reader notes the use of “G.O.A.T.” as an acronym in the 1993 album Buhloone Mindstate, by the hip hop trio De La Soul ]

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

A guerrilla of France

Q: In A Hero of France, Alan Furst’s latest World War II thriller, one of the characters uses the phrase “guerrilla warfare.” Did the word “guerrilla” really refer to an unconventional war in the early 1940s, when most of the novel takes place?

A: Yes, “guerrilla” has been used that way for more than 200 years, well before Alan Furst put the word into the mouth of Fabien, a sabotage instructor working with the Resistance in France.

The Oxford English Dictionary has examples dating from the early 1800s for “guerrilla” used as a noun or an adjective in reference to an unconventional war or someone fighting in such a war.

English borrowed the word directly from Spanish, where guerrilla is a diminutive of guerra, or war. The usual spelling in English is “guerrilla,” though some dictionaries also accept “guerilla.”

In the earliest OED citation, from an 1809 dispatch by the Duke of Wellington, the word refers to someone engaged in unconventional war: “I have recommended to the Junta to set … the Guerrillas to work towards Madrid.”

An 1811 citation, from The Vision of Don Roderick, a poem by Sir Walter Scott about Wellington’s victories in the Peninsular War, uses “guerrilla” adjectivally:

“But, with the darkness, the Guerilla band / Came like night’s tempest, and avenged the land.” (We’ve gone to the original and expanded the OED citation.)

An 1819 example, from an article in the Edinburgh Review by Sydney Smith, an Anglican cleric, uses “guerrilla” as a noun for the war itself, a usage that the dictionary describes as “now somewhat rare”:

“A succession of village guerillas;—an internecive war between the gamekeepers and marauders of game.”

Finally, the word “guerrilla” has been used loosely since the late 1800s to describe almost any kind of irregular, unorthodox, or spontaneous activity: “guerrilla advertising,” “guerrilla cooking,” “guerrilla filmmaking,” and so on.

The earliest OED example for the newer usage is from the November 1888 issue of the Polyclinic, a medical journal in Philadelphia:

“The so-called pure pepsins … which, by a system of ‘guerrilla’ advertising … have been foisted upon the deceived medical profession.”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

A reactionary usage

Q: I’ve been seeing the use of the word “reactionary” for “reactive.” Have you noticed this?

A: No, we haven’t noticed it, and none of the standard dictionaries we rely on have entries for the adjective “reactionary” that include “reactive” as a meaning.

American Heritage, one of the ten dictionaries, doesn’t include that sense as standard, but it has a usage note that comments on  the issue:

“Sometimes reactionary is used to mean ‘tending to overreact; very reactive,’ but that sense is widely viewed as a mistake. In 2012, 86 percent of the Usage Panel found the sentence The principal is very reactionary; she responds to every little crisis by calling an emergency meeting to be unacceptable.”

However, the online collaborative reference Wiktionary includes this sense of “reactionary” as used in chemistry: “Of, pertaining to, participating in or inducing a chemical reaction.”

Wiktionary cites an April 11, 2013, article by Brandon Smith on, a website devoted to barter networking and other economic alternatives:

“Psychiatry extends the theory into biology in the belief that all human behavior is nothing more than a series of reactionary chemical processes in the brain that determine pre-coded genetic responses built up from the conditioning of one’s environment.”

Although the usage you’re asking about isn’t all that common, it isn’t all that new either.

The Oxford English Dictionary has citations dating back to the mid-19th century for “reactionary” used to mean “of, or relating to, or characterized by reaction, or a reaction (in various senses); that constitutes a reaction or reversal.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for this reactive sense is from an 1847 volume of A History of Greece, a 12-volume work by George Grote:

“The intensity of the subsequent displeasure would be aggravated by this reactionary sentiment.” (The reference is to how Athenians reacted when Mitliades, a hero of the Battle of Marathon, failed in the Expedition at Paros.)

In Women in Love (1920), D. H. Lawrence describes an affair as the result of—that is, a reaction to—marriage: “A liaison was only another kind of coupling, reactionary from the legal marriage. Reaction was a greater bore than action.”

Finally, here’s an OED citation (from the Feb. 6, 2003, issue of the Charlotte Business Journal in North Carolina) with the term used in the medical sense: “We want to practice preventative health care and not just reactionary medicine.”

Well, the usage is out there, as you’ve noticed, and it has a history, but it’s not out there enough to be accepted by standard dictionaries. In other words, you’re likely to be misunderstood if you use it.

[Note: This post was updated on June 12, 2020.]

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English English language Etymology Grammar Usage Word origin

The singular life of “they”

[Note: An updated post on this same subject was published on May 22, 2017.]

Q: I’m a 69-year-old psychotherapist who learned his grammar from a Jesuit-trained teacher obsessed with diagramming. As a stickler for good usage, I’m especially troubled by the use of “their” for “his” or “her.” Am I nuts or is the usage changing?

A: No, you aren’t nuts (as you ought to know, since you’re a psychotherapist). But yes, the usage is changing.

As close observers of the language, we are well aware that it’s a living thing, and that the prescriptive “rules” invented at various periods by well-intentioned grammarians were often groundless and misguided.

But like you, we’ve drawn the line at the use of “they,” “them,” and “their” in reference to an indefinite someone—at least in formal English and at least for the time being.

We’ve resisted this usage in our own writing on the ground that a third-person plural pronoun is inappropriate in reference to a singular somebody, though some of our favorite writers have used “they” and company in just that way.

We grant that this use of “they” is acceptable in informal and colloquial English, and that it has a long history, but we think that it’s still not an acceptable formal usage in contemporary English.

Here’s what we wrote about the subject on our blog in 2013:

“The plural pronouns ‘they,’ ‘them,’ and ‘their’ were often used as indefinite singulars centuries ago, and are quite commonly used that way today in informal (some would say substandard) English. But in formal English, they’re restricted to the plural.

“And anyone who wants to be correct without resorting to ‘he/she’ or some variant can always recast the sentence and make the antecedent plural. Instead of ‘Every parent loves his or her (or their) child,’ make it ‘All parents love their children.’ ”

We still believe this. But ask us again in 10 years. The “formal-versus-informal” argument aside, the singular use of “they” has shown no signs of going away and has clearly become established.

Earlier this year, linguists recognized this fact in a rather emphatic way. In January, the American Dialect Society voted for “they,” used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, as the “Word of the Year” for 2015.

As the organization said in a press release, “They was recognized by the society for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she.”

Although the announcement singled out a very specific use of “they” (for people who don’t consider themselves either male or female), it called attention to the more general use of “they” as a generic singular for an unknown person.

For example, “If anyone calls, tell them I’ve gone for the day.”

The press release says “they” was long used as a singular by writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen.

(We could add Byron, Thackeray, Goldsmith, Swift, Wharton, Orwell, Auden, as well as the King James Version of the Bible, all cited in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.)

In its announcement, the society noted that in 2015 the “singular they was embraced by the Washington Post style guide,” but we think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

The Post style guide says that it’s “usually possible, and preferable, to recast sentences as plural” and that the singular “they” should be used only in “the rare case when such a rewrite is impossible or hopelessly awkward.”

Commenting in the ADS press release, the linguist Ben Zimmer said: “While many novel gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed, they has the advantage of already being part of the language.”

Recent scholarship has shown that the use of “they” in a singular sense is not just an aberration but an expected development in a language that has a hole in it.

“In truth, the English language lacks a gender-neutral (sex-indefinite) pronoun for third-person singular,” Darren K. LaScotte wrote in the February 2016 issue of the journal American Speech.

Since the 14th century, he wrote, “they” has been used to fill the gap. And it’s still in use, despite generations of advice to the contrary.

LaScotte conducted a study to determine “which pronouns native English speakers use when writing about a genderless person,” and found that “they” was the overwhelming choice.

In using a pronoun to refer back to a single person of no particular sex (“the ideal student”), 71 percent of the participants chose “they.” The other alternatives, including the combination “he or she” and the generic masculine “he,” trailed far behind.

Those results came from a question that did not call the participants’ attention to the pronouns they used. But the results were slightly different later in the survey, when they were specifically asked about pronoun use in reference to a single, genderless person.

When asked which pronoun was appropriate in a formal context, 55 percent chose the combination “he or she” and 25 percent chose “they.”

When asked which pronoun was appropriate for informal use, 74 percent chose “they.” Another 18 percent chose “he or she,” and 10 percent chose “he.”

We’re not surprised by these results. In informal writing or conversational English, “they” is used as a singular by even educated people today. And in such informal usages it doesn’t seem to call attention to itself.

But formal English is another matter, and here a singular “they” looks like a mistake, in our opinion. Few scholarly writers, even those who pride themselves on their descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive) attitudes, would deliberately refer to a single student as “they.”

So we’ll stick with what we’ve written before. Singular “they” is fine in informal usage, but we don’t advise it in formal English.

LaScotte’s conclusion was different. He says that “writers of handbooks should be less timid in offering singular they as a strategy for solving the singular, generic antecedent problem in academic writing.”

Call us timid if you like, but we don’t think the singular “they” has fully arrived in formal use. We’d be surprised if academic writers began consciously using it any time soon, and if the editors of scholarly journals began accepting it.

One final word. The use of “they” to refer to someone clearly identified as a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, is indefensible (“a man in their prime” … “a woman knows their own breasts”).

There’s certainly no point in being gender-neutral when there’s no question about gender.

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English English language Etymology Slang Usage Word origin

When “bourgeois” became bull

Q: I came across your site when looking up “malarkey,” a word my father used when I was growing up. He often used “bourgeois” to mean the same thing, “nonsense.” Can you explain how a word referring to the middle class could take on this sense?

A: We don’t want to shock you, but our best guess is that your father was using “bourgeois” as a euphemism for “bullshit,” a term he didn’t want to inflict on your tender ears. ­­

A ­similar-sounding word, “bushwa,” has been a euphemism for “bullshit” for more than a century.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, edited by Jonathan E. Lighter, says “bushwa” was “probably” derived from the French “bourgeois, as popularized by the radical movement, esp. in the early 20th C.”

The dictionary says the word is “now taken as a euphem. for bullshit,” in the sense that one would use “nonsense” or plain “bull.”

Random House’s earliest example of “bushwa” is from a 1906 issue of the National Police Gazette: “ ‘Bushwa,’ … a term of derision used to convey the same comment as ‘hot air,’ drifted East from the plains along with other terse expletives.”

The reference may have been to language popularized by members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, known as the “Wobblies”), formed in Chicago in 1905.

The Oxford English Dictionary agrees that “bushwa” (also spelled “bushwah”) is “apparently a euphemism for bullshit.” But it doesn’t suggest that it was derived from “bourgeois.”

However, “bourgeois” was apparently the source. This passage from the historian Dorothy Gage’s book The Day Wall Street Exploded (2009) describes members of the “Overalls Brigade” of the IWW in 1908:

“They bellowed out revolutionary songs, scorned the niceties of ‘bushwa’ (bourgeois) society, and made a point of dressing in the workingman’s garb that eventually became the Wobblies’ trademark uniform.”

And in this passage another historian, Bruce Watson, discusses popular terms used by the Wobblies in the first decade of the 20th century:

“A ‘scissor-bill’ was an unenlightened worker, some ‘bushwa’ (bourgeois) who still believed in ‘Pie in the Sky,’ i.e., capitalist promises of a better life ahead.” (From Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream, 2006.)

Several histories of the Wobblies were published during the 1960s, and in reviewing one of them for the Journal of Southern History in 1970, George T. Morgan Jr. wrote:

“IWW rhetoric and songs fed the myth of the Wobbly as a wild and woolly warrior, a man who contemptuously scorned the conventional morality of what he characterized as ‘bushwa’ society.”

So it seems that “bushwa” was a pronunciation—perhaps a deliberately dismissive one—of “bourgeois,” a term that was hateful to early 20th-century labor activists.

Over the years, many American authors have used the term in hard-boiled fiction. A couple of citations from the OED:

“Looks to me like it’s all bushwa.” (From a novel by John Dos Passos, Three Soldiers, 1921.)

“If you’re a detective, what was all that bushwa about Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard?” (From Ross Macdonald’s The Galton Case, 1960.)

As for “bourgeois,” English borrowed it from the French bourgeois in the early 1600s, when the two words had the same meaning: an inhabitant of a town or borough in France.

(In French, bourg was a walled settlement or market town. The term comes from burgus, Latin for castle or fort. But the ultimate source, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, is bhergh, a prehistoric root meaning high.)

Over time, the English noun “bourgeois” broke from its original ties to France and took on three primary senses that could be applied to people or things anywhere in the world:

(1) the middle class or a member of the middle class, (2) someone or something that’s conventional, unimaginative, or materialistic, and (3) in Marxist theory, a capitalist exploiter of the working class. The adjective adopted related senses.

It’s unclear from OED citations when each of these meanings developed, but the dictionary has examples for all three dating from the 1800s.

The pejorative sense of “bourgeois” used by your father apparently evolved from the Marxist meaning of the word, which Oxford defines as “a person who upholds the interests of capitalism, or who is considered to be an exploiter of the proletariat.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the “capitalist” sense of the word is from an 1850 translation of Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, published in German in 1848:

“Bourgeois and Proletarians. Hitherto the history of society has been the history of the battles between the classes composing it.”

(The original German: “Bourgeois und Proletarier. Die Geschichte aller bisherigen Gesellschaft ist die Geschichte von Klassenkämpfen.”)

The OED also cites this passage from a work of Engels: “It is utterly indifferent to the English bourgeois whether his working-men starve or not, if only he makes money.” (From an 1886 translation of Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in German in 1845.)

The OED’s most recent citation is from 2010: “By forcing workers to work for money, the bourgeois transformed workers into commodities.” (From Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory, 3rd. ed., edited by  Paul A. Erickson and Liam D. Murphy.)

It’s that “exploiter of the proletariat” element of “bourgeois,” built into the word by Marx and Engels, that inspired the “bullshit” sense of the word and the “bushwa” pronunciation.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Phrase origin Usage Word origin

When out of your home is in it

Q: Why is it that when I say I’m working out of my home, I’m actually working at an office in my home?

A: The compound preposition “out of” usually refers to moving from, or being away from, something, and it’s had that meaning since Anglo-Saxon days.

In early Old English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “out of” was the opposite of “into.”

The first example in the OED is from a translation of Historiarum Adversum Paganos, a comparison of pagan and Christian times, by the early medieval theologian and historian Paulus Orosius:

“Hie aforan ut of þære byrig hiora agnum willan.” (“They went out of the city of their own accord.”)

In the 20th century, according to Oxford citations, “out of” developed a new sense: working “from (a base or headquarters)” or “using (a place) as a centre of operations.”

The earliest OED example (from Budd Schulberg’s 1941 novel, What Makes Sammy Run?) refers to a prostitute working out of a different kind of house than the one you’re asking about:

“ ‘She’s turned pro,’ I said. ‘She’s working out of Gladys’.”

Most of the OED citations use “out of” in the sense of using a place as headquarters but working elsewhere at least some of the time.

It’s easy to see, though, how the place in question evolved from a headquarters to a primary workplace, as in this example:

“The miscellaneous radio amateurs and visionaries who worked out of shacks and garages.” (From the June 25,1976, issue of the Times Literary Supplement.)

Here are the dictionary’s other examples:

“We were going to run away together. … I could always get work out of Miami.” (From Give the Boys a Great Big Hand, 1960, an “87th Precinct” novel by Ed McBain.)

“Goodall had now started to work out of Devon Concrete to all parts of the South West.” (From a 1993 issue of Vintage Roadscene magazine.)

Finally, here’s a recent example that we found in the June 18, 2016, issue of the New York Times: “My wife and I still work out of our home in South Portland; I’m a writer and she’s a digital strategist for a software company.”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Shining a light on candles

Q: I have wondered how “chandler,” the word for a candle-maker, came to mean a supplier of ship’s provisions.

A: Originally, a “chandler” was someone who made or sold candles. Later on, the word was used more generally for a retailer of groceries and other goods, and eventually it came to mean a supplier specializing in grain or ships’ provisions.

That’s the short answer to your question. For the longer answer, we have go much further back and start with “candle,” one of the oldest words in the language.

“Candle” is interesting because of its great age. It’s as old as Christianity in England, making it one of the oldest Latin-derived words in English.

Candēla (from candēre, to glow or shine) is Latin for “candle” and the source of the English word.

“It probably arrived with Christianity at the end of the sixth century,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

That would mean “candle” was in use during the 500s, a century before it was recorded in English writing.

Because of its association with the new religion, “candle” had an air of sanctity to the Anglo-Saxons.

As “one of the Latin words introduced at the English Conversion,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, it was “long associated chiefly with religious observances.”

It first appeared in English writing in the Erfurt Glossary, believed to have been written somewhere in Southumbria during the last quarter of the 7th century.

Here the manuscript translates the Latin word for a pair of snuffers into Old English: “Emunctoria, candelthuist.” (A candlethuist was a scissor-like device for snuffing, or extinguishing, candles.)

In Beowulf, which may have been composed as early as 725, the word appears in a passage referring to the sun as “roderes candel” (“candle of the firmament”).

The OED notes that other terms for the sun in Old English poetry included “dæg candel” (“candle of the day”), “heofon-candel” (“heaven’s candle”), “woruld-candel” (“candle of the world”), and “Godes candel” (“God’s candle”).

But “chandler,” the word for a candle maker or seller, was a much humbler term. It came into English hundreds of years later than “candle” and from a different source—which explains its “ch-” spelling.

First recorded in the late 14th century, “chandler” came from the Anglo-Norman chandeler, derived from the Old French chandelier, meaning a candlemaker or a candlestick. (Yes, the Old French term gave us our word “chandelier,” but not until the 18th century.)

The ultimate source of “chandler” was Late Latin—the terms candēlārius (candlemaker) and candēlāria (candlestick), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Sometimes the word was used in a compound (“wax-chandler,” “tallow-chandler”) to specify what the candles were made of, beeswax or tallow (animal fats).

Oxford‘s earliest example is in a passage, dated 1389, from ordinances of early English craft guilds: “Yei shul bene at ye Chaundelers by pryme of ye day.” (“You shall be at the chandlers by early morning.”)

However, the word was already in use as an occupational surname, “Shaundeler,” as early as 1332, Chambers says.

The wider sense of “chandler” as a dealer in groceries and other provisions came into use in the late 16th century. The OED’s earliest citation, a snatch of dialogue by an Elizabethan pamphleteer, amply illustrates the meaning:

“Theodorus: Be there any Chandlers there? … What do they sell for the most part? / Amphilogus: Almost all things, as namelie butter, cheese, fagots, pots, pannes, candles, and a thousand other trinkets besides.” (From Philip Stubbes’s Anatomie of Abuses, Part II, 1583.)

As the OED notes, use of the term was “often somewhat contemptuous,” as in this line from Charles Dickens’s Sketches by “Boz” (1839): “The neighbours stigmatized him as a chandler.”

More to the point, “chandler” was also used in combination with another term to show a tradesman’s specialty. And this explains terms like “corn-chandler” (grain dealer) and “ship-chandler,” both dating from the 17th century.

Oxford defines a “ship-chandler” as “a dealer who supplies ships with necessary stores.” It’s a term that has survived into modern times.

The dictionary’s earliest example is an order by the House of Lords in 1642, authorizing inspectors to examine “what Quantities of Gunpowder is, or shall be, in the Hands of any Merchants, Ship-chandlers, Grocers, Societies, or Companies.” (We’ve expanded the quotation to provide context.)

Sometimes, when the “ship-” designation isn’t necessary, a maritime supplier is referred to simply as a “chandler.”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Unconsciously? Subconsciously?

Q: I’ve just read Pearl Buck’s final novel, The Eternal Wonder, which was discovered dozens of years after her death and may have been a first draft. At one point, she describes a character who scarcely listens while “storing away unconsciously” the conversations around him. Do you think she meant—and would eventually have used—“subconsciously” instead of “unconsciously”?

A: Both “unconsciously” and “subconsciously” can describe doing something without being aware of it—the way Pearl Buck is using “unconsciously” in that paragraph in The Eternal Wonder:

“People were talking again, accustomed now to her presence, but he scarcely listened, except as he always listened, saying little himself but storing away unconsciously the sound of these voices, the changing expressions of their faces, their postures, their ways of eating, all details of life while though useless, it seemed, in themselves, he could not help accumulating because it was how he lived.”

So either word is fine as far as meaning, but would Buck have eventually changed “unconsciously” to “subconsciously”? Perhaps, if she had done a lot of tinkering with the manuscript. Then again, perhaps not.

The decision would probably have depended on rhythm. If she had ultimately broken up that long paragraph or replaced one of the pronouns with a noun, “subconsciously” might have sounded better to her ear than “unconsciously.”

However, it’s silly to pick apart a single paragraph of a work by a major writer. An “improvement” or two in one paragraph might weaken the work as a whole.

As for the etymology here, “unconsciously” is the older of the two adverbs, showing up in the early 18th century. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “in an unconscious manner; without conscious action, effort, thought, or awareness; unknowingly.”

The earliest example in the OED is from Death’s Vision, a 1709 poem by the Presbyterian minister John Reynolds about the relationship between philosophy and poetry:

“But Pardon that I thus / Unconsciously Accuse! / How much more Cruel have I been to Thee?”

“Subconsciously,” which appeared in the mid-19th century, means “in a subconscious manner; without conscious perception of control; (also) by means of the subconscious,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest OED citation is from The Logic of Political Economy, an 1844 treatise on economics by Thomas de Quincey:

“But there is still a final evasion likely to move subconsciously in the thoughts of a student, which it is better to … strengthen until it becomes generally visible.”

The two adverbs are derived from the earlier adjectives “unconscious” and “subconscious.”

When “unconscious” first showed up in the late 17th century, according to the OED, it meant “not having knowledge or awareness of a fact or circumstance; unaware, heedless; unwitting.”

The first Oxford citation is from an anonymous 1678 translation of De Mirabilibus Pecci, a Latin poem by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes about the wonders of the Peak District in Derbyshire:

“It moves in haste … it flies. / (Unconscious of its Fault which tortur’d cries).” We’ve gone to another source and expanded the citation to give it context.

When “subconscious” appeared in the early 19th century, the OED says, it meant “operating or existing (just) below the level of conscious perception” or “not clearly perceived” or “instinctive, unwitting.”

The earliest example in the OED is from an essay by De Quincey in the June 1834 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh magazine:

“The Emperor Hadrian had already taken a solitary step in the improvement of human nature; and not … without some sub-conscious influence received directly or indirectly from Christianity.”

Both words, “unconscious” and “subconscious,” showed up in 19th-century psychological terminology, first as nouns and then as adjectives.

The OED defines “the unconscious” used in the psychological sense as “that part of the mind which is inaccessible to the consciousness; spec. an aspect of the mind containing material repressed from and not directly accessible to the conscious mind, but capable of influencing emotions and behaviour.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from 1818 lecture notes by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “As in every work of Art the Conscious, is so impressed on the Unconscious, as to appear in it … so is the Man of Genius the Link that combines the two.”

The OED defines “the subconscious” as “an aspect of the mind containing material not immediately available to the consciousness,” specifically “that containing material of which a person is not currently aware, but which can readily be brought back into the consciousness” or “that containing material repressed from, and not directly accessible to the conscious mind, but capable of influencing emotions and behaviour.”

The first clearcut Oxford citation is from a July 1878 issue of the Cornhill Magazine: “We are at each successive moment elevating one impression or group of impressions after another into clear consciousness, while the rest fall back into the dim regions of the sub-conscious.”

“Although Freud used the term subconscious (Unterbewusstsein) in his early writings, he later rejected it in favour of the less ambiguous terms preconscious (Vorbewusstsein) and unconscious (Unbewusstsein),” the OED explains.

But in 1920, the dictionary notes, Freud replaced those terms “with his system of idego, and superego,” and “subconscious is not therefore used as a technical term in psychoanalysis.”

“In Psychology more generally subconscious is sometimes used as a synonym for preconscious, but the latter term is preferred in more precise or technical writing,” the OED adds.

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Watkins, catkins, and other kin

Q: Is the “kin” in words like “pumpkin,” “catkin,” and “Watkins” related to the “kin” that are your relatives? I’m guessing it’s not.

A: You’re right. The noun “kin” that means your relatives is no relation to the suffix we see in words like “catkin.”

The noun “kin” has conveyed the same general notion—roughly, a group of connected people—for about 1,200 years. But the suffix “-kin” is a diminutive that came into English some 400 years later.

The earlier “kin” was first recorded in Old English around the year 825 in the sense of a group “descended from a common ancestor,” as well as a people, a nation, or a tribe, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. 

By as early as 875 “kin” was used in writing to mean what it chiefly does today—“the group of persons who are related to one; one’s kindred, kinsfolk, or relatives, collectively.”

Ultimately, however, “kin” comes from an ancient prehistoric root meaning knowledge or kind.

The Indo-European root gn– or gno-, which gave Greek the word gnosis (knowledge), is also the source, through proto-Germanic, of “kin” as well as “kith” (which originally meant friends and neighbors), “kind” (the noun), “know,” “knowledge,” “ken,” “cunning,” and others.

(As we wrote in 2011, some other descendants of this prehistoric root came into English through Latin and Greek: notice, notion, cognition, recognize, ignore, noble, gnostic, diagnosis, narrate, normal, and many more.)

As for the other “-kin,” which conveys the notion of smallness, we haven’t found any etymological explanations for it.

But it does correspond to diminutive suffixes in the historical as well as modern Dutch and German languages: –kijn, –ken, kîn, chîn, and chen. Oxford mentions the modern German nouns kindchen (little child) and häuschen (little house).

This “-kin” didn’t come into English right away. As the OED remarks, “No trace of the suffix is found in Old English.”

Instead, it began cropping up in the mid-13th century in men’s pet names, which as the the OED says “were either adoptions or imitations of diminutive forms current in Flanders and Holland.”

Thus first names like “Jankin” (an affectionate diminutive of John), “Watkin” (a pet name for Walter), and “Wilkin” (a familiar form of Will or William) began appearing in Middle English in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Other such pet names, spelled a variety of ways, included “Perkin” (a diminutive of Per or Peter), “Filkin” (for Philip), “Simkin” (for Simon), “Timkin” (for Timothy), “Dawkin” (for David), and “Hawkin” (perhaps a diminutive of Hugh or Henry).

As first names for men, these “seem to have mostly gone out of fashion shortly after 1400,” the OED says. But most of them “survived as surnames, usually with the addition of -s or -son, as JenkinsWatkinsWilkinsonDickensDickinson, etc.”

So while the suffix hasn’t been used much to form nouns in English, it’s still alive in the names of countless people.

The few diminutive common nouns that end in “-kin” may have been influenced by the personal names, Oxford suggests.

These diminutive forms, and the dates they were first recorded, include “napkin” (1384-85), “bodkin” (a small dagger, 1386), and “firkin” (a small cask, 1423).

As for “catkin” (1578), it’s a genuine diminutive but it wasn’t formed in English. It was taken from katteken, Dutch for a little cat as well as a catkin (one of the fuzzy things hanging from willows, birches, and other trees).

However, there’s nothing diminutive about the big orange squash that we call a “pumpkin,” though the OED says the spelling was influenced by the “-kin” suffix in other words.

The spelling “pumpkin” was first recorded in 1647. Before that, the vegetable was referred to as a “pompion” (1526) or “pumpion” (1599). The word had been adopted from pompom, Middle French for a melon or squash.

Perhaps English speakers found the “pumpkin” spelling more natural, since they were already familiar with the “-kin” ending in such words as “jerkin” (the garment, 1519); “bumpkin” (1570); “pipkin” (drinking vessel, 1554), and “gherkin” (the pickle, 1661).

We can’t close without mentioning a much later, genuine diminutive—“Munchkin,” which L. Frank Baum invented for the little people in his book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900).

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