English English language Grammar Usage

Can a number be a pronoun?

Q: I’m puzzled by the numbers in this example: “Bob and his friends drew their swords. They were seven, facing three.” Is “seven” a numerical pronoun? Or is it an adjective with an implied noun? Ditto regarding: “three.”

A: In our opinion, a number used this way is not a pronoun. We would call it an adjective functioning as a noun.

The noun “seven” here has a clear antecedent; it refers to “Bob and his friends.” The noun “three,” given the context, is understood to mean three adversaries.

In English, the cardinal numbers (which say how many, like “three”) and the ordinal numbers (which say in what order, like “third”), have two general functions. They can be adjectives (some prefer the term “determiners”), or nouns.

This is how they’re treated, for example, in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Using “three” as an example, the OED says it’s a noun when it means “a group or set of three things or persons.” And in entries for other numbers, Oxford says they’re nouns when they mean a size, rank, score, weight, and so on.

So the numbers in these examples are nouns, by Oxford’s definition: “They left in twos and threes” … “She wears a six, sometimes a seven” … “So far they’ve won nine and lost eight” … “He discarded a five and drew an ace.”

A number is an adjective, the OED says, when it modifies an expressed noun (“three gentlemen”), or when it stands alone in the predicate (“we galloped all three”).

And finally, the OED says a number like “three” can be an adjective used “absolutely”—that is, without an accompanying noun and functioning as a noun.

The dictionary gives this citation from the Wycliffe Bible (1382): “For where two or three shulen be gedrid [shall be gathered] in my name, ther am I in the midil of hem.”

It also gives this 20th-century example: “Which three do you choose? Any three you please.”

So the “seven” and the “three” in your example (“Bob and his friends drew their swords. They were seven, facing three”) would be adjectives used absolutely—that is, as nouns.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language takes a somewhat similar view of numbers like this, though it uses very different terminology. It would describe that “three” as a “fused-head construction.”

In this type of construction, an implied noun phrase (“three people,” “three objects,” or whatever), is fused into a single word (“three”). The head of the phrase (the implied noun) disappears into the adjective or determiner (“three”), which now functions as a noun.

The Cambridge Grammar has these examples (the editors underline the fusions): “Four boys played croquet and two played tennis” … “He gave ten copies to me and six to the others” … “After having a first child, I didn’t want a second.”

(We should point out that the fused part can appear in a separate sentence: “I’ll take two, please” … “Only five showed up at the meeting.”)

But this kind of construction isn’t limited to numbers. Some ordinary adjectives can become nouns in fused constructions. Here are examples from the Cambridge Grammar:

“Henrietta likes red shirts, and I like blue” … “Knut wanted the French caterers, but I wanted the Italian” … “I prefer cotton shirts to nylon” … “Lucie likes big dogs, but I prefer small.

In short, neither the OED nor the Cambridge Grammar treats numbers as pronouns, and we agree with them, though some grammarians and even some standard dictionaries disagree.

But even if you do regard a number as a pronoun, it’s not a good idea to call it a “numerical” or “numeral” pronoun. The term “numeral pronoun” is sometimes used in linguistics, but it means something else entirely—a word, like “all” or “many,” that means an indefinite number.

Here’s a definition from the Dictionary of Linguistics, by Mario Pei and Frank Gaynor. “numeral pronoun: A term occasionally used for a word which denotes an indefinite number of persons or things.”

The only number that everyone agrees can be a pronoun is “one.”

As we’ve written on our blog, “one” is a personal pronoun in uses like “One does one’s best” and “One never knows.” Like the other personal pronouns, it has possessive and reflexive forms, “one’s” and “oneself.”

When “one” is a pronoun, it can be replaced completely by something else, like “people in general.” It’s not intended as an adjective used elliptically—that is, short for “one person,” “one citizen,” etc.

We think it’s a good policy to focus on how a word functions rather than on what it’s called.

Grammatical terminology today is not what it was 100 (or even 50) years ago. The most respected authorities may differ in their terminology, which can be confusing to a non-linguist.

Take the examples of the “poor” and the “rich,” meaning poor people and rich people. They’ve been interpreted in at least three different ways:

They’re “adjective pronouns” according to one 19th-century grammarian (Stephen Watkins Clark, A Practical Grammar, 1847).

They’re nouns, according to the OED. 

They’re fused-head constructions, says the Cambridge Grammar. The implied noun phrase (which could be paraphrased as “those who are rich,” “those who are poor”) is fused into a single word.

So as you can see, the terms change but the words work in the same way—they act exactly like nouns.

That 19th-century grammarian (who, by the way, invented sentence diagramming) defined a pronoun as “a word used instead of a noun.” Consequently, he identified “sublime” and “ridiculous” as pronouns in the phrase “from the sublime to the ridiculous.

But authorities today don’t regard as a pronoun any word that can replace a noun or noun phrase. If this were the case, words for colors could be pronouns, as in “She considered the black dress but ending up buying the gray.”

It would be reasonable to consider “gray” either as a noun or as an adjective used elliptically for the noun phrase “gray dress.” But no one would call it a pronoun.

And no one today would call “bad” a pronoun in a sentence like this: “Each dress has its good points and its bad.”

Similarly, we don’t consider “two” a pronoun in this similar construction: “She looked at a dozen scarves and purchased two.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Slang Usage Word origin

Pissy language

Q: Where does “pissed off” (as in “angry”) come from? I know this sounds like a joke, but it’s a serious question!

A: Our serious answer begins around the year 1300, when English adopted the verb “piss” from the Anglo-Norman pisser.

Although the word is “now chiefly coarse slang,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant simply “urinate” back then.

The dictionary notes that “piss” is “probably ultimately of imitative origin”—that is, it represents the hissy sound of peeing.

The OED’s first citation for the verb is from the South English Legendary, a collection of lives, or biographies, of saints and other church figures.

In the life of St. James the Great (i.e., the Apostle James), the devil persuades a young pilgrim to cut off his penis and commit suicide. James brings the pilgrim back to life, but doesn’t undo the castration:

“His menbres þat he carf of, euer-eft he dude misse Bote a luytel wise ȝware-þoruȝ he miȝhte, ȝwane he wolde, pisse” (“He did forever miss the member that he cut off, leaving a little stub through which he might urinate”).

Over the years, the verb “piss” came to be used figuratively in various expressions, including “piss money against the wall” (squander, 1540), “piss on someone” (show contempt, before 1625), “piss against the wind” (waste one’s time, 1642), and “piss and moan” (complain, 1948).

The noun “piss” first appeared sometime before 1387 in John Trevisa’s English translation of Polychronicon, a Latin chronicle by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden:

“Þey þrewe on his heed wommen pisser out of a chambre” (“They threw on his head women’s urine out of a chamber pot”).

Like the verb, the noun later took on some additional meanings, including its use as an intensifier in such phrases as “piss poor” and “piss elegant,” which we discussed in a post six years ago.

And like the verb, the noun “piss” meant simply “urine” in the 14th century, and wasn’t considered “coarse slang,” according to the OED.

When the adjective “pissed” showed up in the early 17th century, Oxford says, it referred to something “that has been urinated on or in; wet or stained with urine.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Alchemist, a 1612 comedy by Ben Jonson: “Wrap’d up in greasie leather, or piss’d clouts.” (“Clouts” were pieces of cloth.)

It’s unclear from the OED citations exactly when “piss” came to be seen as coarse or vulgar.

In the early 19th century the adjective “pissed” came to mean “drunk.” Here’s an example from John Bell’s Rhymes of Northern Bards (1812): “Sit still you pist fool!”

And in the mid-20th century, the adjective took on the sense you’re asking about: angry, irritated, fed up.

In British use, the OED says, it’s frequently seen in the phrase “pissed off.” We’d add that the phrase is probably just as common in the US. In fact, the dictionary’s earliest citation is from an American memoir.

In Artist at War (1943), the American artist George Biddle writes of his experiences in Italy and Africa during World War II: “When I’m pissed off, I always get that starry look.”

The phrasal verb “piss off” showed up in writing just after the war, in a 1946 issue of the journal American Speech: “He pissed (or peed) me off. An expression used of a person who in any way disappointed the speaker.”

Finally, the phrasal verb “piss off” is also used (primarily in the UK) to mean “Go away!” or “Scram!”

The first OED citation is from The Mint, a memoir by T. E. Lawrence published after his death in 1935: “You piss off, Pissquick.” (Lawrence, an army colonel in World War I, describes enlisting anonymously after the war as an aircraftman in the Royal Air Force.)

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Pudding and other ing-lish words

Q: For some reason I hate the world “pudding”—it’s like nails on a blackboard to me. Aside from that, why do we have “-ing” words that aren’t participles or gerunds?

A: Your instincts are right. There is something repulsive about “pudding”—about its etymology, anyway. As they say about sausage, you might not want to know how it was made. More about that later.

As you’ve noticed, not every “-ing” suffix is part of a participle or gerund, like “being” or “going.” The suffix “-ing” is also used in English to form nouns, as is the related suffix “-ling.”

The nouns formed with “-ing” and “-ling” are of two kinds, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Some originated as diminutives, while others had “the sense of ‘one belonging to’ or ‘of the kind of,’ hence ‘one possessed of the quality of.’ ”

The diminutive nouns, mostly of the “-ling” variety, often refer to very young animals, as in “kidling,” “duckling,” “gosling,” and “codling” (a small cod). But they can also be contemptuous, as in “godling,” “lordling,” and “princeling.”

The words with the other sense—belonging to or concerned with or having the quality of the root word—include extremely old nouns like “king” (cyning in Old English, from cyn, for “kin”).

This group of nouns also includes “nursling” (literally, one being nursed); “stripling” (someone thin as a strip); “hireling” (one who works for hire); “sibling” (originally a kinsman, from Old English sib, for “related”); “nestling” (one still in the nest); “suckling” (one being suckled); “underling” (a subordinate); and “earthling” (originally, a plowman or cultivator of the soil).

Also, “gelding” (derived from Old Norse geld, meaning barren or impotent); the fish names “whiting” (from “white”) and “herring” (possibly from har, for “gray,” or Old High German heri, for “multitude”); and the former English coins “farthing” (feorþing in Old English, from féorð, for “fourth”) and “shilling” (perhaps from ancient Germanic roots meaning to ring or to divide).

Finally, this category includes “darling” (one who is dear, derived from Old English déor, for “dear”); the archaic endearment “sweeting” (one who is sweet); and last but not least, “pudding.”

No matter how you look at it, the origin of “pudding” isn’t pretty. It came into English in the 13th century, and the OED says the source was “probably” the Anglo-Norman word bodeyn, which meant sausage or (in the plural) animal intestines or entrails.

According to this theory, the “b” changed to “p” in English, and the “-eyn” ending was altered by analogy with similar English nouns ending in “-ing.”

Where did the French bodeyn come from? The OED traces it to the Old French boudin (for sausage, entrails, intestines, or a person’s stomach). But Oxford says any further etymology is “uncertain and disputed.”

However, the OED does mention “an alternative etymology” that derives the word from “a Germanic base” meaning a boil, ulcer, or swollen body part.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology also says the ultimate source could be prehistoric Germanic roots (like bod-), having to do with boils, swellings, or bloatings.

While both Chambers and the OED rule out Latin as a source, John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins disagrees. It traces the Old French boudin ultimately to botellus, Latin for “sausage.”

Regardless of its earlier history, when “pudding” entered English in the 13th century it meant a stuffed entrail—that is, a sausage.

As the OED defines it, “pudding” originally meant “the stomach or one of the entrails (in early use sometimes the neck) of a pig, sheep, or other animal, stuffed with a mixture of minced meat, suet, oatmeal, seasoning, etc., and boiled.”

The English word was first recorded in 1287 as “pudinges” and “pundinges” in Norwich city documents that were otherwise rendered in Latin.

The first appearance in an English context is found in a Middle English poem, The Land of Cokaygne (circa 1300), in a reference to “fat podinges, / Rich met to princez and kinges.”

A “pudding” continued to mean a sausage until well into the 19th century, and many English speakers still use the word that way. In British usage a “black pudding” is a blood sausage, and in Ireland and Scotland a “white pudding” is a sausage made with oatmeal and suet, sometimes with the addition of shredded pork.

Meanwhile (banish food from your mind), the plural “puddings” was used to mean “the bowels, entrails, or guts of a person or animal” from the mid-16th to the late 19th century, the OED says.

This cringeworthy example is from Lodowick Lloyd’s The Pilgrimage of Princes (1573): “The Foxe … did bite and scratche the yongman so sore, that his puddynges gusshed out of his side.”

We won’t burden you with any more examples of that usage.

Futhermore, “pudding” was a slang term for both the vagina and the penis from the mid-16th century, according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang. Citations for this use of “pudding” date from 1538 (meaning vagina) and 1546 (meaning penis). In our own time, “pud” is used this way in the male sense and is found in masturbatory verbal phrases like “pull one’s pud.”

Getting back to food, the more familiar meaning of “pudding” and the one that survives in general use today, also came into written use around the mid- to late 1500s. In this sense, it meant “a sweet or savoury dish made with flour, milk, etc.,” the OED says.

Why call these dishes “puddings”? Probably because of the association with sausage casings. As John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins, the word “came to be applied to any food cooked in a bag (hence the cannon-ball shape of the traditional Christmas pudding).”

The earliest definite sighting in the OED is from John Rider’s dictionary Bibliotheca Scholastica (1573): “A pudding made of milke, cheese, and herbs.”

And in a 1736 letter, Lord Castledurrow compliments Jonathan Swift on his hospitality: “Your puddings … are the best sweet thing I ever eat.”

The word “pudding” as used today “refers almost exclusively to sweet dishes,” the OED says, with exceptions like Yorkshire pudding, a dumpling-like dish that’s savory rather than sweet.

Furthermore, as used “chiefly in Britain,” the word generally means “any sweet dish served as a dessert,” Oxford says, a sense recorded in the early 20th century.

Although the OED doesn’t say so, “pudding” in the US is a soft, creamy dessert with the consistency of a custard.

An American would not refer to a cake or a pie or an apple crisp as a “pudding” (the cake-like exceptions are “bread pudding” and “sticky toffee pudding”).

The American usage is no small matter, and the OED should take note. The difference between “pudding” in the US and the UK “is the one that diverges most, food-wise, in the two countries,” the linguist Lynne Murphy writes in 2008 on her blog Separated by a Common Language.

Finally, you might be interested in a post we wrote in 2012 about whether the proof is in the pudding or the eating of it.

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What’s in a word?

Q: Why aren’t these words, and can they be: “vigorance” or “vigorence” (instead of “vigorousness”) and “analgesity” (meaning pain resistance)?

A: Put simply, a word is a unit of language that has meaning, can be written or spoken, and is used to form sentences. By that definition, the terms you’re asking about are already words, though they’re barely on the lexical radar and can’t be found in standard dictionaries.

A bit of googling will give you examples for “vigorance,” “vigorence,” and “analgesity,” terms that clearly have meaning to the people who use them, but not to many others.

Vigorance,” for example, is the brand name for a series of hair-care products, “Vigorence” is the name of a program to revive stressed-out executives, and the developers of an analgesic derived from snake venom tested the antidote for its “analgesity.”

Can those terms take on the meanings you want them to have, and find acceptance in standard dictionaries?

Lexicographers, the people who compile dictionaries, examine the various media—Facebook, Twitter, the New York Times, Fox News, Amazon bestsellers, Wikipedia, and so on—in search of new words to add.

If enough people use a new term, it will eventually make it into dictionaries. But we wouldn’t bet on “vigorance,” “vigorence,” or “analgesity.”

We’ve written over the years about words we’d like to save—and a lot of good it’s done! The people who speak a language, not language mavens, decide which words live and which die.

For what it’s worth, we don’t see any need for “vigorance” or “vigorence.” If you want a shorter, punchier word than “vigorousness,” how about “vigor”? It seems vigorous enough to us.

As for a word to describe resistance to pain, one might use “analgesia,” which means the reduction or absence of pain. Or perhaps “analgesic,” which is a noun or an adjective for a substance that reduces pain. And if you’d prefer a less technical term, “painkilling” and “painkiller” are possibilities.

The word “analgesic” (as well as the variant “analgetic”) is derived from the noun “analgesia,” which meant the absence of pain when it showed up in the late 17th century. All three terms are ultimately derived from the classical Greek analgesiaan (without) plus algesis (sense of pain).

The first citation for “analgesia” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1684 English translation of a medical dictionary compiled by the Dutch physician Steven Blankaart. The definition of “analgesia” includes “absence of pain and grief.”

By the early 20th century, the word was being used in the modern sense of “the relief or reduction of pain, by the use of drugs or other treatments,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example of the new sense is from the June 2, 1900, issue of the Lancet: “The first operation was done under local (eucaine) analgesia and the second under chloroform anæsthesia.”

The word “analgesic” first showed up in the mid-19th century as an adjective meaning “insensitive to pain; exhibiting loss or reduction of the ability to feel pain,” according to the OED.

The earliest Oxford citation is from an 1852 issue of the North American Homœopathic Journal: “There are sensitive spots or even points in the midst of analgesic surfaces.”

In a couple of decades, the adjective took on its modern sense of relieving or reducing pain. The earliest OED example is from an 1868 issue of the American Journal of the Medical Sciences:

“Thus we clearly separate anæsthetics from soporifics, or rather the analgesic influence from the hypnotic.”

The noun “analgesic” soon showed up with the sense of “a drug or other treatment that relieves or reduces pain.”

The dictionary’s first example is from A Treatise on Therapeutics (1874), by the American physician Horatio C. Wood Jr.:

“In the class Analgesics, are placed those drugs whose chief clinical use is in the relief of pain.”

The words “vigor,” “vigorous,” and “vigorousness” are much older, dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries. English adopted them from Anglo-Norman, but the ultimate source is the Latin vigor, which refers to physical and mental energy.

The first to show up, the adjective “vigorous,” meant strong, healthy, and active when it appeared in Arthour and Merlin, an anonymous Middle English romance written around 1330:

“Herui, þat was vigrous & liȝt, / On þe scheld him hit a dint hard” (“Hervi, who was vigorous and quick, / Struck a hard blow against his shield”).

The noun “vigor” referred to active physical strength, power, and energy when it appeared a half-century later. The earliest Oxford citation is from “The Man of Law’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1386):

“That right as god spirit of vigour sente / To hem, and saued hem out of meschance, / So sente he myght and vigour to Custance” (“That just as God sent to them the spirit of vigor to save them from disaster, so he sent might and vigor to Constance”).

Finally, “vigorousness,” a longer and perhaps clunkier version of “vigor,” showed up in Promptorium Parvulorum, an English-Latin dictionary written around 1440 and attributed to a medieval monk known as Galfredus Grammaticus, or Geoffrey the Grammarian: “Vigorowsnesse, vigorositas, ferocitas.”

We’re not feeling much vigorositas or ferocitas right now, so we’ll call it a day.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Pronunciation Usage Word origin

Prix fixe or prefix menu?

Q: A “prefix” menu? I’ve been seeing a lot of this. Since “prix fixe” is so pretentious, I’m inclined to let them get away with it, especially now that England has severed ties with Europe. It’s an opportunity to de-Francify the lingo. Nu?

A: In English, as you know, “prix fixe” refers to a fixed-price meal of several courses. In French, however, prix fixe is a more general term that refers to products sold at a fixed price, such as ball bearings, petroleum, taxi rides, and food.

Here’s an example from a French energy website: Avantages et inconvénients des offres de gaz à prix fixes” (“Advantages and disadvantages of gas offers at fixed prices”).

Although a bill of fare that includes several courses at a fixed price can be referred to as a menu à prix fixe in France, it usually appears on a restaurant’s list of offerings as simply a menu or a formule at a specific price

For example (as of this writing), Restaurant La Marée at the port of Grandcamp Maisy in the Calvados region has a  three-course Menu à 27 euros. And Le Petit Prince de Paris has a two-course Formule à 18 euros.

Similarly, Les Toqués du Coin in Strasbourg has a two-course, 15.50-euro special called Menu de la semaine, while Les Ombres, the restaurant at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, calls its three-course lunch Formule Déjeuner un Billet > 51,00 € TTC (the price includes taxes and a ticket to the museum).

So how should we spell and pronounce a term like “prix fixe” that’s borrowed from French but has a life of its own in English? Just the way English speakers generally spell it and pronounce it.

It’s the job of lexicographers, the people who compile dictionaries, to determine standard spellings and pronunciations. All the dictionaries we regularly consult use the French spelling for the term, and all but one of them use only the French pronunciation: PREE-FEEKS (with equal stresses on the syllables).

The exception is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), which also includes the Anglicized PREE-FIKS as a standard pronunciation.

We suspect that many English speakers prefer the French pronunciation because they mistakenly believe that “prix fixe” is the usual term for a meal at a fixed price on menus in France.

It’s not surprising, though, that various Anglicized spellings and pronunciations have shown up. We wouldn’t be shocked to see the PREE-FIKS pronunciation included in more dictionaries, but we don’t expect “prefix” or any of the other variant spellings to become standard in the near future.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to find “prefix” menus online and off, such as the “3 Course Prefix Menu” at Bistro Milano in Manhattan.

In a March 16, 2005, contribution to the Eggcorn Database, a collection of misconstrued word or phrase substitutes, the linguist Arnold Zwicky lists such “prix fixe” spelling variants as “pre-fix,” “pre-fixe,” “prefixe,” “pre-fixed,” and “prefixed.”

Zwicky drily describes “pre-fixe” as a “slightly Frenchier” version of “pre-fix.”

And an April 29, 2013, contribution to the related Eggcorn Forum cites this Facebook comment:  “A neighborhood restaurant advertises a ‘prefix’ dinner. Would that include ante-pasto, sub-sandwiches, and semi-cola?”

If you’d like to see some of the variant spellings in the wild, check out these photos in a July 16, 2015, posting to Tumblr.

The English writer Jeanette Winterson once asked a man working at a Vietnamese restaurant in New York why the signboard in front offered a “Pre Fix Menu.”

In a July 11, 2006, entry on her website, she gives his explanation: “ ‘We fix the Specials of the Day every morning,’ he explained, ‘but before we fix those, we fix the set menu of the day, so that’s why it’s called a Pre Fix.’ ”

“So now you know,” Winterson adds with a wink.

We’ll leave it at that, and go on to the etymology of “prix fixe.”

When English borrowed it a century and a half ago, the French phrase meant “fixed-price meal in a restaurant,” according to the OED. That’s still the meaning in English, though the term now has a wider meaning in French.

The dictionary defines “prix fixe” in English today as “a meal served in a hotel or restaurant at a fixed price, typically including several courses” and occasionally “the selection of dishes available for a fixed price.”

At first, “prix fixe” was italicized in English to show its foreign origins, and it’s sometimes still written that way.

The earliest Oxford citation is from the September 1851 issue of Harper’s Magazine: “We had experienced dinners both princely and penurious … and even with unparalleled hardihood had ventured into the regions of the prix-fixe.”

The dictionary’s next example is from Robert Louis Stevenson’s description of San Francisco in an 1883 issue of the Magazine of Art, an illustrated British periodical:

“You taste the food of all nations in the various restaurants; passing from a French prix-fixe, where every one is French, to a roaring German ordinary where every one is German.”

The OED describes “prix fixe” as a noun that’s frequently used attributively—that is, adjectivally. The dictionary says it’s the same as “a table d’hôte meal” and the opposite of a meal that’s “à la carte.”

We’d add that “table d’hôte” (like “prix fixe”) has different meanings in French and English. In English, “table d’hôte” refers to a restaurant meal at a fixed price, while in French it usually refers to shared dining at a guest house or bed and breakfast.

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Why verb a noun? Why not?

Q: A few aspects of verbing puzzle me. Why does “Bowdler” give rise to “bowdlerize,” but “Boycott” to “boycott”? Is there some logic behind this? And is it verbing if there’s a suffix? To “Shanghai,” yes, but what about “Londonize” and “New Yorkify”? Finally, is verbing peculiar to English?

A: As you know, some language commentators have complained over the years about turning nouns into verbs, arguing that it erodes the distinction between the two parts of speech.

Other commentators (we’re among them) have defended the process, noting that the verbing of nouns is as old as the English language.

The linguist Steven Pinker (another defender), says, “I have estimated that about a fifth of all English verbs were originally nouns.” (The Language Instinct, 1994.)

“Easy conversion of nouns to verbs has been part of English grammar for centuries,” Pinker writes; “it is one of the processes that makes English English.”

In fact, the process began in Anglo-Saxon times with the conversion of the Old English versions of nouns such as “love” “rain,” and “shield” into verbs, and it continues today with newbies like “email,” “medal,” “bookmark,” “tweet,” and “blog.”

The OxfordWords blog estimates that 40 percent of the new verbs in the 20th century came from nouns.

There are several ways to convert nouns to verbs in English, a process often referred to as “verbing,” “verbifying,” or “denominalization.”

(Although “verbing” usually refers to turning nouns into verbs, it can also mean converting adjectives or other terms into verbs.)

The simplest method of verbing a noun, sometimes referred to as “zero derivation,” uses the noun, with its original spelling and pronunciation, as a verb: “I hate rain, but I fear it will rain soon.”

Another method, referred to as “affix derivation,” involves adding a prefix or suffix: “She’s my idol. I idolize her” … “The witch wants to bewitch me.”

A third form is “consonant modification”: “I’m waiting for the bath to fill, so I can bathe” … “It’s my belief; I really believe it.” And a fourth is “stress modification”: “Is that the contract? When did you contract it?”

The first of these methods of converting a noun to a verb seems to bug traditionalists the most, but we can’t see much difference between using the noun as is or altering it slightly with an affix or a change in pronunciation, similar to what happens in more inflected languages.

Why, you ask, did the name “Bowdler” gives us the verb “bowdlerize,” while the name “Boycott” gave us the identical noun and verb “boycott”? Is there some logic behind this?

Yes, there does seem to be some logic—or at least a pattern—behind whether a verb derived from the name of a person has a suffix or not. Here are two features that we’ve observed:

(1) If the person’s name is the source of an identical common noun, the accompanying verb generally doesn’t have a suffix. Some suffix-less noun/verb examples: “boycott,” “guillotine,” “sandwich,” and “silhouette.”

(2) If the name of the person didn’t give rise to an identical common noun, the verb derived from the name usually has a suffix. Some examples: “bowdlerize,” “galvanize,” “mesmerize,” “pasteurize,” and “vulcanize.”

However, there are exceptions to number 1, such as “bogart” (a verb but not a common noun) and “gerrymander” (from “Gerry” + “salamander”), as well as exceptions to number 2, such as “bork” and “lynch.”

Also, our sense is that a suffix isn’t generally used today when coining a nonce word (one made up on the fly) from somebody’s name, as in “She Taylor Swifted him on her new album.”

Verbs derived from the names of products generally don’t have affixes. Examples: “bubble-wrap,” “facebook,” “google,” “rollerblade,” “scotch-tape,” “skype,” “taser,” “velcro,” and “xerox.” (Though companies disapprove, we generally lowercase product names that are routinely used as verbs or common nouns.)

As for turning geographic names into verbs, we don’t see much logic there, though many of these verbs in the Oxford English Dictionary come from adjectives rather than nouns: “Americanize,” “Frenchify,” “Germanify,” “Russianize,” and so on.

Fanny Burney, in her novel Evelina (1778), coined the word “Londonize” (“to make like London or its inhabitants”), according to this OED citation: “Her chief objection was to our dress, for we have had no time to Londonize ourselves.”

When the verb “shanghai” first showed up in the 19th century, Oxford says, it was nautical slang for to “drug or otherwise render insensible, and ship on board a vessel wanting hands.” Now, it also means to coerce or trick someone into doing something.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which uses the past participle, is from the March 1, 1871, issue of the New York Tribune: “And before that time they would have been drugged, shanghaied, and taken away from all means of making complaint.”

“Is verbing peculiar to English?” you ask. No, though “zero derivation” conversions (with the words unchanged) occur more often in English. Other languages generally add an affix to turn a noun into a verb.

We came across a guide to verbing in Costa Rican Spanish that includes many affixed examples, like these: café (coffee) to cafetear (drink coffee); galleta (cookie) to galletar (eat cookies), mujer (woman) to mujerear (chase after women—we might say “womanize”).

The OxfordWords blog, in the post mentioned earlier, says the conversion of nouns with their original spelling is “much more common in English than in other Indo-European languages.” It cites a 2010 article by the Irish writer Anthony Gardner in the Economist.

“What makes these leaps so easy is that English, unlike other Indo-European languages, uses few inflections,” Gardner writes. “The infinitive does not take a separate ending.”

So English can have a noun “act” and a verb “act,” while in French the noun action has to become the verb actionner.

Gardner says such noun/verb words are virtually unknown in German and Chinese, and not found at all in Arabic. However, he notes a couple of exceptions: essen means “food” and “eat” in German, and the Chinese noun meaning “thunder” can be used as the verb “shock.”

You mentioned the suffixes “-ize” and “-ify” in your question. Both have many uses in English, according to the OED, but we’ll mention only a few of them.

The suffix “-ize” is used, for example, to form verbs derived from Greek (like “idolize”) or Latin (“civilize”), as well as to make verbs from the names of people (“Calvinize”) and from ethnic adjectives (“Romanize”).

The suffix “-fy” or “-ify” is used to form verbs from Latin (“pacify”), jocular verbs (“speechify”), verbs that characterize something (“countrify”), verbs that describe attributes (“Frenchify”), and nonce verbs like your example “New Yorkify.”

We’ve written several posts that deal with verbing, including one in 2010 that mentions many common verbs derived from nouns, like “cook,” “thread,” “petition,” “map,” “jail,” “hammer,” “elbow,” “phone,” “hand,” and “farm.”

Here are brief descriptions of the people who gave English the eponymous verbs mentioned above:

  • Thomas Bowdler published an 1818 edition of Shakespeare “in which those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.”
  • Captain Charles Boycott was ostracized in the autumn of 1880 when he tried to evict protesting tenants from the estate he was managing in County Mayo, Ireland.
  • Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts signed a partisan redistricting bill in 1812 that created a district shaped like a salamander, hence “gerrymander.”
  • Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a French physician, proposed in 1789 that capital punishment should be by mechanical decapitation.
  • Étienne de Silhouette was the French Controller-general in 1759. The most common of several theories is that his petty economies were compared to the cheap outline portraits that were popular in France at the time.
  • Luigi Aloisio Galvani, the source of “galvanize,” was an 18th-century Italian scientist and a pioneer in the field of bioelectricity.
  • Friedrich Anton Mesmer (1734–1815) was an Austrian physician whose research in animal magnetism was a forerunner of hypnosis.
  • Louis Pasteur, a 19th-century French chemist, discovered the principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation and pasteurization.
  • Vulcan, the mythological Roman god of fire and metalworking, is the source for the name of a process for hardening rubber.
  • Capt. William Lynch and Justice of the Peace Charles Lynch, who both lived in Virginia in the 1780s, have been cited as sources for the term “Lynch law,” which led to the verb “lynch.” The OED considers Captain Lynch the most likely source.
  • Judge Robert Bork was denied a seat on the Supreme Court in 1987 after a heated Senate debate.
  • Humphrey Bogart, who often smoked in films, gave us a slang verb for monopolizing something, especially a marijuana cigarette.
  • John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718–92) is said to have spent 24 hours at the gaming table, eating only some slices of cold beef placed between pieces of toast.
  • John Calvin (1509-64) was a French theologian during the Protestant Reformation.

We’ll end by letting the critics of verbing have the last word. In a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip from 1993, Calvin tells Hobbes, his stuffed tiger, that “verbing weirds language.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

“Shoulder,” a term with legs

Q: What is the purpose of the “-er” suffix in “shoulder”? Is it a comparative (as in “stronger”) or an agent (as in “farmer”). And is “shoulder” related to “shield,” as some suggest?

A: The “-er” in “shoulder” is not a suffix. It’s merely part of the word. And while “shoulder” may have some distant connection with “shield,” there’s no evidence to prove it.

“Shoulder” was recorded as far back as the 600s in early Old English, where it was spelled variously as sculdur, sculdor, sculder, and scyldur.

The word came into English by way of old West Germanic languages, in which it had two syllables and ended in –er or –ra (the modern German is schulter), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest known use of “shoulder” in English writing, the OED says, comes from The Epinal Glossary, a book of Latin terms translated into Old English.

The glossary, which dates from sometime before 700, has this entry: “Scapula, sculdur.” (In Late Latin, scapula meant shoulder; in English “scapula” has always meant shoulder blade.)

Another word from Germanic, “shield,” first appeared in English writing more than a century later, about 825, in a passage from The Vespasian Psalter:

“Ðer gebrec hornas bogan sceld sweord & gefeht” (“The clamor of horns, bows, shield, sword, and fighting”).

Now for their etymologies.

The OED traces “shoulder” to a prehistoric West Germanic term reconstructed as skuldr-, and it traces “shield” to another prehistoric Germanic root, skelduz-.

These may sound similar, but the OED doesn’t connect them. As the editors say, “the affinities of the West Germanic word [skuldr-] are disputed.”

But John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins does mention a possible link: “One suggestion is that it [skuldr-] is distantly related to English shield, and originally denoted ‘shoulder blade’ (the underlying meaning being ‘flat piece’).”

This is plausible but difficult to prove, since even before prehistoric Germanic, “shoulder” and “shield” were represented by different roots.

Language scholars have identified the source of “shoulder” as an ancient Indo-European root, skep– (to cut or scrape), and the primitive ancestor of “shield” as skel– (to cut).

(These roots, from before written language, are rendered differently by some scholars. We’ve used spellings from The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.) 

What do shoulders have to do with cutting and scraping?

Some etymologists suggest that shoulder blades, perhaps from animals, were used as tools for scraping.

Others speculate that the anatomical term may have originally referred to spades or shovels, and that shoulders were named for their resemblance to those flat, sharp implements.

What does a shield have to do with cutting? In Germanic the original sense, as Ayto writes, may have been “a flat piece of wood produced by splitting a log, board.”

If there is a link connecting “shoulder” and “shield,” some common ancestor beginning with ske-, perhaps new evidence will eventually come to light and etymologists will connect the dots.

One thing is certain about these very old words. They’ve kept their original literal meanings since they entered English some 1,500 years ago—“shoulder” as the anatomical part and “shield” as the defensive weapon.

They’ve become verbs and adjectives as well as nouns, and over the centuries they’ve developed scores of figurative and extended meanings, both alone and in phrases.

To choose just one example, would you believe that “cold shoulder,” in the sense of coldness or indifference, is 200 years old?

The OED’s earliest citation is from The Antiquary (1816), a novel by Sir Water Scott: “The Countess’s dislike did na gang farther at first than just shewing o’ the cauld shouther.”

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On dentists and dontists

Q: Why is a regular tooth doctor called a “dentist” while a specialist is a “dontist,” as in “periodontist” or “orthodontist”?

A: To begin at the beginning, the “dent“ (in “dentist”) and the “odont” (in “orthodontist”) are ultimately derived from a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European term meaning “biting,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

This ancient term, which the American Heritage guide renders as əd-ent-, may have been pronounced something like uh-dent. It was the source of the words for “tooth” in Greek (odous, odont-) and in Latin (dens, dent-).

Now let’s fast-forward to the mid-18th century, when English adopted the word “dentist” from the French dentiste, a derivative of dent (French for “tooth”) and its Latin ancestors.

What, you may ask, were dentists called before the 18th century? The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for “dentist” has the answer:

Dentist figures it now in our newspapers, and may do well enough for a French puffer; but we fancy Rutter is content with being called a tooth-drawer.” (From the Sept. 15, 1759, issue of the Edinburgh Chronicle.)

Yes, for hundreds of years the term was “tooth-drawer.” The OED’s oldest example is from Piers Plowman (1393), an allegorical poem by William Langland:

“Of portours and of pyke~porses and pylede toþ-drawers” (“Of porters and of pick-purses and bald-headed tooth-drawers”).

As for those people you call “dontists,” the story begins in the early 19th century with the scientific term odontia.

The OED traces the term to John Mason Good’s book A Physiological System of Nosology, which he began writing in 1808 and published in 1820.

(No, the book isn’t about noses; “nosology” is the classification of diseases.)

Although Oxford doesn’t have a citation from the work, a search of the text online finds Good’s description of odontia as “pain or derangement” of teeth or their sockets.

Good explains that he chose a classical Greek source for his terminology because compounds based on odous (“tooth”) were “common to the Greek writers” in referring to toothaches.

Here are the OED’s dates for the earliest appearances of some words derived from odontia:

“orthodontia” (1849), “orthodontist” (1903),  “periodontia” (1914), “periodontist” (1920), “periodontics” (1948), “endodontia” (1946), “endodontics” (1946), and “endodontist” (1946).

So why do practitioners of general dentistry refer to themselves with the Latin-derived “dent,” while dental specialists use the Greek-derived “odont”?

Well, the word “dentist,” borrowed from a Romance language with roots in Latin, showed up first, and it had become firmly established in English by the time Good used a Greek term to classify dental diseases almost a century later.

However, we can’t tell you why Good’s terminology rather than the earlier Latinate usage gave us the names for dental specialties and specialists that showed up later. Not all developments in English have clear-cut explanations.

One possibility is that the usage may have been influenced by the writings of the Scottish author John Gibson Lockhart in Blackwood’s magazine in the early 1800s.

Shortly before Good’s book on diseases was published, Lockhart used “odontist” as a humorous term for a dentist.

Lockhart published a series of highly popular comic poems and songs purportedly written by James Scott, The Odontist, a semi-fictional character based on a real dentist of the same name who practiced in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Lockhart put so many of the real doctor’s phrases and friends into the poems and songs that Dr. Scott started behaving like a literary figure himself and perhaps even believed he was one, according to James Hogg, another Blackwood’s writer.

In Poetry as an Occupation and an Art in Britain, 1760-1830, a 1993 book of literary criticism, Peter T. Murphy includes this comment from Hogg about the real Dr. Scott:

“Lockhart sucked his brains so cleverly, and crammed ’The Odontist’s’ songs with so many of the creature’s own peculiar phrases, and names and histories of his obscure associates, that, though I believe the man could scarce spell a note of three lines, even his intimate acquaintances were obliged to swallow the hoax, and by degrees ‘The Odontist’ passed for a first-rate convivial bard.”

With the political conventions behind us, here’s an applicable excerpt from “Clydesdale Yeoman’s Return,” an 1819 poem by The Odontist that offers a farmer’s thoughts about a noisy political meeting;

For ’tis idle hand makes busy tongue, and troubles all the land
With noisy fools, that prate of things they do not understand.

PS: If you’d like to read more, we ran a post in 2014 on “dent,” “indent,” “dentist,” and their relatives.

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English English language Expression Grammar Punctuation Usage Writing

To be or not to be a question

Q: Often, when I write emails to finalize appointments, I end as follows, “Could you please confirm that this appointment will work for you.” Although this would seem to be a question, I am not clear as to whether it really is one and needs a question mark.

A: No question mark is necessary.

Although that sentence is worded as a question, it’s not intended as one. It’s intended as a polite imperative—that is, a courteous command or directive. The speaker (or writer) softens the imperative by framing it as a question.

This is a very common way of expressing a command in a mannerly way.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) calls sentences like this “requests as questions,” and says they don’t need question marks: “A request disguised as a question does not require a question mark.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls this form of expression an “indirect speech act,” one in which meaning is conveyed indirectly.

The authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, use as an example the sentence “Would you like to close the window.” As they explain:

“Syntactically, this is a closed interrogative, and in its literal interpretation it has the force of an inquiry (with Yes and No as answers).” But in practice, they say, it’s “most likely” a directive, a request to close the window.

“Indirect speech acts,” the authors write, “are particularly common in the case of directives: in many circumstances it is considered more polite to issue indirect directives than direct ones (such as imperative Close the window).”

Clearly, a sentence like yours—”Could you please confirm that this appointment will work for you”—is neither a question nor a demand. It lies somewhere in between, which is why a question mark (and certainly an exclamation point) might seem inappropriate.

Still, we would not call a question mark incorrect here—just unnecessary. The use of a question mark instead of a period would make the request sound even more tentative, an effect you might not want.

If you wanted to make the request firmer but still polite, you could use a straight imperative, refined with a “please,” as in “Please confirm that this appointment will work for you.”

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English English language Etymology Pronunciation Spelling Usage Word origin

And, voilà, “wallah”!

Q: I’ve noticed the increasing use of “wallah” for “voilà” in speech and writing. I suppose this because Americans are ignorant of other languages, and so use an American English pronunciation and spelling  for foreign-sourced words.

A: None of the standard US and UK dictionaries we usually consult include the “wallah” (or “walla”) spelling or pronunciation for the interjection.

The dictionaries spell it only two ways, “voilà” or “voila.” Some list the accented version first and some list it second. The pronunciation given is roughly vwa-LA, with an audible “v.”

We also couldn’t find a reference to the use of “wallah” for “voilà” in the Oxford English Dictionary, a historical dictionary with extensive etymologies.

However, the online collaborative reference Wiktionary includes “wallah” as an “informal” alternative form for “voila” and “voilà,” though it doesn’t give any examples.

Of course, standard dictionaries do have entries for “wallah,” a word of Hindi origin for someone involved in a particular occupation or activity, such as an “ice-cream wallah” or a “kitchen wallah.” That word is pronounced WAH-la.

The use of “wallah” for “voilà” seems to have shown up in print in the late 1990s. (A reader of the blog recalls hearing it in speech in Indiana in the 1960s and ’70s.)

In the earliest written example that we’ve found, the writer is clearly aware of at least one standard spelling, and he is using “wallah” humorously,

Here’s the quotation, from an Aug. 6, 1997, comment on a woodworking website about how to calculate the weight of hard maple from its specific gravity:

“The ‘specific gravity’ of materials is their weight divided by the weight of 1 cubic foot of water (which weighs 62.4 lbs/cubic foot). Voila (that’s ‘wallah’)!, so 0.63 X 62.4 = 39.3.”

And here’s an example, from a comment on a Dodge discussion group, followed by a correction from another commenter:

“Pull the cummins and install a powerstroke…Wallah!!!”

“thats ‘Voila’ to most of us.”

In early 2006, the use of “wallah” for “voilà” came to the attention of the Eggcorn Forum, a language discussion group. An eggcorn is a word or phrase substitution like “egg corn” for “acorn.”

The forum’s first of several “wallah”-vs.-“voila” threads began with this Jan. 5, 2006, comment: “As in, ‘be sure to beat the eggs thoroughly before you add them to the pan, and wallah! Your omelette will be perfect!’ ”

And here’s a Dec. 21, 2006, comment: “My best guess on the v > w change is that the w in the French (vwala) weakens the v to the point where it may be more like a beta, and then the process continues to drop the v entirely.”

In other words, some English speakers are Anglicizing the French word by dropping the “v” sound at the beginning of the usual vwa-LA pronunciation.

If that explanation is true, then “wallah” and wa-LA would be spelling and pronunciation variants rather than true eggcorns (word phrase substitutions).

In an Oct. 23, 2007, posting on the Language Log, the linguist Arnold Zwicky offers a “reflection on why ear spellings should be so likely for this word.”

“If you’ve heard the word, you probably know how to use it in sentences, but if you haven’t seen it in print (or don’t remember having seen it in print, or didn’t realize that the spelling ‘voilà’ represented this particular word), you’re in trouble,” Zwicky writes.

You’re supposed to look up words if you don’t know their spellings, he says, “but where do you look in this case?”

“If you don’t know French, or don’t recognize the French origin of the word, what would possess you to look under VOI in a dictionary, especially if your pronunciation of the word begins with /w/?”

Zwicky adds parenthetically that he thinks wa-LA “is the most common current pronunciation, at least for people who aren’t ‘putting on,’ or at least approximating, French.”

Over the years, contributors to the Eggcorn Forum have suggested several other theories about the source of the “wallah” spelling and wa-LA pronunciation. Perhaps the most interesting (and we think least likely) is that “wallah” comes from a similar-sounding modern Hebrew exclamation of surprise or delight. [A reader writes on Aug. 10, 2016, that in Arabic it means “I swear to God” or “Really!”]

As for the etymology of “voilà” itself, English borrowed it in the 18th century from French (the imperative of voir, to see, plus , there).

The earliest example in the OED is from an April 12, 1739, letter by the English poet Thomas Gray: “The minute we came, voila Milors Holdernesse, Conway, and his brother.”


[Note: This post was updated on April 5, 2018.]

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

An old usage risen from the dead

Q: In a usage that I hope is not becoming common, my 21-year-old grandson said he had “deaded” a former friend he had argued with. Are others using dead as a verb?

A: Well, the usage is out there, and it occasionally shows up in print.

Here’s an example from a brief item in the Sept. 1, 2014, issue of Rolling Stone about Kanye West’s performance at the Budweiser Made in America Festival in Philadelphia:

“At one point, he deaded rumors that he and Jay Z were on less-than-good terms.”

In fact, you can find written examples of the usage dating back to Anglo-Saxon days, but it’s not common today and it’s not considered standard English.

Only one of the eight standard dictionaries that we regularly check, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, includes the use of “dead” as a verb, and it describes the usage as obsolete.

When used today, the verb “dead” often means to put an end to something, such as those rumors that Kanye West deaded, rather than to kill someone.

However, to “dead” is also used in hip-hop lyrics in reference to an actual killing, and in video games to a virtual killing.

Here’s an example from “Kingdom Come,” a track on a 2006 album of the same name by the American rapper Jay Z:

“I’m so indebted, I should have been deaded / Selling blow in the park, this I know in my heart.”

And this is a Feb. 9, 2013, comment on a discussion board for the multiplayer video game League of Legends:

“I deaded him and won the game and btw – he was countering my spin with…counterstrike.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, a historical dictionary that chronicles the evolution of words, traces the usage back to Old English, where déadian or adéadian meant to become dead, and díędan or dýdan meant to kill.

The OED says the use of “dead” as a verb is now obsolete, but it has literal and figurative examples for the usage from the mid-10th to the late 19th centuries.

The dictionary’s sources include the Lindisfarne Gospels (circa 950), the Wycliffe Bible (sometime before 1382), Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum; or, A Naturall Historie (1626), and the August 1884 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

In the latest citation, from Harper’s, the verb is college slang meaning to stump a student with a difficult question: “Whose … enquiry, ‘What is ethics?’ had deaded so many a promising … student.”

Although standard dictionaries generally list “dead” as an adjective, adverb, or noun, the Dictionary of American Regional English has examples from the early 1600s to the mid-1900s for the verb “dead” used to mean to die or to kill.

The earliest DARE example is from a 1638 entry in the Watertown, MA, records: “Ordered yt whosoever shall dead any Trees up ye Commons … shall pay for every Tree so killed.”

And here’s an example from Negro Myths From the Georgia Coast (1988): “You guine dead a po man. [You’ll die a poor man.]”

Finally, this one is from Scarlet Sister Mary (1928), a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Julia Mood Peterkin: “Sometimes, it [a charm] works backwards as well as forwards, you might be de one to dead.”

We never suspected that the verb “dead” had such a life. Will this old usage become common? We don’t see signs of a significant revival, but only time will tell.

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On dysphemism and euphemism

Q: I know that a euphemism is an inoffensive substitute for an expression considered offensive. But is there a term that refers to an offensive substitute for an inoffensive expression, such as using “death tax” for “estate tax”?

A: Yes, there is such a term—“dysphemism,” a word that’s about 150 years old.

A “dysphemism” is an unpleasant or derogatory word or expression that’s used in place of a pleasant or inoffensive one.

So “dysphemism” is the opposite of “euphemism” and in fact was modeled after the earlier word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When it was formed in the 19th century, the OED explains, “dysphemism” was a combination of the negative prefix “dys-” plus the “-phemism” portion of “euphemism.”

The earlier word, which has been part of English since the mid-17th century, is from the Greek rhetorical term euphemismos (for speaking well, or speaking with good words). The elements are eu- (good, well) plus pheme (speech).

John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, says euphemismos was first used by the Greeks to denote “the avoidance of words of ill omen at religious ceremonies, but it was subsequently taken up by grammarians to signify the substitution of a less for a more offensive word.”

“Its opposite, dysphemism,” Ayto continues, means “use of a more offensive word,” and was a modern coinage using the Greek prefix dus– (bad, difficult).

The noun “dysphemism” was first recorded, as far as we can tell, in the April 1873 issue of Macmillan’s Magazine, in an article by Lionel A. Tollemache:

“The great system which Comte, and other assailants, call by the euphemism, or dysphemism, of Catholicism.”

(Tollemache’s article was reprinted in the digest Every Saturday in May 1873. In addition, it appeared in the 1884 book Safe Studies, a collection of essays and poems by him and his wife, Beatrix L. Tollemache, a citation that’s listed in the OED.)

We also found this example from the other side of the Atlantic, in an 1876 issue of Transactions of the American Philological Association:

“The accuser, even when driven into the last corner, can still say: ‘Oh, I am quite sure that he was angry, though he did not show it’; then this is confessed to be a mere adventurous dysphemism for what, when strictly defined, is only a ‘dissatisfaction at not being answered.’ ” (From an article by William Dwight Whitney, a professor of linguistics at Yale.)

The word is not part of everyday English (when found, it’s usually alongside “euphemism”), but the OED does have these later examples:

“A minor species of dysphemism is the pejorative suffix, as in ‘robustious.’ ” (From a piece by Eric H. Partridge, published in 1940 by the Society for Pure English.)

“ ‘Robber’ may also be one of those political dysphemisms used to discredit a nationalist rebel.” (From a June 1962 issue of the British weekly John O’London’s.)

Although the term “dysphemism” isn’t common (most of the examples we’ve found are in lexical discussions about it), the use of dysphemisms is not all that uncommon.

Some examples that readily come to mind are “death panels” for “end-of-life counseling,” “tree hugger” for “environmentalist,” “partial-birth abortion” for “late-term abortion,” “reactionary” for “conservative,” “bleeding heart” for “liberal,” “bureaucrat” for “official,” “do-gooder” for “altruist,” “regime” for “administration,” and “big brother” for “government.”

As for euphemisms, we’ve discussed examples of them many times over the years, but we haven’t written much about the development of the word itself. So what better time?

“Euphemism” was first recorded in English, according to OED citations, in the mid-1600s.

Originally it was a term for a rhetorical device, the method of substituting a favorable word or expression for a harsher or more offensive one that might be more precise.

In this sense, the OED says, the word was first recorded in 1656 in Thomas Blount’s Glossographia: “Euphemism, a good or favourable interpretation of a bad word.”

In the following century, the meaning of “euphemism” evolved from a rhetorical device to the word itself, the modern sense of the term. These 19th-century citations in the OED are good illustrations:

“A shorn crown … a euphemism for decapitation.” (From James Anthony Froude’s History of England From the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth, 2nd ed., 1860.)

“The Skunk yields a handsome fur, lately become fashionable, under the euphemism of ‘Alaska Sable.’ ” (From Elliott Coues’s monograph Fur-bearing Animals, 1877.)

After those headless and furless examples, we’re wordless.

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We can’t help but change

Q: It bothers me to hear actors or see writers (who should know better) say things like “I couldn’t help but cry over that.” I thought “help” should be followed by a gerund.  I can’t help wondering where those “professionals” learned English. If I’m wrong, would you be so kind as to straighten me out?

A: We used to regard “can’t help but” as a casual usage, not appropriate for formal occasions. But on closer examination, we can’t help but ask why we saw anything wrong with it at all.

The truth is that “cannot [or can’t] help but” has had a long life in literary and scholarly English as well as in common usage.

It’s a firmly established idiom, and we can’t see any reason to restrict a usage that’s at least 200 years old and is still found in every variety of educated writing.

Yet since the late 19th century, many language commentators have condemned the usage in a sentence like “I can’t help but ask.”

The correct phrases, or so the story goes, are “I can’t help asking” and two equivalent old-fashioned expressions—“I can but ask” and “I cannot but ask.” In those last two idioms, “can but” means “can only,” and “cannot but” means “cannot do otherwise than.”

Apparently nobody was bothered by the fact that “can but” and “cannot but”—complete opposites—were accepted as idioms with identical meanings.  Probably they sounded normal to 19th-century ears because they’d been in use steadily since the mid-1500s.

The “cannot help but” version was a relative newcomer; it did not become common until the early 1800s. Where did it come from?

We suspect that “cannot help but” emerged as a variant of an earlier and very popular idiom, “cannot choose but,” which had been in written use since the 1540s.

In fact, “cannot choose but” was once used in exactly the same way that “can’t help but” is used today.

So let’s start by looking into the history of “cannot choose but.”

Within its entries for the verb “choose” and the conjunction “but,” the Oxford English Dictionary has examples of “cannot choose but” spanning three centuries—the 1540s to the 1880s.

As the OED explains, an obsolete meaning of the verb phrase “cannot chose,” which dates from the 1300s, was “have no alternative, cannot do otherwise, cannot help.”

“But” was added to the construction in the mid-1500s to yield “cannot choose but,” a usage that the dictionary says is now archaic.

“I cannot choose but speak,” according to Oxford, means “I cannot help speaking.”

However, the construction “cannot help” plus a gerund, as in “cannot help speaking,” wasn’t common until the early 1700s, so a contemporary equivalent would be “cannot do otherwise than speak.”

Here are a three early examples from the OED:

“Suche … crueltee … as could not choose afterwarde but redound to his … confusion.” (From Nicolas Udall’s translation of the Apophthegmes of Erasmus, 1542.)

“He cannot chose but he must fall downe flat to the grounde.” (From Sir Thomas North’s 1557 translation of Antonio de Guevara’s The Diall of Princes.)

“He cannot choose but breake.” (From Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, 1600.)

By Elizabethan times, the usage had become extremely common. It was popular enough to be used in a comic play performed before Queen Elizabeth on Dec. 27, 1599.

Here are the lines:

“Whether is it more torment to loue a Lady and neuer enioy her, or alwaies to enioy a Lady, whome you cannot choose but hate?” (From The Pleasant Comedie of Old Fortunatus, by Thomas Dekker.)

From the early 1600s to the early 1900s, “cannot choose but” was ubiquitous in all kinds of writing, according to searches of Early English Books Online and other databases. It was used in ordinary English as well as in works by prominent dramatists, novelists, and poets.

But by the latter half of the 19th century, “cannot choose but” had fallen out of favor in ordinary, everyday English, though it survived well into the 20th century as a literary or poetic usage.

Meanwhile, as “cannot choose but” fell out use in everyday English, “cannot help but” took its place.

In searches of various databases, the earliest definite example of “cannot help but” that we’ve found is from 1809.

(Three earlier findings—from 1646, 1650, and 1776—are too ambiguous to count. The first two, “The hands of men cannot help but hinder this Work” and “Nature and art … cannot help but hinder one another,” could be interpreted in two different ways. The third, “They cannot help but feel the responsibilities,” is from a letter written from France dated 1776, but it’s unclear whether it was originally written in English or French.)

The first clear example is from an anonymous letter to the editor dated Oct. 23, 1809, published in an English newspaper, the Chester Courant:

“When I reflect on the local advantages this city possesses, and look at the flourishing towns of Liverpool and Manchester … I cannot help but fix upon the shackles of the select junta as the cause that this ancient city is less prosperous.”

The expression quickly gained ground in the 1820s and ’30s. These lines by an anonymous poet appeared in the Oriental Herald, published in London, February 1825:

“In truth, she cannot help but think / That bolder hearts than hers would pause.”

This comes from another British source, an 1829 issue of the Odd Fellows’ Magazine, Manchester chapter: “Sympathy is an impulse which we cannot help but experience for one another, it is a feeling that is interwoven in our very nature.”

The earliest American example we’ve found is from a poem by Henry Mason, delivered before the Franklin Debating Society in Boston in January 1830:

“Blame not the heart that cannot help but feel / Its pulses quicken at the soft appeal.” (The poem was published by the society in March 1830.)

Americans seem to have liked the construction. Here’s an example from Pelayo (1838), an adventure tale by the Southern novelist William Gilmore Simms: “We cannot help but weep when we survey it.”

Yet another American example is this one from the January 1840 issue of the New Genesee Farmer, published in Rochester, NY:

“The  immense number and beauty of the articles there exhibited, are truly surprising, and cannot help but excite a spirit of improvement in the mind of every farmer, who views them.”

By the 1840s, “can’t help but” had become firmly entrenched in both common and literary British and American usage.

Here, for instance, is a cluster of sightings from a book published in London in 1841: “they cannot help but be uncharitable” … “he cannot help but see” … “we cannot help but love it.” (From Christianity Triumphant, attributed to Joseph Barker.)

And this flurry of examples is from sermons preached during a Christian convention in Chicago in 1883 by the evangelist D. L. Moody: “God cannot help but trust” … “we cannot help but blame” … “I cannot help but think” … “we cannot help but remember” … “you cannot help but love” … “you cannot help but preach” … “he cannot help but work” … and (five times) “I cannot help but believe.” We might have missed a couple.

Even in the most formal academic writing, authors have used “can’t help but” over the years as if it were irreproachable English. Today it’s found in scholarly writing of all kinds, in fiction, in journalism, and in ordinary, everyday English, both written and spoken.

Examples are so plentiful that it seems superfluous to cite any. But take a look at this one, from Uncertain Empire: American History and the Idea of the Cold War (2012), by Joel Isaac and Duncan Bell:

“Moreover, in so packaging the past through our choice of periodization points and rubrics, we cannot help but draw deep lines of inclusion and exclusion, of identity and difference.”

And this one, from The African Stakes of the Congo War (2002), by John F. Clark:

“As ordinary observers of human frailties, cruelties, and heroism, we cannot help but be fascinated by Congo and its travails; as moral beings, we cannot help but be gravely concerned with the unspeakable human suffering that has resulted….”

The point here is not that scholarly writing is the norm. The point is that “can’t help but” is considered respectable even in the most formal (we might even say stuffiest) writing.

So what do the critics of “can’t help but” find wrong with it? Some have objected without giving a reason, but others have complained on these grounds:

(1) “help” is unnecessary, since we already have “cannot but”;

(2) “cannot + help + but” has too many negative elements, since “help” is used in the sense of “prevent” or “avoid.”

(3) “cannot help but” is the result of confusing “cannot but” with “cannot help” plus a gerund. (As we’ve explained, we think it developed otherwise—as a variant of  “cannot choose but.”)

As far as we know, the earliest critic was Adams Sherman Hill, a Harvard professor of rhetoric and oratory. In The Foundations of Rhetoric (1892), Hill objected for reason #1:

“ ‘He could not but speak’ is equivalet to ‘He could not help speaking.’ Help in ‘He could not help but speak’ is tautological.”

Another critic was an English professor at Columbia University, George Philip Krapp, who wrote this in A Comprehensive Guide to Good English (1927):

“The construction I can not help but think, believe, etc., is crude and unidiomatic English for I can not help thinking, believing, etc.” No explanation was offered. (It should be noted that Krapp also promoted the spelling “Shakspere.”)

Various other commentators have chimed in over the years, like Wilson Follett in his Modern American Usage (1966), who called the usage “grammarless” for reason #3 above.

The first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), by Henry Fowler, has no mention of “help but.” However, the revised second edition (1965), edited by Sir Ernest Gowers, condemns it for reason #3.

The two of us, former editors at the New York Times, remember “help but” as one of the paper’s no-nos. Here’s The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (revised ed., 2013), under an entry for the verb “help”:

“Use the construction help wondering, as in He cannot help wondering. Not He cannot help but wonder.”

We even promoted this view ourselves in the past (but no longer). Pat’s book Woe Is (3rd ed.), last updated in 2010, has this advice:

“In formal writing, avoid using help but, as in: Huck can’t help but look silly in those pants. Unless you’re speaking or writing casually, drop the but and use the ing form: Huck can’t help looking silly in those pants.

[UPDATE, Feb. 2, 2019: The fourth edition of Woe Is I, published in February 2019, treats “can’t help but” as standard idiomatic English.]

On reflection, we wonder whether the Times’s prohibition prejudiced us against a usage that has nothing wrong with it. Yes, even in formal English.

The fact is that the feeling against “help but” was never unanimous.

In 1954 the grammarian Otto Jespersen commented on “cannot help but” and seemed to have no reservations about it:

“A frequent combination,” he wrote, “is cannot choose but with a bare infinitive.” And he added: “In the same sense, we have cannot help but with infinitive,” a usage that he said “is not confined to U.S., but is also found in British writers.”

He went on to quote some 20th-century British novelists who have used the phrase.

Theodore Bernstein, writing about “can’t help but” in The Careful Writer (1965), argued against grammarians who “contend that it is ‘crude and unidiomatic English.’ ” He called it “usual and acceptable.”

So did Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957): “Grammatically, the construction is as irreproachable as I cannot choose but think.”

Today, the more thoughtful usage guides have no problem with “can’t help but.”

Merriam-Webster’s Guide to English Usage regards “can’t help but” as standard English (“logic cannot measure idioms,” it says), and so does The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. Both guides say the only consideration as to formality is whether you use the phrase with “cannot” or “can’t.”

Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) rates the idiom as “fully accepted” and says it “should no longer be stigmatized on either side of the Atlantic.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has little to say about the “help but” construction one way or another.

In fact, the editors use it themselves. In explaining the use of “have” to mean “must,” the OED says that in statements like “I have to say, you have to admit, it has to be said, etc.,” the meaning is “I cannot help but say, etc.”

The OED’s entry for “help” includes a section on the use of the verb with “can” or “cannot” to mean “to prevent oneself from, avoid, refrain from, forbear; to do otherwise than.” Two of the later examples are of the “help but” variety:

“She could not help but plague the lad.” (From Hall Caine’s novel Manxman, 1894.)

“If clairvoyants are to be attached to police stations they can hardly help but become officials.” (From the Manchester Guardian Weekly, 1928.)

Those examples are cited without remark—that is, with no hint that “help but” is anything less than acceptable English.

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Q: When I was growing up in New Haven, CT, my mother told me that saying “rabbits” as the first word of the month brings good luck. I’ve lived elsewhere since then and many people haven’t heard of the word’s lucky powers. Where does this belief comes from?

A: The custom has been around for more than a century, but we can’t find any authoritative information on its origin. Our guess is that it may have been  influenced by the much older practice of keeping a rabbit’s foot as a good-luck charm.

The earliest written example we’ve found for the usage is from the March 13, 1909, issue of Notes and Queries, a scholarly journal devoted to English language, literature, and history. A contributor, identified only by initials, submitted this query:

“ ‘RABBITS’ FOR LUCK.—My two daughters are in the habit of saying ‘Rabbits’ on the first day of each month. The word must be spoken aloud, and be the first word said in the month. It brings luck for that month. Other children, I find, use the same formula. I shall be glad to know if this is a common and old custom, and what is the meaning of the word ‘rabbits.’ A. M.”

Two readers of Notes and Queries responded in the March 27, 1909, issue.

One (identified as Jas. Platt, Jun.) merely offered advice on the best way to use the term: “The word to be most efficacious must be spoken up the chimney, and be the first word said in the month. I am told that if this is done the performer will receive a present.”

The other reader (W. B. Gerish) noted that The English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905) had “numerous references to the use of the term ‘rabbit’ as an expletive,” but none of them used it in “the formula specified” by A. M. (As an expletive, “rabbit” has meant something like “drat.”)

However, Gerish speculated that “the employment of the term by children is evidently a survival of the ancient superstitious belief in the efficacy of this or similar expressions as charms to avert evil.”

Our theory, as we’ve said, is that the tradition may have been influenced by the earlier association of rabbits with good luck. The Oxford English Dictionary has a citation from the late 1600s for the carrying of a rabbit’s foot as a good-luck charm.

When the word “rabbit” first appeared in English in the late 1300s, according to the OED, it referred to a young rabbit.

An adult was called a “coney” (or “cony”), a usage that’s now considered regional. English borrowed both words from French. The ultimate source of “coney” is cuniculus, Latin for rabbit, while rabotte may have been French dialect for a rabbit or rabbit hole.

The OED’s earliest “rabbit” citation, which also refers to “coney,” is from John Trevisa’s translation (sometime before 1398) of De Proprietatibus Rerum [On the Property of Things], an early encyclopedia, by the Franciscan scholar Bartholomaeus Anglicus:

“Conynges … bringen forþ [forth] many rabettes & multiplien ful swiþe [exceedingly].”

The first Oxford reference to the carrying of a rabbit’s foot for good luck is from The Wits Paraphras’d, Matthew Stevenson’s irreverent, 1680 translation of Ovid: “But now too late, I’ve one to do’t, / And you may kiss the Rabits foot.”

In the 20th century, according to the dictionary’s citations, the plural “rabbits” (as well as the phrase “white rabbits”) came to be “uttered for good luck, esp. on the first day of the month.” (We’ve found several other variations, including “rabbit,” “rabbit, rabbit,” “rabbit, rabbit, rabbit,” and even “bunny, bunny.”)

The OED, which doesn’t offer an explanation for the usage, has these examples:

“On the first day of the month you have to say ‘Rabbits.’ If you say it to me first, I have to give you a present, and if I say it to you first, you have to give me a present.” (From Courts of Idleness, a 1920 collection of short stories by Dornford Yates, a pseudonym of the English writer Cecil William Mercer.)

“I hear the clock strike midnight and say ‘rabbits’ …. That is the end of 1949.” (From a 1949 entry in the diary of the English diplomat Harold Nicolson.)

“ ‘On the first morning of the month,’ notes a typical informant, ‘before speaking to anyone else, one must say “White rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits” for luck.’ ” (From The  Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, a 1959 book by Iona and Peter Opie, a married team of British folklorists.)

“Besides, behind her back, rabbits rabbits, she’s crossing her treacherous fingers.” (From The Ground Beneath Her Feet, a 1999 novel by Salman Rushdie.)

“I have said ‘White Rabbits’ at the very moment of waking on every single first day of every single month that has passed. My mother … told me to do it, to bring good fortune.” (From an article by the British author Simon Winchester in the Nov. 2, 2006, issue of the International Herald Tribune.)

All the OED citations are from British sources, but the usage has had its adherents on the other side of the pond, as you’re well aware.

For example, the final volume of The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore (1964) has this example: “On the first day of the month, say ‘Rabbit! rabbit! rabbit!’ and the first thing you know, you will get a present from someone you like very much.”

The seven-volume collection, gathered by the Duke University folklorist from 1912 to 1943, also notes citations from other sources for similar sayings heard in Pennsylvania and New Mexico.

The Dictionary of American Regional English has examples from Wisconsin, South Carolina, Maine, and Massachusetts.

Here’s a Wisconsin citation from Badger Folklore (1952): “Another correspondent … says that in her family it is a tradition to court Lady Luck by saying ‘Rabbit! Rabbit!’ as first words on the first day of every month. Then you climb out of bed over the foot and are bound to prosper.”

Edie Clark, a New Hampshire author, says in a Sept. 1, 2008, article in Yankee Magazine that it’s been a tradition in her family since her grandmother’s day for “rabbit” to be the first word spoken at the start of each month.

And Alan Zweibel, a former Saturday Night Live writer, notes in a 1994 radio interview that Gilda Radner had said “bunny, bunny” on the first day of each month since she was a child. In fact, the title of Zweibel’s 1994 book about his friendship with Radner is entitled Bunny Bunny.

Many American rabbiters learned of the custom from the cable channel Nickelodeon, which helped popularize it in the US in the 1990s by encouraging children to say “rabbit, rabbit” on the first day of each month.

We’ll end with an expanded (and earlier) version of that last OED citation, from an op-ed article by Simon Winchester in the Oct. 7. 2006, issue of the New York Times:

“Ever since I was 4 years old, I have said ‘White Rabbits’ at the very moment of waking on every single first day of every single month that has passed. My mother, tucking me into bed one night, told me to do it, to bring good fortune; and since I have enjoyed fair good fortune for all of my subsequent days I have assumed that the acceptance of this moderate and harmless habit has had something to do with it, and so has reinforced my need to keep up the practice.

“Besides, it is an ancient and thoroughly English conceit: old folk in Yorkshire and Cornwall speak of it having been practiced for many centuries (though the first O.E.D. citation of anything similar is 1920). Social historians assert that the monthly invocation of this most star-kissed of mammals (think rabbit’s-foot key rings, the Easter Bunny, the awesome fecundity of the Australian model of Oryctolagus) is entirely explicable. It would be pretty hard to imagine waking up and crying ‘mouse’ or ‘warthog’ or ‘mole’ and feeling quite so warmly confident of good fortune.”

[Note: On Aug. 1, 2016, a reader comments, “Dear friends told me about this delightful superstition about 25 years ago. But their version was just a hair more demanding: In order to be lucky the following month, you had to say ‘hare, hare’ the last thing before going to sleep, and ‘rabbit, rabbit’ first thing on waking. I imagine there are other variations.”]

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