English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

The “potter” in “potter’s field”

Q: I’m an environmentalist doing research on Hart Island, the site of the potter’s field in NYC. How did a burial site for unclaimed bodies get this particular name?

A: An old sense of the word “potter” as a vagrant or an itinerant peddler led to the use of the term “potter’s field” as a burial ground for paupers, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

As far back as the early 1500s, the OED says, one meaning of “potter” was “a (typically itinerant) trader in earthenware items; a pedlar who sells pots, etc. Also: a tramp, a vagrant.”

This now rare sense of “potter” was first recorded sometime before 1525 in an early Robin Hood tale in which Robin impersonates an itinerant seller of pots in order to fool the Sheriff of Nottingham. Here’s the OED citation:

“ ‘Pottys, gret chepe!’ creyed Robyn … all that say hem sell Seyde he had be no potterlong.” (“ ‘Pots, great bargain!’ cried Robin … and all that saw him sell said he would not be a potter for long.”)

The Middle English tale, which some sources date circa 1500, was collected in 1888 in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, now commonly known as the Child Ballads after the editor, Francis J. Child.

This old sense of “potter” survived into the 19th century. William Wordsworth, for example, uses it in his poem The Female Vagrant (1798), in a reference to homeless tramps that are like “potters wandering on from door to door.”

The OED says the indigent sense of “potter” is responsible for the use of “potter’s field” as “a piece of ground used as a burial place for the poor and for strangers.”

The earliest written use of the phrase in this sense, Oxford says, is from a letter written by John Adams from Philadelphia in 1777: “I took a walk into the Potter’s Field, a burying ground between the new stone prison and the hospital.”

The OED also has these later citations:

1870: “For seven years the land had remained waste, a sort of Potter’s field, and a scandal to that part of the metropolis.” (From the journal Nature.)

1906: “When I wrote a letter … you did not put it in the respectable part of the magazine, but interred it in that ‘potter’s field,’ the Editor’s Drawer.” (A figurative use by Mark Twain in the Westminster Gazette.)

1993: “We had a potter’s field on the campus, where Papa used to bury all the colored people in the area whose folks had no money.” (From the memoir Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First Hundred Years, by Sarah Louise and Annie Elizabeth Delany. The African-American sisters grew up on the campus of St. Augustine’s School in Raleigh, NC, where their parents were educators.)

An early biblical example is included among these citations for “potter’s field,” but it’s enclosed within brackets as representing a different use of the term.

The passage comes from William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the Bible into English from the New Testament Greek (Matthew 27:5 in the Tyndale Bible):

“They toke counsell, and bought with them [i.e., Judas’s 30 pieces of silver] a potters felde to bury strangers in.” (Tyndale’s phraseology was adopted by the King James Version of 1611, Matthew 27:7, almost word for word.)

That is the earliest known use of “potter’s field” in English, but it didn’t refer to a public burial ground for the indigent.

An earlier English bible, John Wycliffe’s 1382 translation from fifth-century Vulgate Latin into Middle English, has “a feeld of a potter, in to biryying of pilgryms.” (Here Wycliffe uses “pilgrims” in its original sense: travelers, itinerants, or strangers.)

Apparently both Tyndale’s “potters felde” and Wycliffe’s “feeld of a potter” are meant literally—a field belonging to a potter. So both accurately render the original wording in Matthew, which has “potter’s field” in Greek.

Now this requires a brief (we hope) detour, because religious scholars have long wrestled with the use of “potter’s field” in Matthew.

The first book of the New Testament, Matthew is believed to have been written in Greek in the latter part of the first century or the beginning of the second.

The “potter’s field” passage is part of what biblical commentators call a “fulfillment quotation,” one linking a New Testament event to an Old Testament prophecy.

The passage presents several problems. To begin with, the author of Matthew mistakenly attributes the Old Testament passage to Jeremiah, while it’s actually in Zechariah.

To complicate matters more, he took the Old Testament reference (to a parable in which money is given back) not from Hebrew but from a version in which the wording was distorted, according modern biblical scholarship.

The source for the reference in Matthew is believed to have been a revised version of the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that was begun in the third century BC and completed in the following century.

The phrase “potter’s field” or “field of a potter” doesn’t appear in the Old Testament Hebrew parable, according to the biblical scholar Maarten J. J. Menken.

In fact, nowhere in the Hebrew Old Testament is there such a ”potter’s field,” as the bible scholars Thomas J. Dodd, C.C. Torrey, and others have written.

In the text of Zechariah that is pointed out in Matthew as prophetic, “field” was a Greek addition and “potter” was a slight misspelling of a Hebrew word for “treasury” or “furnace”—that is, a foundry for smelting coins.

Our sources for this include The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 2005, by the British theologian John Nolland, and “The Old Testament Quotation in Matthew 27,9-10: Textual Form and Context,” by Menken, published in the journal Biblica, 2002.

We won’t devote any more time to the biblical backstory, but we’d like to take a moment here to debunk two common myths about the term “potter’s field.”

There’s absolutely no evidence to support the fiction that this term for a burial ground was derived from either a man named “Potter” or a field where clay was dug to make pottery.

As for the original sense of “potter” to mean a maker of pots, it may have existed in writing in Old English in the 10th century. An OED citation from a document dated circa 1250 “is a late copy of a grant of land at Marchington, Staffordshire, made in 951,” the dictionary says.

That citation, an apparent reference to property boundaries, reads, “Of stenges heale, on potteres lege” (“from corner stakes, on potter’s land”).

The noun “pot,” the OED says, was first recorded in an Old English recipe: “þæt se pott beo full” (“that the pot be full”).

The word “pot” was “inherited from Germanic,” the OED says, but it also exists in in similar forms in the Romance languages. This seems to point to an earlier, prehistoric origin, Oxford suggests.

“The word in the Germanic and Romance languages and in post-classical Latin,” the editors write, “perhaps ultimately shows a loanword from a pre-Celtic language (perhaps Illyrian or perhaps a non-Indo-European substratal language), although a number of other etymologies have also been suggested.”

Good luck with your research on Hart’s Island, which has been used as a potter’s field by the City of New York since just after the Civil War.

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English English language Expression Grammar Linguistics Usage Writing

A note to our readers

We have substantially revised our recent post on the proper verb to use with constructions like “one of those who.” A new post has replaced the one that ran on Friday, Sept. 23, 2016.

English English language Pronunciation Usage

Does Sam Weller speak cockney?

Q: I’ve read that Sam Weller in The Pickwick Papers is supposed to be a cockney. But the main peculiarities of his speech (using “v” where there should be a “w,” and “w” where there should be a “v”) doesn’t sound like any cockney accent I’ve heard.

A: You’re right. The dialect spoken by Sam Weller in the novel, which Charles Dickens originally published as a serial in 1836-37, is different from the cockney spoken in London now.

In fact, it’s different from the cockney spoken 40 years later, when George Bernard Shaw arrived in London. But as Shaw came to learn, Sam Weller’s dialect was indeed cockney.

In an explanatory note about the cockney used by Frederick Drinkwater, a character in his 1900 stage comedy Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, Shaw writes:

“When I came to London in 1876, the Sam Weller dialect had passed away so completely that I should have given it up as a literary fiction if I had not discovered it surviving in a Middlesex village, and heard of it from an Essex one.”

Shaw adds that he used the Drinkwater character to educate people about how cockney was really spoken at the turn of the century.

“So I have taken the liberty of making a special example of him, as far as that can be done without a phonetic alphabet, for the benefit of the mass of readers outside London who still form their notions of cockney dialect on Sam Weller.”

In Shaw’s play, Drinkwater pronounces “v” and “w” normally, and speaks with many of the characteristics of modern cockney, such as pronouncing “lady” as LIE-dy, “ever hear” as HEV-er EAR, and “likely” as LOI-kly.

Shaw uses an “aw” instead of “oi” to render the cockney “likely” in his script, but he’s apparently referring to the same sound. “This aw for i, which I have made Drinkwater use, is the latest stage of the old diphthongal oi,” Shaw writes.

In Cockney Past and Present (2015), which traces the evolution of the dialect from the 16th century to modern times, William Matthews indicates that the use of “v” for “w” and “w” for “v” were features of cockney at least as far back as the 1700s.

He notes that the educator James Elphinston, who translated the odes of Martial into English in 1782, used one of the Roman writer’s odes to illustrate the cockney speech of Elphinston’s time. Here are the opening lines:

Ve have at length resoom’d our place,
And can, vith doo distinction, set;
Nor ve, the great and wulgar met.
Ve dooly can behould the play,
Sence ve in no confusion lay.

Matthews points out several other literary examples of “v” and “w” swapping from the 1700s and 1800s.

In The Waterman, a 1774 opera by the British composer and dramatist Charles Dibdin, the cockney character Tom Tugg pronounces “w” in the usual way, but “v” comes out as “w” when he says “you’ll never catch me at your Cupids and Wenisses.”

And in Fanny Burney’s 1796 novel Camilla, the cockney actor playing Othello pronounces “w” as “v,” and “v” as “w,” but not every “v” is transformed: “I vil a round unwarnish’d tale deliver.”

As we’ve written many times on the blog, the English of yesterday isn’t the English of today, and today’s English won’t be tomorrow’s. The same is true of English dialects.

However, literary cockney isn’t necessarily the same as the cockney spoken on the streets. Writers pick and choose whichever sounds of speech serve their fiction best.

In Dickens’s Pickwick, for example, Sam is much more likely to use “w” for “v” than “v” for “w,” and sometimes both letters are pronounced the usual way. Here are a few examples of Sam’s speech (minus the interpolations):

“Wy, that’s just the wery point as nobody never know’d” … “They von’t be long, Sir, I des-say” … “Yes every man slept vere he fell down” … “Vell all I can say is, that I vish you may get it.”

And here’s an example written around the same time, from Renton Nicholson’s Cockney Adventures (1837-38): “We went in a wan cowered all over with bows, and I vos dressed as smart as a new pin.”

It’s clear that cockney speakers did once pronounce “v” as “w,” and “w” as “v,” but not necessarily in the precise way Sam Weller renders them. Dickens was a novelist, after all, not a phonologist.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

When horses stalked

Q: I know that the phrase “stalking horse” means a sham candidate or a ruse used to disguise a hidden purpose. But were there ever real stalking horses, and what did they stalk?

A: Yes, there were real stalking horses, but they didn’t actually stalk anything. They helped hunters stalk game birds.

When the phrasal noun “stalking horse” showed up in the early 1500s, it meant “a horse trained to allow a fowler to conceal himself behind it or under its coverings in order to get within easy range of the game without alarming it,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest citation for the noun in the OED is from a bill, dated 1519, for shoeing a stalking horse: “Item pd for Shoyng of Thomas Lawes Stawkyng horse.” (From Archaeologia, a collection of early documents published in 1834 by the Society of Antiquaries of London.)

By the early 1600s, “stalking horse” was being used to mean “a portable screen of canvas or other light material, made in the figure of a horse (or sometimes of other animals), similarly used for concealment in pursuing game,” the dictionary says.

This 1621 citation from Gervase Markham’s Hungers Prevention, or the Whole Arte of Fowling by Water and Land, uses the term for both equine and canvas stalking horses:

“The Stalking-Horse … is any old lade trayned vp for that vse, which … will gently … walke vp and downe in the water … and then … you shall shelter your selfe and your Peice behind his fore shoulder. Now forasmuch as these Stalking horses … are not euer in readinesse … In this case he may take any pieces of oulde Canuasse, and hauing made it in the shape or proportion of a Horse … let it be painted as neere the colour of a Horse as you can deuise.”

In the late 1500s, as “stalking horse” was evolving in the hunting sense, it took on the figurative meaning of an “underhand means or expedient for making an attack or attaining some sinister object; usually, a pretext put forward for this purpose,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example for this new sense is from a 1579 religious polemic by William Wilkinson, attacking a mystical evangelizing sect called the Family of Love: “Abusing the pretence of the Gospell as a stalking horse to leuell [level] at others by.”

In the early 1600s, the noun took on the figurative sense of a “person whose agency or participation in a proceeding is made use of to prevent its real design from being suspected.”

The first Oxford citation is from The White Divel, a 1612 tragedy by the English playwright John Webster: “You … were made his engine, and his stauking horse, / To undo my sister.”

It’s unclear from the dictionary’s examples when that last sense evolved into the modern political meaning of a sham candidate put forward to divide the opposition or mask the candidacy of another.

The earliest example we’ve found is from a May 7, 1869, hearing in the House of Commons of the Select Committee on Parliamentary and Municipal Elections:

“He polled a very small number compared with the other candidates, but he was a mere stalking horse for his colleague, who polled within 74 of the next candidate on the poll.”

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English English language Expression Grammar Usage Writing

Is “one” the one?

Q: This grammar question was posed by a friend on Facebook: Which is correct? (1) “She is one of the few freshmen who understand” or (2) “She is one of the few freshmen who understands.” At first I thought #2 was the answer. Now I’m not sure.

A: We prefer the first example. We lean toward the traditional view, as we wrote back in 2007, that the verb in a relative clause (the part beginning with “who”) should agree with the preceding plural noun, “freshmen.”

But this is not a black-and-white issue, and we don’t think a singular verb should be considered wrong.

Many linguists and usage commentators now believe that that the verb can agree with either the plural (“freshmen” in this case) or the singular (“one”). In fact, the singular verb may be preferable at times.

What the question boils down to is whether the verb is more strongly attracted to the plural (“freshmen who understand”) or to the singular (“one … who understands”).

While logic and tradition call for the plural, respected writers have used both singular and plural constructions for centuries.

Let’s examine these two views a little more closely. First, the conventional explanation.

This sentence has two clauses: the main clause, whose subject is “she,” and a relative clause, whose subject is “who.” (A relative clause completes a sentence by modifying the preceding noun or pronoun in the main clause.)

In the first clause, “she” is the subject of the verb “is.” And this is the only verb for which “she” is the subject.

The verb in the relative clause is what concerns us. And the traditional view is that the verb in a relative clause agrees with the antecedent—the noun or pronoun immediately preceding the subject (“who”). Here the antecedent is “freshmen,” so the verb should be plural, “understand.”

Sometimes proponents of this view appeal to logic in explaining themselves. The subject of the main clause, “she,” is a member of a class—“freshmen who understand.” So the sentence could be recast as “Of the freshmen who understand, she is one.”

We can’t recast it as “Of the freshmen, she is one who understands,” because then we’re changing the nature of the class she belongs to. It would be all freshmen, not just freshmen who understand.

Many, perhaps most of the prominent grammarians and usage writers of the first half of the 20th century have adhered to the conventional view and recommended a plural verb.

They include Otto Jespersen (A Modern Grammar on Historical Principles, 1917), Henry Fowler (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 1926), and George O. Curme (A Grammar of the English Language, 1931).

But both Jespersen and Curme acknowledged the lure of the singular. Jespersen says the verb is “attracted” to “one,” and Curme says that “one” is “erroneously felt as the antecedent.”

Curme explains further that “in loose colloquial speech, sometimes even in the literary language,” the verb in a relative clause “agrees incorrectly with some word closely connected with the antecedent instead of agreeing with the antecedent itself, since this word lies nearer the thought of the speaker or writer than the grammatical antecedent.”

In acknowledging the role of the “thought of the speaker or writer,” he puts his finger squarely on the problem. Sometimes another word (like “one”) is closer to the writer’s meaning than the grammatical antecedent.

Toward the middle of the 20th century, opinions started changing. Linguists and usage commentators began to suspect that the common practice of using a singular verb was not a mistake but a natural tendency and part of normal idiomatic English.

One of the first to doubt the conventional wisdom was the American linguist John S. Kenyon.

In “One of Those Who Is…,” an article published in the journal American Speech in October 1951, Kenyon argues that good writers have been using the singular construction since Old English.

He quotes a 10th-century example (modernizing the Old English): “Lazarus was one of those who was sitting with him.” The singular, he writes, “was evidently native English idiom, for the Latin original was different (‘one of those reclining with him’).”

“Similar examples are very common from the earliest Old English,” he continues, “sometimes with plural verb in the relative clause but very often with the verb in the singular.”

What seems to happen, Kenyon writes, is that “the writer or speaker is more immediately concerned with the one than with those, the whole group to which the one belongs. So he switches from the plural those to the single person or thing that he is most interested in.”

His article includes page after page of examples in which eminent writers, from Shakespeare onward, use singular verbs in “one of those who [or that]” constructions. Individual writers, in fact, sometimes choose the singular and sometimes the plural.

For example, he quotes Joseph Addison in the Spectator, 1711: “My worthy Friend Sir Roger is one of those who is not only at Peace within himself, but beloved and esteemed by all about him.” (Addison could have “those who are,” along with plural pronouns, but he didn’t.)

Then, later in 1711, here’s Addison again: “I am one of those People who by the general Opinion of the World are counted both Infamous and Unhappy.”

Different verbs, yet both sentences seem just right. And Addison, as Kenyon notes, was a “famous exemplar of excellent prose style.”

Kenyon acknowledges that “the plural verb agrees with logic and conventional grammar.” But if “our ideas of grammar” cannot accommodate a usage that’s “an established feature of English,” he writes, then our ideas need to change.

“The facts are clear and abundant,” he concludes, “and if there’s no ‘rule’ of grammar to allow for them, such rules should be made.”

The more thoughtful writers on grammar and usage have adopted Kenyon’s view. Good writers use both singular and plural verbs in these constructions, and both represent good usage.

Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans, in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957), say that “the clause verb should, logically, be plural, as in one of the best books that have appeared.” But in fact, they write, “a singular is often used here, as in one of the best books that has appeared.” And the singular verb “does not offend anyone except grammarians.”

This thinking has been reinforced over the last 60 years, and today it’s fairly well established.

“The use of the singular verb in these constructions is common, even among the best writers,” says The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. “Perhaps the only workable solution to this problem lies in which word sounds most appropriate as the antecedent of the relative pronoun—one or the plural noun in the of phrase that follows it.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage takes the same position: “In this case, the mental process involves the pull of notional agreement.” (We’ve written before about notional agreement—that is, agreement based on meaning rather than on conventional grammar.)

As M-W says, “it is simply a matter of which is to be master—one or those.”

Sometimes the verb is made to agree with “one,” the usage guide says, presenting its own phalanx of examples.

For instance, it quotes Randolph Churchill (1945): “Waugh is not one of those who finds the modern world attractive.”

But, M-W continues, “do not think that one is always the master,” and goes on to cite authors who have matched the verb to “those.”

One is Mark Twain (1888): “Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly was one of those people who are infatuated with patent medicines.”

A good indicator of how opinion has evolved is Fowler’s Modern English Usage. As we said, the original 1926 edition, written by Henry Fowler himself, adhered to the traditional view and advocated a plural verb. So did the second edition of 1965, edited by Sir Ernest Gowers.

However, the third edition, revised and edited by R. W. Burchfield and first published in 1996, recommends the plural verb in “one of those who” constructions, but allows for the the singular:

“A plural verb in the subordinate clause is recommended unless particular attention is being drawn to the uniqueness, individuality, etc., of the one in the opening clause.”

Is there a general preference among English speakers? Merriam-Webster’s addresses this question:

“An article in The English Journal in October 1951 reported a citation count (from 1531-1951) showing five plural verbs to one singular. The actual preponderance in favor of the plural verb may not be so great—certainly it is not in our files. But it is plain that those is often the master.”

The usage guide concludes that the “choice of a singular or plural verb … is a matter of notional agreement. Is one or those to be the master?”

The M-W editors note, as did Kenyon, that Joseph Addison “was not troubled by using both constructions. You need not be more diffident than Addison.”

So in summary, you can’t go wrong with the plural. But go with a singular verb if the “one” is uppermost in your mind, and not the class to which the “one” belongs.

On another subject, constructions with “one of the” can also create verb agreement puzzles, as we wrote back in 2007.

And another common problem crops up when we use “one of the” and “if not the” in the same sentence.

Say you go to a fantastic pizzeria and conclude, “That was one of the best, if not the best  pizza I’ve ever had.” Then you wonder if the noun should have been plural, “pizzas.”

The trick here is to put “if not the” toward the end of the sentence, after the noun: “That was one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had, if not the best.”

Here’s how Pat explains it in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I (3rd ed.):

“ONE OF THE . . . IF NOT THE. Here’s another corner you can avoid backing yourself into: Jordan was one of the best, if not the best, player on the team. Oops! Can you hear what’s wrong? The sentence should read correctly even if the second half of the comparison (if not the best) is removed, but without it you’ve got: Jordan was one of the best player on the team. One of the best player? Better to put the second half of the comparison at the end of the sentence: Jordan was one of the best players on the team, if not the best.”

Finally (since we brought it up), “if not” in this case means “perhaps” or “maybe even.” That’s generally the case when used with superlatives like “best,” “fastest,” “oldest,” and so on.

But as we wrote in 2013, “if not” can also mean “but not,” as in “His language is colorful, if not grammatically correct.”

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

The awkwardness of “awkward”

Q: “Awkward” is an awkward-looking word, with a “w” on each side of the “k.” Online sites only categorize it as an adjective, while its brethren and sistren (like “forward” and “backward”) can be adverbs or adjectives. I wonder if it’s related to “gawk” or “gawky.”

A: Yes, “awkward” is an awkward-looking word, one that suits the awkwardness of its various meanings.

That “wkw” in the middle is what sets “awkward” and its derivatives apart. We can think of only one other “wkw” word in English: “hawkweed,” the common name for a favorite wildflower of ours.

John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, says “awkward” was coined in the 1300s in Scotland and northern England, where it meant “turned in the wrong direction.”

Ayto writes that it’s a combination of the Middle English adjective “awk” (“the wrong way round, backhanded”) and the directional suffix “-ward.”

The word “awk,” in turn, is derived from Scandinavian sources. The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology cites the Old Icelandic adjective ǫfugr (“turned the wrong way”), while the Oxford English Dictionary says the source is probably the Old Norse afugöfug, or öfig (“turned the wrong way, back foremost”).

Ayto doesn’t give any citations for the Scottish and northern English origins of “awkward.” But the earliest example of the word in the OED is from a manuscript that includes words in the Northumbrian dialect spoken in the north. The medieval Kingdom of Northumbia covered what is now northern England and southeastern Scotland.

Oxford says “awkward” meant “in the wrong direction, in the wrong way,” when it appeared for the first time in the Middle English poem Pricke of Conscience (1340): “Þe world þai all awkeward sette” (“They turned the world all awry”).

(Though some scholars say the author of the manuscript is unknown, the OED attributes the poem to the English mystic Richard Rolle, who spent much of his life as a hermit in the north of England.)

You mentioned those “brethren and sistren” that are adverbs as well as adjectives. “Awkward” was an adverb when it first showed up in writing. In the 1340 citation above, “awkeward” is an adverb modifying the verb “sette.”

Today, however, the adverbial form is “awkwardly,” while “awkward” is an adjective.

The adjective didn’t appear until the early 16th century, when “awkward” meant “turned the wrong way, averted, back-handed; not straightforward, oblique,” according to the OED.

In the dictionary’s first adjectival citation, from the Scottish clergyman Gavin Douglas’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid sometime before 1522, the grief-stricken Dido beholds the departing Aeneas “with acquart luke” (“with a sideways glance”).

The “clumsy” sense of “awkward” showed up a few years later. The OED’s earliest example is from John Palsgrave’s L’Esclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse (1530), a French-English grammar:

“Awkwar leftehanded, gauche.” (At the time, “left-handed” meant “clumsy” as well as “using the left hand more naturally than the right.”)

Over the years, the adjective “awkward” has taken on many other senses.

In the early 1600s, Shakespeare used “awkward” to describe an ungraceful or uncouth action: “With ridiculous and aukward action.” (From Troilus and Cressida, believed written in 1602.)

In a July 15, 1665, entry in his Diary, Samuel Pepys used the adjective to describe an ungainly person: “The most awkerd man I ever met withal in my life.”

Since then, the adjective has been used to describe, among other things, embarrassing or inconvenient actions and situations (1709), embarrassed or ill-at-ease people (1713), a difficult action (1860), and someone who’s difficult or dangerous to deal with (1863, as in an “awkward customer”).

Finally, you ask if “gawky” (ungainly) and “gawk” (to stare stupidly) are related to “awkward.” No, though all three words may perhaps have Scandinavian roots. However, the etymology here is uncertain or, as the OED puts it, “difficult.”

One theory is that the adjective “gawky” (1759) and the verb “gawk” (1785) may have been influenced by an earlier adjective “gawk” (1703), which meant “left” and was used in the phrases “gawk-hand” and  “gawk-handed.”

The OED says the earlier adjective is apparently a contraction of various two-syllable combining words in northern English dialects: “gaulick-,” “galloc-,” and “gaulish-.” If you’re thinking that those dialectal terms may come from gauche, French for left, think again. Oxford says that idea has “grave difficulties.”

Another theory is that the 18th-century verb “gawk” may have come from “gaw,” a Middle English verb meaning to stare or look intently. Oxford compares “gaw,” dating from around 1300 and perhaps earlier, to the Old Norse  (to heed). But this is all very speculative.

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Priority: the highs and the lows

Q: Settle our nitpicking debate about the term “priority.” It implies importance, so is a qualifier necessary in “high priority,” and is a “low priority” even a priority?

A: Yes, something can be a “high priority” or a “low priority.” But the noun “priority” has several other meanings, which may lead to confusion and even a “nitpicking debate.” Here are the most common senses today:

(1) Something important: “Health insurance is a priority.”

(2) Something ranked in order of importance: “In Miami, flood insurance is a high priority and earthquake insurance a low priority.”

(3) The right to go before someone or something else: “Ambulances take priority over other vehicles.”

(4) The things one cares about the most: “Our children are our priorities.”

When “priority” showed up in Middle English in the early 1300s, it meant “precedence in order or rank,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED, from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1325, says pride springs from, among other things, “Erthly honowre or priorte.”

That original meaning, the OED says, gradually evolved into the “right to precede others or to receive something before others.”

The first citation for this sense of “priority” is from the Aug. 19, 1802, issue of the Times (London): “We must give priority to more direct and specific topics which immediately concern ourselves.”

The dictionary says in an etymology note that “priority” is of “multiple origins. Partly a borrowing from French. Partly a borrowing from Latin.”

Those origins include the Anglo-Norman and Middle French priorite (precedence in time, order or rank), the post-classical Latin prioritas (fact or condition of being earlier in time), and the classical Latin prior (former, previous, in front, better).

In the 20th century, the noun came to mean the “right to proceed before other traffic,” according to the OED. Although the dictionary says this usage is chiefly British, we find it common in the US too.

The first Oxford example is again from the Times (May 8, 1929): “At road junctions they favour the rule that the vehicle on the more important road has priority.”

The noun soon took on the sense of a “thing that is regarded as more important than others; something which needs special attention. Freq. in pl.

The first citation is from another issue of the Times (July 21, 1936): “The function of … deciding the main priorities in all classes of munition production should be separated from all functions connected with the problem of material and supply.”

We won’t get into the use of the term in legal writing, but we should mention that “priority” is often used attributively—that is, as an adjective—to describe someone or something that’s more important than others.

The first example in the OED is from an 1849 letter by Charles Darwin. Here’s an expanded version of the citation:

“If I, a PRIORITY MAN, called a species C. D., it implies that C. D. is the oldest name that I know of; but in order that you and others may judge of the propriety of that name, you must ascertain when, and by whom, the name was first coined.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Jerk, jerky, and jerking off

Q: What’s with “jerk”? A great verb and a greater noun. And what about “jerk seasoning”? And “jerk-offs” need their moment. Which leads me to this slur from my adolescent past: “He’s off jerking his gherkin.” It’s better with a Brooklyn accent!

A: There are several “jerks” to be considered here, not all of them related.

The “jerk” that refers to a sudden, sharp movement also gave us a couple of slang usages—the noun for a fool as well as the sexual verb so beloved of Alexander Portnoy.

But the “jerk” that we associate with Jamaican cooking comes from Quechua, the language spoken in the Inca Empire at the time of the Spanish conquest in the 1500s, which is still widely used among the indigenous people of South America.

We’ll save the culinary “jerk” for later and start with the first “jerk” to come into English, the verb and noun referring to a quick movement.

This “jerk” was known from the mid-1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Originally the verb “jerk” meant to strike or lash, as with a whip or a switch, and the noun “jerk” meant such a stroke or lash, Oxford says.

The word in both forms—verb and noun—was “apparently echoic” in origin, the OED says. In other words, it sounded like what it meant.

Here’s the dictionary’s earliest example of the verb in written English: “Than he beateth and gierketh vs a lytle wyth a rodde.” (From Spyrytuall & Precyouse Pearle, a 1550 translation of a German religious tract by Otto Werdmueller.)

And this is the earliest known example of the noun: “To the manne … foure  score ierkes or lasshes with a skourge.” (From The Fardle of Facions [“collection of customs”], a 1555 translation of a Latin work of anthropology by Joannes Boemus.)

Over the next half a century or so, “jerk” acquired the ordinary meaning it has today. A “jerk,” in the words of the OED, came to mean a “quick suddenly arrested movement; a sharp sudden pull, throw, push, thrust, or twist,” and the verb meant to make such a movement.

The earliest written example of the new noun usage is from Weedes, a 1575 poem by the Elizabethan writer George Gascoigne: “The stiffe and strongest arme / Which geues a ierke and hath a cunning loose; / Shoots furdest stil.”

The OED has a questionable 1589 citation for the verb. The earliest definite appearance is in The Puritaine, or the Widdow of Watling-Streete, a 1607 comedy whose author is listed as “W. S.” on the title page: “Let him play a litle, weele ierk him vp of a sudaine.”

(Because of the “W. S.,” the play has at times been attributed to Shakespeare, but modern scholars reject that attribution.)

By the way, the “i” in those early “ierke” and “ierk” spellings of “jerk” was pronounced as a “j.”

We should mention here that this new use of “jerk” had a predecessor in the Middle Ages, the earlier noun and verb “yerk” (sometimes “yark”). This word was written and pronounced with a “y.”

This “yerk,” which was known as early as the 1420s, started out as a verb used to describe the action of a shoemaker yanking hard to tighten leather stitches. It soon became synonymous with “jerk” and was used in many of the same senses.

While “yerk” (or “yark”) survived well into the 19th century, it’s now mostly dialectal, the OED says. And it apparently never had the slang meanings that “jerk” acquired in the late 19th and early 20th century.

These slang uses of “jerk” are the noun for a worthless or offensive person and the verb (often in the form “jerk off”) that means to masturbate.

The sexual slang came first, and the derivation is obvious. Considering the meaning of the word that showed up in the late 16th century (“sharp sudden pull, throw, push, thrust”), it’s a wonder that this sense of “jerk” wasn’t recorded earlier.

While the OED’s earliest citation is from 1937 (for “jerk off”), the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has citations for the masturbatory “jerk” from the 1880s and “jerk off” from the early 1890s.

The slang dictionary’s earliest example is from Stag Party, an 1888 collection of erotic humor that includes a fictitious list of prices set by a “Whore’s Union” in New York:

“Common, old-fashioned f—k $1 … Pudding jerking $2.” (As we recently wrote on the blog, “pudding” and “pud” are slang terms for the penis.)

And slang dictionaries published in the 1880s and ’90s carried these definitions, according to Random House: Jerking (low), masturbation” … “To jerk one’s juice or jelly … to masturbate.”

Since we mentioned Alexander Portnoy, we’ll include this Random House citation: “Jerk your precious little dum-dum ad infinitum!” (From Philip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint, 1968.)

Now what about the “jerk” that means a contemptuous person, a usage that began showing up in American slang in the early 1930s?

This “jerk” probably doesn’t derive (as some have suggested) from the notion of a chronic masturbator. Neither the OED nor Random House makes that  connection. The OED discusses this slang term in an entry that begins with the lashing and pulling senses of the noun.

So it seems likely that in the sense of a stupid, worthless, or contemptible person, “jerk” probably derives from the physical motion of jerking, like the “jerk” in “jerkwater.”

In the 1870s, as we wrote in 2013, a “jerkwater” meant a small branch line of a railroad or stagecoach (one to which water had to be brought, or “jerked”). As Random House notes, the adjective “jerkwater” is even older, dating from the 1860s.

The noun “jerkwater” soon came to mean an insignificant or hick town. And in the early 1900s, the adjective “jerkwater” was sometimes abbreviated to “jerk” and meant “small-time, second-rate, mediocre,” according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang.

This sense of the adjective “jerk” as insignificant or provincial suggests that the noun “jerk” originally conveyed the notion of a clueless rube.

As further evidence, Random House says the slang adjective “jerky” (early 1930’s), meaning “imbecilic; stupid, silly,” was influenced by “jerk town.”

On the other hand (if we may use the expression), the masturbation sense of the verb “jerk off” inspired the use of the noun “jerk-off” for a stupid, lazy, or worthless person, according to Random House.

The slang dictionary’s earliest citation is from Christ in Concrete, a 1937 novel by Pietro di Donato: “He was … the half-pint jerk-off.”

You mention the phrase “jerk the gherkin.” Here, the euphemism “gherkin” was probably chosen for the rhyme (“jerk”/“gherk”) as well as for the comic value of the pickle as a sight gag. The sources we’ve checked date it no earlier than the 1960s.

(We’ve never gone into the etymology of “gherkin,” so we’ll say briefly that it was borrowed in the mid-17th century from Dutch, in which it was a diminutive of “cucumber.”)

Now that we’re on the subject of food, we’ll turn to the noun “jerky” (the dried meat), the verb “jerk” (to dry meat), and the adjective “jerk” (describing a style of cooking native to Jamaica).

These three culinary terms ultimately come from the Quechua noun ccharqui (strips of dried meat) and verb ccharquini (to dry meat), according to the OED, though the linguistic journey has a few twists and turns.

The words entered Spanish (as the noun charqui and the verb charquear) after the conquest of the Incas, whose Andean empire was based in what is now Cuzco, Peru.

Spanish colonizers apparently carried the verb charquear to Jamaica after occupying the island in the 1500s. The British then Anglicized the verb after driving out the Spaniards in the 1600s.

During a 1687 visit to Jamaica, Sir Hans Sloane, a British physician and naturalist, picked up the Anglicized word, “jirking,” which the OED describes as a corruption of charquear.

In A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, a memoir of his voyage published in 1707, he writes of the dried meat made from swine “running wild in the Country amongst the Woods” and “sought out by Hunters with gangs of Dogs.”

“After pursuit,” he says in an OED citation that we’ve expanded, “they are shot or pierc’d through with Lances, cut open, the bones taken out, and the flesh gash’d on the inside into the skin, filled with salt, and exposed to the sun, which is called Jirking.”

(Incidentally, the plant specimens that Sloane collected on that voyage were the foundation of the British Museum.)

Similarly, the noun “jerky” (as in “beef jerky”) is derived from the Spanish noun charqui. The first appearance in the OED is from Three Years in California, an 1850 memoir by Walter Colton: “A junk of bread, and a piece of the stewed jerky.”

Finally, the word “jerk,” used as a noun, adjective, and verb in reference to the style of cooking native to Jamaica, has its roots in Africa as well as the Caribbean.

Food writers believe that jerk cooking evolved from the pork curing practices of the indigenous Taino and Arawak inhabitants of Jamaica as well as the spicing methods of African slaves who escaped when the British drove the Spanish from the island.

The OED, which traces this sense of the word “jerk” to the Spanish verb charquear, defines its use for the Jamaican style of cooking this way:

“Designating meat (esp. pork or chicken) which has been marinated in a spicy mixture of seasonings (typically prominently featuring allspice) before being smoke-cured or barbecued. Also: designating a seasoning or sauce used in this method of preparation.”

The OED’s earliest example of the usage is from a Jamaican newspaper, the Daily Gleaner in Kingston (May 10, 1930): “You could also buy on the race course from the jerk pork men a quattie [coin worth 1.5 pence] jerk pork with bread and mustard.”

And here’s a more recent citation from World Food: Caribbean (2001), by Bruce Geddes: “Your first bite of jerk may lead you to believe that hot pepper is used by the bowlful. However, the most essential ingredient is allspice.”

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On rifling and riffling

Q: I’m seeing the verbs “rifle” and “riffle” used interchangeably. I’d use “rifle” (pronounced like the weapon) for searching through a box for something, and riffle” (to my mind, beautifully onomatopoeic) for going through papers. Are these still two distinct terms?

A: Yes, the verbs “rifle” and “riffle” are still two distinct terms, but they overlap somewhat, and it’s not surprising that some people confuse them.

Both verbs can refer to searching, but “rifle” suggests a search for something to steal, while “riffle” means flipping through pages, perhaps searching for something and perhaps not.

(“Rifle” here is pronounced, as you say, like the firearm, while “riffle” rhymes with “piffle.”)

The verb “rifle” is by far the older of the two terms. English borrowed it in the 14th century from Anglo-Norman and Old French, where rifler meant to scratch, scrape, graze, or plunder.

When the verb entered English in the late 1300s, it meant to carry off as booty, to plunder or rob, to ransack or search a receptacle for valuables to steal, and several other felonious actions, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first example cited is from Confessio Amantis (circa 1391), a Middle English poem by John Gower: “He ruyfleþ [rifleth] bothe book and belle.”

And here’s an example from Piers Plowman (c. 1378), an allegorical poem by William Langland: “I roos whan þei were areste and riflede hire males” (“I rose when they were at rest and rifled their bags”).

Piers Plowman is also the source of this OED citation: “What wey ich wynde ful wel he aspieþ, / To robbe me and to ryfle me” (“He clearly discovers which path I take, / To rob me and to rifle me”).

When the verb “riffle” showed up in the 18th century, it referred to storm damage, specifically the stripping of slate, tiles, and other roof coverings.

Oxford says it’s of unknown origin, but may be a variant or alteration of the verbs “rifle,” “ruffle,” or “ripple.” (Remember, the French sources of “rifle” meant to scratch or scrape, as well as to plunder.)

In the dictionary’s earliest citation, from a poem in a 1713 issue of the Monitor, a storm does its damage at sea: “A sudden Storm descends, / That, in an Instant, riffles all the Boat, / Whose scatter’d Streamers on the Billows float.”

In the 19th century, the OED says, “riffle” took on the sense you’re asking about: “To flick through (papers, books, etc.); to thumb (a block of paper, a book, etc.), releasing the leaves in (usually rapid) succession.”

The earliest citation is from Johnson’s New Universal Cyclopedia (1878): “Every three minutes the book is taken out of its covers and ‘riffled.’ Riffling consists in shaking up the leaves, so as to loosen the whole and prevent the gold from clinging to the parchment.”

Here’s a more recent example, minus the gold, from Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000): “Most magazine editors can tell how long a story is just by looking at the print and riffling the pages.”

As for the use of the verbs “rifle” and “riffle” today, here are the relevant definitions from Oxford Dictionaries online (a different entity from the OED):

rifle: “Search through something in a hurried way in order to find or steal something: ‘she rifled through the cassette tapes.’ ”

riffle: “Turn over something, especially the pages of a book, quickly and casually: ‘he riffled through the pages.’ ”

You didn’t mention the felonious implications of the verb “rifle” in your question, but we should note that all six of the standard dictionaries we’ve consulted mention stealing as the goal of rifling.

Finally, the noun “rifle” (the firearm) doesn’t come from the verb “rifle” (to search for loot). However, the noun is derived from another verb “rifle” (to cut spiral grooves inside the barrel of a firearm). And both of those verbs may share a French ancestor, rifler (to scratch or to plunder).

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Is “bumblebee” a buzz word?

Q: I am working on a discussion of bumblebees, and looking for the origin of the “bumble” portion of the word. What I haven’t been able to figure out is if “bumble” refers to the buzzing/humming noise or the clumsy flying. Any thoughts?

A: The “bumble” that means to buzz or hum (the one we find in “bumblebee”) and the “bumble” that means to flounder around may or may not be related.

We say “may or may not” because there are differences of opinion about this. Rather than split any hairs at the beginning, let’s start with the etymologies given in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first “bumble” (to buzz or hum) was originally recorded in the 1380s. It was derived from the old verbs “boom” and “bum,” which the OED describes as echoic words that imitated a buzzing, a humming, or the low resonant sound a bittern makes, the OED says.

To this day, the soft, low call of the bittern, a marsh bird in the heron family, is described as a “boom.” You can listen to it, courtesy of the Cornell Ornithology Lab.

In fact, the OED’s earliest written example of the verb “bumble” is a reference to the bittern’s call: “As a Bitore bombleth in the Myre.” (From “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, circa 1386.)

This later example refers to flies that bumble: “Much bumbling among them all.” (From John Heywood’s parable The Spider and the Flie, 1556.)

And this one refers to bees that bumble: “Bumbling of Bees.” (From a 1693 translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel, a series of five novels by François Rabelais.)

The noun “bumblebee,” which we think was inevitable and simply begged to be invented, first showed up as “bombyll bee” in the mid-1500s: “I bomme, as a bombyll bee dothe.” (From a 1530 work of John Palsgrave, a tutor in the household of Henry VIII.)

Etymologically, a “bumblebee” is a bee that bumbles. And this noun (sometimes written as “bumble bee” or “bumble-bee”) replaced an earlier word for the same critter, “humblebee,” which is literally a bee that humbles. (In the 14th century, to “humble” meant to buzz or hum like a bee.)

The OED defines “humble-bee” (which it hyphenates) as “a large wild bee, of the genus Bombus, which makes a loud humming sound; a bumble-bee.” (We should add that the taxonomic name Bombus is derived from the Latin noun bombus, an imitative word that means a hum or boom.)

This bucolic example is the earliest known appearance of “humblebee” in writing: “In Juyll the greshop & the humbylbee in the medow.” (From Treatyse on Fysshynge Wyth an Angle, probably written sometime before 1450 by Dame Juliana Barnes. “Angle” is an old word for a fish hook.)

It’s probable, however, that “humblebee” existed long before it was discovered in a written document. Based on comparisons with other Germanic formations, Oxford suggests it may have existed in Old English, possibly as humbol-béo.

Though “humblebee” was eclipsed by the more popular “bumblebee”—probably because of that nice alliteration of b’s—the old word continued to show up into the 19th century.

Charles Darwin apparently preferred it: “Humble-bees alone visit the common red clover … as other bees cannot reach the nectar.” (From On the Origin of Species, 1859.)

Now for that other “bumble,” which means to screw up or bungle or flounder helplessly.

That “bumble” dates from the 1500s in English writing, and is “onomatopoeic” in origin, the OED says, meaning that the word sounds like what it names.

Oxford’s two earliest sightings of the verb are both from the same source, Sir Thomas More’s 1532 polemic against the Protestant scholar William Tyndale:

“The thinge wher about he hath bombled all thys while. … Which argument Tindall hath all thys while bumbled aboute to soyle.”

Thomas More used “bumble,” the OED says, in this sense: “To bungle over; to do in a bungling manner.” The verb is also used intransitively—that is, without an object—in the sense “to blunder, flounder,” the dictionary says.

As we mentioned, Oxford says the verb is onomatopoeic in origin. The dictionary refers the reader to similar verbs that are probably onomatopoeic, like “fumble,” “jumble,” “mumble,” “rumble,” “stumble,” and “tumble.”

All of those verbs do have in common a general sense of awkward disorder or confusion. And they end in the frequentative suffix “-le,” which expresses a repeated action or movement.

However, another source, the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, has a different explanation for the “bumble” that means to “bungle” or “botch.” Chambers says it refers “to the noise of booming or buzzing about.”

If that’s true, then the two “bumbles”—one meaning to buzz or hum and the other to blunder—aren’t separate verbs after all. The “bungle” or “botch” sense of the verb was merely an extension of the earlier meaning.

Chambers interprets the Thomas More quotations above as using “bumble” in both senses of the verb—that is, he felt Tyndale was buzzing (perhaps droning on) as well as floundering about.

Consequently, both senses of the verb ultimately reflect the same echoic notion: the sounds made by bees, flies, and bitterns, according to Chambers.

Are the two “bumbles” related? With etymologists divided, you can form your own opinion.

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How tolerant is tolerance?

Q: The word “tolerance” seems to suggest something at least one step short of acceptance. To me, it carries the connotation of a superior agreeing not to actively work against someone clearly not regarded as an equal. Has the meaning changed or am I simply a curmudgeonly stickler or could both be true?

A: Most standard dictionaries define “tolerance” as accepting beliefs or behavior that one may not agree with or approve of. In other words, putting up with them.

This is, as you say, at least a step short of acceptance in the usual sense. It also reflects the Latin origin of the word. English borrowed “tolerance” in the 15th century from French, but the ultimate source is the Latin tolerāre (to bear with or endure).

Is “tolerance,” you ask, evolving in English? Perhaps.

We were recently driving behind a car with a bumper sticker displaying “tolerance” spelled out with a cross, a peace symbol, a star of David, a star and crescent, and other images.

The driver of that car apparently sees “tolerance” as something like respect or consideration for the views of others.

In fact, we’ve seen many examples of the word used that way, including this one from a speech by Trudy E. Hall, the former head of school at the Emma Willard School in Troy, NY:

“What is tolerance? Tolerance is the acceptance and celebration of the full range of emotions, learning preferences, political opinions, and lifestyles of those in community.”

However, we could find only one standard dictionary with such a definition. The entry for “tolerance” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has this as its primary sense: “The capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others.”

When “tolerance” showed up in English writing in the early 15th century, it meant “the action or practice of enduring or sustaining pain or hardship; the power or capacity of enduring; endurance,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED describes that sense as obsolete, but similar senses survive today, such as in “tolerance” to a toxin or an allergen or the side effects of a drug.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “tolerance” is from Troy Boke (1412–20), John Lydgate’s Middle English poem about the rise and fall of Troy:

“For as to a fole it is pertynent / To schewe his foly, riȝt so convenient / Is to þe wyse, softly, with suffraunce, / In al his port to haue tolleraunce” (“For as a fool plainly shows his folly, the wise man, for his part, shows gentle sufferance and tolerance”). We’ve expanded the OED citation to add context.

Similarly, “tolerate” meant to endure or sustain pain or hardship, and “toleration” meant the enduring of evil or suffering, when the two words showed up in the same book in the early 16th century.

Here are the two relevant Oxford citations from the The Boke Named the Gouernour, a 1531 treatise on how to train statesmen, by the English diplomat Thomas Elyot:

“To tollerate those thinges whiche do seme bytter or greuous (wherof there be many in the lyfe of man).”

“There is also moderation in tolleration of fortune of euerye sorte: whiche of Tulli is called equabilite.” (“Tulli” refers to the Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero.)

In the 16th century, the verb “tolerate” and the noun “toleration” took on the sense of putting up with something that’s not actually approved, as in these OED citations.

“He can … be none other rekened but a playne heretyque … whome to tolerate so longe doth sometyme lytle good.” (From Debellation of Salem and Bizance, 1533, a theological polemic by Thomas More.)

“The remission of former sinnes in the toleration of God.” (From the Rheims New Testament of 1582.)

When the adjective “tolerant” appeared in the 18th century, it referred to bearing with something. The OED’s earliest example is from a 1784 sermon at the University of Oxford by Joseph White, an Anglican minister and scholar of Middle Eastern languages:

“His [Gibbon’s] eagerness to throw a veil over the deformities of the Heathen theology, to decorate with all the splendor of panegyric the tolerant spirit of its votaries.”

Over the years, “tolerance” and company have taken on various other meanings, such as referring to variation from a standard (“The part was made to a tolerance of one thousandth of an inch”) or the decrease in a drug’s effectiveness after prolonged use (“The body builds up a tolerance to allergy medications”).

What does the sense of “tolerance” you’re asking about mean today?

The online Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “willingness to accept beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them.” The dictionary gives this example: “This period in history is not noted for its religious tolerance.”

Cambridge has similar definitions for “tolerate,” “toleration,” and “tolerant.”

However, some scholars argue that “tolerance” is a less judgmental term than “toleration.”

In “Tolerance or Toleration? How to Deal with Religious Conflicts in Europe,” an Aug. 12, 2010, paper on the Social Science Research Network, Lorenzo Zucca says that “non-moralizing tolerance should be distinguished from moralizing toleration and should be understood as the human disposition to cope with diversity in a changing environment.”

And Andrew R. Murphy, in “Tolerance, Toleration, and the Liberal Tradition,” a 1997 article in the journal Polity, sees “tolerance” as a more personal term than “toleration.”

“We can improve our understanding by defining ‘toleration’ as a set of social and political practices and ‘tolerance’ as a set of attitudes,” he writes.

In a June 2, 2008, post on his blog, the linguist David Crystal says “tolerance” is a more positive term than “toleration.”

Tolerance has more positive connotations (a desire to accept) than toleration, which can mean ‘we have to put up with this,’ ” he writes. “Compare the phrase religious tolerance with religious toleration. The country which practises the former is more likely to be enthusiastically supporting religious diversity than the latter.”

Of the two terms, “tolerance” is far more popular today, but “toleration” was more common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, according to a search with Google’s Ngram viewer.

So language changes! And we wouldn’t be surprised if other standard dictionaries eventually follow American Heritage’s lead and define “tolerance” less judgmentally than “toleration.”

Note: The reader who asked this question later reminded us of Tom Lehrer’s satirical 1965 song about tolerance, “National Brotherhood Week.” It seems an appropriate accompaniment to this political season.

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On “unchartered” waters?

Q: I often hear references to “unchartered” territory. As I understand, “uncharted” means unmapped and the use of “unchartered” is incorrect. I would appreciate any information you might provide regarding these terms.

A: You’re right, of course. Unknown or unexplored territory is “uncharted,” and the use of “unchartered” here is incorrect.

However, the misuse has been in print for more than a century and a half, apparently the result of early misspellings. And at least one standard dictionary includes “unchartered” in the figurative sense of “irregular.”

In fact, the adjective “unchartered” is not often used correctly in its literal sense, though it can be done.

It’s possible to hire an “unchartered accountant” (one without the professional designation), or to sail an “unchartered boat” (one you own instead of hire). But you can’t sail on “unchartered waters.”

We once mentioned this misuse in passing (in a post about “baited breath”), but now we’ll take a closer look.

“Uncharted,” first recorded in the 19th century, literally means not appearing on a map or chart. It’s derived from the noun “chart,” which originally meant a map when it entered English in the 1600s or possibly earlier.

The word for a map came into English from French (carte), derived in turn from the Latin carta or charta, which the Oxford English Dictionary says meant paper or a leaf of paper.

The OED has a few questionable uses of “chart” from the 1500s. The first definite example appeared in the following century:

“The Geographicall Mappe is twofold: either the Plaine Chart, or the Planispheare.” (From Nathanael Carpenter’s Geography Delineated Forth in Two Bookes, 1625.)

Before the English word was spelled “chart,” it appeared in the 1500s as “carde” or “card.”

Here’s an early example, written sometime before 1527: “A little Mappe or Carde of the Worlde.” (From an account in Diuers Voyages Touching the Discouerie of America, a collection published in 1582.)

Until long into the 1600s, the OED says, a seagoing map might be called a “card,” “card of the sea,” “mariner’s card,” or “sea-card.” By the late 1600s, it was a “chart” or “sea-chart.” (Even now, the navigation room on a ship is called the “chart-house” or “chart-room.”)

Over the years the noun “chart” eventually acquired related meanings (a graph, a sheet of information, a musical arrangement, a plan, a course).

In the 19th century the noun gave rise to a verb (1842) and to the adjectives “charted” (1857) and “uncharted” (1890s), according to citations in the OED.

These are the two earliest Oxford examples of “uncharted”:

“To establish the latitude and longitude of uncharted places” (from Popular Science Monthly, 1895).

“In tracking the Siberian coast through the month of August, many uncharted islands were discovered” (from the Edinburgh Review, 1897).

However, we’ve found several earlier appearances, including one that dates from the first half of the 19th century.

In Sparks From the Anvil (1846), the American diplomat Elihu Burritt writes that ancient shepherds and sailors used the stars “to guide them by night over the vast plains of the East, and the uncharted waters of the ocean.”

The expression “uncharted waters” is still used literally, as in this sentence from “Sailing the Artic,” an article by Nicolas Peissel in the May 5, 2011, issue of Sail magazine:

“In these uncharted waters full of ice, unidentified rocks, sand bars and low islands that provide little sanctuary, heavy weather tactics must be planned in advance.”

But “uncharted waters” (along with its sister phrase, “uncharted territory”) gets much more mileage as an idiom for the unknown or unexplored.

The OED doesn’t have an entry for these popular idioms, but in our own searches we haven’t found any earlier than the 1890s.

When used idiomatically, “uncharted” is sometimes replaced by “unchartered,” a substitution that makes no sense.

“Unchartered,” first recorded in the late 18th century, literally means not having a charter, or “not formally privileged or constituted.”

Figuratively, as the OED adds, it means “irregular, lawless.” However, we could find only one standard dictionary (Merriam-Webster Unabridged) that now includes the figurative sense.

The earliest literal usage we know of was reported by the linguist Mark Liberman, who found a passage referring to “the unchartered banks of Scotland” in a 1799 issue of the Scots Magazine. (Reported in a 2013 article in the Language Log.)

The OED’s earliest literal use is from 1812: “Those planters … who should place confidence in the paper of unchartered banks.” (From the Weekly Register of Baltimore.)

And here’s a figurative use from 1805, cited in the OED:  “Me this unchartered freedom tires.” (From the “Ode to Duty,” by William Wordsworth.)

As for misuses of “unchartered” to mean “uncharted,” we’ve found many examples dating from the mid-19th century onwards. Here’s one from Shawmut: Or, the Settlement of Boston by the Puritan Pilgrims (1845), by Charles Kittredge True:

“His prudence, patience, courage and energy made him the successful pilot of the ship of state in the unchartered waters into which she was launched.”

It’s clear from the context that “unchartered” is being used in the sense of “uncharted”—that is, unmapped, unexplored, unknown.

An even clearer example, from Sanders’ High School Reader, an 1856 textbook by Charles W. Sanders, was undoubtedly the result of a typo.

The book cites the example mentioned earler in Sparks From the Anvil, but misspells “uncharted” as “unchartered.”

The adjective “unchartered” is the negative of “chartered,” a word from the early 1400s meaning “founded, privileged, or protected by charter.”

That word in turn is derived from the verb “charter,” originally meaning to grant a charter (circa 1425), later meaning to privilege or license (1542), and finally to hire (1803).

The source of the verb is the noun “charter” (1200s), for a legal document granting rights or privileges, or for a contract between people.

“Charter” came into Middle English from the Old French chartre, which in turn comes from the Latin noun for a charter, cartula.

And here’s an etymological connection for you. The Latin cartula—which literally means “small paper or writing,” the OED says—is a diminutive of carta or charta (paper), the ultimate source of “chart.”

It’s also the source of our map-related words “cartography” (map making), and “cartographer” (map maker).

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English English language Etymology Pronunciation Usage Word origin

Words of prey

Q: As a birdwatcher in Florida, it grates on my  ears to hear the town of Osprey referred to as OSS-pree. The bird’s name rhymes with “prey,” which works since the Osprey is a bird of prey. Why does the town’s name rhyme with “spree,” as in a shopping spree?

A: The bird’s name literally means “bird of prey,” so we can see why you assume the last syllable should sound like the word “prey.”

But the usual American pronunciation of the bird’s name rhymes with “spree,” so the townspeople of Osprey aren’t guilty of any disrespect to this wonderful bird.

The word apparently came into English in the late Middle Ages from the French ospreit, which was derived from post-classical Latin avis prede (“bird of prey”).

It was first recorded in English, spelled “hospray,” about 1450, the OED says. The “h” soon disappeared, as in this citation: “Every goos, teele, Mallard, Ospray, & also swanne.” (From John Russell’s Boke of Nurture, written sometime before 1475.)

Shakespeare mentions the bird in his tragedy Coriolanus (possibly 1605-08): “I think he’ll be to Rome / As is the Aspray to the fish, who takes it / By sovereignty of nature.”

The “osprey” spelling didn’t become the norm until around the mid-18th century, according to OED citations.

The bird is defined in the OED as “a large, long-winged, dark brown and white bird of prey” whose taxonomic name is Pandion haliaetus. It lives principally on fish—both marine and freshwater—and is found almost worldwide.

Getting back to how “osprey” sounds, the OED says it’s pronounced differently in Britain and in the US. In British English it’s OSS-pray, while in American English it’s OSS-pree.

The online Cambridge Dictionary, published in Britain, also gives OSS-pray as the British pronunciation and OSS-pree as the American.

Three standard American dictionaries—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.)—give both pronunciations, listing OSS-pree first and OSS-pray second. They use OSS-pree for their online pronouncers.

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