English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

The roll of the dice

Q: When an indeterminate number of dice are rolled, does one say “die roll” or “dice roll”? I play a lot of tabletop role-playing games and some authors tend towards one usage, some the other. I would like to be correct in my own usage. (I favor “die roll.”)

A: Traditionally, the word “dice” refers to either a game played with dice, or to more than one of the cubes used in such a game.

While traditionalists still prefer “die” for just one of the cubes, many usage authorities now define “dice” as one or more.

If an indeterminate number of dice are to be rolled, you ask, is it a “die roll” or a “dice roll”? We would say “dice roll.”

In the phrase “dice roll,” the noun “dice” is being used attributively—that is, adjectivally—to modify the noun “roll.” We think the word “dice” in that phrase can be viewed two ways: either as a game played with dice or as one or more of the cubes used in the game.

The phrase “die roll,” in our opinion, is a legitimate but stuffy way of referring to the roll of a single cube.

However, the popular online dictionary Wiktionary notes that “die” is “predominant among tabletop gamers.” If the phrase “die roll” is part of the specialized language used by the gamers you play with, then feel free to use it yourself.

We haven’t used the singular “die” ourselves in this post because we use “dice” for both the singular and plural in the gaming sense. We’ll explain our thinking later, but let’s look first at the history of these words.

When the term showed up in early Middle English, the singular was “die” (originally spelled “dē” or “dee”), and the plural was “dice” (originally, “dēs” or “dees”), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The plural showed up first in writing. The earliest OED citation is from Robert Mannyng’s Middle English translation (circa 1330) of Roman de Brut, a verse history of Britain by the Norman poet Wace:

“Somme pleide wyþ des and tables” (“Some played with dice and tables”). Backgammon was once referred to as “tables.”

The dictionary’s first citation for the singular is from Confessio Amantis (circa 1393), a Middle English poem by John Gower: “The chaunce is cast upon a dee, / But yet full oft a man may see.”

However, the OED also has citations dating from the late 1300s for a Middle English version of “dice” used in the singular.

The first example, from a 1388 act of Parliament, uses the plural “dyces,” suggesting the existence of a singular “dyce.”

The next example, a Latin-English translation from around 1425, is clearer: “Hic talus, dyse.” (Talus means “ankle bone” as well as “dice.” The Romans made dice from the tali, or ankle bones, of animals.)

So is “die” or “dice” the singular today when used in the gaming sense? The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical principles, says “dice” is by far the dominant singular.

“The form dice (used as pl. and sing.) is of much more frequent occurrence in gaming and related senses than the singular die,” the dictionary says.

Oxford Dictionaries online, a standard (or general) dictionary, says this in a usage note:

“Historically, dice is the plural of die, but in modern standard English, dice is both the singular and the plural: throw the dice could mean a reference to two or more dice, or to just one. In fact, the singular die (rather than dice) is increasingly uncommon.”

However, other standard dictionaries are divided about the oneness of “dice” when the term is used in games. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, says “die” is the singular and “dice” the plural. But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says either “die” or “dice” can be singular.

Usage guides are also divided. Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) rejects “dice” as “a false singular,” but Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) says: “The small cubes with faces bearing 1-6 spots used in games of chance are the dice (pl.); and one of them is called a dice.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language sides with Fowler’s: “Dice is etymologically the plural of die, but the latter is virtually no longer in use (outside the fixed phrase The die is cast), with dice reanalyzed as the lexical base: another dice ~ a pair of dice.”

We agree with the OED, Oxford Dictionaries, Fowler’s, and Cambridge that “dice” now is both singular and plural. However, we also believe that when at the gaming table, do as the gamers do.

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How “awk” lost its way

Q: In your post about “awkward,” you mention a Middle English adjective “awk,” but you don’t cite any instance of it. Did it ever occur in ME as a word in itself, disconnected from the suffix “-ward”? By the way “awk” has a cognate in modern Swedish: avig (the wrong way).

A: Yes, “awk” was a word in Middle English. In fact, it was a word in early Modern English too, though it’s now considered obsolete.

“Awk” was an adjective in Middle English, and an adjective, adverb, and noun in early Modern English. However, the latest citation for the word in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the 1690s.

(Middle English was the language spoken from around 1150 to 1500, according to the OED, followed by early Modern English.)

The dictionary says “awk” probably came from Old Norse, where afugöfug, or öfig meant “turned the wrong way, back foremost.” Like you, the dictionary notes that the modern Swedish cognate, or relative, has a similar sense.

Oxford says “awk” had cognates in Old Saxon, Old High German, and Old Sanskrit. For example, the cognate in Old Sanskrit, apák or apáñch, meant “turned away.”

When “awk” showed up in Middle English, according to the OED, it had three meanings: (1) “Directed the other way or in the wrong direction, back-handed, from the left hand.” (2) “Untoward, froward, perverse, in nature or disposition.” (3) “Out-of-the-way, odd, strange.”

Here are the earliest examples for each sense, all dated from around 1440. The first two are from Promptorium Parvulorum (Storehouse for Children), an English-Latin dictionary; the third is from Morte Arthure, an anonymous poem based on the legend of King Arthur:

(1) “Awke or wronge, sinister.” (2): ”Awke or angry, contrarius, bilosus, perversus.” (3) “Off elders of alde tyme and of theire awke dedys [deeds].”

The adverb and noun appeared (and disappeared) in the 1600s, according to the OED citations.

The adverb was used in the phrases “to ring awk” (“the wrong way, backward”) and “to sing awk” (“in sinister or ill-omened wise”).

Here’s a sinister/ominous example from Philemon Holland’s 1600 translation of Livy’s history of Rome and the Roman people: “What if a bird sing auke or crowe crosse and contrarie?”

Finally, the noun meant “backhandedness, untowardness, awkwardness” when it showed up in the mid-1600s. Here’s an OED citation from a 1674 scientific treatise by the English physician Nathaniel Fairfax: “What we have hitherto spoken, will seem to have less of auk in it.”

In case you’re wondering, the noun “awk,” sometimes spelled “auk” or “auke,” isn’t related to the avian “auk,” a family of diving birds including the puffin and the extinct, flightless “great auk.”

The English name for the bird is derived from its name in Old Norse, álka, which gave Swedish alka and Danish alke.

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Are the Clintons a dynasty?

Q: For years, Bill & Hillary Clinton have been called a “dynasty” in the mainstream media. But “dynasty” properly refers to a ruling family that wields power over generations. A married couple does not constitute a dynasty. However, this improper usage is catching on. Do you have any idea where it comes from?

A: Yes, “dynasty” did have a generational sense when it showed up in English in the 15th century, and that sense is often lost when the word is used today. Is this newer usage legit? Here’s the story.

English borrowed “dynasty” from the French dynastie, but it’s ultimately derived from δυναστεία, or dunasteia, classical Greek for power, lordship, or domination.

When “dynasty” showed up in English writing, it meant a “succession of rulers of the same line or family,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from John Capgrave’s Abbreuiacion of Cronicles, an abbreviated history that the dictionary dates from sometime before 1464, the year Capgrave died: “Than entered þat lond [Egypt] þei of Tebes tyl xxxvi Dynastines had regned.”

But in the 1800s, “dynasty” took on various figurative and other extended meanings, weakening its generational sense. An “Aristotelian dynasty,” for example, might refer to Aristotle and his followers.

The earliest figurative citation in the dictionary is from John Reeves’s On Psalms (1800): “The next dynasty of theologists, the schoolmen.”

And in the 20th century, according to the OED, “dynasty” took on a figurative sports sense: “A run of success (by a team or club) which lasts for several seasons; a team or club achieving such success.”

The dictionary’s first sports example is from the Aug. 20, 1925, issue of the Lowell (Mass.) Sun: “It may be that the present Athletics and Pirates, setting most of the pace in this year’s pennant battles, are about to create new dynasties.”

The word “dynasty,” as you’ve noticed, is often used loosely, from the  original TV Dynasty to the newer Duck Dynasty and the book Kardashian DynastyIs it now acceptable to refer to a “Clinton dynasty”?

Most of the standard dictionaries we regularly consult have expansive definitions for “dynasty” that would apply to the Clintons, especially if Mrs. Clinton is the next president.

For example, the definition of “dynasty” in Oxford Dictionaries online, a different entity from the OED, includes this sense: “A succession of people from the same family who play a prominent role in business, politics, or another field.”

And The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) includes this sense: “A succession of rulers from the same family or line.”

Cambridge Dictionaries online defines “dynasty” as “a series of rulers or leaders who are all from the same family,” while the Collins English Dictionary says it can refer to “any sequence of powerful leaders of the same family.”

Merriam-Webster Online defines it as, among other things, “a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a considerable time.”

And the Macmillan English Dictionary’s definition includes this sense: “a family whose members are very successful in business or politics for a long period of time.”

As we often remind our readers, especially the traditionalists among them, language changes. And the word “dynasty” has been changing since it showed up in English more than five centuries ago.

We think it’s legitimate to call the Clintons, like the Bushes and the Kennedys, a dynasty.

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Why the dead are “late”

Q: Why do people refer to a deceased person as “late”? I googled the question, but found no satisfactory answers.

A: To begin at the beginning, the adjective “late” meant “slow,” “sluggish,” “idle,” or “negligent” when it showed up in Old English and other Germanic languages, including Old Norse, Old Icelandic, and Old High German.

It ultimately comes from lad-, an ancient Indo-European base that gave Latin lassus (weary), source of the English words “lassitude” and “alas,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The earliest example of “late” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Pastoral Care (circa 897), King Ælfred’s translation of a sixth-century Latin treatise by Pope Gregory I:

“Sie æghwelc mon suiðe hræd & suiðe geornful to gehieranne, & suiðe læt to sprecenne” (“Let every man be very ready and eager to hear, and very late [that is, “slow”] to speak.”

The OED’s first example for the usual modern sense of “late” (“that occurs, comes, or happens after the proper, right, or expected time”) is from the Catholic Homilies of the Benedictine monk and scholar Ælfric of Eynsham, probably written between 990 and 995:

“Hi behreowsodon þæt hi ele næfdon, ac heora behreowsung wæs to lætt” (“They repented that they had no oil, but their repentance was too late”).

Since then, the adjective “late” has taken on many other senses, as in “a late winning goal,” “the late Elizabethan era,” “my late profession,” “sorry to call so late,” “it comes late in Hamlet,” “a late flowering perennial,” and so on.

The sense you’re asking about (“designating a person recently deceased”) showed up in the early 15th century, according to the OED. The first known example in writing is from a petition dated sometime before 1422: “Elizabeth, ye Wyfe of ye seid late Erle.”

The dictionary’s next example is from William Caxton’s 1490 Middle English translation (by way of French) of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Her swete and late amyable husbonde.”

The OED says the “recently dead” sense of “late” was apparently influenced by the use of the adverb “late” to mean “not long ago (but not now); recently, but no longer.”

Here’s an adverbial example, from a 1435 will, that hints at the adjectival usage: “Thys is the will o Isabell Dove, lat [that is, “formerly”] the wyf of Thomas Dove.”

The adverb also apparently led to the use of the adjective “late” to mean “former,” as in “my late profession” or “his late residence.”

The OED’s earliest citation for this sense is from a 1446 document about the finances at the Cistercian abbey in Cupar-Angus, Scotland:

“Item the … altarage of the Kyrk of South Alveth to our laeyt tenand Johne Wil[ȝ]amson for all the dayis of hys lyfe.” (The term “altarage,” which is now historical, refers here to the former tenant’s income from the offerings at a church altar.)

We’ll end with the use of the expression “the late lamented” in reference to someone who has recently died. The first OED example is from Uncle Silas, an 1864 thriller by the Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Here’s an expanded version:

“I beg pardon, Miss Ruthyn; perhaps you would be so good as to show to which of the cabinets in this room your late lamented father pointed out as that to which this key belongs.”

Note: We wrote a post in 2012 on an unusual use of “late” for “deceased” in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels.

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Today’s topic: English words from Native American languages.

English English language Expression Usage Writing

Graphic language

Q: I had to unsubscribe to your emailed posts after receiving one at work that discussed certain masturbatory terminology. I strongly suggest that you stop emailing such unprofessional content or notify people signing up for email delivery that some content may not be appropriate for the workplace. Should you choose to keep PG-13 rated material on your website and only email G-rated material, I’d happy return as a subscriber.

A: We’re sorry to see you go, but we object to your description of our “Jerk, jerky, and jerking off” post as unprofessional. We work hard on our posts, and our readers generally appreciate them, judging from the many kind responses and donations we receive.

We write a language blog, and some language is labeled vulgar, offensive, or impolite by standard dictionaries. Nevertheless, those dictionaries discuss such terms, and so do we when asked about them.

We don’t go out of our way to write about language that some readers might find offensive, but we don’t shy away from it either.

We imagine that many of our readers get the blog at work by email or RSS feed. You’re the only one who has raised concerns about receiving the occasional discussion of a graphic term at work—a term that’s probably in your office dictionary.

You suggest that we should warn people as they sign up for email delivery that some posts may be inappropriate for the workplace. We think our readers would be offended by such a warning and its implication that there’s something wrong with a scholarly discussion of a vulgar term.

In fact, not all standard dictionaries consider the phrasal verb “jerk off” vulgar. Here’s what the Collins English Dictionary has to say in a usage note on the subject:

“The term jerk off was formerly considered to be taboo, and it was labelled as such in older editions of Collins English Dictionary. However, it has now become acceptable in speech, although some older or more conservative people may object to its use.”

We don’t necessarily agree with Collins. We would indeed describe “jerk off” as vulgar, as we would a couple of the terms that the linguist John McWhorter cites in a July 1, 2013, article on Slate about the evolution of profanity:

Damnhellshit, and fuck are not what an anthropologist observing us would classify as ‘taboo.’ We all say them all the time. Those words are not profane in what our modern culture is—they are, rather, salty. That’s all. Anyone who objects would be surprised to go back 50 years and try to use those words as casually as we do now and ever be asked again to parties.”

The lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower says in that Slate article that words once considered taboo or offensive can over time become moderate oaths for various reasons.

“The entire category can change, so that, for example, words insulting one’s parentage, such as bastard or whoreson, are now relatively mild curses because we no longer place a particularly high value on such things.”

Sheidlower adds that the words “bastard” and “damn” were so offensive in the 18th century that “they would frequently be printed b–d or d—n.” But sensitivities change, he says. “Now, they are relatively mild oaths for most English speakers.”

In other words, language changes. And it’s the job of language writers to discuss its evolution.

Again, we’re sorry to see you go. If you don’t want to receive the blog by email at work, perhaps you can get it at home.

[Update: A few hours after this was posted, an I.T. person who reads the blog pointed out that it’s a “recipe for disaster” to get personal email at work, and that all email received at work is the property of the employer.]

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Relational therapy

Q: Could one use either “related” or “relayed” in the following sentence? “Scott had already related to Ivan what Russ had said in Baton Rouge about the gathering at Fred’s apartment.”

A: Yes, both verbs, “relate” and “relay,” can be used in that sentence, though “relay” is more precise.

“Relate” means, among other things, to tell something to someone, while “relay” here means to pass information from one person along to another.

These are the relevant definitions from Oxford Dictionaries online, one of the standard, or general, dictionaries we regularly consult:

Relate: “Give an account of (a sequence of events); narrate,” as in “various versions of the chilling story have been related by the locals.”

Relay: “Receive and pass on (information or a message),” as in “she intended to relay everything she had learned.”

In your sentence, Scott does both—he tells something to someone, as well as passing along something said by someone else. In other words, he “relates” something and “relays” it.

Either verb is correct, but “relay” would emphasize the “passing along” sense.

Both “relate” and “relay” showed up in the 15th century, but it took hundreds of years for “relay” to take on the sense we’re talking about, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a historical dictionary that traces the evolution of words.

The OED says “relate” is derived from the Middle French relater (to report or recount) and the classical Latin referre (to bring back, report, recall, and other senses). The Latin verb combines re- (back) and ferre (carry).

When “relate” showed up in English in the late 1400s it meant “to be brought or put between two things,” but that sense is now considered rare or obsolete, according to the OED.

The verb soon took on the sense we’re discussing: “to recount, narrate, give an account of (actions, events, facts, etc.”), Oxford says.

The earliest known citation, the OED says, is from John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse (1530), a French grammar for English speakers: “I wolde nat relate the mater otherwyse than I herde it for all the good in the worlde.”

The verb “relay” is an adaptation of the Middle French relayer, meaning to change hounds during a hunt. When it appeared in English in the early 15th century, the OED says, it meant to “release a set of hounds in a chase, esp. after a previous set has passed.”

The dictionary has several examples of this now-obsolete usage from Master of the Game (circa 1425), a book about hunting by Edward, Duke of York. All the citations refer to deer hunting, including this one: “Digby relaye his houndes vpon þe fues” (“Digby relayed his hounds upon the scent”).

The sense of “relay” that you’re asking about showed up in the mid-19th century.

The earliest example in the OED is from My Thirty Years Out of the Senate (1859), a collection of fictional letters written by Seba Smith, a New England newspaper publisher and political satirist: “A young boy stands by the table relaying a message to the man.”

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When chairmen carried chairs

Q: I came across an old penny dreadful online that refers to one of the bearers of a sedan chair as a “chairman.” Is that the original meaning of the term?

A: No, the word “chairman” meant pretty much what it means today when it showed up in the mid-1600s. However, the use of the term for one of the bearers of a sedan chair appeared a few decades later.

For readers who aren’t familiar with the term, a “sedan chair” was a fashionable form of transportation in Britain in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. The enclosed chair for one passenger was carried on poles by two bearers, one in front and one in back.

(Similar wheelless vehicles carried by humans have been used around the world since ancient times.)

When the word “chairman” showed up in the mid-17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to the “occupier of a chair of authority,” especially someone “chosen to preside over a meeting.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from a 1654 commentary on the Book of Job by John Trapp, a Church of England clergyman: “I sate chief, and was Chair-man.”

The dictionary’s next example (which we’ve expanded) is from a Jan. 22, 1661, entry in the Diary of Samuel Pepys:

“It pleased me much now to come in this condition to this place I was once a petitioner for my exhibition in Paul’s School; and where Sir G. Downing (my late master) was chaireman.”

Interestingly, the use of “chairwoman” for a “woman who occupies the chair of presidency at a meeting” is almost as old, though it wasn’t used much until the 19th century, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example for “chairwoman” is from the English poet Thomas Brown’s 1699 translation of seven colloquies of Erasmus: “We ought to have … four Chairwomen of our four Committees.”

The use of “chair” by itself for the occupant of the seat of authority dates from the mid-1600s. The earliest Oxford citation is a 1659 entry in the diary of Thomas Burton:

“The Chair behaves himself like a Busby amongst so many schoolboys … and takes a little too much on him.” (The word “Busby” is apparently being used here figuratively for a soldier who wears a busby, a tall fur hat.)

Now, the dictionary says, “chair” is used “an alternative for ‘chairman’ or ‘chairwoman,’ esp. deliberately so as not to imply a particular sex.”

The OED’s earliest citation for the gender-neutral “chairperson” is from the September 1971 issue of Science News: “A group of women psychologists thanked the board for using the word ‘chairperson’ rather than ‘chairman.’ ”

Getting back to “chairman,” in the 18th century the term took on the sense of a “member of a corporate body appointed or elected to preside at its meetings, and in general to exercise the chief authority in the conduct of its affairs; the president.”

The OED’s first citation is from Ephraim Chambers’s 1782 Cyclopædia: “The directors are twenty-four in number, including the chairman and deputy-chairman.”

Backing up a bit, the word “chairman” was first used in the late 17th century for someone “whose occupation it is to carry persons in chairs or chair-like conveyances; spec. the two men who carried a sedan-chair,” according to Oxford.

The first example given is from a 1682 issue of the London Gazette: “A tall Blackamore … in a Green Doublet and Breeches, with a large Chairmans Coat of the same colour.”

And here’s a 1703 example from the Gazette: “Twenty Chairmen, with Sedans.”

A “sedan chair” was originally called a “sedan” when the term appeared in the mid-17th century. The OED’s first citation is from The Sparagus Garden, a 1640 comedy by the English dramatist Richard Brome:

“Shee’s now gone forth in one o’ the new Hand-litters: what call yee it, a Sedan.”

The earliest OED example for the full term “sedan chair” is from a 1750 will cited in John Orlebar Payne’s Records of the English Catholics (1889): “My sedan chair.”

The dictionary says the belief that the usage was derived from “the name of Sedan, a town of NE. France, has nothing to support it, and seems unlikely.”

It notes a report that the original sedan chair was imported from Italy, adding that it’s “therefore natural to suppose that the word might be from some South Italian derivative of Italian sede (Latin sēdēs) seat, sedere to sit.”

However, the OED adds that “there seems to be no trustworthy evidence of the existence in Italian dialects of any form from which the English word could be derived. ”

In other words, origin unknown.

Today, the “sedan chair” is a footnote to history, and “sedan” has been used since the early 20th century, chiefly in North America, to mean a type of automobile.

Returning to your question, we should mention that the term “penny dreadful” refers to cheaply published sensational crime stories that were popular in the 19th century. Oxford Dictionaries online says they were “so named because the original cost was one penny.”

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When “my wife” is “the wife”

Q: Why does a husband refer to his spouse as “the wife,” not “my wife,” and a wife likewise to “the husband,” not “my husband”? Any insight would be greatly appreciated.

A: English speakers have been using “the” in place of a possessive pronoun like “my” or “your” in reference to relatives (husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, and so on) for at least two centuries.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the adjective “the” here is being used “colloquially with names of relatives, as the wifethe mother = my (your) wife, mother.”

The earliest written example in the OED is from an 1838 story in Historical, Traditionary and Imaginative Tales of the Borders, a series of books published from 1835 to ’40 by the Scottish writer John Mackay Wilson: “What shall I say to the wife?”

However, we found an earlier example in Old Mortality, an 1816 novel by Sir Walter Scott: “Cuddie soon returned assuring the stranger ‘that the gudewife should make a bed up for him.’ ”

We suspect that the usage may be of Scottish origin. The Scottish National Dictionary, in its entry for “the,” describes the usage as “Gen. Sc.” (General Scots), but notes that it’s also found in “in colloq. and dial. Eng.”

Here are some more examples from the OED for “the” used in place of a possessive pronoun:

“ ‘It’s a long while since the governor [that is, my father] was here,’ remarked Mr. Charles Larkyns, very unfilially.” (From The Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green, an 1853 novel by Cuthbert M. Bede, a pseudonym for Edward Bradley, an English clergyman.)

“The Mater will do anything for me.” (From The Mystery of Mirbridge, an 1881 novel by the English writer John Payne.)

“The mother and sisters would like to call upon you.” (From The American Girl in London, an 1891 novel by the Canadian writer Sara Jeannette Duncan.)

“The pater will say I’m a fool, the mater’ll say the girl isn’t good enough for me.” (From Somerley, School-Boy and Undergraduate, a 1900 autobiographical novel by Gilbert Swift.)

“[I] sent off an express to Patty and the Mother last night.” (From Richard Carvell, a 1901 novel by the American writer Winston Churchill.)

Why did the usage develop? We don’t know, and we haven’t seen any theories about it.

The earliest citation above (“the gudewife”) uses the phrase affectionately. Perhaps the next citation (“the wife”) is a shortening of “the good wife.” Or perhaps not.

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Melania’s pussy bow

Q: In honor of one of my fave blog topics, why is it called a “pussy bow”? PS: I long for the days when we could giggle at newscasters who had to say “Pussy Riot.”

A: “Pussy bow,” a term for a large, floppy bow at the neck of a woman’s blouse, has been in the news lately. Melania Trump wore one to her husband’s debate last Sunday with Hillary Clinton.

Did she wear it as a comment on Donald Trump’s use of the term “pussy” in a controversial video that surfaced last week? No, according to the Trump campaign. We’ll leave it at that, and get on to your question.

The “pussy” in “pussy bow” is from the feline, not the genital, use of the word. When the usage first showed up in fashion writing of the late 19th century, the term was “pussycat bow.”

The language researcher Peter Reitan, writing on the discussion group of the American Dialect Society, reported finding this example in the July 25, 1892, issue of the St Paul (Minn.) Daily Globe:

“Narrow velvet and little pussy-cat bows are seen on many of the summer costumes of light material.”

Even earlier, Reitan found a precursor to the “bow” version, “pussycat ribbon.” This is from an 1887 review of summer fashions spotted at a British Embassy gathering in France:

“The same unanimity was visible in the arrangement of the materials around the throat. High officer collars, Charles IX. cravats, pussy-cat neck ribbons, with bows under the ears, were almost the rule, with only a solitary exception here and there.” (From the Sunday Truth, Buffalo, N.Y., July 31, 1887.)

We found this early 20th-century example of  “pussy-cat bow” in an article by Mrs. Eric Pritchard in the December 1902 issue of Lady’s Realm: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine:

“Really there is something extremely fascinating in a ‘pussycat bow’; it is so feminine, frivolous, and charming, and, somehow, anything light just under the face, relieving the sombre tint of winter toilettes, is always becoming.”

As for the short version, “pussy bow,” the earliest example we’ve found is from Business and Advertising, a 1908 book by Ashby Goodall that says an advertisement could offer suggestions for using a product.

An ad for a fabric, Goodall writes, might suggest using it to make “some pretty feminine trifle” for each of one’s friends: “Say a stock for one, a pussy bow for another, a Marie Antoinette ruch for a third, etc., etc.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has later citations for both of these terms.

The dictionary’s earliest example for “pussycat bow” is from an ad in the March 23, 1932, issue of the Winnipeg Free Press: “Easter Scarves. Linker, Lyolene, Sore Throat, or Pussy Cat Bow types, in daring dashing shades lend that riotous air Spring suggests.”

And the OED’s earliest example for “pussy bow” is from an ad in the Feb. 14, 1946, issue of the Fitchburg (Mass.) Sentinel: “Betsy Ross pussy-bow blouse, white and colors.”

Some fashion writers have suggested that the terms “pussy bow” and “pussycat bow” are derived from the tying of colorful ribbons around the necks of cats, though we haven’t found any etymologists who’ve weighed in on the issue.

We have, however, found many 19th-century pictures of cats with ribbons around their necks, including several on a page of Currier and Ives lithographs.

The use of pussy bows in women’s fashion has grown in popularity since the mid-20th century, appearing in the work of Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, and other designers.

Women who’ve worn them include Margaret Thatcher, Jane Fonda, and Peggy Olsen of Mad Men, all pictured in the link at the beginning of this post.

We’ll end with this OED citation from the August 1994 issue of Sainsbury’s magazine: “Will I start foxhunting, wearing pussy-bow blouses or calling for capital punishment in schools?”

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 1, 2019.]

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Needlework: sewer or sewist?

Q: Some in our sewing group think a person who sews is a “sewer,” while others prefer “sewist.” To me, “sewer” is more natural, but others say it looks like the drain pipe. (We all agree that “seamstress” sounds too businesslike for a hobbyist, and besides it rules out men.)

A: One who sews is generally called a “sewer” (pronounced SOH-er), a word that’s been in English writing since the 1300s. The alternative, “sewist,” first appeared in the mid-19th century, and it’s quite popular on sewing websites.

Certainly “sewer,” defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “one who sews,” has history on its side, though it was variously spelled “sower,” “sawer,” and “shewer” at first.

The earliest known use of it in writing, according to the OED, is from William Langland’s long poem Richard the Redeles (1399). These lines are part of a satirical passage about a puffy sleeve, extravagantly slashed and scalloped, that was fashionable in the Middle Ages:

“Seuene goode sowers sixe wekes after / Moun not sett þe seemes ne sewe hem aȝeyn” (“Seven good sewers, for six weeks afterward, / May not set the seams nor sew it together again”).

The term has been in steady use ever since. Samuel Johnson, in A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), spelled the word “sewer” and defined it as “He that uses a needle.”

Here are a couple of the OED’s 19th-century examples:

“The sewer has it placed on a long table round which she travels, stitching as she goes” (from a British newspaper, the Echo, December 1870).

“She was not only a neat sewer, but could cut out men’s shirts” (from a Victorian novel, Edward Peacock’s Narcissa Brendon, 1891).

The OED’s entry for the word hasn’t been updated for more than a century, but we can assure you that “sewer” is still going strong.

For example, the sewing guru Sandra Betzina uses it in the title of her book Fabric Savvy: The Essential Guide for Every Sewer (1999). And a trademark logo of the Huskvarna Viking sewing-machine company is “Made for Sewers, by Sewers.”

We see no reason to abandon a word after more than 600 years of English usage. In speech, of course, it will never be confused with the other “sewer” (pronounced SOO-er). And in writing it would be difficult to confuse the two nouns if they were used in context.

As for “sewist,” the earliest OED example is from a Wisconsin newspaper: “But what is the use of our discussing the merits of a sewing machine; we are no ‘sewist’ ” (The Eau Claire Free Press, Dec. 19, 1867).

The dictionary’s next citation is from an upstate New York newspaper: “When the men were set to work cutting out emblems representing their divisions and sewing them onto the sleeves of their blouses and overcoats, they were sure they were making themselves pretty to be sent home. ‘And me the worst sewer, or sewist, in the world,’ he grumbles” (The Syracuse Herald, Jan. 26, 1919).

The most recent Oxford example is from a comment about threading a needle: “Among sewists, it’s okay to stick the end of the thread in your mouth to wet it” (from A Kid’s Guide to Sewing, 2013, by Sophie Kerr et al.).

Although “sewer” is the more popular term, two of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult now include “sewist.”

[Update, Oct. 10, 2016: A reader comments, “Better yet, ‘stitcher,’ the term used by costuming professionals like my daughter.”]

The source of both “sewer” and “sewist” is “sew,” a very old English verb. Its earliest known appearance in English writing is from the early 700s, according to OED citations.

This is from a Latin-Old English glossary, dated around 725, and probably compiled as a vocabulary aid: “Sarcio, siouu.” Here the Latin sarcio (mend, repair) is translated as “sew” (siouu in Old English).

Other Old English and Middle English spellings of the verb included siowian, siwian, seuen, and seuwen. The modern spelling emerged in the late 1300s, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

After more than a millennium, “sew” still means what it meant to the Anglo-Saxons. You know the meaning, but here’s the OED’s definition anyway:

“To fasten, attach, or join (pieces of textile material, leather, etc.) by passing a thread in alternate directions through a series of punctures made either with a needle carrying the thread, or with an awl; to make the seams of (a garment, etc.).”

Over the years, figurative uses have emerged, notably the familiar expression “all sewed (or sewn) up,” which since the early 1900s has been used to describe a situation or a case that’s brought to a conclusion.

And that reminds us that the verb “sew” has two past participles, so you can say either that you “have sewn” or “have sewed” a project. The simple past tense is “sewed.”

As you might suppose from the word’s great age, “sew” didn’t originate with English. As the OED says, it comes from “Common Germanic” and “Indogermanic” (a synonym for Indo-European). So its distant ancestors are prehistoric and have been reconstructed by linguists.

Outside the Germanic languages, relatives of “sew” are known in Latin, Lithuanian, Old Slavic, Sanskrit, and Hittite, Chambers says. People have been employing needle and thread for a very, very long time!

Now, as for that other “sewer,” the one we associate with gutters and drains, it dates back to 1402-03, when “suer” meant an “underground pipe,” Chambers says.

As the OED explains, that 1402-03 sighting appeared in a compound, “suergate” (literally “sewer-gate”), meaning “a floodgate at the mouth of a drain or watercourse.”

The word came into English through Old French (seuwiere or sewiere), a language in which it meant a “channel to carry off overflow from a fishpond,” Oxford says. The Old French word was Latinized as seweria in the 13th century.

In its earliest uses, the English word meant “an artificial watercourse for draining marshy land and carrying off surface water into a river or the sea.”

These OED citations from the 1400s, recorded in the Rolls of Parliament, illustrate that sense of the word. “For Sewers, Walles of Mersshes, Dyches, Gutters” (1461) … “Makyng of Sewers for avoidyng of lake waters” (1482).

By the early 17th century, the modern sense of the word appeared in English writing, defined by the OED as “an artificial channel or conduit, now usually covered and underground, for carrying off and discharging wastewater and the refuse from houses and towns.”

Shakespeare, spelling “sewer” as “sure,” is credited with the earliest known example of this usage in writing: “Sweet draught, ‘sweet’ quoth ’a! sweet sinke, sweet sure.” (Troilus and Cressida, 1609. The jester Thersites, known for his irony, is speaking.)

The OED’s next example is more straightforward: “A sewer within the ground to ridde away filth.”

The citation is from a 1610 English translation of William Camden’s Britannia, a historical work written in Latin in 1586. The Latin original uses cloacum for “sewer.”

Finally, as we’ve written in a later post, “sewer” has occasionally been used as slur for an objectionable person.

[Note: This post was updated on April 11, 2022.]

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English English language Etymology Politics Usage Word origin

Is “pussy” a dirty word?

(Note: We’re repeating the following post because of its newsworthiness this weekend. It originally ran on Dec. 28, 2015.)

Q: Two Fox contributors were benched this month for using inappropriate language. One of them used the word “pussy,” which refers not to the female genitalia, but to a coward, from the same root as “pusillanimous.” Why can’t we use this word?

A: To recap, on Dec. 7, 2015, Ralph Peters, a Fox Business analyst, called President Obama “a total pussy,” and Stacey Dash, a Fox News cultural commentator, said, “I felt like he could give a shit” about terrorism.

Bill Shine, the executive vice president of programming at Fox, then suspended Peters and Dash for two weeks, saying “the comments were completely inappropriate and unacceptable for our air.”

As to your question, get serious. Unless you’re emailing from Alpha Centauri, you must know that the noun “pussy” can refer to a woman’s genitals as well as a coward or a sissy.

Did Fox overreact about the use of “pussy”? In our opinion, no. Dictionaries generally label the the first of these slang senses as vulgar and the second as offensive.

We’d describe the Fox decision to suspend the two contributors for using “shit” and “pussy” on the air as a matter of prudence rather than etymology.

Etymologically, the noun “pussy” has referred to a woman’s genitals for hundreds of years. And it probably comes from Germanic sources, not from pusillanimis, the Latin source of “pusillanimous.”

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is a naughty reference in A Choice Collection of New Songs and Ballads (1699), by the English writer Thomas D’Urfey:

As Fleet as my Feet Could convey me I sped; / To Johnny who many Times Pussey had fed.”

The noun “pussy” has also referred to a sweet man, or to an effeminate one, for more than a hundred years. The OED’s first citation is from God’s Good Man, a 1904 novel by the British writer Marie Corelli: “I shall invite Roxmouth and his tame pussy, Mr. Marius Longford.”

And this example is from Sinclair Lewis’s 1925 novel Arrowsmith: “You ought to hear some of the docs that are the sweetest old pussies with their patients—the way they bawl out the nurses.”

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, this sense of “pussy” evolved to mean a coward or a weakling, according to examples in the dictionary.

The earliest citation for the new sense is from Pimp: The Story of My Life, a 1969 memoir by Iceberg Slim, the street name of Robert Beck:

“Look Preston, I got lots of heart. I’m not a pussy. I been to the joint twice. I did tough bits, but I didn’t fall apart.”

And here’s an example from If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, a 1973 memoir by Tim O’Brien about his experiences in Vietnam: “You afraid to be in the war, a goddamn pussy?”

As “pussy” came to mean a coward, its sexual sense changed. Before then, the word had appeared in family publications and (in the words of the OED) referred to “a man likened to a house-cat; a dependent or ‘domesticated’ man.”

Since around 1970, the lexicographer Jonathan Lighter says in an Aug. 17, 2005, posting on the Linguist List, there’s “little doubt of its misogynistic genital origin.”

That explains why The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) labels “pussy” as “informal” if it refers to a cat, “vulgar” if it means the vulva, and “offensive” if it refers to man regarded as weak, timid, or unmanly.

When the noun “pussy” showed up in writing in the 1500s, it referred to “a girl or woman exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat, esp. sweetness or amiability,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Anatomie of Abuses (1583), an attack against the customs of the times, by the social reformer Philip Stubbes:

“You shall haue euery sawcy boy of x, xiiij, xvi, or xx yeres of age, to catch vp a woman & marie her … so he haue his pretie pussie to huggle withall, it forceth not, for that is the only thing he desireth.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation to add context.)

The dictionary says “pussy” is derived from a somewhat earlier noun “puss,” which it defines as “a conventional proper or pet name for a cat” that’s often “used as a call to attract its attention.”

The OED’s first citation is from a 1533 comedy by the English playwright John Heywood: “I haue sene the day that pus my cat Hath had in a yere kytlyns eyghtene.”

The feline meaning of “puss” is somewhat of a mystery, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

“It appears to have been borrowed from Middle Low German pus, but there the trail goes cold,” Ayto says. “Since it is basically used for calling cats, it may have originated simply in an exclamation (like pss) used for gaining their attention.”

He suggests that “pussy the slang term for ‘cunt’ may be of Low German or Scandinavian origin (Low German had puse ‘vulva’ and Old Norse puss ‘pocket, pouch.’ ”

As for the other unfortunate remark on Fox, we’ve discussed “shit” several times on our blog, including posts in 2009 and 2007. We’ve also written about “cunt” and “twat,” but not about the naughty senses of “pussy.” We did, though, discuss the feline sense of the word in 2009.

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English English language Etymology Punctuation Usage Word origin Writing

What is a con-see-AIR?

Q: Your “prix fixe” post reminds me of encounters with people who try too hard to pronounce French-derived terms. For example, a hotel receptionist in Texas once invited me to use the services of the con-see-AIR. The latter threw me for a loop until I realized it was supposed to be “concierge.”

A: Some English speakers apparently mispronounce “concierge” in an attempt to sound sophisticated. They say con-see-AIR (sometimes even con-see-AY) because they think that’s the proper French pronunciation.

It’s not, of course. The French word concierge ends with a soft “g” sound, like “zh,” and the “g” in the English “concierge” sounds much the same way. To pronounce it otherwise would be a faux pas (also spoken in English à la française).

Thanks to the Internet, you can listen to the French and English pronunciations of concierge / “concierge.”

The proper English pronunciation has three sounds, con + see + AIRZH, but the last two sounds are blended into one syllable, so the word is spoken as con-SYAIRZH.

English adopted “concierge” from French in the mid-17th century, when it meant “the custodian of a house, castle, prison, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest written example in English is from 1646: “He is knowne and re-known by the Conciergres [sic], by the Judges, by the greater part of the Senate.” (From George Buck’s History of the Life and Reigne of Richard the Third.)

“In France and other countries,” the OED says, the word was once “the title of a high official who had the custody of a royal palace, fortress, etc.”

In more recent times, Oxford says, “concierge” in England as well as in France came to mean “the person who has charge of the entrance of a building; a janitor, porter.”

This meaning was first recorded in English sometime before 1697: “The concierge that shewed the house would shut the door” (from a portrait of Sir Francis Bacon in John Aubrey’s Brief Lives).

However, the OED’s entry for “concierge” has not been updated since 1891, and does not include the modern sense of an employee who helps guests at a hotel.

Today, “concierge” has two meanings in standard dictionaries. Here, for example are the definitions given in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.):

“1. A staff member of a hotel or apartment complex who assists guests or residents, as by handling the storage of luggage, taking and delivering messages, and making reservations for tours. 2. A person, especially in France, who lives in an apartment house, attends the entrance, and serves as a janitor.”

But “concierge” is now becoming a trendy word intended to add snob appeal to anyone paid to help you, at least here in the US, and standard dictionaries aren’t keeping up.

Besides the hotel “concierge” who gets you theater tickets and dinner reservations, there are “concierge” doctors (you pay a fee up front to get more of their time), and “concierge” shoppers (that is, personal shoppers), as well as “concierge” real estate brokers, dog groomers, personal trainers, car washes, travel agents, and dry cleaners.

And as we all know by now, front-desk people at restaurants, car rentals, salons, spas, and offices of all kinds are commonly called “concierges.” As far as we can tell, the “concierge” designation has no particular meaning except to add cachet.

As we said, English got “concierge” from French, but etymologists don’t know where the French word came from (“derivation unknown,” says the OED).

The word in Old French was spelled various ways: cumcerges, concerge, conciarge, consirge, consierge, and concherge.

The Old French term gave medieval Latin the word consergius, first recorded in writing in 1106, according to the OED.

French etymologists, in Le Trésor de la Langue Français Informatisé and elsewhere, suggest the Old French word may have its origin in the Vulgar Latin conservius (“fellow slave”).

If so, the posh English use of “concierge” may ultimately be derived from a colloquial Latin term for a fellow slave. Chic, n’est-ce pas?

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Writing

A stiff upper lip

Q: Why do the British use the expression “stiff upper lip” in reference to their fortitude? And when did they begin using it?

A: Although the expression is now a cliché for British determination in the face of adversity, it actually originated in the United States in the early 1800s.

Why “keep a stiff upper lip”? Well, the lips may respond to fear and other strong emotions by contracting, turning pale, trembling, and so on.

But we haven’t seen any research in physiology indicating that the upper lip is more responsive to emotion than the lower. Nor have we seen a convincing etymological explanation for why the expression refers to the upper lip in particular.

There’s no clue in the earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary, from the June 14, 1815, issue of the Massachusetts Spy, a weekly newspaper: “I kept a stiff upper lip, and bought [a] license to sell my goods.”

The next example in the OED is from the writings of Thomas Chandler Haliburton, a politician and author in what was then the British colony of Nova Scotia.

The 1836 citation is from Haliburton’s humorous series of sketches, originally published in a Halifax newspaper, about Sam Slick the Clockmaker, an opinionated Connecticut Yankee traveling in Nova Scotia:

“Its a proper pity sich a clever woman should carry such a stiff upper lip.” (The words are Sam Slick’s, suggesting that Haliburton may have considered “stiff upper lip” a Yankeeism.)

The next Oxford example is from the American novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), by Harriet Beecher Stowe: “ ‘Well, good-by, Uncle Tom; keep a stiff upper lip,’ said George.”

And here’s one (not in the OED) from another American novel, Ragged Dick and Struggling Upward (1890), by Horatio Alger: “ ‘Keep a stiff upper lip,’ said Dick.”

The earliest Oxford citation for the expression used in the British Isles is from the Sept. 17, 1887, issue of the Spectator: “The Financial Secretary, who, it is supposed, will have a stiff upper lip and tightly buttoned pockets.”

And this battle-hardened example is from Gallipoli Diary, a 1920 memoir by Gen. Sir Ian Hamilton, who commanded the British and allied forces against the Ottoman Empire at the start of the Battle of Gallipoli:

“I spoke to as many of them as I could, and although some were terribly mutilated and disfigured, and although a few others were clearly dying, one and all kept a stiff upper lip—one and all were, or managed to appear—more than content—happy!”

By the mid-20th century, the expression was often used to poke fun at British stoicism. This example is from a late novel of P. G. Wodehouse, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (1963):

“It’s pretty generally recognized at the Drones Club and elsewhere that Bertram Wooster is a man who knows how to keep the chin up and the upper lip stiff, no matter how rough the going may be.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Make no bones about it

Q: What is the origin of the expression “to make no bones about it,” and what are these “bones” supposed to be?

A: The expression evolved from a 15th-century saying, “to find no bones” (that is, difficulties) in one’s figurative soup. So in the 1400s, “to find no bones” in a situation meant to see no obstacles or problems.

Today, to “make no bones” about something means to speak clearly and unhesitatingly about it, no matter how awkward or distasteful the subject is.

Oxford Dictionaries online, a standard, or general, dictionary, has this example: “Definitely not for the squeamish, the article makes no bones about where the responsibility for the massacre lay.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says “to make bones” means “to make objections or scruples about, find difficulty in, have hesitation in or about” something.

However, the OED says, the expression is generally used with a negative (“no,” “never,” “without,” and so on).

As the OED explains, “to make bones,” which first appeared in the mid-16th century, was originally “to find bones.”

The earlier, 15th-century expression referred figuratively “to the occurrence of bones in soup, etc., as an obstacle to its being easily swallowed.”

The earliest citation in the OED is from a letter written in 1459 to a Norfolk squire, John Paston I, by his chaplain, Friar John Brackley:

“And fond that tyme no bonys in the matere” (“And found that time no bones in the matter”).

The next citation uses the metaphor in the sense of having no complaints about a cup of ale:

“Supped it up at once; / She founde therein no bones.” (From John Skelton’s humorous poem The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng, which some scholars date at about 1516.)

No long afterward, in the mid-1500s, the more familiar formula “make no bones” first appeared in English writing.

In the OED’s earliest example, from a 1548 English translation of Erasmus’s Paraphrases (retellings of the Gospels), the expression conveys Abraham’s willingness to kill his son without hesitation:

“He made no manier bones ne stickyng, but went in hande to offer up his only son Isaac.” (“He made no sorts of bones at stabbing, but proceeded to offer up his only son Isaac.”)

While today the expression is followed by “about,” this wasn’t the case early on. For the first few centuries, people “made no bones at” (or of or in or to) before finally arriving in the late 19th century at “make no bones about.”

Here’s a selection of the OED’s other examples (note the various prepositions):

“As for mans hand, they make no bones at it.” (From a 1571 translation of John Calvin’s The Psalmes of Dauid and Others.)

“What matter soever is intreated of, they never make bones in it.” (From John Marbeck’s A Booke of Notes and Common Places, 1581.)

“Who make no bones of the Lords promises, but devoure them all.” (From Daniel Rogers’s Naaman the Syrian: His Disease and Cure, 1642.)

“The Pope makes no bones to break … the Decrees.” (From a 1670 translation of Gregorio Leti’s history Il Cardinalismo di Santa Chiesa.)

“Do you think that the Government or the Opposition would make any bones about accepting the seat if he offered it to them?” (From William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Pendennis, 1850.)

The first known example with the specific wording “make no bones about” is from a late Victorian novel, and here the phrase conveys the sense of speaking forthrightly:

“I didn’t quite like to draw out my money so long as Pilkington held on; but I shall make no bones about it with this fellow.” (From William Edward Norris’s Adrian Vidal, 1885.)

That is the sense the phrase usually has today, as in this mid-20th-century example from the OED:

“On the other hand, Dr. Libby makes no bones about the catastrophe of a nuclear war.” (From a 1955 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.)

Several other catch phrases involving bones are a familiar part of English, like “a bone to pick” and “bone of contention.” Both of these, as we’ve written before on the blog, date from the 16th century and are derived from the notion of dogs gnawing on bones.

Then there’s the 19th-century phrase, still sometimes heard today, “to make old bones,” meaning to live to a ripe old age.

The OED’s earliest citation for “make old bones” is from 1872, but we found an earlier one. It’s from the Jan. 3, 1863, issue of the journal Once a Week, in a serial installment of Mrs. Henry Wood’s novel Verner’s Pride:

“Barring getting shot, or run over by a railway train, you’ll make old bones, you will.”

The noun “bone” is Germanic in origin and, as you might suspect, it’s extremely old. The earliest known example is from the Erfurt Glossary, believed to have been written during the last quarter of the seventh century.

Here the manuscript translates the Latin word for “ivory” into Old English: “Ebor, elpendes ban [elephant’s bone].”

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