English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Which egg came first?

[Note: This post was updated on Nov. 1, 2021.]

Q: Is there a connection between the noun “egg” and the expression “egged on”?

A: No, the “egg” in the phrasal verb “egg on,” as in “Please don’t egg him on,” didn’t come from a chicken. It’s a different word entirely—no yolk! Shell we proceed? (OK, no more egg jokes, we promise.)

This particular “egg” was once a verb meaning to incite or provoke. Dating from around 1200 in early Middle English, it has since died away and now exists only as part of the phrase “egg on,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The other “egg,” the noun for the ovoid reproductive body, was recorded as long ago as 805, when it was ǽg in Old English, the dictionary says.

The only connection is that English acquired both words “egg” largely from Old Norse, a language that had separate but lookalike (and unrelated) words egg. Our obsolete verb is from the Old Norse noun egg (meaning an edge or blade), which is derived from the verb eggja (to incite or goad). Our other “egg” is related to the Old Norse noun egg (meaning the reproductive body).

[On May 12, 2017, a Norwegian-American reader wrote to point out that in modern Norwegian, egge means to “incite,” “urge,” or “egg on.”]

Ultimately, each Norse egg has its own distinct source in prehistory, before written language. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots traces the sharp-edged, bladelike egg to an ancient Indo-European root reconstructed as ak- (sharp), and the reproductive egg to a different root, awi- (bird), source of the English “avian,” “aviary,” “aviation,” etc.

The bare verb “egg,” before “on” was added, was first recorded in English around 1200.

The earliest OED citation, which we’ll expand for context, is from Trinity College Homilies, a collection held at the library of Trinity College, Cambridge. The passage is a reference to Job: “gief [he hadde] werred wið god alse þe deuel him to eggede” (“if [he had] warred with God as the devil egged him to do”).

And this Oxford example is from Hali Meidenhad (Holy Maidenhood), another religious homily written around the same time: “& eggeð þe to brudlac” (“and egged thee to bridelock”). The archaic “bridelock” meant marriage or a wedding ceremony.

The OED defines “egg” here as to “incite, encourage, urge on; to provoke, tempt.” At first, the dictionary says, people were simply “egged” to do something (or were “egged” by others). It wasn’t until the 16th century that they were “egged on.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the phrasal verb is from A Medicinable Morall (1566), by Thomas Drant, the first English translation of Horace’s Satirae, a collection of satirical poems: “Ile egge them on to speake some thyng, / Whiche spoken may repent them.”

As we mentioned, the old verb “egg” is now defunct, though its ghost lurks in the fixed expression “egg on.”

Now for the noun “egg,” which most of us associate with breakfast. It’s defined in the OED as “the (more or less) spheroidal body produced by the female of birds and other animal species, and containing the germ of a new individual, enclosed within a shell or firm membrane.”

The earliest citation in the OED, recorded in the Old English plural ægera, is from a land grant generally known as Oswulf’s Charter and dated from 805:

“gif hit ðonne festendæg sie, selle mon unege cæsu and fisces and butran and ægera” (“if it then be a fast-day, they are to give a wey of cheese, and fish, butter and eggs”). From a gift of land by a wealthy Kent alderman, Oswulf, and his wife, Beornthryth, to Christ Church in Canterbury in exchange for masses and ceremonies remembering them.

The word also appears in Metres of Boethius, an Old English translation (probably done between 880 and 950) of the verse sections of Consolation of Philosophy by the sixth-century Roman scholar Boethius: “On æge bið gioleca on middan” (“In an egg there’s a yolk in the middle”).

The first written example with a more familiar spelling (with “eggs” spelled “egges”) is from Piers Plowman (1377), William Langland’s allegorical poem:

“And ȝet me merueilled more how many other briddes / Hudden and hileden her egges ful derne / In mareys and mores for men sholde hem nouȝt fynde” (“And yet I found myself marveling more at the many other birds / That hid and covered their eggs in secret spots / In marshes and moorland so men should not find them”). We’ve expanded the citation to add context.

[An aside: The “egg” that means to cover or pelt with egg is a mid-19th-century invention. The dictionary’s earliest written use for the culinary meaning (to coat with egg or an eggy mixture), dates from 1834. The earliest for the vandalizing sense (to throw eggs at someone or something, like a house at Halloween), is from 1857.]

Finally, a few words about the English word “edge,” which has a finger in this pie.

The English noun “edge” first referred to the sharp edge of a blade, while the verb originally meant to sharpen a blade. Some of the early spellings of “edge” reflected the word’s Old Norse origin in egg (the noun for an edge or blade).

The first OED example for the noun (ecge in Old English) is from Beowulf, which may have been written as early as 725:

“Breostnet broden Þæt gebearh feore wið ord ond wið ecge ingang forstod” (“The mesh of mail that saved his life stood fast against point and edge”).

The first example for the noun’s usual modern sense (“the line which forms the boundary of any surface”) is from Geoffrey Chaucer’s A Treatise on the Astrolabe. His instructional manual for the device used in astronomy was written sometime before 1400:

“And sett þou þere þe degre of þe mone according wiþ þe egge of þe label” (“And set thou there the degree of the Moon with the edge of the label”). A “label” was a narrow metal rule that revolved across the face of an astrolabe.

The verb “edge”was recorded early on, before the year 800, with a meaning that’s now obsolete. Yes, it meant the same thing as the old English verb “egg,” to incite, goad, provoke, and so on. It was also used literally (as egide in Old English) to mean “harrow,” that is, to plough or cut into the soil.

A meaning that’s not obsolete today is simply “give an edge to” (an ax, blade, etc.).

The OED’s earliest citation for that sense of the verb is from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester (1297): “I-egged yt [the sword] ys in on alf” (“I sharpened it on one side”).

In the 16th century, the verb “edge” took on the modern sense of “to furnish with a border or edging.”

The dictionary’s first example, from a 1555 translation of a book by the Italian historian Peter Martyr d’Anghiera, describes a helmet “edged with belles and plates of golde, and vnder euery bell two knobbes of golde.” (We’ve expanded the citation to add more of the decorative edging.)

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Lay waste to Carthage?

Q: I never see “lay waste” used correctly, as in “lay Carthage waste.” Instead I see “lay waste to Carthage.” Though a voice crying in the wilderness, perhaps I could enlist your help in staying this devastation of the language?

A: Traditionally, as you point out, “lay” is a transitive verb that takes a direct object in the idiom “lay waste.” So the traditional usage would be “Rome laid waste Carthage” or “Rome laid Carthage waste.”

In those examples, “Rome” is the subject, “laid” is a transitive verb, “waste” is an adjective, and “Carthage” is the direct object of the verb. It’s similar to saying “She laid bare her problems.”

However, living languages evolve, especially their idioms, which don’t necessarily follow traditional rules.

In the early 20th century, some English speakers began thinking of “waste” in that idiom as a noun and the direct object of “lay.” Hence the usage that bugs you: “Rome laid waste to Carthage.”

As Bryan A. Garner notes in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), the new usage caught on and was quite popular by the second half of the 20th century:

“In 1965, an academician polled about 100 college students in New York, only a quarter of whom preferred the traditional phrasing; half preferred the phrasing laid waste to the city. In that version, lay is the verb; waste is a noun serving as a direct object; and a prepositional phrase follows. The phrasing doesn’t make any literal sense.”

(We’d add that the usual idiomatic sense of the phrase, “devastate” or “destroy,” isn’t quite the same as the literal meaning of “lay waste”—“bring to a worthless or useless condition.”)

In his entry for “lay waste,” Garner says a 2003 study “showed that in modern print sources, the version with the superfluous to outnumbers the one without it by a 3-to-1 ratio,” but he adds that a more extensive 2008 survey “showed that the traditional transitive version had retained the lead by a 2-to-1 radio.”

Our own surveys of the 12 databases in Brigham Young University’s English corpora suggest that the new usage may now be more popular than the old one.

However, the idiom “lay waste” is clearly a work in progress, and several standard dictionaries accept both the old and new versions in formal as well as informal English.

The online ​Oxford Dictionaries, for example, has an entry for “lay waste to” or “lay something (to) waste,” with this definition: “To completely destroy.”

One of the dictionary’s examples refers to a proposal “that Athenians lay waste to their own lands to deny the Spartan army resources and the opportunity to do so itself.”

Merriam Webster online has an entry for “lay waste to,” which it defines as “to cause very bad damage to (something).” M-W has this example: “The fire laid waste to the land.”

The online Macmillan Dictionary has an entry for the phrase “lay something waste/lay waste to something,” which it defines as “to cause very serious damage to a place, especially in a war.”

Cambridge Dictionary online has an entry that includes “lay sth (to) waste” as well as “lay waste to sth,” which it defines as “to completely destroy something.” (Here “sth” is short for “something.”)

Which form of the idiom should English speakers use today? With the usage in flux, we’d suggest going with the one that seems more natural to them. Our guess, though, is that the new usage is here to stay, and that no amount of crying in the wilderness, the blogosphere, or the halls of ivy will stop it. In fact, the idiom evolved once before.

When the expression “lay waste” showed up in Middle English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “to devastate, ravage (land, buildings).”

The first example in the OED is from the Coverdale Bible of 1535: “For they haue deuoured Iacob, and layed waiste his dwellinge place.”

The earliest example we’ve found for the usage you’re writing about is from the April 25, 1908, issue of an aptly named magazine, the Waste Trade Journal:

“A number of the dealers who were last week reported to have been entirely disabled from the transaction of business by the disastrous fire which laid waste to the entire center section of Chelsea, Mass., have already established themselves in temporary quarters, and it is expected that their operations within a short time will regain their former extent.”

And here’s a recent example from the Feb. 14, 2017, issue of the New York Times: “Fourteen years of war snuffed out 200,000 lives and laid waste to Liberia, producing generals who led ritual sacrifices of children before going into battle, naked except for shoes and a gun.”

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Fatal or mortal?

Q: I’d be grateful for your thoughts on whether “fatal” or “mortal” better describes a gunshot wound that someone dies of.

A: Either “fatal”  or “mortal” may describe a deadly wound. However, each adjective has several other meanings of its own.

“Fatal” may also mean, among other things, decisive (“a fatal moment”), causing failure (“a fatal design flaw”), and bringing ruin (“a fatal addiction”).

And “mortal” may mean implacable (“a mortal enemy”), of great intensity (“mortal fear”), subject to death (“all humans are mortal”), and so on.

At the end of its “fatal” entry, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) compares four adjectives that “apply to what causes or is likely to cause death.”

  • Fatal describes conditions, circumstances, or events that have already caused death or are virtually certain to do so in the future: a fatal accidenta fatal illness.”
  • Deadly means capable of killing or of being used to kill: a deadly poisona deadly weapon.”
  • Lethal has a similar range, often with a suggestion of deliberate or calculated intent: execution by lethal injectionthe lethal technology of modern warfare.”
  • Mortal describes a condition or action that produces death, typically in a context of combat: a mortal wounddelivered a mortal blow.”

Getting back to your question, all the standard dictionaries we’ve checked define “fatal” and “mortal” similarly when used for an injury that causes, or is likely to cause, death.

As for the etymology, both “fatal” and “mortal” showed up in Middle English in the late 1300s, but it took “fatal” a few hundred years to get its sense of causing death

At first, “fatal” meant destined or fated, similar to the sense of fātālis, its Latin ancestor.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde (circa 1374): “The fathel destyne, / That Joves hath in disposicioune.”

It wasn’t until the late 17th century, according to OED citations, that “fatal” came to mean “producing or resulting in death, destruction, or irreversible ruin, material or immaterial; deadly, destructive, ruinous.”

The dictionary’s first citation for the new sense is from The Roxburghe Ballads (1685–8): “O that my sorrows were ended, by the most fatalest hand.”

The adjective “mortal” came into English from Anglo-Norman, Middle French, and Latin sources. The ultimate source is the classical Latin mortālis (subject to death, human, transient), but in medieval Latin the word also came to mean causing death.

When “mortal” showed up in Middle English a few years after “fatal,” it meant “seeking to bring about the destruction of an adversary.”

The first OED example is from “The Knight’s Tale” in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (c. 1385): “For I am Palamon thy mortal foo [foe].”

At the same time, “mortal” took on the sense we’re talking about: “Causing death, deadly, fatal; (now) spec. of a disease, wound, or blow.”

The first OED citation is from “The Tale of Melibeus” in The Canterbury Tales: “Thre of his olde foos … betten his wif and wounded his doghter with fyue [five] mortal woundes.”

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Jane Austen’s “Fanny”

Q: Where do you stand on the debate in academia over whether Jane Austen winkingly used the name “Fanny Price” for her Mansfield Park heroine?

A: There’s no chance that Jane Austen was slyly winking at her readers when she used that name in Mansfield Park (1814).

The British use of “fanny” to mean the female genitalia (here in the US it means the buttocks) didn’t appear until Austen had been dead for 20 years.

And if she had been familiar with this use of “fanny,” she wouldn’t have used it for such a shy, upright, and conscientious character as Fanny Price.

The feminine name “Fanny,” a diminutive of “Frances,” was very common in England at the time Austen was writing. Before the slang usages came along, “Fanny” was no more suggestive than “Annie.”

“Frances” was the feminine version of the men’s name “Francis,” and it used to be very popular in both Britain and the United States.

Many famous and admired women were officially named “Frances” and known by the pet name “Fanny” from the 16th through the early 20th centuries.

Popular authors included Fanny Burney (1752-1840), and Fanny Trollope (1779-1863), Anthony’s mother. Well-known actresses included Fanny Kemble (1809-93) and Fanny Brice (1891-1951).

All of them had been given the formal name “Frances” except for Brice, who was originally named Fania Borach.

However, “Fannie” was the original name of the American cooking expert and food writer Fannie Farmer (1857-1915). Her name was borrowed with a different spelling in 1919 by the candy company Fanny Farmer.

In his book Names and Naming Patterns in England, 1538-1700, Scott Smith-Bannister writes that “Frances” held a mean ranking of 17.8 in a selected list of women’s names that were popular during that 162-year period.

At its peak during that period, “Frances” was ranked 13, Smith-Bannister says. (In case you’re interested, the names generally ranked ahead of Frances in Smith-Banister’s statistics were Elizabeth, Mary, Anne, Margaret, Jane, Alice, Joan, Agnes, Catherine, Dorothy, Isabel, Elinor, and Ellen.)

In “New Influences on Naming Patterns in Victorian Britain,” a 2016 paper, Amy M. Hasfjord classifies “Frances” and “Fanny” among England’s “classic” names.

Her statistical ranking places “Frances” 13th among names given to girl babies born between 1825 and 1840.

However, Hasfjord says both “Frances” and “Fanny” dropped in popularity during the period from 1885 to 1900.

In the United States, meanwhile, surveys of the popularity of “Fanny” show that the use of the name dwindled from a peak in 1880 to relatively uncommon in 1940.

In both cases—British and American usage—it seems that the name “Fanny” dropped in popularity just as the slang word “fanny” increased in common usage.

In British English, “fanny” was first used in writing to mean “the vulva or vagina” in the late 1830s, according to The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

Jonathan Lighter, author of the slang dictionary, cites a collection entitled Bawdy Songs of the Music Hall (1835-40): “I’ve got a little fanny / That with hairs is overspread.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example is from an 1879 issue of a pornographic magazine published in London, The Pearl: “You shan’t look at my fanny for nothing.”

And a British slang dictionary published in 1889 defined “fanny” as “the fem. pud.” (the female pudenda).

This genital usage is “always rare” in the US, Random House says. As an exception, both the OED and Random House cite the American writer Erica Jong, who used it in her novel Fanny (1980):

“ ‘Madam Fanny,’ says he, obliging me, but with the same ironick Tone. ‘D’ye know what that means in the Vulgar Tongue? … It means the Fanny-Fair … the Divine Monosyllable, the Precious Pudendum.”

However, Jong’s novel is an inventive retelling of John Cleland’s bawdy English classic Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748-49), popularly known as Fanny Hill after its main character.

We suspect that Jong’s imaginative take on Fanny Hill as well as speculation, since debunked, by the slang etymologist Eric Partridge may be responsible for the myth in academia that “fanny” meant the vagina in Cleland’s time.

In the original, 1937 edition of his slang dictionary, Partridge wrote that the use of “fanny” for the “female pudenda” was from “ca. 1860,” but was “perhaps ex Fanny, the ‘heroine’ of John Cleland’s Memoirs of Fanny Hill [sic], 1749.”

However, the 2015 edition of Partridge’s dictionary notes that Fanny Hill’s “publication in 1749 is about a hundred years before ‘fanny’ came to be used in this sense.” (From The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, edited by Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor.)

Two other slang dictionaries—those by Lighter and Jonathon Green—call the reader’s attention to Fanny Hill but date the slang usage from the mid-1830s or later.

So why mention Fanny Hill in connection with the usage? The only apparent reason is that the novel’s leading character is promiscuous and is named “Fanny.” Cleland might just as well have called his protagonist “Eliza Hill.”

Nevertheless a handful of academic writers have strained to establish an 18th-century history for the usage, based on guesswork or intuition from hindsight. Their claims have been often repeated, despite the lack of any direct evidence.

A pair of literary scholars demolished their case piece by piece in 2011.

“In fact the evidence is to the contrary,” Patrick Spedding and James Lambert write in their paper “Fanny Hill, Lord Fanny, and the Myth of Metonymy,” published in the journal Studies in Philology.

They write, for example, that the terms “Fanny Fair” and “Fanny the fair” were used in 18th-century songs, “but never in an obscene context or as a synonym for vagina.”

We won’t detail their arguments, but they painstakingly document actual historical uses of the term and conclude that “fanny” was not used as a sexual term until 1837, citing the same book of music-hall songs mentioned above.

“Consequently,” they write, “it is highly unlikely that any of the fictional Fannys were named with the intention of suggesting the female sexual organs, however specified or identified (vagina, genitalia, pudenda, vulva, mons veneris, or mons pubis), or the male or female buttocks.”

“Current usage rather than eighteenth-century usage is the basis of the interpretation of fanny as a sexual term,” they write.

The milder, American sense of “fanny,” meaning the derrière, apparently dates from World War I, according to Random House. Here is the slang dictionary’s earliest example:

“They made us all get in a circle and stoop over while a guy ran around and hit us on the—never mind where—with a strap—I believe they call the game ‘Bat the Fanny’ and they sure did bat me.” (From a diary entry in a regimental history, 12th U.S. Infantry, 1798-1918, published in 1919.)

The OED’s earliest example is from the hit Broadway play The Front Page (1928), by Ben Hecht and Charles Macarthur. Here’s the OED citation, which we’ve expanded for context:

“KRUGER. (To MOLLIE, who is in the swivel chair in front of the desk) What’s the idea, Mollie? Can’t you flop somewhere else?

“MURPHY. Yah, parking her fanny in here like it was her house.”

This milder usage soon caught on in Britain. The term was used in the same way by the British playwright Noël Coward in Private Lives (1930): “You’d fallen on your fanny a few moments before.”

Subsequently, the OED has examples of the “buttocks” sense of the word by both British and American writers.

Here’s the American poet Ezra Pound in The Pisan Cantos (1948): “And three small boys on three bicycles / smacked her young fanny in passing.”

And here’s the British novelist Nevil Shute in Trustee From the Toolroom (1960): “I’d never be able to think of John and Jo again if we just sat tight on our fannies and did nothing.”

In short, although there are exceptions, the OED still characterizes the “fanny” that means genitals as “chiefly British English” and the one that means the butt as “chiefly US.”

In case you’re wondering, the OED also labels the noun “fanny pack” (first recorded in 1971) as a North American usage, the equivalent of the British “bumbag” (1951).

Oxford’s definition, found under “bumbag,” is “a small bag or pouch incorporated in a belt worn round the waist or across the shoulder (orig. designed for skiers and worn at the back).”

A similar term, “fanny belt” was in American use almost a decade before “fanny pack” and today means the same.

Oxford’s earliest citation is from the journal American Speech in 1963, when the term had a more limited definition: “Fanny belt … slang for the belt on which ski patrol men carry their first aid kit. A term used by ski patrols.”

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Like a death’s head at a feast

Q: My mother used to use the expression “like a death’s head at a feast” to describe a particularly disagreeable person at a social function. I use it myself, from time to time, much to the amusement of my adult children. Can you shed any light on the origin of this expression?

A: A death’s head, as you’re undoubtedly aware, is a representation of the human skull that’s a symbol of mortality. The symbol has embellished jewelry, paintings, sculpture, tombstones, and so on since the Middle Ages.

In fact, people have worn death’s head rings since at least the 1500s as a reminder of mortality, or memento mori.

As far as we can tell, the expression used by your mother first showed up in writing in the early 1700s, but it hasn’t shown up very often. We’ve found only a few dozen examples in our searches of literary archives.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from an amusing anecdote about a fancy-dress, or costume, ball, in the Sept. 7, 1713, issue of the Guardian, a short-lived newspaper founded by Richard Steele:

“In the middle of the first Room I met with one drest in a Shrowd. This put me in mind of the old Custom of serving up a Death’s Head at a Feast. I was a little angry at the Dress, and asked the Gentleman whether he thought a Dead Man was fit Company for such an Assembly; but he told me that he was one who loved his Mony, and that he considered this Dress would serve him another time.”

And here’s an example from Denis Duval, an unfinished novel that William Makepeace Thackeray was working on when he died in 1863: “His appearance at the Count’s little suppers was as cheerful as a death’s-head at a feast.”

The Oxford English Dictionary includes the Thackeray citation in its discussion of “death’s head,” but the OED doesn’t explain the origin of the full expression. And we couldn’t find anything about it in any of the reference works, online or off, that we usually consult.

However, the expression has clearly been used the way your mother used it—to describe a killjoy at a social event—as in this example from Lodore, an 1835 novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley:

“She looked strangely grim and out of place among all those merry young people at the wedding breakfast—like death’s head at a feast, as they say, and she had a certain dignified air of disapprobation at times on her countenance, when she  looked at my dear, sweet Miss Thornhaugh, which made me hate her—such a contrast to her brother!”

The OED does discuss the origin of two similar expressions, “a skeleton at the feast” and “a skeleton at the banquet,” which the dictionary defines as “a reminder of serious or saddening things in the midst of enjoyment; a source of gloom or depression.”

Oxford describes the “skeleton” versions as an “allusion to the practice of the ancient Egyptians, as recorded by Plutarch in his Moralia,” a collection of writings about morality.

In “The Dinner of the Seven Wise Men,” a section in the Moralia, the first-century Greek scholar writes:

“Now the skeleton which in Egypt they are wont, with fair reason, to bring in and expose at their parties, urging the guests to remember that what it is now, they soon shall be, although it is an ungracious and unseasonable companion to be introduced at a merry-making, yet has a certain timeliness, even if it does not incline the guests to drinking and enjoyment, but rather to a mutual friendliness and affection, and if it urges upon them that life, which is short in point of time, should not be made long by evil conduct.”

(We’ve used the Loeb Classical Library’s translation of the Moralia.)

The earliest OED example for a “skeleton” expression is from Guy Livingstone, an 1857 novel by the British writer and barrister George Alfred Lawrence: “The skeleton of ennui sat at these dreary feasts; and it was not even crowned with roses.”

The dictionary’s latest example is from A Lonely Girl, an 1896 novel by the Irish writer Margaret Wolfe Hungerford: “To give him leisure to act the skeleton at the feast.”

We’ll end with a more recent example from The Masters, a 1951 novel by C. P. Snow about the contested election for a new head at a Cambridge college:

“I don’t want to be a skeleton at the feast, because I’ve been feeling very gratified myself, but I think it would be remiss not to remind you that the thing’s still open.”

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Elder vs. older: an eald story

Q: The NY Times recently referred to Ivanka Trump as Donald Trump’s eldest daughter. Why do we have two sets of words—“elder”/”eldest” and “older”/”oldest”?

A: More than a thousand years ago, the Old English versions of “elder” and “eldest” were the original comparative and superlative forms of “old.”

They meant the same thing as the later forms “older” and “oldest,” words that didn’t come along until centuries after “elder” and “eldest.”

English tends to shed words it doesn’t need. But as the language developed, it retained both sets of adjectives—”elder”/”eldest” and “older”/”oldest.”

Why did all of them survive? Probably because in modern English, as we’ll explain later, we now use the two sets of adjectives—the “eld-” forms and the “old-” forms—for different purposes.

That’s the short answer. Now for some etymology.

This all began in writing back in the 700s with eald, the word for “old” in the West Saxon dialect of Old English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

This word was inherited from Germanic sources but can be traced even further back to prehistoric Indo-European.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots identifies the ultimate source of “old” as a verb root, al-, meaning to grow or nourish.

That same Indo-European root, the OED says, is also the source of the classical Latin verb alere (“nourish”) and adjective adultus (“adult “).

So the word for “old” in ancient Germanic “thus apparently originally meant ‘grown up, adult,’ corresponding in form to classical Latin altus (high, deep),” Oxford says.

(This sense of “high” in the Latin altus can be interpreted as “grown tall,” American Heritage says.)

When the adjective “old” first appeared in Old English writing 13 centuries ago, it was written mostly as eald or ald.  (The spelling “old” didn’t appear until the 1200s, perhaps earlier, but alternative spellings existed for centuries.)

The OED’s earliest examples include this one from Beowulf, which may have been written as early as 725. “Þær Hroðgar sæt eald ond anhar” (“There Hrothgar sat, old and gray-haired”).

And an early Old English glossary dating from around 800 translates the Latin word senex (“old”) as ald.

At that time, the adjective meant what it still does today: “Having lived or existed a long time; not young or new,” in the OED’s words.

Early on, a form of “old” was also used in Old English as a noun. It could mean an old person, a use that’s now rare. Or it could mean aged people or things in general, a use that has survived (“the young and the old” … “the new and the old”).

In the 800s, the comparative and superlative forms of “old” first appeared in writing—as early spellings of “elder” and “eldest.” As the OED says, they were derived from the Old English ald, or “old.”

In this example, ieldran, Old English for “elder,” is used without “than.” It comes from Consolation of Philosophy (circa 888), King Alfred’s translation of a work by Boethius:

“Ic ðe geongne gelærde swelce snytro swylce manegum oþrum ieldran gewittum oftogen is” (“I taught thee in thy youth such wisdom as is hidden from many elder wise men”).

And in this example “elder” (yldra) appears after “than” (þonne) in the predicate of a sentence. It’s from an Old English riddle in a collection known as the Exeter Riddles, perhaps from the late 900s:

“Ic eom micle yldra þonne ymbhwyrft þes oþþe þes middangeard meahte geweorþa” (“I am much elder than the world or the earth might ever become”).

In both of those cases, the word used today would be “older.”

The noun “elder” that means an older person—generally used in the plural, “elders”—appeared soon afterward, in the 900s, according to OED citations.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls this “elder” a “converted noun” derived from the adjective “elder.” This is the noun that we still use in phrases like “mind your elders” and “village elders.”

(In fact, “alderman” is a modern descendant of the Old English noun for an “elder,” ealdor; an ealdorman in Anglo-Saxon times was a high-ranking leader.)

The superlative adjective “eldest” was first recorded around 897 in King Alfred’s Pastoral Care, a translation of a work by Pope Gregory:

“Ðæt we gemyndgiað ðære scylde þe ure ieldesta mæg us on forworhte” (“That we renew and recall to mind the sin wherewith our eldest kinsman [that is, Adam] ruined us”).

Meanwhile, the now archaic noun “eld” appeared (written as ǣld or eld) in the late 900s. It was derived from early forms of “old” and once meant either “the age, period of life, at which a person has arrived,” or “old age, advanced period of life,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from the Blickling Homilies (c. 971): “Se wlite eft gewiteþ & to ylde gecyrreþ” (“That beauty afterwards departs and turns to eld [old age]”).

And this example uses “eld” in the more generic sense of “age.” It is from a life of St. Guthlac of Mercia, written sometime near the year 1000:

“Se halga wer in þa ærestan ældu gelufade frecnessa fela!” (“The holy man had loved many wicked things in his early eld [age]!”).

In the Middle Ages, there was even a verb, to “eld.” The verb, written around 1200 as ælden or elden, meant to grow old. This passage is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “Thou hast eeldid, and art of loong age.”

And around 1300, “eld” acquired other uses. The phrase “within eld” meant underage, and “of eld” meant “of age” or “of legal age.”

But “of eld” also meant “of old,” as in “men of elde” (c. 1540) and “times of eld” (1640).

The phrase was used poetically into the 19th century. If you’ve read Longfellow’s poem Evangeline (1847), you may remember its dramatic opening lines:

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic.

The adjective “eld” (meaning “old”) was not recorded until the late 16th century, and the OED now labels it archaic or poetic.

Here Sydney Thompson Dobell uses it in his 1854 poem Balder: “Ye eld / And sager gods” (less poetically, “The old and wiser gods”).

Now let’s get back to those comparatives and superlatives, and how they’re used today.

“Older” and “oldest” came along in the 15th century, some 700 years after “elder” and “eldest.” And in modern English, they’ve mostly replaced their predecessors.

While “elder” and “eldest” have remained part of English, they now have very narrow uses. Some grammarians classify “elder” and “eldest” as “limiting adjectives.”

As George O. Curme writes, “limiting adjectives do not indicate degrees, but merely point out individuals” (A Grammar of the English Language, Vol. 1, 1935).

Otto Jespersen notes: “Elder and eldest have been largely supplanted by older and oldest, and are now chiefly used preceded by some determining word (genitive, possessive pronoun or article).” He adds that “they generally refer to persons connected by relationship” (Essentials of English Grammar, 1933).

In practice, this means that as an adjective, “elder” is used for people and not things. So we use phrases like “the elder sister” and “an elder statesman” (in which the adjective is a term of respect), but not “the elder chair” or “an elder vintage.”

In addition, the adjective “elder” is generally not used in the predicate—that is, after the verb. We don’t say “he is elder now” or “he is elder than Susan.”

In the predicate, however, “elder” may be part of a noun phrase (“he is the elder brother”), and it may be used in a construction like “he is the elder,” short for “the elder of the two.”

“Older,” however, can be used as a predicate adjective: “he is older now” … “he is older than Susan.”  And either adjective can be used as a pre-modifier: “older brother” … “elder brother.”

One final note. “Elder” is traditionally used in reference to two and “eldest” to three or more. If you don’t want to raise any eyebrows, this is a safe rule to follow. But as we wrote on the blog in 2010, not all language authorities agree.

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Scratch made

Q: I’ve heard several commercials referring to “scratch-made” baked goods. The usage makes my skin crawl. Is this an acceptable alternative for “made from scratch” or just an annoying bastardization?

A: The expression “scratch made” is, as you suggest, a variation on the more common and somewhat older idiom “made from scratch.”

However, both are relatively new culinary expressions that mean made from original ingredients, rather from a mix or other partly prepared products.

As far as we can tell, the longer version (“made from scratch”) showed up in its culinary sense in the mid-20th century.

The earliest written example we’ve seen is from an Aug. 22, 1940, article in the Chester (PA) Times that refers to soups that “may be made from scratch in your own kitchen or may be prepared in a hurry by a twist of the can opener.”

The shorter version (“scratch made”) showed up in print a few decades later, according to our searches.

The earliest example we’ve found is from an Aug. 27, 1981, ad in the Defiance (OH) Crescent News that refers to “scratch-made or preformed shells” for tacos.

And a March 23, 1982, notice in the Galveston (TX) Daily News publicizes a bake sale with “delicious scratch made items.”

Two other adjectival terms—“scratch” and “from scratch”—also came into use in the 20th century to describe a dish made from its individual ingredients.

In Home Made Bread (1969), Nell Beaubien Nichols writes that “from-scratch biscuits are particular favorites, and many women bake them for special occasions.”

And in Living Poor With Style (1972), Ernest Callenbach writes that a “scratch cake will contain no preservatives or other suspect chemicals.”

The use of these culinary terms increased in the second half of the 20th century as cake mixes, frozen dinners, and similar products grew in popularity.

When the word “scratch” showed up in English—as a verb in the 15th century and a noun in the 16th—it referred to the wound created by running fingernails or claws across the skin.

The source of the word is fuzzy, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, but it’s “no doubt related to German kratzen ‘scratch,’ and both probably had their origins in imitation of the sound of scratching.”

Interestingly, the culinary use of “scratch” originated in the sporting world, not the kitchen, as we explain in a 2011 post.

The oldest sports usage, dating back to the 18th century, meant “a line or mark drawn as an indication of a boundary or starting-point,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In boxing, for example, “scratch” was the line drawn across the ring where the boxers would first meet.

When “from scratch” first showed up in the 19th century, the OED says, it meant “from a position of no advantage, knowledge, influence, etc., from nothing.”

Getting back to your question, “scratch made” often shows up these days in cookbooks and other books about food as well as in food magazines.

For example, there’s a recipe for “Scratch-Made Sausage” in a new cookbook called Breakfast in Texas (2017), by Terry Thompson-Anderson.

To give a few more examples, Bren Herrera writes in Modern Pressure Cooking (2014): “This will get you started and keep you excited about boasting a true ‘scratch-made’ recipe.”

Pittsburgh Chef’s Table (2013), by Sarah Sudar, Julia Gongaware, Amanda Mcfadden, and Laura Zorch, mentions one restaurant’s “impressive sandwiches and scratch-made soups.”

And Cooking Light Annual Recipes 2014, by the editors of Cooking Light Magazine, says it includes “a delightful recipe for scratch-made ‘candy-wrapped’ tortelli—a blissful Saturday project.”

We’ve used only a few of the many examples we’ve found. Who are we to argue with so many food writers?

In fact, we see nothing wrong with “scratch made.” Its development seems parallel to “homemade” (“made at home”) and “handmade” (“made by hand”).

When used as modifiers, the longer versions generally follow (or post-modify) a noun: “pie made from scratch,” “a dress made at home,” “a sweater made by hand.”

But the shorter versions enable the speaker or writer to drop the preposition and pre-modify the noun: “scratch-made pie,” “homemade dress,” “handmade sweater.”

Like “scratch made,” the terms “homemade” and “handmade” began life as two words. If enough people use “scratch made,” it may become a single word too.

We think “scratch made” is pretty handy, and it’s probably here to stay. Sorry it makes your skin crawl.

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A mite interesting?

Q: I’m curious about this Bloomberg sentence: “Finding twice as many old regulations to cut may be a mite challenging—less so at first, more so as time goes by.” Is the word “mite” a typo?

A: No, “mite” in that Bloomberg opinion piece isn’t a typo. It’s part of the idiom “a mite,” which means “somewhat,” “rather,” or “slightly.”

Some dictionaries consider the usage informal or old-fashioned, though most of the ones we’ve seen list it without comment—that is, acceptable in formal as well as informal English. In fact, we use it a mite ourselves.

Interestingly, English has two versions of the word “mite,” one referring to a bug and the other to something small, though both are probably derived from the same reconstructed prehistoric Germanic root, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

When the first “mite” showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, inherited from Germanic sources, it referred to “any of various very small arachnids and insects,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It still has that bug sense.

The OED’s first example is from the Antwerp Glossary, a Latin-Old English lexicon dating from the early 11th century: “Ta[r]mus, maþa mite.” (In that citation, the Latin for “woodworm” is defined as “maggot mite” in Old English.)

Oxford says English borrowed the second “mite” in the 14th century from Middle Dutch, where a similar term had the literal sense of a small copper coin (apparently worth a third of a Flemish penny) and the figurative sense of a small amount of something.

Ayto, in his etymological dictionary, says both versions of “mite” can probably be traced back to mītǭ, a prehistoric Germanic root “meaning ‘cut’ (hence ‘something cut up small’).”

When the second “mite” showed up in English, according to the OED, it could refer to “any small coin of low value,” or it could be part of various sayings meaning “a small or insignificant amount.”

The dictionary’s earliest examples for both senses are from a translation, dated sometime before 1375, of Guillaume de Palerme, a French tale also known as William and the Werewolf:

“Non miȝt a-mand a mite worþ” (“None mght command the worth of a mite”). Oxford includes this citation among examples of the coin sense.

“Al þe men vpon mold it amende ne miȝt … half a mite” (“All the men upon the earth might not be improved … half a mite”). Oxford includes this citation among examples for proverbial sayings such as  “not worth a mite,” “not care a mite,” and “a mite’s worth.”

At about the same time, “mite” took on the more general sense of “a very small amount.” The first OED citation is from Piers Plowman (c. 1378), the allegorical poem by William Langland:

“Surgerye ne Fisyke May nouȝte a myte auaille to medle aȝein elde” (“Surgery and medicine are nothing but a mite in the battle against age”).

The term “widow’s mite” (a small contribution by a poor person) showed up in the late 16th century.

The first (and only) OED citation is from a 1595 translation of the French romance about Blanchardine and Eglantine: “Crauing your acceptance of this pore widowes mite.”

As the dictionary notes, the usage comes from Mark in the New Testament. Here’s the passage in the Coverdale Bible of 1535:

“And there came a poore wyddowe, and put in two mytes, which make a farthinge.”

In the mid-19th century, the word “mite” came to be used in the sense you’re asking about—as an idiom used adverbially to mean “somewhat, slightly, a little bit.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, describes the usage as colloquial, or informal, though, as we’ve said, many standard dictionaries consider it acceptable in formal as well as informal English.

The first Oxford example for the idiomatic usage is from the January 1852 issue of Punch: “Wearing shoes that were not a mite too big for her.”

And here’s an example from the Christmas 1897 issue of the Graphic, an illustrated weekly newspaper: “I wonder whether you will help me a mite to-day.”

The latest example in the dictionary is from Pepper, a 1993 novel by Tristan Hawkins about a hard-drinking advertising executive in London: “All evening he’s seemed a mite awkward.”

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An adverb, forsooth!

Q: Your post about “needs must” is very interesting, but try as I might I find it hard to construe “nights” and “days” as adverbs in “She works nights and sleeps days.” They just feel too like nouns, being the object of “works.” Can you give any other examples of “-s” and “-es” adverbs in Old English?

A: Let’s begin with a brief overview of how adverbs were formed in Old English.

Some began life as adverbs, including a few that still look much as they did in Anglo-Saxon days:

hér (“here”), oft (“often”), sóna (“soon”), þæ’r (“there”), þonne (“then”), hwílum (“sometimes”), and so on. (The þ, or thorn, and ð, or eth, were Old English versions of “th.”)

But the majority of adverbs were formed by adding the suffix -e to adjectives, according to The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed.), by the linguists Thomas Pyles and John Algeo.

So déop (“deep”) became déope (“deeply”), wid (“wide”) became wide (“widely”), fæst (“fast”) became fæste (“fast,” adv.), and so on. However, most of these -e suffixes disappeared by the 14th century.

Many other adverbs were formed by adding the suffix -líce to adjectives:

beald (“bold”) became bealdlíce (“boldly”), swét (“sweet”) became swétlíce (sweetly”), and so on.

Over the years, the -líce adverbs evolved into the modern “-ly” ones. And as the -e suffix died out, “-ly” became the usual suffix for turning adjectives into adverbs.

Still other Old English adverbs—the ones you’re asking about—were formed by adding the suffix -s or -es to nouns: þanc (“a kindly thought”) became þances (“thankfully”), for example, while sóþ (“truth”) became sóðes (“truly” or “forsooth”), and endebyrd (“arrangement”) became endebyrdes (“in an orderly manner”).

(The -es suffix here is the same as the genitive singular ending on many neuter and masculine nouns in Old English. The genitive, as you know, is a case expressing possession and similar relationships.)

An interesting example is the Old English term word, which inspired the adverb wordes (“verbally” or “orally”). Although the noun word has survived intact in modern English, the adverbial sense of wordes seems to have died out in Old English. (“Verbally” comes from verbum, classical Latin for “word,” while “orally” comes from ōs, classical Latin for “mouth.”)

Pyles and Algeo, in their comments on -s and -es adverbs in Old English, also cite hámweardes (“homewards”) and tóweardes (“towards”), and note that the “same ending is merely written differently in oncetwicethricehence, and since.”

Some Old English and early Middle English adverbs with -s or -es suffixes adopted –st endings in Middle English, according to the OED. The Old English ongegnes, for example, eventually became “against.” A similar process occurred with “amidst,” “amongst,” and “betwixt.”

We should mention here that this is a highly simplified description of a very complicated and messy process.

For instance, many adverbs had all three suffixes (-e-es, and -líce) in Old English. And “against,” “amidst,” “amongst,” and “betwixt” were originally compounds. For example, “amidst” began as a + midde + -s. And many Old English adverbs looked the same as adjectives and prepositions.

We see your point about “nights” and “days,” but the OED and most standard dictionaries we’ve checked classify them as adverbs when used to modify verbs.

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Here’s to hoppiness

Q: I’ve noticed that “hop” and “hops” seem to be used interchangeably. Thus the “Hop Growers of America” have a report entitled “USA Hops.” And “hopped” and “hopping” appear on beer menus regularly, as well as expressions like “a high-hops pale ale.” I  would be interested in your take on the “hop” family.

A: As any brewmaster can tell you, the noun “hop” can refer either to the plant Humulus lupulus or to the greenish conelike flower it produces. And the plural “hops” can mean multiple plants or multiple flowers.

But the flowers, which are dried and used in making beer, are generally referred to in the plural, “hops,” because we seldom have occasion to refer to only one.

So “hops” are what grow on the plant known as a “hop,” just as “roses” grow on on the plant known as a “rose.”

The noun “hop,” in its botanical sense, came into English in the 1400s from the term for it in Middle Dutch (hoppe), according to the Oxford English Dictionary. No history of the word is known before medieval times, and its further origin is obscure, the OED says.

However, the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology points to a prehistoric Proto-Germanic source, a word reconstructed as hup-nan, ultimately from an Indo-European base, keup– or kup-.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says this base meant “cluster, tuft, hair of the head,” and identifies it as the source of the English “sheaf” as well as “hop,” a plant having a “tuftlike” flower.

The word appeared in Middle English not long after the large-scale use of hops as a beer flavoring was perfected and had spread to England’s trade partners Holland and Flanders, according to A History of Beer and Brewing (2003), by Ian Spencer Hornsey.

People had been making beer since ancient times, but it probably wasn’t flavored with hops until the Middle Ages, according to evidence cited by Hornsey and others

“Certainly by 1300, hops were widely cultivated in northern Europe,” Hornsey writes, “and it is almost impossible to imagine that, with the level of trade between English and the Low Countries the knowledge of their usefulness in brewing was not appreciated by English brewers, even though they did not encompass their use immediately.”

The first uses of “hop” and “hops” in written English are references to the flowers.

The OED’s earliest known example is from the Promptorium Parvulorum, an English-Latin dictionary from around 1440, which renders the plant humulus as “Hoppe, sede [seed] for beyre.”

All the dictionary’s later references to the flower are in the plural, as in this poem from as early as 1500: “When I was a brewer longe / With hoopes I made my ale stronge.”

This 1503 example gives proportions for making beer from malt, wheat, oats, and hops: “x. quarters malte, ij. quarters wheet, ij. quarters ootes, xl. ll weight of hoppys. To make lx. barellz of sengyll beer.” (From the Chronicle of Richard Arnold, a merchant.)

But this example from 1542 has a slightly different recipe, along with an editorial comment. It comes from a physician who recommended ale (which at that time was made without hops) but opposed beer:

“Ale for an Englyssheman is a naturall drynke. …  Barly malte maketh better Ale than Oten malte or any other corne doth. … It maketh a man strong. Bere is made of malte, of hoppes, and water, it is a naturall drynke for a doche [German] man. And nowe of lete dayes it is moche vsed in Englande to the detryment of many Englysshe men. … It doth make a man fatte, and doth inflate the bely, as it doth appere by the doche mennes faces and belyes.” (We’ve expanded the OED’s citation, from A Compendyous Regyment or a Dyetary of Helth by Andrew Borde or Boorde.)

References to the plant “hop” began to appear in English in the 16th century. As the OED says, “The plant is believed to have been introduced into the south of England from Flanders between 1520 and 1524.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from William Turner’s Libellus de re Herbaria Novus (1538), a botanical work that uses the plural “hoppes.”

But the OED’s other citations are mostly singular, especially when the noun is used in a generic way:

“To choose your Hoppe. Ye shal choose your roots best for your Hop, in the Sommer before ye shall plant them.” (From Leonard Mascall’s A Booke of The Arte and Maner How to Plant and Graffe All Sorts of Trees, 1572.)

“A hop, for want of a strong pole, will wind it self about a thistle or nettle or any sorry weed.” (From a 1647 collection of sermons by Robert Sanderson, bishop of Lincoln.)

“The planting of hops increased much in England during this reign.” (From David Hume’s The History of Great Britain, 1754.)

“The Hop … is remarkable amongst the Nettle Family for its twining stem.” (From Daniel Oliver’s Lessons in Elementary Botany, 1872.)

The word “hop” is also a verb meaning to flavor with hops. It’s often used in the passive, as when a beer or other malt liquor is said to be “well hopped,” “highly hopped,” “over-hopped,” and so on.

The OED’s earliest reference is dated 1572: “Ale, neyther to new, nor to stale, not ouerhopped.” (From The Benefit of the Auncient Bathes of Buckstones, by John Jones, a physician.)

And the noun “hop” is also used attributively as an adjective, generally in the singular: “hop growers,” “hop plants,” “hop industry,” “hop cultivation,” “hop harvest,” “hop flavor,” and so on.

Though the OED doesn’t say so, related adjectives have sprung up to describe the degree to which a beer tastes of hops.

Any connoisseur of craft beers is familiar with the terms “hoppy,” “hoppier,” and “hoppiest.” Merriam-Webster’s online says “hoppy” was first recorded around 1889 and means “having the taste or aroma of hops—used especially of ale or beer.”

However, “hoppiness” is in the eye—or the tastebuds—of the beholder. It’s a strong, biting flavor that’s sometimes described as bitterness.

In late 19th-century America, “hop” acquired another meaning, “a narcotic drug; spec. opium,” in the words of the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a New Orleans magazine, the Lantern, in May 1887: “As long as a smoker can obtain his ‘hop.’”

The word “hophead” was used to mean an opium smoker or drug addict since as far back as 1895 in San Francisco, according to research by contributors to the ADS List, the discussion group of the American Dialect Society.

Similarly, according to OED citations, a “hop-pipe” (1887) meant an opium pipe, and a “hop-dream” (1896) was an opium stupor.

Of course, there’s a shoe waiting to be dropped here. What about the other “hop,” the noun and verb corresponding to “jump”?

It’s tempting to think that there’s a connection and that, etymologically speaking, “hopped” beer has been given an extra “jump” or “spring” that it wouldn’t otherwise have.

Unfortunately, the two kinds of “hop”—the plant and the jump—aren’t related, as far as we know.

The verb “hop” that means “to spring a short way upon the ground or any surface with an elastic or bounding movement, or a succession of such movements,” was first recorded in Old English as hoppian around the year 1000, the OED says.

The corresponding noun “hop” (a spring or leap), which was derived from the verb, came along some 500 years later, in 1508.

This “hop,” like the botanical one, is Germanic in origin. Chambers says the source is again Proto-Germanic, a verb reconstructed as hupnojanan, ultimately from an Indo-European base, keub- or kub-. 

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Arrival time

Q: Reading “arrived to” drives me nuts. Why not “arrived at”? When did this start?

A: People used to arrive “at,” “in,” “into,” “on,” “to,” and “upon” their destinations. It wasn’t until the 1700s that language commentators began expressing preferences for one preposition over another.

Today, we usually arrive “at” or “in” when we’re referring to the literal arrival at a destination, though “on” and “upon” are often seen.

And literary writers routinely use a wide variety of prepositions when the verb “arrive” is used figuratively or to emphasize something other than the point of arrival.

We may arrive “by” boat or c-section, “from” Kalamazoo, “out of” the hinterlands, “on” the dock, “upon” the scene, and so on. Here’s the story.

English adapted the verb “arrive” in the 12th century from the Old French ariver, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but the ultimate source is the classical Latin phrase ad rīpam (to the shore).

When the verb showed up in Middle English, it reflected its Latin origin and meant to bring a ship to shore or come to shore by ship, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example is from Layamon’s Brut, a Middle English poem written sometime before 1200: “Nu beoð of Brutaine beornes ariued” (“Now are the barons of Britain come to shore”).

The next citation is from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester (1297): “Þat folc of Denemarch …. aryuede in þe Norþ contreye” (“That people of Denmark came to shore in the North country”).

It wasn’t until the late 1300s that the verb “arrive” broke free of its nautical roots and meant “come to the end of a journey, to a destination, or to some definite place; to come upon the scene, make one’s appearance.”

The earliest example in the OED is from The House of Fame (circa 1384), a Middle English poem by Chaucer: And with this word both he and y / As nygh the place arryved were / As men may casten with a spere.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

Around the same time, the verb “arrive” came to mean to reach a position or state of mind, as well as to gain or achieve something.

The earliest OED citation for these wider senses is from Confessio Amantis (circa 1393), a Middle English poem by John Gower (note the preposition “to”):

“When the tirant Leoncius / Was to thempire of Rome arrived, / Fro which he hath with strengthe prived / The pietous Justinian.” (Leontius overthrew Justinian in 695 to become the Byzantine emperor. We’ve expanded the OED’s citation.)

The verb has taken on several other senses over the years, including “to come to pass” (1633, as in “misfortune arrived”), “to be born (1761, as in “the baby arrived), and “to be successful” (1889, as in “with the Oscar, she finally arrived”).

The OED considers the use of “into” and “to” with “arrive” obsolete now, but Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage cites modern literary examples for both prepositions, especially in figurative senses. Here are a few citations:

“Neighbors arrive into what is already a madhouse scene” (Elizabeth Bowen, in the March 9, 1953, issue of the New Republic).

“Power arrived to them accidentally and late in their careers” (from Hilaire Belloc’s 1930 biography of Cardinal Richelieu).

As we’ve said, “at” and “in” are the two most common prepositions when “arrive” refers to reaching a literal destination.

The online Cambridge Dictionary explains that “at” is used for reaching a specific point, while “in” is used for reaching a larger area.

Cambridge cites two examples from English Grammar Today (2016), by Ronald Carter, Michael McCarthy, Geraldine Mark, and Anne O’Keeffe:

We arrived at the art gallery just as it was closing. (The gallery is seen as a point.)”

Immigrants who arrived in the country after 2005 have to take a special language test. (The country is seen as a larger area.)”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Why surgery is an operation

Q: My wife and I were talking about the way the word “operation” seems associated most often with surgery. Do you have any idea how this came about?

A: Why does the word “operation” often call up images of surgery? Perhaps because the surgical sense is one of the oldest meanings of the word.

For nearly 600 years, English speakers have used “operation” to mean “a surgical procedure performed on a patient,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Early on, the word often appeared as part of the phrase “operation of hand” (or “hands”).

The oldest examples in English come from translations of French medical books. The French had been using their word operation to mean a surgical procedure as early as 1314, the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest English example, probably dating from before 1425, is found in Grande Chirurgie, a translation of a work by Guy de Chauliac:

“Cyrurgie [surgery] is a party of Cerapeutici, i. of curing, heling men by inscisions & adustions & articulacions of bones … and by oþer operacioun of handes.”

Another translation, entitled Surgery, done around 1475 from a book written 150 years before by Henri de Mondeville, has this example:

“Smal woundis þat neden not to be sewid schal be left to þe worchinge of kynde, for operacioun of hond profitiþ not to hem.”

And The Frenche Chirurgerye; or, All the Manualle Operations of Chirurgerye, translated in 1598 from a book by Jacques Guillemeau, has this definition:

“This worde operatione is an artificialle and normaticke applicatione wrought by the handes on mans bodye, wherwith the decayed health is restored.”

By the mid-17th century, English physicians were using “operation” for “surgery” in writing originating in English. This example is from Nicholas Culpeper’s The English Physitian Enlarged (1655): “Manual operations, or chyrurgery.”

However, it wasn’t until the late 17th century that the English verb “operate” (as well as the French operare) meant to perform surgery.

The OED‘s earliest English example is from Robert Godfrey‘s Various Injuries and Abuses in Chymical and Galenical Physick Committed Both by Physicians and Apothecaries, Detected (1674):

“I by diligent observance, by Operating … having gain’d the knowledg of some Injuries in Physick.”

This much later example is from the Westminster Gazette (1874): “The phrase ‘When in doubt, operate,’ was, I believe, first made use of by Sir William Lawrence with regard to the methods to be adopted in treating cases of strangulated hernia.”

The medical term “operating room” came into use in the early 19th century. Oxford‘s earliest example is from an 1831 issue of the New England Magazine:

“An infant … was brought into the operating room, a short time since, to be cured of a very common deformity by the knife of the surgeon.”

Getting back to the noun “operation,” its surgical sense is derived from the medical usage in French, but it ultimately comes from the classical Latin opus (work), according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The English word “operation” has other meanings too, all of them ultimately derived from opus, though some came into English from French and some from medieval or classical Latin.

The other meanings include activity or working (before 1393); an act of a technical nature (circa 1395); a particular kind of activity, as in “the operation of drilling” (1562); a mathematical process (1713); a strategic military movement (1749); the condition of being active (1792); a business transaction (1832); the action of operating a machine, business, etc. (1872); a criminal enterprise (before 1902).

As Ayto notes, the Latin noun opera, originally a plural of opus, “came to be regarded [in Latin] as a feminine singular noun meaning ‘that which is produced by work.’ Italian gave it its musical sense, and passed it on into English.”

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