English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Usage Word origin Writing

Is might (v.) a kin of might (n.)?

Q: I can’t recall seeing any discussion on the two usages of “might” in “It might happen if I try with all my might.” Care to discuss?

A: This may surprise you. The verb “may” and its past tense “might” ultimately come from the same prehistoric ancestor as the noun “might.”

So the two forms of “might” in your example (“It might happen if I try with all my might”) are relatives.

Etymologically, the verb “may” means to have power, while the noun “might” refers to power itself.

The common ancestor of these words is magh-, a reconstructed Proto Indo-European base meaning to “be able, have power,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

That prehistoric root gave birth to the ancient Germanic ancestors of the verb “may” and the noun “might.”

The ancient Germanic magan (to be able), for example, gave Old English magan, the early infinitive form of “may,” while the ancient Germanic mah-ti (power) gave Old English miht, the early form of the noun “might,” American Heritage adds.

(The reconstructed prehistoric forms are rendered somewhat differently by different etymologists, and the early spellings in Old English manuscripts vary.)

In early Old English, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb “may” had three primary uses:

(1) as an intransitive (or object-less) verb, meaning to be strong or have power or influence, (2) as an auxiliary with a bare (or “to”-less) infinitive expressing the power or ability to do something, and (3) as an auxiliary expressing possibility.

Later in Old English, the OED says, the verb developed several other senses, including (4) as an auxiliary to ask for or grant permission to do something.

Senses 1 and 2 died out in the early 1600s, according to Oxford citations, while 3 and 4 are among the primary uses today for the verb “may.”

The earliest OED example for sense 1 (a full verb meaning to be strong) comes from the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript from the 700s with the Latin Psalms and interlinear Old English translations:

Exurge domine non praeualeat homo: aris dryhten ne meg mon” (“Arise, O Lord; man should not be powerful”). We’re translating the Old English here. The King James Version translates the Latin as “Arise, O Lord, let not man prevail.”

The first Oxford example for sense 2 (an auxiliary verb used to express the power to do something) is from Rituale Ecclesiae Dunelmensis, a manuscript from the early 800s that describes the liturgical services in the Diocese of Durham in northeast England:

“Gif men færlice wyrde unsofte oððe sprecan ne maege halga him ðis wæter” (“If he has been speaking quickly and harshly, one may not bless him with this water”). Here, maege (Old English for “may”) is being used in the sense of “can” (be able, or have power, to do something.)

The earliest OED example for sense 3 (an auxiliary used to express possibility) is from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of Old English writing from the 800s:

“On ðara Deniscena healfe wearð ofslægen Eohric hira cyng & Æðelwald æðeling … & swiðe monige eac him þe we nu genemnan ne magon” (“On the Danish side their king Eohric was killed, and the atheling Æðelwald … and many others that we may not name here”). The obsolete term “atheling” refers to a prince or other member of a noble family.

And the first Oxford citation for sense 4 (an auxiliary to ask for or grant permission) is from “Judgment Day I,” a poem in The Exeter Book (circa 940), a collection of miscellaneous Old English writing:

“Oft mæg se þe wile in his sylfes sefan soð geþencan” (“Often a wily mind may let you decide for yourself what’s right”).

As for the noun “might” (maehte in Old English), here’s an example from the Vespasian Psalter:

Potentiam tuam et iustitiam tuam deus usque in altissimus: maehte ðine & rehtwisnisse ðine god oð in heanisse” (“Thy might and thy righteousness, O God, reach to the most high”).

As for “mighty” and “mightiness,” they’re also relatives, but we’ll skip the citations, if we may.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

It’s medieval, albeit still with us

[Note: A May 30, 2022, post discusses “albeit” and the related word “although.”]

Q: I heard a radio DJ the other day, on a jazz station, using “albeit,” which is a nice word. I wonder if it’s a short form of an earlier phrase in the language.

A: We’ve mentioned “albeit” a couple of times on the blog, most recently in a 2015 post about the phrase “at all.”

As we wrote then, “all” can be an adjective, a pronoun, a noun, or an adverb. But once upon a time it was a conjunction as well.

The conjunctive use is almost unknown today, but a trace of it lives on in the word “albeit,” which is derived from the old phrase “all be it.” Today, it’s a venerable way of saying “although.”

Some language writers have dismissed “albeit” as archaic, but the word is alive and well today, according to our searches of the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English.

In the 1926 first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H. W. Fowler includes “albeit” in a list of archaisms. But in the 1965 second edition, Sir Ernest Gowers says the term “has since been picked up and dusted and, though not to everyone’s taste, is now freely used.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage describes the comments by Fowler, Gowers, and others as “a most curious business since albeit never seems to have gone out of use.”

The dictionary says the usage “may have faded somewhat in the later 19th century,” but it has “considerably increased in use since the 1930s, to judge by evidence in the Merriam-Webster files.”

The word “albeit” began life in the early 1300s as an expression made up of the old conjunction “all,” the verb “be,” and the pronoun “it,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says it originally meant “though it is true that; even though; although” (pretty much what it means now).

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a Middle English entry, dated sometime before 1325, in Statutes of the Realm (2011), a compilation of English statute law:

“Also þerase man rauisez womman … mit strenkþe, albehit þat heo assente afterward, he sal habbe þilke iugement þat his iseid bifore” (“Also in that case where man ravishes woman … with violence, albeit that she assents afterward, he shall have such judgment as was said of him before”).

In “The Knight’s Tale” (circa 1385), Chaucer uses the three-word expression: “Al be it þt [that] it is agayn his kynde / Of al this stryf he kan remedie fynde.”

And here’s an OED example from Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline (c. 1611): A worthy Fellow, / Albeit he comes on angry purpose now.”

The Merriam-Webster’s usage manual has many 20th-century examples from well-known writers, including Robert Frost, George Santayana, Vladimir Nabokov, E. B. White, and Mary McCarthy.

Here’s an example from “Time Out,” a poem in A Witness Tree, a 1942 collection of Frost’s poetry:

It took that pause to make him realize
The mountain he was climbing had the slant
As of a book held up before his eyes
(And was a text albeit done in plant).

We think “albeit” is a splendid old word! It may sound old-fashioned, but it’s here to stay. This is how R. W. Burchfield describes it in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.):

“One of the most persistent archaic-sounding words in the language.”

If you use it, make sure you pronounce it right. As Bryan A. Garner explains in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “The first syllable of albeit is pronounced like all, not like your friend Al.”

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Muffs, mufflers, and muffed

Q: My wife is using a small blanket to cover her fractured hand. She can’t get a glove over her brace. The other night, she said, “Hand me my muff.” I thought of Mimi’s cold hands in La Bohème. Also “muffing” a fly ball, the “muffler” on necks and cars, and the more salacious uses. Hmm.

A: The “muff” that warms your hands is related to the “muffler” that warms your neck. And to “muff” a fly ball may also be a relative of the hand warmer, but that etymology is up in the air. As for those hot words, you can thank the hand warmer too.

The first of these words to show up in writing is the “muff” that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as a “covering, often of fur and usually of cylindrical shape with open ends, into which both hands may be placed for warmth.”

The OED labels the term “historical” (that is, relegated to the dustbin of history), though we remember seeing lots of them in our youth. Well, perhaps we’ve become historical ourselves.

The earliest example of the usage in the dictionary is from Sym and His Brudir (1568), a Middle Scots satire of church abuse: “His beird it wes als lang & blak / That it hang our his mouf.”

The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue suggests that the word “mouf” in that citation may refer to “a muffler of some kind round the neck.” It’s hard to tell from some of the early examples in the OED whether the term is being used for something to warm the hands or the neck.

However, the next Oxford citation clearly refers to a hand warmer, though we had to go to the original text to confirm it. Here’s an expanded version of the passage from The Fountaine of Selfe-Loue; or, Cynthias Reuels, a 1601 satirical play by Ben Jonson:

“Mary, I will come to her, (and she alwayes weares a Muffe if you be remembred) and I will tell her: Madame your whole selfe cannot but be perfectly wise: for your hands haue witte enough to keepe themselues warme.”

The OED says English probably borrowed the word from Dutch, where mof is now a muff as well as an ethnic slur for a German, but the ultimate source is the Middle French moufle (mitten). The online version of Émile Littré’s Dictionnaire de la Langue Française traces it back to muffala (medieval Latin for “mitten”).

The use of “muffler” for a “wrap or scarf (freq. of wool or silk) worn round the neck or throat for warmth” appeared at the end of the 1500s, according to citations in the OED.

The first example is from Mother Bombie, a 1594 comedy by the dramatist John Lyly: “Silena, I praie you looke homeward, it is a colde aire, and you want your mufler.”

Interestingly, the “muffler” that warms your neck is related to the “muffler” that deadens the sound of your car’s exhaust, a usage that showed up at the end of the 19th century.

Both senses are derived from the verb “muffle,” which comes from moufle, the same Middle French term believed to be the source of “muff.”

When “muffle” showed up in the 15th century, it meant to wrap something around the face to provide concealment or protection from the weather.

The first OED example is from Generides, an anonymous medieval romance, or adventure story, written sometime before 1450: “She mufled hir face hir to desgyse / That noon shuld know hir in noo wise.”

By the 16th century, “muffle” also meant to cover someone’s mouth to prevent speaking—for example, to gag someone.

Here’s an early definition from Manipulus Vocabulorum (1570), an English-Latin dictionary, by Peter Levens: “To Muffle ye mouth, obturare.” (In Latin, obturare is “stop up.”)

And in the 18th century, “muffle” took on the sense of wrapping something—such as a drum, a bell, or an oar—to deaden sound:

“They laid all their oars across, except two in each boat, which they muffled with baize, to prevent their being heard at a distance.” (From a 1761 issue of the British Magazine, or Monthly Repository for Gentlemen and Ladies, edited by Tobias Smollett.)

The OED describes the use of “muffler” for the device on a vehicle as “chiefly N. Amer.” The earliest citation is from A Standard Dictionary of the English Language (1895), edited by Isaac Kaufman Funk:

Muffler, a device to render noiseless the escape of steam from a vacuum-brake, exhaust-pipe, or safety-valve.”

(With a former classmate, Adam Willis Wagnalls, Funk founded the Funk & Wagnalls Company, known for its dictionaries and other reference books.)

To answer your question about muffing a fly ball, we’ll have to back up somewhat and begin with a version of the noun “muff” that showed up in the early 19th century.

This “muff,” the OED says, means a “foolish, stupid, feeble, or incompetent person; spec. one who is clumsy or awkward in some sport or manual skill.”

Oxford says this sense of “muff” may come from the word’s original use for a hand warmer, “perhaps conveying the sense of something soft (and, by extension, something weak), or perhaps implying clumsiness commensurate with keeping one’s hands in a muff.”

The dictionary’s first example is from A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language (1819), by James Hardy Vaux:

Mouth, a foolish silly person …. Muff, an epithet synonymous with mouth.” (Oxford defines “flash language” as the language of thieves.)

The new noun usage led to the use of the verb “muff” for bungling on the playing fields, though the earliest example in the OED is from cricket, not baseball:

“All the best of our players completely muffed their batting.” (From Cricket Sketches of the Players, an 1846 book by William Denison, a cricketer and sportswriter.)

The earliest known baseball citation is from the Aug. 12, 1882, issue of the Philadelphia Press: “That usually reliable fielder muffed the fly.”

By the 20th century, the verb “muff” was being used in the wider sense of bungling something or making a mess of it.

Here’s an example from The Hairy Ape, a 1922 play by Eugene O’Neill: “Yuh got what I was sayin’ even if yuh muffed de woids.” And here’s one from a 1941 letter by J. R. R. Tolkien: “I muffed my exams.”

We’ll end with what the OED describes as the slang use of the noun “muff” for the “female pubic hair. Hence also: the vulva, the vagina.”

The earliest Oxford citation is from A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, a 1699 slang dictionary written anonymously by “B. E. Gent”:

Muff, c. a Woman’s Secrets. To the well-wearing of your Muff Mort, c. to the happy Consummation of your Marriage Madam, a Health.” (The Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford has published the book as The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699.)

Interestingly, the OED labels the pubic sense of “muff” as slang, but it labels “muff-diver,” “muff-dive,” and “muff-diving” as coarse slang. It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall as the dictionary’s editors discussed the labeling of these terms.

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When “mortify” meant to kill

Q: At the end of Pride and Prejudice, Miss Bingley is “mortified” by Darcy’s marriage to Elizabeth. I’ve read the novel umpteen times, but it just struck me that “mortify” must have something to do with death. What is the connection?

A: Yes, the verb “mortify” has a deadly history.

When English adopted it in the late 1300s from the Anglo-Norman mortifier, the word in both languages meant “to put to death.”

It’s ultimately derived from the classical Latin combining elements mort- (death) and -ficāre (to cause), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Over the years, “mortify” took on many other senses, some influenced by medieval Latin, Old French, and Middle French, and others originating in English.

The earliest example for “mortify” in the OED is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “Þe lord mortefieþ & qwekeneþ, bryngeþ down to hellis & aȝeeyn bryngeþ” (“The Lord mortifieth and awakeneth, bringeth down to hell and bringeth redemption”).

Here are some obsolete, historical, or rare meanings of “mortify” and the earliest dates for them in the OED:

“Weaken” (circa 1390), “alter a metal, as with alchemy” (c. 1395), “die” (c. 1475), “donate property” (1479), “be an ascetic” (1568), “tenderize meat” (1572), and “become gangrenous” (1603).

The usual sense today (“to embarrass or humiliate”) showed up in the early 17th century. The first Oxford example is from The Ball, a 1639 comedy by the English dramatist James Shirley: “We come to mortifie you.”

The most recent citation in Oxford is from Parallel Lives, a 1985 book by Phyllis Rose about the marriages of five Victorian writers: “It mortified Effie that her husband [John Ruskin] left her constantly alone.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Slang Usage Word origin Writing

The emperor’s cold feet

Q: Professor Wadding, a minor character in The Transit of Venus, says the expression “cold feet” comes from Emperor Henry IV’s waiting in the snow at Canossa to meet Pope Gregory VII. Is this etymology too good to be true?

Yes, that’s a fictitious story, but don’t blame Shirley Hazzard, the author of the novel. Blame Professor Wadding, who is deliberately portrayed as a pompous twit and a fount of academic gobbledygook.

The use of “cold feet” to mean a lack of courage, confidence, or resolve actually appeared in writing for the first time in the late 19th century, more than 800 years after the Pope is said to have kept the Emperor waiting for three wintry days outside Canossa Castle.

The expression showed up in writing for the first time in two American works of fiction published in 1896:

“He’s one o’ them boys that never has cold feet and there’s nothin’ too good for a friend.” (From Artie: A Story of the Streets and Town, a novel by George Ade.)

“I knew this was the way it would be. They got cold feet.” (From Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, a novella by Stephen Crane. The citation is found in the 1896 second edition, but not the 1893 first, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.)

Word sleuths have found earlier examples of “cold feet” in fiction, but the phrase is used either literally or in a different figurative sense.

For example, the phrase shows up several times in an 1878 English translation of Seed-time and Harvest, a novel by the German writer Fritz Reuter.

In one scene, a winning card player decides to leave the table when his lucks changes: “so he rose and said his feet were getting cold, and put his winnings in his pocket.”

Other players then accused him of using “cold feet” as an excuse: “Don’t you always get cold feet at our club, when you have had good luck?” one said.

(The title of the novel is from Genesis 8:22: “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”)

And in Volpone, a 1606 comedy by the English playwright Ben Jonson, the title character says: “Let me tell you: I am not, as your Lombard proverb saith, cold on my feet; or content to part with my commodities at a cheaper rate, than I accustomed: look not to it.”

Kenneth McKenzie, who was an Italian scholar at Yale University, says in a December 1912 letter in Modern Language Notes that “to be cold in the feet” in the Lombard dialect (as well as in modern Italian) means to be “hard up”—that is, “without money.”

As for Canossa, Emperor Henry IV may have had cold feet, both literally and figuratively, as he waited outside the castle in January 1077. But there’s no evidence  that the expression “cold feet” was ever used figuratively at the time to describe his submission to the will of Pope Gregory VII.

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Is “monthslong” a word?

Q: Is “monthslong” a new word or did the editors at NPR slip up? A recent story referred to “a monthslong campaign of racist bullying.”

A: Yes, “monthslong” is a word—a unit of written or spoken language—and it’s not all that new. But is it really a word, one that’s alive and well in writing and speech?

You won’t find it in standard dictionaries, but dictionaries often leave out compounds made of words that have entries of their own.

For example, we’ve seen only three standard dictionaries with entries for “monthlong” or “month-long” as a singular compound adjective. Yet all standard dictionaries have entries for “month” and “long.”

Two online references, the collaborative Wiktionary and the program-generated Wordnik, do have entries for the plural form, “monthslong” (with “months-long” as a variant).

Wiktionary describes “monthslong” as an adjective that means “Lasting for multiple months.” As an example, it cites an April 14, 2007, article in the New York Times:

“A former United States Senator, John B. Breaux, ended his monthslong flirtation with the Louisiana governor’s race Friday evening, declaring that he would not be a candidate in the election this fall.”

Our own search of the Times archive found many examples for both “monthslong” and “months-long.” The earliest is from an English translation of Adolf Hitler’s June 22, 1941, proclamation on Germany’s war with the Soviet Union:

“German people! National Socialists! Weighted down with heavy cares, condemned to months-long silence, the hour has now come when at last I can speak frankly.”

We found many earlier examples for the hyphenated “months-long” in searches of book and newspaper databases.

Here’s an example from Hearts and Creeds, a 1906 novel by Anna Chapin Ray:

“The months-long discontent with the existing order of things, increased by the passive revolt of the Conservative party and aided by their active influence, was ending, as they had hoped, in the temporary disruption of the Liberal power.”

And an article in the Feb. 19, 1911, issue of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram refers to “a timber cruiser, or field surveyor, for a big lumber company, who was perpetually taking months-long trips through the most inaccessible regions.”

Many early examples for “months-long,” including all three mentioned above, break at the end of a line of type, so it’s unclear whether the writer intended the adjective to be hyphenated or not.

The Associated Press and New York Times style books have entries for “monthlong,” but not “monthslong.” However, “monthslong” and “months-long” appear frequently in the online versions of the Times and other newspapers.

In fact, the Times archive has hundreds of examples for both “monthslong” and “months-long,” though the hyphen-free version seems to be more popular lately.

Interestingly, the word usually appears without a hyphen in online searches of the Times archive, even when it originally appeared with a hyphen in the print paper.

In short, it seems that “monthslong” and “months-long” are indeed words in both the technical and practical senses, but their orthography is still a work in progress.

For what it’s worth, we prefer “months-long.” It’s easier to read than “monthslong,” especially online, where everyone’s in such a hurry.

Better still, if you know the number of months, why not be precise and say “a three-month campaign”?

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“Intend on” vs. “intend to”

Q: I hear people saying things like “I intend on getting back to you” instead of “I intend to get back to you.” I wonder if they’re conflating “intend to” and “intent on.” It sounds incorrect to me. Or is “intend on” correct?  I’m intent on knowing.

A: The verb “intend” has been used in more than two dozen ways since it showed up in English in the late 1300s, but most of them are now obsolete.

Today, it’s primarily followed by a noun (“I don’t intend offense”), a gerund (“The board intends meeting”), an infinitive (“She intends to write”), a clause (“The officer intends that we wait”), or a prepositional phrase (“The money was intended for a new school”).

You ask whether it’s legit to use the phrasal verb “intend on” with a gerund (or gerund phrase) as a direct object: “I intend on getting back to you.”

Merriam-Wester’s Dictionary of English Usage has this to say: “In speech and speechlike writing, it [intend] is sometimes followed by on and a gerund.” In other words, M-W considers the usage colloquial—that is, informal or conversational.

The usage guide offers this example from a 1981 letter to the Saturday Evening Post: “I intend on protecting myself and my loved ones.”

In Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), R. W. Burchfield describes the usage as an informal Americanism (“informal AME type”) and gives this example: “Don’t pick up a magazine unless you intend on buying it.”

A search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English suggests that the construction is more common in the US than Merriam-Webster’s suggests, while a search of the British National Corpus finds it negligible in the UK.

The usage is relatively recent, apparently showing up in the early 1970s, according to our searches of literary and news databases.

The first examples we’ve found are from a report of the Sept. 23-28, 1973, convention of the International Woodworkers of America in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The usage showed up several times at the convention, as in this comment by one speaker: “we intend on being the strongest, the most militant union anywhere on the North American continent.”

In our opinion, it’s acceptable for Americans to use “intend on” in conversation and informal writing, but we wouldn’t recommend it in formal contexts.

Is “intent on” responsible for the “intend on” usage? Our guess is that “plan on” is a more likely culprit. “I intend on sleeping late” is parallel to “I plan on sleeping late,” a standard construction.

The verb “intend” comes from the Latin intendere, which combines in- (towards) with tendere (to stretch).

As John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins explains, one of the meanings of intendere in Latin was to “ ‘direct’ or ‘stretch’ one’s thoughts toward something.”

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Little Buttercup, disassembled?

Q: While playing oboe for a D’Oyly Carte tour, I heard that Little Buttercup may really mean “disassembled” when she tells the Boatswain in Pinafore that she has “dissembled.” Have you ever come across this alternate definition?

A: Does Little Buttercup use “dissembled” to mean “disassembled” in H.M.S. Pinafore after the Boatswain describes her as “the rosiest, the roundest, and the reddest beauty in all Spithead”?

Red, am I? and round—and rosy! Maybe, for I have dissembled well! But hark ye, my merry friend—hast ever thought that beneath a gay and frivolous exterior there may lurk a canker-worm which is slowly but surely eating its way into one’s very heart?

One could perhaps make a case that Buttercup is using “dissembled” here to mean “disassembled,” but we wouldn’t make it.

Although the verb “dissemble” did indeed once mean “disassemble,” the Oxford English Dictionary has only one example for the usage—from the late 1500s or early 1600s.

And in our searches of literary databases, we couldn’t find any examples for the usage from the late 19th century, when W. S. Gilbert wrote the words and Arthur Sullivan the music for the comic opera.

It seems perfectly clear to us that Little Buttercup has indeed “dissembled” in the usual way—she’s disguised her true feelings by putting a happy face on the remorse eating at her heart.

And in a duet with the Captain, she uses that sense of “dissemble” several times, as in this example: “Though to catch my drift he’s striving, / I’ll dissemble—I’ll dissemble.”

Interestingly, the verb “disassemble” was rarely seen before the 20th century, and Gilbert may not have been aware of it when he wrote the libretto for the opera, which opened in London in 1878.

Standard dictionaries didn’t have entries for “disassemble” until well into the 20th century, and the earliest modern citation for it in the OED is from the 1920s, though we’ve found some 19th-century examples in our searches.

Now, let’s assemble the history of these words.

The first to show up in English, “dissemble,” is an alteration of the earlier (and now obsolete) verb “dissimule,” which was borrowed from the Old French dissimuler (to hide one’s intentions) in the 14th century, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The ultimate source is the Latin dissimulāre (to disguise or conceal). The Latin verb combines dis- (completely) with simulāre (to pretend), Chambers adds.

(Dissimulāre is also the source of “dissimulate,” to conceal one’s feelings, and “dissimulation.”)

Why did “dissimule” morph into “dissemble”? The OED suggests that the transformation was “influenced perhaps by resemble.”

The first citation for the “dissemble” spelling in the OED is from Thomas More’s History of King Richard III (1513-18):

“Some … not able to dissemble theyr sorow, were faine at his backe to turne their face to the wall.” More’s history was the main source for Shakespeare’s Richard III, according to scholars.

Oxford defines “dissemble” as to “alter or disguise the semblance of (one’s character, a feeling, design, or action) so as to conceal, or deceive as to, its real nature; to give a false or feigned semblance to; to cloak or disguise by a feigned appearance.”

As for the old use of “dissemble” to mean “disassemble,” the OED describes it as rare and obsolete. It defines this sense as to “separate, disperse: = disassemble,” and traces the usage to the Old French dessembler (to separate).

The only Oxford citation for this sense of “dissemble” is from a memoir by Sir Jerome Horsey, a British diplomat, about his travels in Russia during the late 1500s:

“The chieff bishops … assembled and disembled often tymes together, much perplexed and devided.” The dictionary says the citation was written sometime before 1626, and appears in a version of the memoir edited by E. A. Bond in 1856.

As to “disassemble,” Oxford has an obsolete sense from the early 1600s, but the first example for the word in its usual modern sense (“to take to pieces, to take apart”) is from a 1922 collection of short stories:

“This generating plant was partly disassembled.” The OED doesn’t cite the author or publisher of the story.

However, we’ve found several 19th-century examples for “disassemble,” including this one from an 1893 report to Congress by the Secretary of the Navy:

“The breech mechanism was disassembled and thoroughly examined immediately after this firing and found to be cool and comparatively clean, what little dirt there was having come from the leaky primer test.”

The usage must have been uncommon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, since we didn’t find entries for “disassemble” in An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), The Century Dictionary (1889-91), or Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913).

However, the verb “assemble,” the opposite of “disassemble,” has been around since the Middle Ages. The earliest example in the OED is from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester (1297):

“And amorwe hem lete asemly wyþ mylde herte ynou” (“And in the morning let them assemble with enough mercy in their hearts”). Oxford notes that the Middle English “asemly” was misprinted as “asely” in the manuscript.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Linguistics Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Coming for to carry me home

Q: I’ve come across the use of “for to” instead of “to” in a number of songs, poems, and other writing. In fact, a post of yours includes an example from Chaucer: “cometh for to axe him of mercy.” In what context is this usage correct?

A: The old phrase “for to” is now considered archaic or dialectal, but it still gets around, as you’ve noticed.

You can hear it in the Belfast dialect spoken in Northern Ireland, for example, as well as in songs by Bob Dylan.

In Belfast English and Standard English (1995), the linguist Alison Henry includes “I don’t like the children for to be out late” and “They are going home for to see their parents” among her dialectal examples.

In “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Dylan sings, “I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade.” And in “When the Ship Comes In,” he sings, “And the words that are used / For to get the ship confused.”

Of course the usage also appears in older poetry and music, such as Rudyard Kipling’s poem “For to Admire” and the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” with its line “Coming for to carry me home.”

In what context is this usage correct? Well, “for to” was once ordinary usage, but it’s not standard English today. Nevertheless, we’re not particularly bothered when poets and lyricists take liberties with English.

How did all this “for to”-ing begin? Here’s the story.

In Anglo-Saxon times, “for” was a preposition meaning “in front of,” “for the purpose of,” and “because of.” But it sometimes combined with other terms, as in forþan (therefore) and for-hwí (for why).

In the 12th century, as Old English gave way to Middle English, “for” and “to” came together to form the phrasal preposition “for to,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The new term, which meant “in order to,” was used before bare, or “to”-less, infinitives, much like the infinitive marker “to” is now used.

The earliest example of “for to” in the OED is from the Cotton Homilies, written sometime before 1175: “Forte don him understonden” (“For to [in order to] make him understand”).

A little later, “for to” appeared as a conjunction meaning “until.” The first OED example is from the Trinity Homilies (circa 1200):

For to þe time cam þat he heregede helle” (“Until the time that he harrowed hell”). Translated from the Latin descendit ad inferos (“he descended into hell”) in the Apostles’ Creed, an early medieval statement of Christian belief.

In late Middle English, the phrase “for to” was often used to introduce a subordinate verb with a future sense, according to the linguist Elly van Gelderen. The subordinate verb referred to an action that followed that of the main verb.

In a 1998 paper in the American Journal of Germanic Linguistics and Literatures, van Gelderen says Chaucer uses “for to” in The Canterbury Tales (c. 1386) “to introduce subordinate verbs approximately 430 times.”

The Canterbury quotation in your question is a good example of “for to” used to introduce a subordinate verb with a future sense: “cometh for to axe him of mercy.”

In that excerpt from “The Parson’s Tale,” the main verb, “cometh,” is followed by “for to,” which introduces a subordinate verb, “axe,” that refers to a future action.

In her paper, “The Future of For To,” van Gelderen says the “demise of for to” began as Middle English gave way to Modern English in the 16th century, with “for” and “to” eventually going their separate ways.

However, the “for to” usage continued to be relatively common until well into the 18th century.

The OED’s two most recent examples are from prominent figures in American history: George Washington and Abigail Adams:

“You must ride round ye back of ye Mountain for to get below them.” (From a 1748 entry in Washington’s journal.)

“Having only put off its present glory for to rise finally to a more happy state.” (From a letter written in 1774 from Abigail to John Adams.)

In contemporary English, “for” is either a preposition with many senses (“She’s running for senator,” “He’s being treated for depression,” and so on) or a conjunction meaning “because” or “since” (“I asked them to leave, for I was sleepy”).

And “to” is now a preposition with multiple meanings (“I was close to tears,” “Move the cursor to the left,” etc.) or an infinitive marker (“They want to start a recycling program”).

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English English language Etymology Expression Linguistics Slang Usage Word origin Writing

Suck, sucker, and sucking up

Q: How did “suck,” a verb apparently derived from an ancient root related to creating negative pressure to draw liquid into the mouth, give us the noun “sucker” for a foolish or gullible person?

A: When the verb “suck” showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, it usually referred to what a baby does at its mother’s breast.

All the modern uses of “suck” and its offspring—from the innocuous to the vulgar—are derived in one way or another from that innocent early usage.

When the verb came into Old English writing as súcan, it meant “to draw (liquid, esp. milk from the breast) into the mouth by contracting the muscles of the lips, cheeks, and tongue so as to produce a partial vacuum,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Old English verb, like the corresponding term in Latin, sūgĕre, ultimately comes from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root seuə- (to take liquid), according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

This root is rendered by the OED as sug-, and by John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins as seug- or seuk-.

Ayto says the word is imitative in origin: “This no doubt originated in imitation of the sound of sucking from the mother’s breast.”

The earliest Old English example in the OED (from the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript dated around 825) refers to drawing sustenance from things other than the breast:

“Sucun hunig of stane & ele of trumum stane” (“Suck honey from the stone and oil from the hard stone”). The passage is in Deuteronomy 32:13.

However, the next Oxford example (from the Paris Psalter, an illuminated manuscript dated around 1050) refers to nursing babies:

“Of ðæra cild muðe, þe meolc sucað, þu byst hered” (“From the mouths of children who suck milk you are praised”). Matthew 21:16.

When the noun “suck” showed up in the Middle Ages, it similarly referred to “the action or an act of sucking milk from the breast,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example for the noun is from one of the two St. Gregory documents in the Vernon Manuscript (1390-1400), written in the West Midland dialect of Middle English:

“Whon heo hedde iȝiue þe child a souke” (“When she had given the child suck”).

Around the same time, the noun “sucker” appeared in the sense of “suckling” (a term that showed up in the 15th century). The first citation in the OED is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1384:

“Forsothe Philip, his euen souker, transferride the body” (“Forsooth Philip, a fellow suckling [a friend from infancy], transported the body”). We’ve expanded the citation, a passage found in 2 Maccabees 9:29.

Most of the negative senses arising from “suck” showed up in the 17th century onwards, though a few appeared earlier, including to “suck” money from someone (circa 1380), “suck” the blood from someone (to exhaust or drain, 1583), and “suck” someone dry (to exhaust, 1592).

The sense of “sucker” you’re asking about (a gullible person who’s easy to deceive) originated in North America in the early 19th century, according to Ayto’s etymological dictionary.

Ayto defines it as “someone as naive as an unweaned child.” And the language writer Hugh Rawson says in Wicked Words that it refers to “one who has all the smarts of an unweaned animal.”

The first example in the OED is from the May 29, 1838, issue of the Patriot, a newspaper in Toronto:

“It’s true that pigs has their troubles like humans … constables catches ’em, dogs bites ’em, and pigs is sometimes as done-over suckers as men.”

The use of “sucker” as a dupe or patsy may also have been influenced by the somewhat earlier use of the word for a sweet, such as a lollipop.

The dictionary’s first citation for this sense is from Suffolk Words and Phrases (1823), by Edward Moor: “Suckers, a longish sort of a sweety.”

In the 1840s, the phrasal verb “suck in” came to mean to cheat or deceive. The dictionary’s first example is from Frontier Life, an 1842 collection of sketches by Caroline M. Kirkland:

“I a’n’t bound to drive nobody in the middle of the night … so don’t you try to suck me in there.”

Later, the expression “suck up to” came to mean curry favor with or toady to. The first Oxford example is from an 1860 slang dictionary written by John Camden Hotten:

Suck up, ‘to suck up to a person’ to insinuate oneself into his good graces.” The OED says the term originated as schoolboy slang.

As for the use of “suck” meaning to perform oral sex, the OED labels this usage “coarse slang” and dates it from the 1920s. Its earliest example is a 1928 citation in A. W. Read’s Lexical Evidence From Folk Epigraphy in Western North America (1935): “I suck cocks for fun.”

However, Green’s Dictionary of Slang has two citations from the 17th century, including this one:

“O that I were a flea upon thy lip, / There would I sucke for euer, and not skip … / Or if thou thinkst I there too high am plast, / Ile be content to sucke below thy waste” (from The Schoole of Complement, a 1631 play by the English dramatist James Shirley).

This sense of “suck” also appeared in the 19th century in the Pearl, a pornographic monthly. The Pearl used the word repeatedly in both senses during the 18 months that it published in 1879 and 1880.

Here’s an example from the October 1879 issue: “How nice it feels to have one’s prick sucked.”

Hugh Rawson, the author of Wicked Words, says “suck” was apparently considered a taboo word by Noah Webster, even in the nursing sense. Rawson cites the “watered-down text” of Matthew 24:19 in Webster’s 1833 revision of the King James Version “for family consumption.”

Webster changed “And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!” to “And woe to them that are with child, and to them that nurse infants in those days!” Many modern biblical translations use a similar, “suck”-less wording.

A few other negative terms from the “suck” family showed up in the first half of the 20th century, including “to suck eggs” (to be mean or irritable, 1903), “go suck eggs!” (an exclamation of hostility or dismissal, 1906), and “to suck the hind tit or teat” (to be inferior or a loser, 1940).

Those egg-sucking expressions have roots going back to the early 1600s, when a “suck-egg” meant a thieving animal, hence a fool or a greedy person. The OED defines a “suck-egg” as “an animal that is reputed to suck eggs, e.g. a weasel, cuckoo,” and says the term figuratively meant a “silly” or “avaricious person.”

The term “suck-egg” was also used pejoratively before nouns, as in “suck-egge Weasell” (1631), “Suck-egge-fly” (1658), and, especially in American English, “suck-egg dog” (1872 or earlier).

The adjectival use of “suck-egg” survived well into the 20th century, as in this OED citation: “Hayes got up and slunk off like a suck-egg dog caught in the hen-house.” (From the Virginia Quarterly Review, January 1931.)

However, new positive senses for “suck” showed up in the 20th century, such as “suck it up” (to work up one’s courage in the face of adversity, 1967).

The use of “suck” as a slang verb meaning “to be contemptible or disgusting” appeared later in the 20th century, according to citations in the OED.

The first example in Oxford is from the June 2, 1971, issue of International Times, or IT, a counterculture newspaper:

“Polaroid sucks! For some time the Polaroid Corporation has been supplying the South African government with large photo systems … to use for photographing blacks for the passbooks … every black must carry.”

But the linguist Ronald R. Butters, writing in the Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, cites a 1964 use of “suck” in this sense to denigrate an astrologer:

“Consuela sucks and anybody who believes this crap is crazy.” (Butters says the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower acquainted him with the citation, from The Herbert Huncke Reader, 1997.)

Standard dictionaries variously label this usage “informal,” “slang,” “rude,” “impolite,” or “vulgar.” The more disapproving labels apparently reflect the word’s association with oral sex.

Etymologists and other language types have argued for years over whether the sexual “suck” begat the “suck” that means to be bad, disagreeable or disgusting—that is, to stink.

In his 2001 paper, Butters argues against a “vulgar” label for “suck” in its newer sense, saying, “Little if any lexicographical evidence exists that privileges the etymological derivation of the idiom X sucks! from phrases involving fellatio.”

“At best, the connotations of fellatio that many speakers today sometimes assign to the X sucks! idiom arise post facto, when speakers speakers are forced to speculate about the etymology of the idiom,” he writes.

(The title of Butters’s paper is “ ‘We Didn’t Realize That Lite Beer Was Supposed to Suck!’: The Putative Vulgarity of ‘X Sucks’ in American English.”)

As we said at the beginning, all the usages in the “suck” family are ultimately derived from the Anglo-Saxon sense of a baby feeding at its mother’s breast. However, the use of “suck” in the sexual sense clearly colors the newer usage for some English speakers.

We’d describe the “stink” sense of “suck” as slang, not vulgar. It’s clearly gaining acceptance, but we wouldn’t recommend using it in most formal writing or speech.

[Note: This post was updated on April 28, 2020.]

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English Grammar Linguistics Punctuation Usage Writing

Can a ‘run-on’ sentence run on?

Q: I’m puzzled by this sentence: “Uber’s surge pricing algorithm does not reduce output, it increases the supply of transportation providers.” Technically, it’s a run-on sentence and incorrect. But it feels so right. What are your thoughts?

A: It’s true that in general you shouldn’t use a comma alone—without a conjunction like “and” or “but”—to join two independent clauses (that is, clauses that could stand alone as separate sentences).

Supposedly, to use a comma instead of a semicolon creates a “spliced” or “run-on” sentence. Or so we’ve been taught.

But we think the example you sent is fine as it is. In our opinion, it’s not a run-on sentence.

This is a natural (and very common) way of writing everyday English. In more formal—perhaps legal or academic—writing, you might prefer a semicolon to a comma.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has a discussion of “what prescriptivists call a ‘spliced’ or ‘run-on’ comma,” and it provides this example: “The locals prefer wine to beer, the village pub resembles a city wine bar.”

Such a sentence would be “widely regarded as infelicitous,” say the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum.

But in certain cases, commas are accepted when used to join two independent clauses, Huddleston and Pullum write. They give these examples:

(1) “To keep a child of twelve or thirteen under the impression that nothing nasty ever happens is not merely dishonest, it is unwise.”

Here a negative clause is followed by a positive, the authors note. In such cases—especially where the negative clause has “not only,” “not simply, “not merely,” or “not just”—the positive clause often starts with “but.” The authors add that the “construction without but is also common, however, and readily allows the comma.”

(2) “Some players make good salaries, others play for the love of the game.”

Here, the Cambridge Grammar explains, “The comma is justified by the close parallelism between the clauses and their relative simplicity.”

The sentence you ask about—“Uber’s surge pricing algorithm does not reduce output, it increases the supply of transportation providers”—is like No, 1, with a negative clause followed by a positive. It also resembles No. 2 in that the two independent clauses are closely parallel.

This is why we don’t consider it a run-on sentence, and why we think the comma is fine.

In a footnote, the Cambridge Grammar mentions a third kind of sentence in which a comma is used to separate two independent clauses. The example given is “Order your furniture on Monday, take it home on Tuesday.”

Technically, the authors write, these are two separate imperative clauses. But the sentence “is interpreted as a conditional statement, ‘If you order your furniture on Monday you can take it home on Tuesday.’ ”

Using a semicolon instead of a comma (“Order your furniture on Monday; take it home on Tuesday”), the authors write, “would allow only the literal interpretation as a compound directive.”

Here’s something else to keep in mind. As the Cambridge Grammar points out, the great mass of published English that we read is edited according to “codified rules” of punctuation that are “set out in manuals specific to a particular publishing house or accepted more widely as authoritative guides.”

Despite this “codification,” the Cambridge Grammar says, “punctuation practice is by no means entirely uniform.” As we’ve written on our blog, punctuation also changes with the times.

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Shards or sherds?

Q: Seeing “filled with centuries-old pottery sherds” in a poem made me wonder if the poet intentionally changed shards into sherds or made a mistake. But then I googled “sherds” and got many hits. My spellchecker still wants to change it to “shards.” Your comments?

A: The word for a piece of broken pottery, glass, metal, and so on has been spelled all sorts of ways since it showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, including sceard, scherd, scheard, schord, shard, and sherd.

Dictionaries now include two standard spellings, “shard” and “sherd,” but most of them consider “sherd” a variant of the more common “shard.”

However, Oxford Dictionaries online defines “sherd” specifically as a short form of “potsherd,” a broken piece of pottery, especially one found at an archaeological site.

And Merriam-Webster online says “sherd” can refer generally to a fragment of something, or specifically to “a fragment of a pottery vessel found on sites and in refuse deposits where pottery-making peoples have lived.”

As M-W explains, “English speakers have adopted the modernized shard spelling for most uses, but archeologists prefer to spell the word sherd when referring to the ancient fragments of pottery they unearth.”

In “At the Metropolitan Museum,” the poem that got your attention, Matthew Siegel is using “sherds” in the archeological sense when he writes that “in the museum there is a room / filled with centuries-old pottery sherds / and it is difficult not to start seeing / symbols everywhere.”

The Old English word for a broken piece of pottery, sceard, is derived from the prehistoric Germanic skardo- ‎(notched, cut, separated, broken) and the Proto-Indo-European sker– ‎(to cut), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In a paper in Studia Neophilologica, a journal specializing in Germanic and Romance philology, Karl P. Wentersdorf explains that the term had “two distinct lines of semantic development” in English—a cutting sense (as in the verbs “score,” “share,” and “shear”) and a sense relating to the byproducts of cutting (“shirt, “short,” and “skirt”).

When sceard showed up in Old English, the OED says, it referred to the result of cutting (“a gap in an enclosure, esp. in a hedge or bank”) and a byproduct of cutting (“a fragment of broken earthenware”). The gap sense is now chiefly dialectal.

The dictionary’s earliest example, from the Codex Diplomaticus Aevi Saxonici, a document written sometime before 1000, uses “sceard” in the sense of a gap.

The first Oxford example for the term used as a fragment of earthenware is from a Latin-Old English glossary written around 1000: “Testarum, scearda.

(The OED cites the fourth-century Roman Christian poet Prudentius for this use of testarum. In a description of the martyrdom of St. Vincent, he uses fragmenta testarum to describe the potsherds that Vincent is forced to lie on.)

Here’s a Middle English example in the OED (with the noun spelled “shord”) from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “My vertue driede as a shord.”

And here’s a Modern English “shardes” example from Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, written around 1600: “Shardes, Flints, and Peebles, should be throwne on her.” We’ve expanded the citation, which refers to Ophelia’s body.

Although the “sherd” and “shard” spellings showed up in Middle English (mid-12th to late 15th centuries), the OED has a “shord” citation from as late as 1881.

Here’s a recent “shard” example, from the March 2, 2017, issue of the South Bend (IN) Tribune: “All of a sudden, ‘bang,’ and there’s 12-inch shards of glass flying through my house.” A resident was describing a powerful storm.

And here’s a recent “sherd” example,  from the March 1, 2017, issue of the Idaho County Free Press, a weekly in Grangeville, ID: “Excavations in the summer of 2010 at the WWII Kooskia Internment Camp uncovered this pottery sherd.”

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Adjectives galore

Q: I was telling a friend about the “fresh flowers galore” at the produce outlet in Dover, Delaware, when I got to thinking about “galore.” Is there any other adjective (if it is an adjective) that always goes after the noun?

A: Yes, “galore,” meaning “in abundance,” is an adjective. Technically, it’s a postpositive adjective—one that follows the noun it modifies. A prepositive adjective precedes the noun.

Many adjectives can be prepositive in one phrase and postpositive in another, depending on the sense.

For example “proper” precedes the noun when it means correct (“proper grammar”) or decorous (“proper behavior”), but follows when it refers to a specific place (“the city proper”).

However, “galore” is among a group of adjectives that always follow nouns.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has several examples, including “restaurants aplenty,” “flowers galore,” “Attorney General designate,” “President elect,” and “Nobel laureate.”

The authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, say “aplenty” and “galore” are “somewhat dated,” and the others “occur with a very narrow range” of words—“designate and  elect with nominals denoting various kinds of roles to which one may be appointed or elected, laureate mainly with Poet or Nobel.”

We’ll add some other examples: “arms akimbo,” “devil incarnate,” “door ajar,” “man alive,” “ship afloat,” “three abreast,” “a vacation abroad,” and “Watergate redux.

(Many of these words were once phrases beginning with the archaic preposition “a,” a variant of “on,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.)

As for “galore,” English adapted it in the 17th century from an adverb in Irish, go leór (“to sufficiency, sufficiently, enough”), says the OED, which notes a similar term in Scottish Gaelic, gu leòr.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says go in Irish and gu in Gaelic are particles “prefixed to an adjective to form an adverb.”

As the OED explains, “galore” is now “commonly viewed as Irish; in some earlier examples the proximate source seems to have been Scottish Gaelic.”

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, edited by C. T. Onions, says “galore” was “prob. popularized by [Sir Walter] Scott.”

The Scottish novelist, poet, and playwright used the word in his journal on April 10, 1826: “Sent off proofs and copy galore before breakfast, and might be able to give idleness a day if I liked.”

The earliest citation for “galore” in the OED is from a 1675 entry in The Diary of Henry Teonge, a Royal Navy chaplain: “Provinder good store, beife, porke, sheepe, ducks, geese, chickens, henns, gallore.” (We’ve expanded the citation to add foodstuffs galore.)

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, classifies “galore” as an adverb or a noun, but all six of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked list it only as an adjective.

(The OED entry hasn’t been fully updated since 1898; the up-to-date Oxford Dictionaries online, also from Oxford University Press, considers “galore” an adjective.)

It’s hard to imagine “galore” as a noun. But the OED has two 19th-century examples, including this one from 1848:

“Galore of alcohol to ratify the trade.” (From Life in the Far West, a series of articles about a British officer’s experiences in America, written by George Frederik Augustus Ruxton and published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh magazine.)

In fact, the Dictionary of American Regional English has several 20th-century examples of “galore” used as a noun meaning “a great quantity.”

This one from A. B. Guthrie’s 1947 novel The Big Sky refers to Rocky Mountain sheep: “There’s a galore of ’em beyond the Yellowstone.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

‘Interested in’ vs. ‘interested to’

Q: I’m interested in hearing what you think about the use of the infinitive in “I’m interested to hear what you think.”

A: Let’s begin by discussing the use of “interested” with “to hear” and “in hearing.” We’ll get to other complements later.

English speakers have used both constructions (“interested to hear” and “interested in hearing”) for more than two centuries, but the one with the gerund (“hearing”) is more popular today than the one with the infinitive (“hear”)

The two usages are now common in both the US and the UK, according to our searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus.

The verb “interest” is being used here in the passive voice (“to be interested”) with the sense of “I desire hearing what you think” or “I want to hear what you think.”

The earliest example we’ve found for “interested to hear” is from an Oct. 26, 1819, debate among the delegates at a Maine constitutional convention: “You are deeply interested to hear more!”

The first example we’ve found for “interested in hearing” is from Early Lessons, an 1825 collection of children’s stories by the Anglo-Irish writer Maria Edgeworth:

“Now she could hear Frank’s thoughts and feelings about every thing and every person they had seen at Bellombre; but chiefly she was interested in hearing that his father and mother were quite satisfied with him.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has several gerund and infinitive examples with verbs other than “hear,” including one from the late 1700s in which “to be interested” is used with an infinitive. We’ll have more about this when we get to the etymology of the verb “interest.”

Although the gerund usage is more popular now, the infinitive usage has been more popular at various times in the past, according to a search with Ngram Viewer, which provides rudimentary comparisons of phrases in the millions of books digitized by Google.

As for your question, we find both “interested to hear” and “interested in hearing” acceptable, but the gerund usage is more idiomatic, or natural, to our ears, and we rarely use the infinitive construction.

Things get more complicated when “to be interested” is used with the gerunds and infinitives of verbs other than “hear.”

In “The Lexicogrammar of Be Interested,” the linguist Costas Gabrielatos points out that the gerund construction is used with many more verbs than the infinitive.

Gabrielatos, whose paper analyzes the use of “be interested” in various English corpora, or databases of recorded language, writes that the infinitive usage “seems to have a much more restricted range of complements” than the gerund usage.

He says he found that the infinitive is usually used with verbs of perception or inquiry, such as “find,” “hear,” “know,” “learn,” “note,” “read,” “see,” and “share.”

Our own examination of American and British corpora, which reflect the language as it’s actually used, indicate that “interested to” is generally used with verbs of perception while “interested in” is used with verbs of both action and perception.

So one might be “interested in seeing” or “interested in going” to a movie, according to these databases. However, it’s more likely that one would be “interested to see” a movie than “interested to go” to it.

As we’ve said, the gerund usage sounds more natural to us—and that’s the case with verbs of perception and verbs of action.

We should note, however, that we’ve used the infinitive construction a few times on our blog, and that we haven’t found any objection to it in the many grammar and usage manuals in our library.

As for the etymology here, the verb “interest” showed up in the early 17th century as a variant of the now-obsolete verb “interess.” The ultimate source is the classical Latin interesse (to differ, concern, be of importance).

The OED notes a suggestion that the “interest” spelling “might be partly due to confusion” with “interessed,” the past tense of “interess.”

The dictionary defines the verb “interest” in the sense we’re discussing as to “cause (a person) to have an objective interest or concern in the progress or fate of a matter; to involve.” It says the usage is chiefly seen in the passive construction “to be interested.”

The first Oxford citation is from Essaies Politicke and Morall (1608), by the Anglican clergyman and auhor Daniel Tuvill: “When they think he is not interested in the cause, or induced by any priuate obligation.”

And here’s a negative 1781 example for “to be interested” with an infinitive, from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon: “The emperor himself was interested not to deface the splendour of his own cities.”

Finally, here’s an OED citation for “to be interested” used with a gerund, from an 1886 decision of the Chancery Division of the High Court in England: “The landlord … is interested in seeing that the liquidators discharge their duty properly.”

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