English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Another thing (or think?) coming

Q: Which is correct: “If you think that, you have another thing/think coming”? I see “thing” more often, but “think” makes more sense to me.

A: The two expressions, which are used to express disagreement, showed up in print within a couple of weeks of each other in the late 19th century.

The editors at the Oxford English Dictionary say that “to have another thing coming” resulted from a “misapprehension of to have another think coming.”

We tend to agree with that explanation, but word sleuths keep coming up with earlier examples for the expressions, and the question of which one inspired the other hasn’t been conclusively answered.

We agree with you that “think” makes more sense here than “thing.” Our guess is that whoever coined the expression was apparently using the noun “think” as a play on the verb “think.”

However, the noun “think” was relatively new at the time, and many people could have heard it as “thing,” a much more common noun that dates from early Anglo-Saxon days.

In fact, the phrases “think coming” and “thing coming” are often pronounced the same way, as the linguist Mark Liberman explains in a May 3, 2008, post on the Language Log.

More important, idiomatic expressions don’t have to make sense. The original expression may indeed have used “thing coming,” not “think coming.”

Both versions are common today, though “another thing coming” is more popular, especially in the US, according to our searches of contemporary English databases.

The News on the Web Corpus, for example, has more than twice as many examples for “another thing coming” as for “another think coming.”

(The NOW corpus contains 4.3 billion words from web-based newspapers and magazines published between 2010 and the present time.)

As for the etymology here, when the noun “think” showed up in the early 19th century, it meant an “act of (continued or concerted) thinking,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first citation is from an 1834 issue of Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine: “We lie lown yonder … and have time for our ain think.”

The expression “to have another think coming,” which Oxford defines as “to be greatly mistaken,” showed up six decades later.

The earliest OED example is from the May 21, 1898, issue of the Syracuse (NY) Standard: “Conroy lives in Troy and thinks he is a coming fighter. This gentleman has another think coming.”

However, a reader of the blog has found an earlier example from the Feb. 23, 1896, issue of the Sunday Journal (Indianapolis):

“ ‘Oh, you think you’ve seen me, do you?’ and once more that voice gurgled in his ear. ‘Well, you’ve got another think coming. See?’ ”

The earliest OED citation for “to have another thing coming” is from Wilshire Editorials, a 1906 collection of editorials in the various magazines published by Gaylord Wilshire:

“Now if we should try and think up some one person who is satisfied with the existing order of things … we would most likely have thought that we should find him in the editor of the Wall Street Journal. But if we did, then we have another thing coming.”

(The OED notes that the word “thing” here was “think” when the editorial originally appeared in 1904 in Wilshire’s Magazine.)

Interestingly, the reader we mentioned earlier has found both “think” and “thing” versions of an article about bicycle racing that appeared in two newspapers in 1897.

The “think coming” version appeared in the June 12, 1897, issue of the Buffalo (NY) Enquirer:

“In witnessing these things they imagine that these battles and quarrels of the track are carried on after the races are over. The people who think this ‘have another think coming,’ for the men travel in one of the most peaceful parties that follows any line of sport.”

The “thing coming” version appeared in an otherwise identical passage in the June 24, 1897, issue of the Elmira (NY) Daily Gazette & Free Press.

Additional examples may turn up as more written English is digitized. And preferences about “think coming” vs. “thing coming” may change.

From what we know now, the “another think” version was the first to show up, but English speakers today prefer “another thing.”

[Note: This post was updated on Oct. 24, 2017.]

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Hello, Minnie!

Q: We saw Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West and noticed that the Italian libretto makes generous use of “hello,” notably with shouts of “Hello, Minnie!” at the saloon. I don’t see anything about “hello” on your blog. Would you like to correct this oversight?

A: We’ve discussed “goodbye” in several posts (most recently, in 2011), but we haven’t written about “hello.” What better time than now?

Despite its ubiquity today, the use of “hello” as a greeting is relatively new, dating back only to the mid-1800s, at least in writing. However, “hello” was used to attract attention or express surprise as far back as the 1820s, and its ancestors date from the 16th century.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for “hello” used to attract attention is from the Oct. 4, 1826, issue of the Norwich (CT) Courier: “Hello, Jim! I’ll tell you what: I’ve a sharp knife and feel as if I’d like to cut up something or other.”

The first OED citation for the term used to express surprise is from a letter in the Sept. 23, 1827, issue of the U.S. Telegraph, a Washington, DC, daily: “Hello, sez Joe Laughton, wher’s Bil Perry un Olla Parsons?”

And the earliest example in the dictionary for “hello” used as a greeting is from the May 28, 1853, issue of the New York Clipper, an entertainment weekly: “Hello ole feller, how are yer?”

The first Oxford citation for “hello” used in the telephone sense is from an Aug. 15, 1877, letter by Thomas Alva Edison to T. B. A. David, president of the Central District and Printing Telegraph Company in Pittsburgh:

“Friend David, I do not think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What you think? Edison — P.S. first cost of sender & receiver to manufacture is only $7.00.” (We’ve expanded the citation by going to the dictionary’s source, the October 1987 issue of Antique Phonograph Monthly.)

The OED notes that Edison “is popularly credited with instigating the practice of saying hello when answering the telephone” and “for the word’s subsequent popularity as a greeting. His rival, Alexander Graham Bell, preferred ahoy to be used.”

Etymologically, “hello” is the last in a line of similarly spelled words that can be traced back to the 1500s.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says “hello” is ultimately derived from “holla” or “hollo” (1588), a shout to attract attention, and perhaps from “holla!” (1523), an exclamation meaning “stop!” or “cease!”

Chambers seems to dismiss suggestions that the usage may have been borrowed from, or influenced by, similar terms to attract attention in Middle French (holà) and German (halloholla).

“The more probable explanation,” the dictionary says, “is that hello, hallo, holla and hollo are all natural formations in English and that they are parallel to natural formations in German, French and other, if not all, languages.”

By the time Puccini’s opera about the California Gold Rush had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910, with shouts of “Hello, Minnie!” ringing out, the use of “hello” as a greeting was an everyday occurrence.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

The poop about pooped

Q: After separating the recyclables into three bins and dragging them out to the street, my hubby turned to me and said he was pooped. Speaking of which, where does “pooped” come from?

A: The adjective “pooped” (or “pooped out”), meaning exhausted or worn out, showed up in the early 20th century in American English.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Sergeant Eadie (1928), Leonard H. Nason’s fictional account of an artilleryman in World War: “I haven’t had any sleep in two nights, and I’m a little poobed [sic].”

The OED inserted the bracketed “sic.” Nason, a sergeant in World War I and a lieutenant colonel in World War II, used “poobed” two other times in the book, so that’s probably what the word sounded like to him.

The next Oxford citation, from Soldiers March! (1930), a World War I novel by Theodore Fredenburgh, uses the usual spelling: “The whole outfit is too pooped to have any goldbricking.”

The OED says the adjective is derived from the somewhat earlier verb “poop” (or “poop out”), meaning to break down, stop working, or give out.

The dictionary’s earliest example for this colloquial verb is from a 1927 issue of the journal American Speech: “Poop out, fizzle.”

The OED says the origin of the verb is uncertain, but it points the reader to the verb “poof” (1915), meaning to appear or disappear like a puff of air, and the interjection “poof” (1868), an expression of such appearing or disappearing.

In case you’re curious, the adjective “pooped” is not related to the “poop” having to do with defecation.

When the verb “poop” showed up in the Middle Ages, it had nothing to do with defecating. Rather it meant, Oxford says, “to produce a short blast of sound, as with a horn; to blow, toot.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation, with the past tense “pooped” spelled “powped,” is from “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer (circa 1390):

“Of bras they broghten bemes, and of box, / Of horn, of boon, in whiche they blewe and powped” (“They brought out trumpets of brass and boxwood, / Of horn and bone, on which they blew and tooted”).

In the late 1600s, the OED says, this now-obsolete musical sense of “poop” evolved to mean, in nursery slang, to “break wind.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the farting sense of “poop” is from Richard Hogarth’s Gazophylacium Anglicanum, a 1689 etymological dictionary: “To poop, from the Belg. Poepen, to fart softly: both from the sound.”

Oxford notes that the verb “now usually” means “to defecate.” The first example is from an 1882 book by Frederick William P. Jago about the Cornish dialect: “Poop, or Poopy, to go to stool. (Said by children.)”

Since we used the noun “poop” in the title of this post to mean the latest information or the inside story, we should discuss the origin of this sense too.

The OED says this colloquial usage apparently evolved from its use in the early 1900s as cadet lingo at the US Military Academy at West Point.

The dictionary’s first citation is from the 1911 issue of Howitzer, the military academy’s yearbook: “Poop, a speech; a thing to be memorized.”

The Oxford entry for the noun includes 1904 and 1908 citations from the yearbook in which “poop” is used as a verb meaning “to memorize completely” or “to be able to quote verbatim.”

The first citation for “poop” used to mean the inside story is from the Jan, 6, 1945, issue of the New Yorker: “That’s pretty confidential poop, and it wouldn’t have done for us to tip off the Japs about our course.”

The earliest example for its use as up-to-date information is from a 1947 issue of American Speech: “The word poop, which indicated the latest information, whether official or unofficial, was also incorporated into poop sheet, denoting the latest bulletin or directive.”

In explaining the origin of the usage, the OED cites this passage from Military Customs and Traditions (1956), by Mark Mayo Boatner:

Poop, information of any sort, usually written (on a ‘poop sheet’). Of West Point origin, probably from the fact that the cadet adjutant makes important announcements in the mess hall from a balcony known as the ‘poop deck’ (from its resemblance to a ship’s poop deck).”

When “poop” showed up as a nautical term in the late 15th century, it referred to the stern, or rear end, of a ship.

English borrowed the term from Middle French, where the stern was referred to as la poupe. The ultimate source is puppis, classical Latin for the rear or afterdeck of a ship.

The earliest example in the OED is from The Book of Fayttes [Feats] of Armes and of Chyualrye, a 1489 translation of a French work written by Christine de Pisan in 1410: “The pouppe whiche is the hindermost partye of the shippe.”

Today, the “poop” (or “poop deck,” first recorded in 1717) refers to the superstructure at the stern of a ship. This modern OED example is from The Agüero Sisters, a 1997 novel by Cristina García:

“The nebulous lights Christopher Columbus saw from the poop deck of the Santa María were probably Bermuda fireworms.”

Meanwhile, the nautical noun “poop” gave rise to a related verb in the early 18th century. A large wave was said to “poop” when it broke over a ship’s stern. This is the OED’s earliest example:

“We again scudded, altogether ignorant where we were; for a Sea which pooped us the second Day, had carried away the Binnacle with the Two Compasses.” (From A Voyage to Cacklogallinia, a 1727 satire by the pseudonymous “Captain Samuel Brunt.”)

This later fictional example is from Patrick O’Brian’s novel Thirteen-gun Salute (1989): “It was then … that we were in the greatest danger of being pooped, and broaching to.”

As we imagine struggling sailors, worn out and drenched to the skin, battling to keep their vessel afloat, we wonder: Could there be a connection between the two senses of “pooped”—being exhausted and being swamped by heavy seas? Well, it’s a compelling question, but we haven’t found any evidence of a link.

Finally, we’ll conclude with an example from the July 7, 2016, issue of the New York Post that combines nautical and excretory usages:

“New Yorkers who want to sail across the pond with Fido on the Queen Mary 2 will now be able to make their pooches feel right at home, thanks to the British cruise ship’s new kennel lounge and refurbished poop deck—which has been fitted with an authentic city fire hydrant.”

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 9, 2019.]

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English English language Grammar Punctuation Style Usage Writing

Compounding the problem

Q: In your “Compound fractures” post from 2012, you discuss hyphenating “potentially confusing compounds.” Shouldn’t that be “potentially-confusing”? I’m not being snarky, mind you, just trying to understand.

A: The use of hyphens in compounds is pretty straightforward—except when it isn’t.

One of the many exceptions to the conventions of hyphenation is that when an adjective is modified by an “-ly” adverb, the compound doesn’t get a hyphen.

Pat uses these examples in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I: “That’s a radically different haircut. It gives you an entirely new look.”

We’ve written before about when to hyphenate compound modifiers, but a little repetition never hurts.

You’re probably familiar with the general practice.

Two-word descriptions are hyphenated before a noun (“powder-blue suit,” “dark-haired toddler,” “well-done steak”). But if the description comes after the noun, no hyphen is used (“a suit of powder blue,” “a toddler who’s dark haired,” “a steak well done”).

The hyphenation of longer adjectival phrases before a noun is similar: “an up-and-coming playwright,” “run-of-the-mill special effects,” “a business-as-usual attitude,” “a ruthless, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners corporate policy.” (Some of these may be hyphenated even after the noun: “The special effects were run-of-the-mill.” Check your dictionary.)

Now for some more exceptions.

Compound modifiers in which one of the words is “very,” “most,” “least,” or “less” (as in “most pleasing tune”) don’t have hyphens.

Some prefixes usually take hyphens (as in “self-effacing manner,” “quasi-official position”). Others sometimes do and sometimes don’t (“pre-,” “re-,” “ultra-,” “anti-”).

However, the hyphenation of prefixes is very fluid, and authorities may differ. A prefix that’s hyphenated in one dictionary or style guide may not be in another. If in doubt, check your dictionary or style manual.

In case you’d like a short refresher course on hyphens, we wrote in April 2013 about omitting part of a hyphenated term (as in “full- and part-time job”); in July 2012 about hyphens in dimensions (like “five-foot-six woman”); and in January 2012 about when to hyphenate a term like “African American.”

You can find others by putting “hyphen” in the search box on our  blog.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Batten down the hatches

Q: We’re having a big storm in Grand Rapids and I’ve battened down the hatches. I assume this originated as a nautical expression. When did it come ashore?

A: Yes, “batten down the hatches” does indeed come from seafaring lingo. The nautical expression showed up at the turn of the 19th century, and took on a figurative sense for landlubbers in the mid-20th century.

However, the story begins on land with the noun “baton,” which meant a staff or stick used as a weapon when English borrowed the term from the French bâton around 1550.

A century later, an offshoot of “baton” showed up in writing as the carpentry term “batten,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When “batten” appeared in 1658, it meant a small beam or piece of wood used to strengthen, support, or fasten. And to “batten” (1675) was to strengthen or fasten with battens.

In the 18th century, to “batten down” took on the nautical sense of to nail strips of wood (“battens”) around the edges of a tarp placed over the hatch to keep water out.

The noun appeared first. The earliest written example in the OED is from An Universal Dictionary of the Marine (1769), by William Falconer:

“The battens serve to confine the edges of the tarpaulings close down to the sides of the hatches.”

The earliest example we’ve found for the expression “batten down the hatches” is from Vocabulaire des Termes de Marine, a 1799 French-English dictionary of sailing terms published in Paris.

The dictionary translates “to batten down the hatches” as “mettre des listeaux aux panneaux des écoutilles.”

The identical translation appeared soon afterward in a general French-English dictionary published in London, Abel Boyer’s Royal College Dictionary (20th ed., 1802).

In a few decades, the expression was appearing regularly in accounts of storms at sea.

Here’s an example from A Brief Narrative of an Unsuccessful Attempt to Reach Repulse Bay, an 1824 account of the voyage by Capt. George F. Lyon of the Royal Navy:

“These soon wetted every one thoroughly, and the lower deck was flooded before we could batten down the hatches.”

The OED hasn’t yet updated its entry for “batten down the hatches.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from One False, Both Fair, an 1883 novel by John B. Harwood:

“Batten down the hatches—quick, men.” (Serialized in Chambers’s Journal, London. The quotation appeared in the Jan. 13, 1883, issue.)

We haven’t discussed “hatch,” a very old word that the OED says was “inherited from Germanic.” In Old English, it meant a half-door or gate, or part of a divided door.  Since then, “hatch” has had many meanings associated with openings or entries.

The first nautical use came along in the middle to late 1300s, when “hatches” were movable planks forming the floor of a ship, above the hold.

Soon afterward, the OED says, a “hatch” in a ship came to mean “a trapdoor or grated framework covering an opening on a deck.”

The earliest OED citation is “brystis the hetches” (the Middle English can be translated as “break open the hatches”). It’s found in a translation, dated around 1440 and perhaps earlier, of the poem Morte Arthure.

The noun “hatch” has been used this way on boats ever since. And that nautical meaning, used figuratively, gave us the 20th-century drinking expression “down the hatch” (that is, down the throat).

Getting back to your question, the OED doesn’t discuss the figurative use of “batten down the hatches,” though it has one recent example in a discussion of “lock up your daughters,” a humorous reference to the arrival of a sexy man:

“Batten down the hatches, lock up your daughters, tie down the bassbins: this is a monster of a drum’n’bass affair” (from the Aug. 25, 2004, issue of Time Out).

The earliest figurative example we’ve found is from an article about hurricane forecasts, in the February 1955 issue of the Bulletin of the General Contractors Association, published in New York:

“ ‘Batten down the hatches!’ will be a general cry next summer and many summers to come, and it will be only a part of the new verbiage that contractors will add to their vocabulary.”

And here’s an example from Woman in Levi’s, a 1967 memoir by Eulalia Bourne, a rancher and schoolteacher in Arizona:

“I hurried my horse in an effort to get home, batten down the hatches, and give welcome to the rain. It outraced us.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Was Elizabeth Bennet blowsy?

Q: I just finished reading your dispatch about whether a “blown rose” is in bloom or has finished blooming. I’m surmising the adjective “blowsy” is related to the “past-its-prime” meaning of “blown.” Yes?

A: Etymological bloodhounds have tracked the adjective “blowsy” (sometimes spelled “blowzy”) to the noun “blowze,” but the scent ends there. Here’s what little we know—and what else we suspect—about these two words.

Let’s begin with “blowze,” which originally meant a farmer’s wife when it showed up in the 1500s, but later came to mean a beggar woman or a prostitute, as well as a woman who’s pudgy, red-faced, or scruffy.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for the noun (spelled “blouse”) is from Fiue Hundreth Points of Good Husbandry Vnited to as Many of Good Huswiferie, a 1573 book by Thomas Tusser:

“Whiles Gillet his blouse, is a milking thy kow: sir Hew, is a rigging, thy gate or the plow.”

The OED says “blowze” is “of unknown origin,” but adds, “Perhaps originally a cant term”—that is, insider dialect. The dictionary also notes similar “Dutch and Low German words with the sense of ‘red’ or ‘flushed.’ ”

Oxford goes on to say that “some of the uses appear to be influenced” by the verb “blow” used in the sense of moving air. It doesn’t give any details, but this may refer to the inflated face of a chubby woman or the wind-blown hair of one who’s disheveled.

The OED editors apparently don’t believe that the verb “blow” used in the blooming sense influenced the noun “blowze” or the adjective “blowsy.”

However, this plump, ruddy example from Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus (1594) caught our attention: “Sweete blowse you are a beautious blossome sure.”

We’ll leave “blowze” with this example of the noun used to mean a beggar woman or prostitute:

“His bonny Blouze or dainty doxie, being commonly a collapsed Tinkers wife, or some high way commodity, taken up upon trust” (from The Whimzies, a 1631 book of character sketches by Richard Brathwait.)

When the adjective “blowsy” showed up in the 1700s, it meant “dishevelled, frowzy, slatternly,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example uses the adjective to describe a man’s messy hair: “Long his beard, and blouzy hair.” (From “The Barber,” circa 1770, a parody by Thomas Erskine in the form of an ode.)

The OED says the adjective soon took on the additional sense of “having a bloated face; red and coarse-complexioned; flushed-looking.”

The dictionary’s first citation for this sense is in a Dec. 8, 1778, letter from Samuel Crisp to the novelist Fanny Burney:

“Thinking herself too ruddy & blowsy, it was her Custom to bleed herself.” (Crisp, a family friend, addresses Burney as “My dear Fannikin.”)

Finally, a disheveled example from Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice. Here Miss Bingley is abusing Elizabeth Bennet (behind her back, naturally) for walking through muddy fields to see her ailing sister Jane at Netherfield:

“Why must she be scampering about the country, because her sister had a cold? Her hair, so untidy, so blowsy!”

In case you’re wondering, “blowze” and “blowsy” are not related to the “blouse” that one wears, despite similar spellings above. English borrowed “blouse” in the early 1800s from French, where it referred to a blue workman’s shirt.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

A ‘fount’ or ‘font’ of knowledge?

Q: In your recent post about “cold feet,” you refer to a character in Shirley Hazzard’s novel The Transit of Venus as a “font of academic gobbledygook.” Don’t you mean “fount”?

A: Both “font” and “fount” are derived from the Latin fons (a spring or fountain) and its combining form, font-. One figurative meaning of both “font” and “fount” in American dictionaries is a source of something.

That said, we didn’t intend to use “font” in our post. Although both words can mean a source in standard American English, we use “fount” for that sense and have changed it on the blog. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

“Fount” is the traditional usage for this figurative sense, and the only one considered standard in British dictionaries. The UK version of Oxford Dictionaries online, for example, considers “font” a variant when used to mean a source.

However, a page on the Oxford Dictionaries blog hints that the situation may be changing, even though a poll of its readers supports the traditional usage:

“The standard accepted form is fount of knowledge, and this was also the term chosen by the majority of voters in our poll (67%) despite the Oxford English Corpus suggesting that font of knowledge is now the more common form.”

The corpus, a database of contemporary English that includes nearly 2.1 billion words, surveys web pages and printed text in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and the rest of the English-speaking world.

Our own searches of the even larger NOW Corpus at Brigham Young University had similar results. NOW (for “news on the web”) contains 4.2 billion words used by web-based newspapers and magazines from 2010 to the present.

Now, let’s look at the history of these words.

“Font,” the older of the English terms, originally meant (and still does) a “receptacle, usually of stone, for the water used in the sacrament of baptism,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The ecclesiastical Latin is font-em or fontes baptismi.

The earliest OED citation for “font” (fante in Old English) is from the Canons of Ælfric, a pastoral letter written around 1000 by the English abbot Ælfric of Eynsham:

“Ne do man nænne ele to þam fante” (Ælfric here is explaining the proper use of oil, ele, with a baptismal font.)

When the word “fount” showed up nearly six centuries later, it meant a spring. It apparently developed as a shortening of “fountain,” which appeared in writing in the early 1400s as fownteyne, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. (“Fountain,” like “font,” ultimately comes from the Latin fons, for a spring or fountain.)

The OED’s earliest example of “fount” is from “The Rape of Lucrece,” a 1594 poem by Shakespeare. We’ve expanded the citation to convey the flavor of the poem:

Why should the worme intrude the maiden bud?
Or hatefull Kuckcowes hatch in Sparrows nests?
Or Todes infect faire founts with venome mud?
Or tyrant follie lurke in gentle brests?

By the early 1600s, “fount” was being used figuratively to mean a source. The first OED example is from an English translation of “Eclogue IV,” a Latin poem by Virgil:

“From this fount did all those mischiefes flow.” (In Michael Drayton’s Poemes Lyrick and Pastorall, circa 1605.)

Soon, “font” was being used to mean “fount” in the sense of a spring, as in this OED example from Coryate’s Crudities, a 1611 collection of travel writing by Thomas Coryate: “Delicate fonts and springes.”

In the 1700s and 1800s, English writers began using “font” figuratively to mean a source, though “fount” was more common in this sense, according to our database searches.

Here’s an example from “Childish Recollections,” an 1806 poem by Byron:

Friend of my heart, and foremost of the list
Of those with whom I lived supremely blest,
Oft have we drain’d the font of ancient lore;
Though drinking deeply, thirsting still the more.

We should note here that in typography, the British generally use “fount” and Americans “font” to refer to a typeface, a usage that showed up in the late 1600s.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Does your grandma suck eggs?

Q: In your post last month about the verb “suck” and its relatives, you refer to several negative senses of “suck eggs.” But you didn’t discuss the only usage I had heard: “Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs.”

A: That old rebuke, “Don’t teach your grandmother (how) to suck eggs,” has been used for hundreds of years to put down presumptuous upstarts, though it’s not heard much now.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the proverbial expression is “said to those who presume to offer advice to others who are more experienced.”

In A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Eric Partridge says teaching granny here is to “give advice to one’s senior; esp. to instruct an expert in his own expertise.”

The earliest example in the OED is from The Comical Works of Don Francisco de Quevedo, a 1707 translation by John Stevens of the Spanish writer’s poems and plays: “You would have me teach my Grandame to suck Eggs.”

We haven’t found any wording like this in the original Spanish, so we assume Stevens was translating loosely and using a comparable English expression.

Jonathan Swift used the maxim a few decades later in Genteel Conversation, a 1738 satire on how to converse in society: “Go, teach your Grannam to suck Eggs.”

Many other languages have expressions about trying to teach one’s betters what they already know. These are often translated into English as “Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs,” even though that’s not the actual wording.

Here are some of these proverbs, and their literal translations:

Latin: Ne sus Minervam doceat (“A sow does not teach Minerva [goddess of wisdom]”); Delphinum natare doces (“You’re teaching a dolphin to swim”); Aquilam volare doces (“You’re teaching an eagle to fly”); À bove majori discit arare minor (“The young ox learns to plow from the elder”).

French: Les oisons veulent mener les ois paître (“The goslings want to drive the geese to pasture”); Il ne faux pas apprendre aux poissons à nager (“One does not teach fish to swim”).

Italian: Insegnar nuotare ai pesci (“To teach fish to swim”); L’uovo ne vuol saper più della gallina (“The egg should not know more than the hen”).

German: Er will seinen Vater lernen Kinder erziehen (“He would teach his father to raise children”); Das Ei will klüger sein als die Henne (“The egg wants to be wiser than the hen”).

Spanish: Aún no ha salido del cascarón y ya tiene presunción (“He hasn’t left the shell, but he’s already being presumptuous”).

Portuguese: Ensinar o Pai-Nosso ao vigário (“Teach the Lord’s Prayer to the vicar”).

There have been many English variations on the theme, some dating back to the late 1500s, according Partridge.

The upstart has been admonished not to teach a grandmother (or granny, granddame, etc.) to spin, steal sheep, milk ducks, grope a goose (check for eggs), sup sour milk, or roast eggs, among other things.

As for the version you asked about (“Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs”), we’ve never seen an authoritative explanation for what it literally means.

But we assume that “suck eggs” here simply refers to extracting the yolk and white from an eggshell. This point was made in an anonymous parody in Punch (“Pristine Proverbs Prepared for Precocious Pupils,” Jan. 25, 1873):

Teach not a parent’s mother to extract
The embryo juices of an egg by suction;
That good old lady can the feat enact
Quite irrespective of your kind instruction

[Note: This post was updated on May 3, 2018, after a reader suggested adding the Portuguese proverb above.]

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Can ‘across’ mean ‘around’?

Q: When did we change from saying “around the world” to “across the world”? Doesn’t “across” contradict our notion that the world is round?

A: “Across” doesn’t always mean in a straight line. It can also mean distributed “throughout, all over, in all or many parts,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Similarly, “around” doesn’t just mean encircling something. It can also mean in “every direction from a central point; on every side, all about.”

So we see nothing wrong with the phrase “across the world.” (We also have no quibble with “across the globe,” and “globe” implies roundness even more than “world,” since Earth isn’t a perfect sphere.)

As for actual usage, “around the world” is overwhelmingly more popular than “across the world,” according to a comparison of the two phrases in the millions of books tracked by Google’s Ngram Viewer.

As you can see, “around” leaves “across” in the dust and continues to trend upward in the latest results. Breakdowns of British and American English show much the same results.

For the bigger picture—use on the Internet up until today—simple Google searches also show “around the world” is way ahead: And for what it’s worth, “around the globe” leads “across the globe.”

So whether people are talking about the world or the globe, they prefer “around” to “across.” But as we said, there’s nothing wrong with “across” in this context.

The Ngram comparison we mentioned above shows that both “around the world” and “across the world” are found in writing published since at least as far back as 1800.

In our own searches, we haven’t found any examples of “across the world” older than 1800, but we found “around the world” in an obscure play first acted in 1680.

Here’s the rather overwrought passage, from Elkanah Settle’s tragedy Fatal Love: or, The Forc’d Inconstancy:

Nay, tho you scatter all my sprinkled Ashes
Around the World, each Atom of my Dust
Shall find a Soul, and flye into his Bosom.

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A lawyer walks into a bar

Q: My question, should you care to consider it, is which came first—the “bar” where attorneys work or the “bar” those attorneys may frequent after work?

A: We briefly mentioned the connection between one “bar” and the other in 2014, but we didn’t go into detail. To make a long story short, the “bar” at which you practice law came before the “bar” at which you drink.

Etymologically, however, they’re the same word. So here’s the longer story.

The noun “bar” (first spelled “barre”) came into Middle English in the 1100s from the Old French barre, which acquired it from the late Latin barra (“bar” or “barrier”).

In English, the word’s original meaning was “a stake or rod of iron or wood used to fasten a gate, door, hatch, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. All other senses of the word are derived from that.

Today the noun “bar” has three overall meanings, roughly having to do with its physical shape, its purpose, and the area it defines.

So broadly speaking, the uses of “bar” fall into these categories: (1) something, like a rod or band, that’s longer than it is thick or wide; (2) something that obstructs or confines, like the related word “barrier”; and (3) a place defined by a rail or barrier.

That third group of meanings explains the use of “bar” in reference to the courtroom as well as the saloon. Various legal meanings date from the early 1300s, the OED says, and the drinking sense from around 250 years later.

The earliest known “bar” in the courtroom sense indicated “the barrier or wooden rail” separating the judge’s seat from the rest of the court, the dictionary says. This was where the barristers, litigants, prisoners, and others stood to address the judge.

In the reign of Edward I, when French was still spoken in English courts, the term “a la barre” was recorded in two legal documents dated 1306, according to the online Middle English Dictionary. Soon afterward the term was Anglicized, “at (or to) the bar.”

In the first recorded English use, this “bar” was “the place at which all the business of the court was transacted,” and the term soon became synonymous with “court,” according to the OED. So “at the bar” meant “in court.”

The dictionary’s earliest quotation is a reference to “countours in benche that stondeth at the barre.” (In Middle English, “countours” meant “pleaders.” The source here is a 1327 collection of political songs.)

In the sense of “bar” as the place where a prisoner stands for arraignment, trial, or sentence, Oxford‘s earliest example is from an indefinite time in the 1300s:

“Brynge forthe to the barre that arn to be dempt.” (The word “dempt” meant “condemned.” This is from a cycle of medieval mystery plays, Ludus Coventriae.)

Quite early on, the word was used figuratively to mean any kind of tribunal, as in this OED citation from the Wycliffite Sermons (circa 1375):

“Ech man mote nedis stonde at þe barre bifore Crist” (“Each man must needs stand at the bar before Christ”).

In the mid-1500s, “to be called to the bar” first meant “to be admitted a barrister,” the OED says. (A “barrister,” first spelled “barrester,” was a person called to the “barre.”)

Originally, however, this particular “bar” was in the classroom, not the courtroom. Here Oxford explains what “bar” meant to law students at the Inns of Court in the 1540s:

“A barrier or partition separating the seats of the benchers or readers from the rest of the hall, to which students, after they had attained a certain standing, were ‘called’ from the body of the hall, for the purpose of taking a principal part in the mootings or exercises of the house.”

After 1600, this was “popularly assumed to mean the bar in a court of justice.” In an OED citation from 1650, “call’d to the Barre six yeares agoe” means qualified to practice law six years ago.

“The bar” also began to mean barristers as a group in the mid-1500s, and within a century it was used for the profession itself. The term “bar association” originated in the US in 1824, the OED says; the American Bar Association was formed in 1878.

All this has made us thirsty, so let’s move on.

The “bar” meaning the place where one goes to drink came along in the late 1500s, and here again it originally implied some sort of barrier.

This is the OED‘s definition: “A barrier or counter, over which drink (or food) is served out to customers, in an inn, hotel, or tavern, and hence, in a coffee-house, at a railway-station, etc.”

This “bar” also means “the space behind this barrier, and sometimes the whole apartment containing it,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest Oxford citation is from Robert Greene’s “The Third and Last Part of Conny-Catching,” a 1592 pamphlet in defense of cheating and petty theft:

“He was well acquainted with one of the seruants … of whom he could haue two pennyworth of Rose-water for a peny … wherefore he would step to the barre vnto him.”

Here’s a handful of later examples:

“[I] laid down my Penny at the Barr … and made the best of my way to Cheapside.” (Joseph Addison, the Spectator, 1712.)

“He sees the girl in the bar.” (Frederick Marryat’s novel Jacob Faithful, 1834.)

“A bottle of champagne quaffed at the bar.” (From the American notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1837.)

We mentioned above that “bar” can be traced to the Late Latin barra, but nobody seems to know where barra came from. The OED says it’s “of unknown origin.” And with that, unfortunately, the trail goes cold.

It may be true, as some have suggested, that the ultimate source is Aramaic, a wide family of related Semitic languages and dialects.

An Aramaic preposition pronounced “bar min” (transliterated as br mn), means “except for,”  “aside from,” or “outside of.” But we haven’t found any evidence of a connection.

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A plethora of notions

Q: I recently came across a blogger’s statement that “there is a plethora of entries” for derogatory terms in dictionaries. My ear tells me it should read “there are a plethora of entries.” Am I right?

A: You’re right—and so is the blogger.

“Plethora” is a singular noun, like “plenitude” or “abundance,” so it’s quite normal to write “there is a plethora of,” no matter what comes after “of.”

However, it’s also quite normal to use “plethora” with a plural verb like “are.”

It all depends on whether the writer views the plethora as a collection of things or as the things in the collection.

This is called notional agreement—agreement based on a writer’s meaning rather than on grammatical form.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, when the subject of a verb is “a plethora of followed by a plural noun,” then “notional agreement holds sway.”

“Writers who view the plethora as a lump use a singular verb; those who view it as a collection of discrete items use a plural verb,” Merriam-Webster’s adds.

So the writer of your sentence viewed “plethora of entries” as a “lump” rather than as the “discrete items” making up the lump.

We’ve discussed notional agreement several times on the blog, including posts in 2016, 2013, and 2012.

“Plethora” has an interesting history in English. It first showed up in 16th-century medical usage, where a “plethora” meant an excess of fluid in the body, especially an accumulation of blood.

Not until the 17th century did “plethora” begin to acquire more general, nonmedical meanings.

In both medieval Latin and ancient Greek, plethora meant fullness, medically or in general, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Greek verbs meaning to fill or to be full are the ultimate source.

The French adopted the medical term (as pléthore) in the 1530s. The English “plethora” may have been influenced by French or it may have come directly from Latin or Greek.

At any rate, the earliest OED example of “plethora” in English is from John Banister’s A Needefull, New and Necessarie Treatise of Chyrurgerie (1575). We’ve inserted medical definitions in the citation:

“In curing these kyndes of Ulcers, the causes must first be diligently searched, to witte whether it be Plethora [excess of fluids], Cacochymia [diseased fluids], or Cachexia [wasting].”

The medical sense of “plethora” has lasted into our own time. Here’s a modern OED example: “patients with congestive heart failure and inferior vena cava plethora” (from the journal Clinical Cardiology, 2000).

The figurative use of “plethora” as a glut of something bad began turning up in the mid-1600s. Here’s an example from Joseph Beaumont’s drama Psyche (1648):

“Whose never-failing Virtue did displace / Griefs vast Plethora which had her opprest.”

In the early 1800s, the figurative sense began mellowing and by the end of the century “plethora” was appearing “more usually” in neutral and positive ways, according to the OED.

Now, the dictionary says, it usually conveys a “neutral or favourable sense: a very large amount, quantity, or variety.”

Here’s a positive example from a fashion article in the August 1882 issue of Ballou’s Monthly Magazine (Boston): “There is a perfect plethora of white and twine-colored thick muslin.”

In this sporting example from the Encyclopædia Britannica of 1911, the word is either neutral or positive: “Of [yacht] races there was a plethora; indeed no fewer than 400 matches took place.”

Finally, here’s a clearly positive example from The Long View, a 1956 novel by Elizabeth Jane Howard: “An attractive woman will automatically collect a plethora of men.”

Some usage commentators still insist that a “plethora” is not just an abundance, but an undesirable overabundance. However, a plethora of historical evidence contradicts this.

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A blown rose, by any other name

Q: On a recent trip to London, I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Antony and Cleopatra. Hence this question. How did the phrase “blown rose” come to mean a rose that’s bloomed?

A: Let’s set the scene for anyone who isn’t familiar with the passage in Shakespeare’s play. When Cleopatra is told that a messenger from Caesar has arrived, she remarks to her ladies-in-waiting:

What, no more ceremony? See, my women!
Against the blown rose may they stop their nose
That kneel’d unto the buds. Admit him, sir.”

The bud that once brought admirers to their knees is now a fading flower that no one stops to sniff.

The adjective “blown” has been used since Anglo-Saxon times to mean “in bloom” or “having bloomed” (the usage in Antony and Cleopatra), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, the phrasal adjective “full-blown” is more common today in describing a flower at its peak, as well as anything else that’s fully developed.

When “blown” is used by itself now to describe a flower, it often refers to one that’s over the hill, according to our searches of digital databases.

How, you ask, did the adjective “blown” get its flowering sense?

We’ll have to go back to the Anglo-Saxons, when Old English had two distinct verbs “blow,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

One verb, written bláwan in Old English, meant to send out air, while the other, blówan, meant to come into flower. They had the same past tense, bléow.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots traces the air sense to the reconstructed base bhlē- and the flowering sense to bhel-, but it says the two roots were “possibly identical” in prehistoric times.

Both verbs “blow” are now in standard dictionaries, with identical spellings and conjugations, but the “blow” that refers to the movement of air is much more common than the one that refers to flowering.

Interestingly, some people conflate the two senses, according to examples we’ve seen, and believe a “blown rose” refers to a rose whose petals are blown by the wind.

The earliest example in the OED for the verb “blow” in the flowering sense is from Old English Leechdoms, a collection of medical remedies dated from around 1000: “Ðonne heo grewð & blewð” (“When they grow and blow”).

The two earliest Oxford example for the verb with the airy sense are from the West Saxon Gospels (circa 1000), a translation of the four Gospels from Latin into the West Saxon dialect of Old English.

Here’s an example from the Book of Luke: “Þonne ge geseoð suðan blawan” (“When the south wind blows”).

We’ll end with two lines from “The Lotos-Eaters,” an 1832 poem by Tennyson:

There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass.

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