English English language Etymology Expression Linguistics Pronunciation Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

An “ough,” already

Q: My son recently asked me why “-ough” words (like “ought,” “tough,” and “though”) are pronounced so differently. Can you help?

A: The combination of “gh” after vowels (or vowel pairs) has given English a lot of odd-looking spellings, including those of the “-ough” words your son has asked about.

The short answer is that these peculiar spellings represent people’s attempts in the past to write words the way they sounded. Eventually spellings were standardized, but pronunciations kept evolving. This is why many words don’t look the way they sound.

We’ve written about this occasionally on our blog. In a 2009 post, for example, we note that “daughter” and “laughter” once rhymed.

In fact, “daughter” has had several pronunciations over the centuries, including DOCH-ter (with the first syllable like the Scottish “loch”), DAFF-ter (rhyming with “laughter”), and DAW-ter.

The Middle English letter combination “gh” after vowels is now pronounced like “f” (as in “cough,” “trough,” “laugh,” “enough”) or not at all (“slaughter,” “daughter,” “ought,” “through”).

As we say in the earlier post, “Much of our modern spelling had its foundation in the Middle English period (roughly 1100 to 1500). But in the late Middle English and early Modern English period (roughly 1350 to 1550), the pronunciation of vowels underwent a vast upheaval.”

Linguists call this the Great Vowel Shift. While the pronunciations of many words changed dramatically, their spellings remained largely the same. That’s because printing, which was introduced into England in the late 1400s, helped retain and standardize those older spellings.

As for those “-ough” words, Robert Heinlein strings six of them together in The Door Into Summer (1956). In the novel, an inventor comments on the “illogicalities” of “a language in which you could say: ‘Though the tough cough and hiccough plough him through.’ ”

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From Mrs. and Miss to Ms.

Q: Your article about “Mrs.” and “missus” doesn’t mention “Ms.,” which I believe showed up in the 17th century but died out before being revived centuries later. Would you like to fill in the blanks?

A: You’re right that “Ms” (without the dot) showed up occasionally in the 1600s as an abbreviation for “mistress,” a woman in authority or a female head of a household. But the earlier abbreviation was a different species from the “Ms.” we use today.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “In the 17th cent. Ms also occurs occasionally as a graphic abbreviation for mistress.” A graphic abbreviation is one that’s seen but not heard.

The OED doesn’t include any examples of the graphic abbreviation, but Amy Louise Erickson, a historian at the University of Cambridge, has found both “Ms” and “Mm” as courtesy titles for women in a late 17th-century document.

In “Mistresses and Marriage,” a paper published in 2014 in History Workshop Journal, she cites a 1698 tax list from Shrewsbury, England, that includes the names of women, some with courtesy titles and some without. The titles were apparently used for women of some social standing.

On the tax list, the title “Mm” precedes the names of two women, one married and the other widowed, while the title “Ms” precedes the names of two others, one unmarried and one whose marital status could not be determined by Erickson. (“Mm” was presumably a graphic abbreviation for “madam,” and “Ms” for “mistress.”)

The linguist Dennis Baron, in an Aug. 16, 2010, post on the Oxford University Press blog, notes several “Ms.” sightings from the 18th and 19th centuries, but the OED doesn’t include them as examples of the modern usage.

The dictionary says the use of “Ms.” in the modern sense didn’t show up until the early 20th century. The first example in the dictionary is from the Nov. 10, 1901, issue of the Springfield (MA) Sunday Republican:

“The abbreviation ‘Ms.’ is simple, it is easy to write, and the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances. For oral use it might be rendered as ‘Mizz,’ which would be a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs. alike.”

It took dozens of years for the usage to become widespread. As Baron explains, “Ms. didn’t really take off until the politically-motivated language reforms of second-wave feminism and the cultural impact of Ms. Magazine in the 1970s.”

The OED defines the modern sense of “Ms.” as a “title of courtesy prefixed to the surname of a woman, sometimes with her first name interposed.”

The dictionary says it’s been “adopted esp. in formal and business contexts as an alternative to Mrs. and Miss principally as a means to avoid having to specify a woman’s marital status (regarded as irrelevant, intrusive, or potentially discriminatory).”

Etymologically, Oxford says, “Ms.” is an “orthographic and phonetic blend” of “Mrs.” and “Miss.” The pronunciation of the “s” in “Ms.” as “z,” the dictionary says, “would appear to have arisen as a result of deliberate attempts to distinguish between this word and Miss.”

Although “Ms.” is not technically an abbreviation, it still has a period in American style manuals and dictionaries. In British style (as in the OED, for example), this courtesy title, like many others, has no period.

As we reported back in 2009, it was the linguist Ben Zimmer who tracked down that 1901 citation in the OED. He later singled out Sheila Michaels as the “one-woman lobbying force” in the 1960s who campaigned to make “Ms.” a feminist alternative to “Miss” and “Mrs.”

In an Oct. 23, 2009, On Language column in the New York Times Magazine, he says her advocacy finally paid off in 1970, when Gloria Steinem and other feminists endorsed the usage. Steinem then used it when she introduced Ms. magazine in 1971.

“In some quarters, recognition of Ms. was slow in coming,” Zimmer adds. “The New York Times waited until 1986 to announce that it would embrace the use of Ms. as an honorific alongside Miss and Mrs. Eighty-five years after The Sunday Republican’s unassuming contribution to our modern lexicon, The Times admitted that the ‘void in the English language’ had been filled.”

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A ‘post-’ post

Q: I’ve been struck by how often the prefix “post-” has been used lately: “post-religion,” “post-truth,” “post-contemporary,” and of course “postmodern” as well as “post-postmodern.” What do you think?

A: Yes, the prefix “post-” gets a workout these days, but it’s been a workhorse for centuries. A lot of the early uses are now obsolete, though, and we wouldn’t be surprised if many of the new ones joined them.

English borrowed the prefix in the late 14th century from Latin, where post- was attached to verbs, participles, and other verbal derivatives, as in postpōnere (to put off), postpartor (heir), and postgenitus (begotten).

The earliest English example for the prefix in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a manuscript, written in the middle to late 1300s, about the life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux:

“God … enspired him of an orisoun, / To seyn at his post-comoun” (“God … inspired a prayer for him to say at his post-communion”). The post-communion is a prayer that follows communion.

The use of “post-” is apparently more popular with English speakers than it was with ancient Romans.

“In English,” the OED says, “the prefix is used more generally than in Latin, especially in the prepositional relation” (that is, as used in terms like “post-puberty,” “post-Elizabethan,” and “post-Chomskyan”).

Originally, “post-” was used with words of Latin origin, such as “post-communion” (from commūnio, sharing), but the prefix broke away from its classical roots in the 17th and 18th centuries, with the appearance of such terms as “post-talmudical” (1659), “post-law” (1663), “post-noon” (1686), and “post-breakfast” (1791).

The usage grew in popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries, according to OED citations, with hundreds of the prefixed terms showing up. Here’s a small sample:

“post-Kantian” (1812), “post-resurrection (1839), “post-election” (1851), “post-Hegelian” (1865), “post-Christmas” (1871), “post-Renaissance” (1874), “post-conquest” (1880), “post-flu” (1918), “post-surrealist” (1938), “post-crash” (1930), “post-game” (1934),  “post-bop” (1955), “post-cold war” (1962), “post-partisan” (1962), “post-pill” (1968), “post-orgasm” (1973),  “post-everything” (1976), and “post-glasnost” (1987).

Is “post-” used more now than in the past? Not according to a search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks n-grams (character sequences that represent words or strings of words) in material printed from 1500 to 2008.

A search for the term “post” used as a prefix suggests that it’s being used notably less now than in the middle and late 1800s, though more than a few decades ago.

In fact, the examples you cite aren’t all that new either, with the oldest dating back to the mid-19th century: “post-modern” (1865), “post-contemporary” (1917), “post-religion” (1972), “post-truth” (1989), and “post-postmodern” (1991).

In case you’re interested, we wrote a post in 2012 that mentions the recency illusion, which the linguist Arnold Zwicky defines as “the belief that things YOU have noticed only recently are in fact recent.”

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Fifty shades of ‘they’

Q: I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard Pat defending the singular use of “they” on the radio. Say it ain’t so.

A: “They” is a legitimate way of referring back to an unknown person or persons, neither singular nor plural, masculine nor feminine.

So there’s nothing wrong with this kind of sentence: “Nobody eats kale because they like it.” There’s no need to use “he or she” instead (“Nobody eats kale because he or she likes it”).

Although some people object to the usage, the most respected modern grammarians now say this use of “they” with indefinite pronouns—“everybody,” “nobody,” “anyone,” and so on—is grammatically correct.

Why? Because indefinite pronouns are plural in meaning, even though they’re technically singular.

The argument is that “they” can refer back to “everybody” and the rest on grounds of notional agreement, by which a word’s real meaning outweighs its strict grammatical form. (We’ve discussed notional agreement several times on the blog, most recently in a post last month.)

By this reasoning, “everybody” and “nobody” and “anyone” are notionally plural, even though they’re used with singular verbs.

They don’t mean just one person, because when we use them we mean “all people,” “no people,” “any people.” That’s why there’s no conflict in referring back to them with “they.”

Here’s what language authorities are saying about the use of “they” (and its other forms, “them,” “their,” and “themselves”) in reference to indefinite nouns and pronouns.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “Notional agreement is in control, and its dictates must be followed.”

The usage guide says great writers have used “they” with indefinite nouns and pronouns since Chaucer’s time and such uses “are not lapses.” Rather, they “are uses following a normal pattern in English that was established” in the Middle Ages.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, written by Geoffrey K. Pullum and Rodney Huddleston: “The view taken here is that they, like you, can be either plural or singular.”

In another of their books, A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar, Pullum and Huddleston write: “Semantically singular they is well established in fine literature and completely natural in both conversation and writing.”

Pullum has written elsewhere that “like almost everyone else who uses English normally,” he would not hesitate to write a sentence like “Nobody ever thinks traffic congestion problems are their fault.”

A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk and others: Indefinite pronouns “can refer to more than one entity, and be notionally plural.”

Although “they” in such references was once regarded as informal, the authors say, it’s now “increasingly accepted even in formal usage.”

Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.): In cases where “they” and “them” refer back to indefinite pronouns, “synesis trumps the strict rules of grammar.” (“Synesis” is another term for notional agreement.)

The author, Bryan A. Garner, uses the example “Everybody was crouched behind furniture to surprise me, and they tried to. But I already knew they were there.” A rewording with “he,” Garner says, would result in “deranged writing.”

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.): “The process [using forms of “they” with indefinite pronouns] now seems irreversible.”

Standard dictionaries, too, now regard this use of “they” as standard English. Here’s Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for example:

“The use of they, them, their, and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender and indefinite number is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts.”

The dictionary gives this example: “Everyone tries to make the person they love just like themselves.”

For convenience, many linguists and usage writers refer to this construction as “the singular they.” But that phrase is somewhat misleading.

“They” always has a plural verb—as in “they are”—and when it refers to a singular antecedent, that antecedent is meant in a plural sense. (The “antecedent” is what the later pronoun refers to.)

But whatever you choose to call it, this use of “they” and its other forms is so natural that even people who condemn it use it unconsciously themselves.

For instance, The Elements of Style, by E. B. White and William Strunk Jr., denounces the usage. But as Pullum has remarked, “when E. B. White got back to his own excellent writing he wrote lines like ‘But somebody taught you, didn’t they?’ ” (In White’s novel Charlotte’s Web, the very articulate Dr. Dorian speaks the line to Mrs. Arable.)

The linguist Geoff Nunberg has also written that “Everyone uses singular ‘they,’ whether they realize it or not.” He gives this example:

“In an engaging recent book called Between You & Me, the New Yorker‘s self-designated comma queen Mary Norris says that that use of ‘they’ is ‘just wrong.’ But flip back a few pages and you find her writing ‘Nobody wanted to think they were not essential.’ ”

The truth is that English has no better alternative—no generic, unisex singular pronoun. Nothing has ever filled the bill as satisfactorily as “they,” which no doubt explains its long and distinguished history.

For some 700 years, almost as long as “they” has been part of English, people have used it this way—even great writers. You can find it in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Austen, Byron, Eliot, Thackeray, Dickens, and too many others to mention.

The usage was considered normal until 18th-century grammarians decided that the use of “they,” a plural, was wrong with a technically singular antecedent.

Their solution was to use the singular “he” instead. They apparently felt it was better to be illogical with gender than with number.

But there was never any reason to avoid “they” in the first place. Those 18th-century fusspots should have left well enough alone.

Perhaps if they’d known more about the history of “they,” the pedants might have reconsidered.

This word is not native to English, which is unusual for a pronoun. “They” entered the language around 1200 or so, and most authorities trace it to early Scandinavian influences, probably Old Norse.

It may have been adopted, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, because the previous third-person plural pronoun, the Old English hi or hie, was easily confused with the singular forms he (“he”) and heo (the early form of “she”).

In earliest uses, “they” was clearly plural. The first written usage on record is from the Ormolum, a religious work written around 1200 or earlier by a monk named Orm or Ormin. Here’s the OED citation:

“& swa þeȝȝ leddenn heore lif Till þatt teȝȝ wærenn alde” (“And so they led their lives until they were old”). Oxford notes that the various spellings of “they” in early Middle English included both þeȝȝ and teȝȝ.

In the early 1300s, singular uses of “they” began showing up in what are called anaphoric references (that is, pointing to an antecedent). The OED explains that “they” in this sense meant the same thing as “he or she.”

Oxford defines the usage this way: “In anaphoric reference to a singular noun or pronoun of undetermined gender: he or she. Especially in relation to a noun phrase involving one of the indefinite determiners or pronouns any, each, every, no, some, anybody, anyone, etc.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is a use of the possessive form, “their,” in the sense of “his or her.” It’s from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1325. Here “their” refers to the singular antecedent “either”:

“Bath ware made sun and mon, / Aiþer wit þer ouen light” (“Both were made sun and moon, / Either with their own light”).

The first OED example using “they” with a singular antecedent is from a Middle English poem, The Romance of William of Palerne (also known as William and the Werwolf), translated from French sometime between 1350 and 1375. Here “they” refers back to “each man”:

“þan hastely hiȝed eche wiȝt on hors & on fote, / huntyng wiȝt houndes alle heie wodes, / til þei neyȝþed so neiȝh to nymphe þe soþe, / þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere” (“Then quickly hastened each man on horse & on foot, / hunting with hounds all the high woods, / till they came nearly, to tell the truth, / to where William and his worthy dear friend were hiding together”). We’ve expanded the citation to include more of the context.

Soon afterward Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, used “they” in reference to the singular “whoso” (whatever person). This is from the “Prologue of the Pardoner’s Tale” (circa 1380s):

“And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, / They wol come up and offre a Goddés name” (“And whoso findeth him out of such blame, / They will come up and offer in God’s name”).

Since then, there’s been no looking back. As OED citations show, the singular use of “they” and “their” has been routine in written English—whether elevated or commonplace—since the late 1300s, and the singular use of “them” and “themselves” since the mid-1500s.

OED examples with indefinite pronouns are too numerous to mention. But there are also citations in which forms of “they” refer to indefinite nouns. We’ll quote just two:

“If … a psalme scape any person, or a lesson, or els yt they omyt one verse or twayne” (“If a psalm or a lesson escape any person, or else that they omit one or two verses”). This is from a religious treatise, William Bonde’s The Pylgrimage of Perfection, 1526.

“If a person is born of a … gloomy temper … they cannot help it.” The passage is from a letter written by Lord Chesterfield in 1759.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, notes that this use of “they” has “sometimes been considered erroneous,” though it doesn’t label the usage nonstandard.

The misguided objections of those 18th-century grammarians are still with us. But over the last five years, several news organizations, magazines, and book publishers have become more tolerant of the singular “they.”

Both the Associated Press and the Chicago Manual of Style, for example, announced new policies on “they” in March 2017. Both now allow “they” in reference to singular antecedents if a rewording would be awkward or clumsy.

One final point should be made. As many modern grammarians have noted, the singular use of “they” is not unprecedented in the history of English pronouns.

The second-person pronoun once had four principal forms in English—“thou” (singular subject), “thee” (singular object), “ye” (plural subject), and “you” (plural object). Yes, the pronoun “you” was originally a plural object, parallel to “them” in the third person.

Beginning in the mid-1200s, according to OED citations, the “you” form began to replace the others. By the late 1500s, “you” was serving all four purposes (though the old singulars live on in religious language).

The evolution of the singular “you” only slightly preceded that of the singular “they,” and nobody noticed at the time.

When the 18th century rolled along, no grammarians suggested that we return to “ye,” “thou,” and “thee,” because those words were no longer in common use.

It was the singular “they” that the pedants jumped on, because the singular “he” (later “he or she”) was available.

In summary, whatever you think of the singular “they” it’s here to stay, so our advice is to make peace with it.

If you can’t bring yourself to use “they” in this way, nobody’s forcing you. And it’s easy enough to avoid.

Simply use a plural noun with “they” instead of an indefinite pronoun. Instead of “Nobody eats kale because they like it,” you can write “People don’t eat kale because they like it.”

Just don’t think you must resort to clunky singular substitutes to avoid “they” and its sidekicks “them,” “their,” and “themselves.”

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What’s the matter?

Q: I was listening to an Oliver Sacks book on my commute and was struck by his repeated use of “the matter,” as in “What seems to be the matter?” and “There’s nothing the matter.” I’m curious as to the history of this usage.

A: Let’s begin with the word “matter,” which comes via Anglo-Norman and Old French from the classical Latin noun māteria.

In Latin, the word originally referred to building material, especially wood, but Roman writers later used it figuratively to mean material for discussion or consideration.

When “matter” showed up in English in the Middle Ages, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to “an event, circumstance, fact, question, state or course of things, etc., which is or may be an object of consideration or practical concern; a subject, an affair, a business.”

The earliest example of “matter” in the OED is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that probably dates from sometime before 1200:

“Of þis ilke Materie ich spec Muchel þer uppe” (“I spoke much of this same matter above”).

The dictionary says this sense of “matter” inspired several idiomatic expressions (“there is something the matter,” “what is the matter?” and so on) in which “the matter” refers to “the condition of or state of things regarding a person or thing, esp. as a subject of concern or wonder.”

The first OED example for the usage comes from Andria, an English translation, dated around 1520, of a Roman comedy adapted by Terence from a Greek play by Menander: “What is the matter now.”

Oxford also cites Shakespeare’s Othello (circa 1603): “What is the matter here?” And this citation is from Daniel Defoe’s The Family Instructor (1715), a guide to good conduct: “I beseech you what is the Matter with you!”

The OED says “what is the matter with—?” can mean “what is wrong with—?” or “what is the objection to—?” or “what is there to complain of in—?”

“In recent colloquial use,” the dictionary explains, the noun “matter” is “sometimes interpreted as a predicative adjective in the sense ‘wrong, amiss.’ ”

Interestingly, the word “matter” can be traced to māter-, the same reconstructed prehistoric base as “mother,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. The dictionary adds that māter- is “based ultimately on the baby-talk form -, with the kinship term suffix -ter-.”

How, you may be wondering, did that ancient Indo-European root give Latin both māter (“mother”) and māteria (“wood”)?

The OED says the “wood” sense of māteria is “usually explained as originally denoting the trunk of a tree regarded as the ‘mother’ of its offshoots.”

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Believe you me

Q: This headline was on a book review in the New Yorker: “Believe You Me.” I’ve heard the expression many times, but the construction is really odd. Where does it come from?

A: The verb “believe” has been seen since the 1500s in various expressions used to strengthen an assertion. These parenthetical expressions are usually set off by commas, dashes, or parentheses.

The earliest example for the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary (a “you”-less version) is from “The Steele Glas,” a 1576 poem by George Gascoigne:

“This is the cause (beleue me now my Lorde) / That Realmes do rewe, from high prosperity. / That Kings decline, from princely gouernment.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

In the simple imperative construction “believe me,” the subject “you” is not stated, but understood. In the version you’re asking about, “believe you me,” the subject makes an appearance.

The earliest example in the OED for the longer version is from the Oct. 27, 1808, issue of Eye, a Philadelphia magazine: “Now this was wrong, believe you me.”

This later citation is from the July 1877 issue of Catholic World: “We’ve not come to the worst yet, believe you me.”

And this one is from Late and Soon, a 1943 novel by E. M. Delafield: “Believe you me, in all the years, and all the adventures I’ve deliberately sought out—God forgive me—it’s never been like this.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

Another version of the usage showed up in the mid-18th century. The first citation in the OED is from Tobias Smollett’s 1749 translation of Gil Blas, a  picaresque novel by the French writer Alain René Le Sage:

“Meanwhile, (would you believe it?) this ferocious disposition, this haughty woman, is, within these two months, entirely changed.”

Still another variation appeared in these lines from a June 27, 1792, letter written by the English poet William Cowper:

“Believe it or not, as you chuse, / The doctrine is certainly true, / That the future is known to the Muse / And poets are oracles too.”

This version showed up in the Nov. 17, 1844, issue of the New York Herald: “We beg permission to call the attention of our readers to the following … You better believe it.”

And here’s an 1856 example from the Yale Literary Magazine of that expression at work in a sentence: “You’d better believe, I’ll live in the clover.”

In looking into these expressions, we came across an entry in John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins that says “Believing and loving are closely related,” an idea noted in the OED, though with less certainty.

Ayto says the verb “believe,” which evolved in Old English from “gelēfan” to “belēfan,” comes from the reconstructed prehistoric Germanic word galaubjan, which “meant ‘hold dear, love,’ and hence ‘trust in, believe.’ ” He says galaubjan in turn comes from the prehistoric base laub-, which he describes as the source for the English word “love.”

By the way, the headline that got your attention was later changed in the May 8, 2017, issue of the New Yorker to “The Art and Activism of Grace Paley.” An editor’s note at the end of the review doesn’t give a reason for the change.

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On digesting food and fact

Q: How did the digestion of food come to mean a digest of information?

A: You’ll be surprised to hear this, but the two senses showed up in English about the same time, and the Latin source for both referred to the digesting of information, not food.

When the word “digest” appeared in Middle English in the late 1300s, it was a noun for “a summary of Roman laws better known as the Justinian Code,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

In Latin, Chambers says, a dīgesta was “a collection of writings arranged under headings.” The ultimate source is the Latin verb dīgerĕre (to separate, divide, distribute, arrange).

The earliest citation for the noun “digest” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from John Trevisa’s translation, dated sometime before 1387, of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon: “Iustinianus [Justinian] … made and restored þe [the] lawes of digest.”

The noun “digestion” showed up around the same time in the food sense. The first OED example is from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (circa 1386). In “The Squire’s Tale,” sleep is described as “the Norice [nurse] of digestioun.”

How did a Latin term for arranging information give English a word for digesting food?

John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, says that the “divide” and “distribute” meanings of the Latin verb evolved in English into the sense of “dissolve,” as in “dissolve and obtain nutrients from food in the body.”

When the verb “digest” first appeared in the late 1400s, it meant to classify things, usually by condensing them, or to “prepare (food) in the stomach and intestines for assimilation,” according to the OED.

The first Oxford citation for the verb’s classification sense is from The Revelation to the Monk of Evesham (1482): “He told thees thynges the whiche here after be digestyd and wreten.”

The dictionary’s first example for the verb’s nutritional sense is from the Catholicon Anglicum (c. 1483), an English-Latin wordbook: “To Digeste, digerere.” We checked the original text, but those are the only three words in the entry.

Here’s a clearer example from Pylgrimage of Perfection, a religious treatise by William Bonde written sometime before 1530: “Baskettes of breedes [breads], that they coude not eate & digest.”

In the mid-1500s, the noun “digest” took on its modern sense of a “digested collection of statements or information; a methodically arranged compendium or summary of literary, historical, legal, scientific, or other written matter.”

The earliest OED example is from Lydgate’s Auncient Historie (1555), edited by John Braham: “The verye trouthe therof is not to be had in theyr dygestes.”

Braham’s version is the second edition of Troy Book, a Middle English poem written by John Lydgate in the early 1400s and first printed in 1513.

Finally, here’s an example from a March 24, 1789, letter in which Thomas Jefferson gives his opinion on Voyage du Jeune Anarcharsis en Grèce (Travels of Anacharsis the Younger in Greece), by the French writer and antiquarian Jean-Jacques Barthélemy:

“This is a very elegant digest of whatever is known of the Greeks.”

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English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

Is it a fray or an affray?

Q: Is there a difference between “fray” and “affray”?

A: “Fray” and “affray” are about as closely related as two words can be, but like human relatives they’ve grown apart over the years

The story begins in the 1300s when Middle English adopted “affray” from Anglo-Norman, first as a verb and later as a noun.

In Anglo-Norman, affrayer meant to frighten or disturb, and an affray meant a fright or disturbance. (We’ve omitted several variant Anglo-Norman spellings.)

When the verb showed up in English, spelled “affraie,” it meant to frighten. Although that sense is now archaic, the medieval past tense and past participle, “afreyd,” gave us the adjective “afraid.”

The earliest example for the verb in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Guy of Warwick, a Middle English romance dating from around 1330:

“Now goþ Gij sore desmaid, / His woundes him han iuel afreyd” (“Now goeth Guy sorely dismayed / His evil wounds have him afraid”). A literal translation of the second line would be “His evil wounds have terrified him,” but we wanted to preserve the rhyme.

The first OED example for the noun is from Sir Ferumbras, a Middle English romance written around 1380: “Þan was þe Sarsyn in gret affray & niste wat was to donde” (“Then the Saracen was in great fright and bewildered by what to do”).

When the noun “fray” showed up at the end of the 1300s, it also referred to a fright, but that sense is now obsolete.

The OED describes the evolution of “fray” from “affray” as aphetic—that is, by the loss of an unstressed initial vowel. We suspect that the first vowel of “affray” may have been mistaken for an indefinite article, so the term was misunderstood as “a fray.”

The earliest citation in the OED for “fray” is from John Trevisa’s 1398 English translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Order of Things”), a Latin encyclopedia compiled by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus (Bartholomew the Englishman).

The quotation refers to the mystical power of a chrysolite stone that “helpeþ nyȝte frayes and dredes” (“helps with the frights and dreads of the night”).

Meanwhile, the longer noun “affray” took on the sense of a “disturbance, a commotion; an outburst,” according to the dictionary, apparently influenced by its Anglo-Norman meaning.

The first Oxford example for the new sense is from John Gower’s Middle English poem Confessio Amantis (written sometime before 1393):

“Sche began to crien … / And with that noise of hire affray / Hir wommen sterten up.” (The citation describes how Alceone cries out as she dreams that her husband, Ceyx, is dead, and how the affray, or outburst, awakens her servants.)

A few decades later, the shorter noun “fray” took on a similar sense that the OED describes as a “disturbance, esp. one caused by fighting; a noisy quarrel, a brawl; a fight, skirmish, conflict.”

The dictionary’s first written example is from Chronicon Vilodunense (circa 1420), a chronicle of events concerning Wilton Abbey, a Benedictine convent in Wiltshire, England:

“And all þe ladyes … Of þis grete fraye þe wheche þye sie and herden, weren Sore agast” (“And all the ladies … were sorely aghast at this great fray which they saw and heard”).

The words “affray” and “fray” have had several other meanings over the years, but the one that sets them apart showed up in the 1400s, when “affray” became a legal term for a “breach of the peace caused by fighting or rioting in a public place,” or “the offence of taking part in such a disturbance,” according to the OED.

The dictionary has an earlier questionable citation, but its first clear-cut record of the usage is from the Chronicles of England (1480), a legendary and historical account produced by the English printer and writer William Caxton:

“Also this yere was a grete affraye in fletstrete by nyghtes tyme bitwene men of court & men of london.” The citation apparently refers to the 1441 rioting in Fleet Street between law students at the Inns of Court and residents of the area.

In England and Wales, the OED notes, the common-law offense of “affray” became a statutory offense under the Public Order Act of 1986, which defined it as “the use or threat of unlawful violence towards another, such as would cause a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety.”

Under the statute, the dictionary says, the offense “need not be committed in a public place, and is distinguished from riot and violent disorder in that only one person need be involved.”

But in general use, Oxford adds, “an affray is still considered to be a disturbance as defined above”—that is, fighting or rioting in public.

How are “fray” and “affray” used today?

Standard dictionaries define “fray” as a commotion, quarrel, brawl, or dispute, and “affray” as a noisy quarrel or brawl, especially in a public place.

As you can see, the two words overlap quite a bit, but “fray” is the broader term, and it’s usually used for nonviolent conflicts, while “affray” is most often seen in reference to quarrels or brawls that involve the police.

The legal use of “affray” is especially common in Britain and its former colonies, according to our searches in the NOW Corpus, a database of  4.3 billion words published in web-based newspapers and magazines since 2010.

Here are a few examples from the UK:

“On Thursday, McKenzie received five-month prison sentences on each affray, to run consecutively, after pleading guilty.” (From the May 4, 2017, issue of the Nottingham Post.)

“Moss, of Pilots Way, Victoria Dock, pleaded guilty to affray in Hull Magistrates Court after turning up late to the first day of trial.” (From the April 29, 2017, issue of the Hull Daily Mail.)

“Dempsey was locked up for nine years for affray and robbery offences.” (From the April 23, 2017, issue of the Grimsby Telegraph.)

Although the legal usage is more common in the UK, it also shows up in the US, as in these examples:

“City Commissioners unanimously passed an ordinance that will make it possible for the Alamogordo Municipal Court to hear public affray citation cases.” (From the April 12, 2017, issue of the Alamogordo [NM] Daily News.)

“His second arrest was on March 14 on a charge of simple affray.” (From the May 5, 2017, issue of the Shelby [NC] Star.)

“Two juveniles were cited into juvenile court on suspicion of affray at 205 Caruthers Ave.” (From an April 21, 2017, police report in the Southeastern Missourian.)

When “fray” is seen in print, whether in the US or the UK, the conflicts are generally not physical. Here are a few examples from recent headlines:

“Can American Express Stay Above The Fray In The Credit-Card Wars?” (Forbes, April 6, 2017.)

“PM sticks to script as Boris Johnson enters election fray.” (BBC News, April, 27, 2017.)

“Justice Neil Gorsuch dives into the fray at first Supreme Court arguments.” (The Altus [OK] Times, April 20, 2017.)

Of the two words, we’d use “fray” unless we were referring to the specific legal offense of “affray.”

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How ‘Mrs.’ became ‘missus’

Q: Your recent post about “Mr.” and “mister” aroused my curiosity about “Mrs.” and “missus.”

A: The story begins with the word “mistress,” which English adopted in the 1300s from words in Anglo-Norman and Middle French, as we noted in 2013.

The courtesy title “Mrs.” showed up in the late 1400s as a shortening of “mistress,” which meant a woman in authority or a female head of a household.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “Mrs.” as a “title of courtesy prefixed to the surname of a married woman having no higher or professional title, often with her first name, or that of her husband.”

The first example in the OED is from a 1485 entry in the churchwardens’ accounts for the London parish of St. Mary at Hill:

“Item, a pyx [box] clothe of sipers [Cyprus] frenged with grene sylke and red … of Mres. Sucklyng’s gyfte.” (The bracketed definitions are ours.)

From the 15th to the 18th century, the abbreviation was variously spelled “Mres.,” “Mris.,” and “Mrs.” (Like “Mr.,” it sometimes appeared with a dot and sometimes without one in the early days. Today, it’s dotted in the US and dotless in the UK.)

At first, writers used either the abbreviation or the full courtesy title, as in a 1463 will cited by the OED in which the testator bequeaths to “maistresse Clopton a spoon of berell” (beryl).

As with “Mr.,” the title “Mrs.” was originally a “graphic abbreviation” and later developed “a distinct spoken realization,” according to the OED.

It’s unclear when “Mrs.” began being pronounced, though the pronunciation apparently evolved proclitically (from “mistress” to “missis”), similar to that of “Mr.” (from “master” to “mister”). A proclitic is a word that changes as it attaches itself to the following word.

By the end of the 18th century, “Mrs.” was being pronounced much the way it is today.

In his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of 1791, John Walker writes that “Mrs.” as “a title of civility” should be pronounced “missis,” and that to pronounce the word as “mistress” would “appear quaint and pedantick.”

At the end of the 19th century, the predominant pronunciations were “misis” and “misiz,” as Joseph Wright notes in The English Dialect Dictionary, published from 1898 to 1905.

“The contracted pronunciation became, for the prefixed title, first a permitted colloquial licence, and ultimately the only allowable pronunciation,” the OED explains. “When this stage was reached, Mrs. became a distinct word from mistress. As to the chronology of these changes evidence is lacking.”

Although the pronunciation of “Mrs.” as MISS-uz or MISS-us has been standard since the late 18th century, the use of “missis” or “missus” as spelled-out words for a married woman is considered regional or colloquial, according to Oxford.

When the spoken form first appeared in writing in the late 1700s, it was spelled “missess.”

In the 1800s, it appeared variously as “mizzes,” “mis’ess,” “mis’s,” “misses,” “missis,” and finally “missus.”

C. T. Onions, writing in the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, describes “missis” or “missus” as a “slurred pronunc.” of “mistress” and the “oral equivalent” of “Mrs.”

The earliest written example in the OED  is from Manners and Customs in the West India Islands (1790), by J. B. Moreton: “Then missess fum me wid long switch.” (The citation is from a Jamaican song about slavery.)

The next example is from Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1836): “The servant of all work, who, under the plea of sleeping very soundly, has utterly disregarded ‘Missis’s’ ringing for half an hour.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

Finally, you didn’t ask, but we should mention that the title “Miss” (prefixed to the name of a girl or unmarried woman) is also a shortened form of “mistress.”

The first Oxford example is from a March 7, 1667, entry in The Diary of Samuel Pepys: “Little Mis Davis did dance a Jigg after the end of the play.”

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Fits and starts

Q: My pet peeve is “in fits and starts.” Both “fits” and “starts” denote motion, while my choice, “in spurts and stops,” really conveys what should be said, with the added advantage of alliteration.

A: We rather like “in fits and starts.” It has a jerky quality that seems to capture its meaning very neatly. And as we’ll show, English speakers generally agree with us.

The expression has an interesting history. In fact, it evolved by fits and starts. The story begins back in the 1500s when a “fit” was a paroxysm and a “start” was a sudden burst of activity.

By the late 1500s, the words showed up in two separate adverbial phrases, “by fits” (irregularly or fitfully) and “by starts” (intermittently).

The earliest example of “by fits” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1583 English translation of a sermon by the French theologian John Calvin:

“He doth not thinges by fittes as Creatures doe but he continueth alwayes in one will.”

The first appearance of “by starts” in the OED is from a 1587 edition of The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

The authors—Raphael Holinshed, William Harrison, Richard Stanyhurst, and John Hooker—write that the Scottish and Irish “performed by starts (as their manner is) the dutie of good subiects.”

In the early 1600s, the two adverbial phrases came together as “by fits and starts,” which the OED defines as “by irregular impulses or periods of action, at varying intervals, fitfully, spasmodically.”

The earliest example in the dictionary is from an Oct. 3, 1620, sermon by the English theologian Robert Sanderson, who says that if one lives a godly life “only by fits and starts,” one can save one’s soul through prayer and repentance.

The OED cites several rare, obsolete, dialectal, or uncommon variations of the expression, including “fits and girds,” “fits and spasms,” “fits and turns,” and “halves and fits.”

Oxford says the expression “fits and starts” has at times begun with “by,” “at,” and “upon,” but it doesn’t mention “in.”

Our own searches in databases of recent English usage indicate that “in fits and starts” is overwhelmingly more popular today than “by fits and starts.” Expressions with the other two prepositions drew a blank.

As for “in spurts and stops,” it’s not in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, or in any of the standard dictionaries we usually consult.

The earliest mention we’ve seen of “in spurts and stops” is from the Nov. 18, 1922, issue of the American Gas Journal:

“Nothing more has been said relative to starting work on the extension of the pipe line, but that is hardly practicable before spring, except in spurts and stops, a very costly method.”

This later example, from the winter 1972 issue of Dissent, describes the operation of computers:

“Reels of tape activating the takes, in spurts and stops, rock back and forth; small squares of light — red, yellow, green, blue — have their own character, some gleam, some brood, others flicker off and on.”

“In spurts and stops” isn’t very popular today. It barely registers in a search of the NOW Corpus, a database of 4.3 billion words in web-based newspapers and magazines from 2010 to the present time. Your pet peeve is preferred more than 700 to 1.

Why is “fits and starts” so much more popular? Because English speakers generally find it more fitting. It has appeared in writing steadily for nearly four centuries—not at all in fits and starts. But if you don’t like it, by all means don’t use it.

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A decadent chocolate cake

Q: I’ve always thought “decadent” describes the careless and cavalier waste of resources.  But a friend of mine says the root of the word is decay, as in drugs, tattoos, piercings, and angry music. Tell me he’s wrong and I’m right!

A: You’re both right.

The adjective “decadent” is ultimately derived from the classical Latin verb decadēre (to decay). However, it’s generally used now to describe the moral decay that leads to self-indulgence and cultural decline.

One sign of our own moral decay, for example, is an unrestrained fondness for buttercream frosting.

When the adjective showed up in English in the early 19th century, it referred to “a state of decay or decline; falling off or deteriorating from a prior condition of excellence, vitality, prosperity, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from The French Revolution: A History (1837), by Thomas Carlyle: “Those decadent ages in which no Ideal either grows or blossoms?”

However, the noun “decadence” showed up much earlier in The Complaynt of Scotlande, a 1549 book by Robert Wedderburn that argues against the uniting of Scotland and England: “My triumphant stait is succumbit in decadens.”

This later example of the noun is from The Citizen of the World, Oliver Goldsmith’s 1762 collection of letters ostensibly written by a Chinese traveler commenting on British society:

“Every day produces some pathetic exclamation upon the decadence of taste and genius.”

The adjective “decadent” is a back formation from the noun “decadence.” (A back formation is a word formed by dropping a real or imagined part from another word.)

English borrowed the noun from the French décadence, which in turn was derived from the medieval Latin decadentia. The original classical Latin verb, decadēre, is made up of de- (down) plus cadēre (to fall).

In looking into the history of “decadent” and “decadence,” we came across an interesting usage note at Merriam-Webster Online. We’ll break it up into several paragraphs to make it easier to read on our website:

“To be decadent is to be in the process of decay, so a powerful nation may be said to be in a decadent stage if its power is fading. But the word is more often used to speak of moral decay.

“Ever since the Roman empire, we’ve tended to link Rome’s fall to the moral decay of its ruling class, who indulged in extreme luxuries and unwholesome pleasures while providing the public with cruel spectacles such as the slaughter of the gladiators.

“But not everyone agrees on what moral decadence looks like (or even how it might have hastened the fall of Rome), though most people think it involves too many sensual pleasures—as, for instance, among the French and English poets and artists of the 1880s and ’90s called the Decadents.

“These days, for some reason, people have decided decadent is the way to describe rich chocolate cakes.”

The use of “decadent” for a chocolate cake seems to be relatively new. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a 1978 item in Cue magazine about the “Decadent Chocolate Cake ($1.25 a slice) that’s appropriately named” at the Silver Palate food store in Manhattan.

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

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


English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

A saboteuse? A chanteur?

Q: Some English words of foreign origin are gender specific, such as “executor”/“executrix,” “masseur”/“masseuse.” I’m wondering about two French words: Do we have “saboteuse” and “chanteur” in English?

A: Yes, “saboteuse” and “chanteur” are words in English, though they’re rarely used and barely register in dictionaries.

Of the eight standard English dictionaries we examined, none include “saboteuse” and only one has “chanteur.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, mentions “saboteuse” but not “chanteur.”

Merriam-Webster Unabridged has a unisex definition of “chanteur” as a “singer,” especially “a singer of ballads.”

In a separate entry, it defines “chanteuse” as “a woman who is a singer,” especially “a woman who sings in concert halls or nightclubs.”

M-W has a unisex definition for “saboteur” as “one that engages in sabotage,” but it doesn’t mention “saboteuse,” either within its “saboteur” entry or in a separate entry.

The OED, though, defines “saboteur” as “one who commits sabotage,” and adds: “Also fem. saboteuse.”

Among the citations in its “saboteur” entry is this one from The Glimpses of the Moon, a 1977 mystery by the English crime writer Edmund Crispin, a pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery:

“ ‘My God, it’s the pigs,’ said the hunt saboteuse disgustedly.” (The saboteuse here is a woman trying to stop a fox hunt.)

As we’ve said, Oxford doesn’t include the English word “chanteur,” though the French Faucon chanteur occurs in a citation for the “chanting falcon” (also called the “chanting goshawk”).

While “chanteur” and “saboteuse” don’t show up often in English writing, they do occur occasionally, according to our searches of Newsbank and other databases.

Here’s an example from the April 15, 2016, issue of the Denver Post: “Perhaps no artist’s passing has hit as hard—or inspired more tributes—than that of British chanteur David Bowie.”

And this one is from a Sept. 7, 2015, item on “In many ways, honey-voiced chanteur Sam Smith is the male answer to Adele.”

Another example comes from a gossip column in the July 23, 2014, issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“According to no less an authority than the Library of Congress, pop chanteur Billy Joel, 65, has made a primo contribution to American culture.”

As for “saboteuse,” a review of The Florence King Reader in the April 2, 1994, issue of the Roanoke (VA) Times describes the novelist, essayist and columnist as “an equal-opportunity saboteuse” for poking fun at both men and women.

A July 16, 2014, article on the blog of the Spectator calls the British MP Harriet Harman the “Labour Party’s chief saboteuse” for accusing former Prime Minister Gordon Brown of sexism.

And in Musical Comedy in America, a 2013 book by Cecil A. Smith and Glenn Litton, the Nanette Fabray character in Arms and the Girl, a play set in Colonial America, is described as “a would-be saboteuse.”

In our searches, “saboteuse” is often used mockingly, as in the fox-hunting and Labor Party examples above.

And “chanteur” often accompanies the name of a male French singer in English writing, as in a Dec. 10, 2010, movie review in the New York Times that refers to “the mystery man played by the French chanteur Johnny Hallyday.”

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How ‘master’ became ‘mister’

Q: I wonder how “master” became “mister,” and why “master” refers to a young man, and “mister” to an older man. Can you enlighten me?

A: We discussed the origin of “master” on the blog in 2015, but we’ll summarize it here to set the stage for the appearance of “mister” and the evolution of “master” as a term for a boy or young man.

The term “master” (spelled mægstermagester, or magister in Old English) was borrowed from Latin, where a magister was a chief, head, director, or superintendent.

The “master” spelling gradually evolved in late Old English and Middle English after the Norman Conquest, influenced by the Anglo-Norman spellings maistre and mastre.

When the word first appeared in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to “a person (predominantly, a man) having authority, direction or control over the action of another or others.”

The dictionary’s first written citation is from King Ælfred’s Old English translation in the late 800s of a Latin treatise by Pope Gregory I, commonly known in English as Pastoral Care:

“Ðonne he gemette ða scylde ðe he stieran scolde, hrædlice he gecyðde ðæt he wæs magister & ealdormonn” (“When he saw the sin that he should punish, he showed that he was master and lord”).

In late Old English and early Middle English, “master” was also a title prefixed to a man’s first name or second name, initially for men in the gentry and later for men in general. (Before the Conquest, inherited surnames didn’t exist.)

The earliest example in the OED is from the Exeter Book, a collection of Anglo-Saxon writing at the Exeter Cathedral Library.

An undated Exeter document, perhaps written in the late 10th or early 11th century, refers to “mestre Odo, & mestre Leowines.”

The next citation is from The Owl and the Nightingale, a Middle English poem believed written in the late 12th or early 13th century:

“Maister nichole of guldeforde, / He is wis and war [wary] of worde.” (We inserted the bracketed definition.)

In late Middle English, people began using “Mr.,” an abbreviated version of “master,” as a title “prefixed to the surname or first name of a man without a higher, honorific, or professional title,” according to the OED.

The abbreviation sometimes appeared  with a dot and sometimes without one in the early days. Today, it’s dotted in the US and dotless in the UK.

The first Oxford example is from Letters and Papers of John Shillingford, Mayor of Exeter 1447-50, edited by Stuart Archibald Moore in 1871. The citation, dated sometime before 1449, uses “Maister” and “Mr.” as titles:

“Maister John Gorewyll Maister John Waryn Mr William Filham Sr Richard Kelyer and other som tyme chanons of þe [the] said churche.”

(We’ve gone to the original document to expand the citation, and we’ve added the bracketed definition.)

Initially, the OED says, “Mr.” was an unspoken “graphic abbreviation,” but it later developed “a distinct spoken realization.”

When people began speaking it, “Mr.” was pronounced like “master,” but “from the 16th cent. it was, at least in rapid or careless speech, treated proclitically, with consequent alteration of the vowel of the first syllable,” according to the dictionary.

By “proclitically,” the OED means that the pronunciation of “Mr.” gradually evolved from “master” to “mister” over the 16th and 17th centuries as the term attached itself to the following word.

“Hence at the beginning of the 18th cent. master and Mr were already regarded as distinct words,” the OED says, and “mister” was “merely an occasional rendering of the pronunciation of the word of which ‘Mr’ is the accepted spelling.”

When the word represented by “Mr.” first showed up in writing in the early 1500s, according to OED citations, it was spelled “myster,” which probably reflected the way the term was pronounced at the time.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1523 entry in the Account Book of the Hospital of St. John, Canterbury, 1510–1556:

“Paied to a carpenter by grete for mendyng of Myster Collettis house.”

The first written example in the OED for the word spelled “mister” is from a March 15, 1642, letter by the wife of the mayor of Waterford, Ireland, during the Irish Confederate Wars:

“This passadge of Mister Richard Buttler hapened the day affter the Twelve Day.”

While “mister” was developing in the 16th century as a prefixed title for a man, the dictionary says, the word “master” took on a new sense, “as a prefix to the name of a boy or young man not considered old enough to be called ‘Mr.’ ”

At first, the child’s title was often expanded to “little master” or “young master,” especially when used by servants in referring to the children of the gentry or nobility.

For example, the OED cites a reference to “yonge mayster Dauyd” in The Answere to the Fyrst Parte of the Poysened Booke, a 1533 religious tract by Thomas More.

And this example, without a modifier, is from a letter written around the same time to Thomas Cromwell, chief minister of King Henry VIII, by Henry Dowes, tutor to Cromwell’s son Gregory:

“It pleased your Maistershipp to give me in charge not onlie to give diligent attendaunce uppon Maister Gregory, but also to instructs hime w’t good letters, honeste maners, pastymes of Instruments, and such other qualities as sholde be for hime mete [fitting] and conveniente.”

(We’ve expanded the OED citation to get in more of the interesting letter, and added the bracketed definition.)

The dictionary notes that “master” took on this juvenile sense “subsequent to the phonetic separation of mister,” though apparently before the word “mister” actually appeared in writing.

Once “mister” was established as a courtesy title for a man, “master” was free to take on the new role of a courtesy title for a boy.

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