English English language Expression Grammar Usage Writing

When past perfect is just perfect

Q: In one of her essays, a college professor has the following sentence: “I replied that I wouldn’t answer questions until I’d had time to consider the charges.” Why is the past perfect used after the word “until”? I believe the simple past would suffice.

A: We think the professor’s choice of words was appropriate.

Either the simple past tense (“not … until I had time”) or the past perfect tense (“not … until I had had time”) would be grammatically correct, though each creates a slightly different effect.

The use of the past perfect in the “until” clause emphasizes the need for time to consider before answering. The use of the simple past—“I would not answer … until I had time to consider”—plays down the before-ness and deemphasizes the amount of time needed to consider.

This is a subtle difference. But we found a good illustration of it in The Grammar of the English Tense System: A Comprehensive Analysis (2006).

The book, by Renaat Declerck in collaboration with Susan Reed and Bert Cappelle, uses a positive instead of a negative “until” construction, but the principle is the same. Here are the examples (the brackets are theirs):

(1) “[Bill said] he would stay in the pub until Jill arrived.” (The simple past “arrived” implies that Bill would stay “until the time of Jill’s arrival,” the authors say. The times of the “would” clause and the “until” clause are simultaneous.)

(2) “[Bill said] he would stay in the pub until Jill had arrived.” (The past perfect “had arrived” implies that Bill would stay “until such time as Jill had already arrived,” the authors say. The time of the “until” clause occurs before that of the “would” clause.)

Both versions are correct, but they have slightly different meanings. Negative versions, with “not … until,” might be expressed this way:

“[Bill said] he would not leave the pub until Jill arrived” … or … “until Jill had arrived.”

In another book, Conditionals: A Comprehensive Empirical Analysis (2001), Declerck and Reed write: “Not … until frequently introduces a time clause with a conditional connotation.”

One of their examples is “I won’t give you your bike back until you’ve paid me back the £20 I lent you last year.”

The speaker could have used the simple present tense in the “until” clause (“until you pay me”), but the use of the present perfect (“until you have paid me”) emphasizes the difference in time frames; they’re not simultaneous.

We might paraphrase this as “I intend to give the bike back, not when you pay me, but after you’ve paid me.” The difference in time frames emphasizes the condition that the speaker places on the action.

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Literal minded

Q: I saw this headline on BuzzFeed: “These Brownies Have Literally Taken Over The Dessert Game.” Literally? How about apple pie, strawberry shortcake, and pistachio ice cream?

A: The word “literally,” as you know, means “to the letter,” and that’s the way we use it. On the other hand, that is a helluva brownie on BuzzFeed!

More to the point, writers have been using “literally” in an other-than-literal way for hundreds of years, including John Dryden, Henry David Thoreau, Alexander Pope, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Mark Twain.

In fact, many standard dictionaries now accept the nonliteral use of “literally” to emphasize an exaggeration, especially in informal speech or writing.

The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary, for example, says it can be “used in an exaggerated way to emphasize a statement or description that is not literally true or possible.”

The dictionary cites the author Norman Cousins: “They will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice” (from the Nov. 20, 1971, issue of Saturday Review). We’ve expanded the citation, which refers to American youth.

Merriam-Webster lists this exaggerated nonliteral sense without comment—that is, as standard in formal and informal English.

The US and UK editions of the online Oxford Dictionaries accept the use of  “literally” in informal English “for emphasis while not being literally true,” and gives this example: “I was literally blown away by the response I got.”

However, Oxford Dictionaries cautions that this “use can lead to unintentional humorous effects (we were literally killing ourselves laughing) and is not acceptable in formal contexts, though it is widespread.”

Other standard dictionaries, including the online versions of Cambridge, Collins, Longman, and Macmillan, have similar definitions, with most describing the usage as informal.

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says its usage panel, when last surveyed, objected to such metaphorical uses as “literally swallowing the country’s youth” and “literally out of his mind with worry.”

Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), which takes the traditional view, criticizes the metaphorical use as “stretched paper-thin (but not literally).”

The more permissive Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage argues that the exaggerated use of “literally” is not a misuse or a mistake, but an unsurprising “extension of intensive use from words and phrases of literal meaning to metaphorical ones.”

Merriam-Webster’s includes such examples as these:

“I literally blazed with wit” (Thackeray, in the Oct. 30, 1847, issue of Punch).

“You’re very kind letter has left me literally speechless” (Archibald MacLeish, in a Feb. 17, 1914, letter).

“Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet” (James Joyce, in Dubliner’s, 1914).

“He literally glowed” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, in The Great Gatsby, 1925).

“And with his eyes he literally scoured the corners of the cell” (Vladimir Nabokov, in Invitation to a Beheading, 1960).

Yes, the hyperbolic use of “literally” has a history, but should you use it?

“The point to be made here is that it is hyperbolic, and hyperbole requires care in handling,” Merriam-Webster’s advises.

The usage guide says writers should ask themselves whether the figurative use of “literally” would call undue attention to itself, and “render the figure ludicrous, as was the case when a football play-by-play man we heard some years ago said the defensive lineman had ‘literally hammered the quarterback into the ground.’ ”

We think that’s good advice. And, now, let’s look at the literal history of “literally.”

When the adverb first showed up in English in the early 1400s, it meant “In a literal, exact, or actual sense; not figuratively, allegorically, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It was formed by adding “-ly” to the adjective “literal,” which showed up in the late 1300s, and originally referred to a letter, or letters, of the alphabet. The ultimate source is the classical Latin litteralis (of letters or writing).

The first citation for “literally” in the OED is from Mirour of Mans Saluacioune (“Mirror of Man’s Salvation”), circa 1429, a Middle English translation of an anonymous Latin religious work from the early 1300s:

“Litteraly haf ȝe [have you] herde this dreme and what it ment.”

That early literal meaning of “literally” expanded in the late 1600s as the adverb came to be used as an intensifier, similar to “truly” or “really.”

The first OED example for the emphatic sense is from a 1670 political tract written in exile by the British statesman and historian Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon:

“He is literally felo de se, who deprives and robs himself of that which no body but himself can rob him.” The medieval Latin felo de se (literally, “felon of oneself”) refers to someone who commits suicide.

The next example is from Dryden’s 1687 poem “The Hind and the Panther”: “My daily bread is litt’rally implor’d.”

And the third citation is from a March 18, 1708, letter by Alexander Pope: “Every day with me is litterally Another To-morrow; for it is exactly the same with Yesterday.”

In the late 1700s, the OED says, writers began using the adverb “to indicate that some (frequently conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense.”

The dictionary describes the usage as colloquial (that is, informal or conversational), and adds that “literally” here means “ ‘virtually, as good as’; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely.’ ”

“Now one of the most common uses,” Oxford adds, “although often considered irregular in standard English since it reverses the original sense of literally.”

The first OED citation for this exaggerated sense is from The History of Emily Montague, a 1769 novel by the English writer Frances Brooke:

“He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies.”

The adverb has been used regularly in this hyperbolic way since then. The OED has citations from the 18th to the 21st centuries.

We’ll end with this example from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) by Twain: “And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Usage Word origin Writing

The beginning of an ending

Q: Have you folks ever done something with the “-en” ending? I’m thinking of “widen,” “strengthen,” “deepen,” etc.  Sounds like it must be of Anglo-Saxon origin.

A: We’ve discussed the “-en” suffix several times on our blog, including a post last year examining its use in plurals (“brethren,” “children,” “women”), and briefly mentioning its use in diminutives (“kitten,” “maiden”) and adjectives (“golden,” “wooden”).

In our earlier post, we note that some Old English nouns formed their plurals with “-n” rather than “-s.” These included eyen (“eyes”) earan (“ears”), tungan (“tongues”), fon (“foes”), housen (“houses”), shoen (“shoes”), treen (“trees”), and oxan (the original plural of “ox”).

During the Middle English period (roughly 1100-1500), both the “-en” and the “-an” plurals that had come from Old English were spelled with “en.” Meanwhile, Middle English writers extended the “-en” spelling to words that didn’t originally have plurals ending in “-n.”

In fact, the “-en” suffix was even added in Middle English to some words that were already plural. So the plurals brethre and childer became brethren and children. If you want to read more about “-en” plurals, check out our 2016 post.

The “-en” suffix was also used in Old English to form adjectives that mainly indicated the material something was made of. Although “-en”  adjectives were common in Old English and Middle English, “scarcely any survive,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

For example, the Old English adjective stǽnen (made from stone) became stenen and then stonen in Middle English. Today, we generally use the noun “stone” attributively (that is, adjectivally) to describe something made of stone, as in “a stone house” or “a stone wall.”

Since the 16th century, the OED says, there’s been a growing tendency to use attributive nouns in place of “-en” adjectives to describe the composition of something. So we’re likely now to use “gold watch” rather than  “golden watch,” “oak chest” rather than “oaken chest,” and “wheat bran” rather than “wheaten bran” (though Pat once had a wheaten terrier named Max).

Modern survivors include the standard English “golden,” “leaden,” “wooden,” “woolen,” “earthen,” “wheaten,” “flaxen,” “graven” (engraved), and “brazen” (literally, made of brass). There are also, the OED says, as dialectal examples from Southwest England like “glassen,” “steelen,” “tinnen,” and “papern.”

As we’ve said, the suffix was also used to form diminutives, especially of animals. Examples dating from Old English and Middle English include “kitten,” “chicken,” “ticchen” (small goat), “maiden,” and “stucchen” (small piece). We wrote a post last year about “chicken” and its “-en” ending.

In addition, the “-en” suffix was used in Old English to form feminine versions of male nouns: god became gyden (goddess), munuc (monk) became mynecen (nun), wulf became wylfen (she-wolf). The only modern survivor is “vixen” (a female fox), according to the OED.

As for the “-en” verbs (“fasten,” “harden,” “listen,” and so on), they were formed by adding the suffix to adjectives or nouns.

Some originated in Old English or were borrowed by the Anglo-Saxons from other Germanic languages, but most appeared in Middle or Modern English, influenced by those earlier verbs.

Among the ones with early ancestors, “fasten” comes the Old English fæstnian, “listen” from the Old English hlystnian, “harden” from the Old Norse harðna, and “brighten” from the Old Northumbrian berhtnia, according to the OED.

However, the three you asked about showed up in late Middle or early Modern English: “strengthen” (1405), “widen” (1566), and “deepen” (sometime before 1605).

Finally, the “-en” suffix in past participles (“broken,” “spoken”) is a holdover from Old English. For example, the past participle of the Old English verb brecan (to break) was brocen, while the past participle of sprecan (to speak) was gesprecen or several similar “-en” variants.

Etymologically, all these “-en” endings ultimately come from the reconstructed, prehistoric Indo-European suffixes –no, –eno, and –ono, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

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English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

The lowdown on ‘crescendo’

Q: Is “crescendo” a lost cause? I hardly ever hear it used properly to mean a gradual increase in sound. As a music lover, it pains me to hear it mean a climax.

A: Most standard dictionaries now accept both uses of “crescendo”: (1) a gradual increase in intensity, and (2) the highest point of the increase.

The entry in Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for example, begins by defining a “crescendo” as “a swelling in volume of sound especially in playing or singing music,” or “a passage so performed.”

The dictionary then adds a more expansive definition of “crescendo” as “any gradual increase (as in physical or emotional force or intensity)” or “the peak of such an increase.”

M-W Unabridged says the climax sense of the word “originated as an Americanism in the early decades of 20th century.”

However, the American usage is now common in Britain. The online UK editions of both Oxford Dictionaries and Cambridge Dictionary include the climactic sense of “crescendo” used in the musical as well as the wider sense.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage describes the peak sense as “a fully established meaning,” but notes that it “shows no sign of driving the earlier senses from use.”

The usage guide says the newer sense of “crescendo” is an understandable development: “Since the increase has to reach some sort of climax, the extension of the word to the climax from the increase hardly seems surprising.”

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), edited by Jeremy Butterfield, says, “This newer use causes distress and anxiety among more sensitive editors, not to mention many musicians, but it seems likely to prevail.”

However, the more traditional Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), by Bryan A. Garner, insists that a “crescendo” is a gradual increase, not a peak: “To say that something reaches a crescendo is woolly-minded.”

The usage panel advising The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) was divided on the issue when surveyed in 2006, with 55 percent accepting this sentence: “When the guard sank a three-pointer to tie the game, the noise of the crowd reached a crescendo.”

We agree with the Merriam-Webster’s usage guide that the new sense of “crescendo” is “a fully established meaning,” but we’re also among the “more sensitive editors” who use the term in the traditional way.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “crescendo” showed up in English in the 18th century as “a musical direction indicating that the tone is to be gradually increased in force or loudness.”

As a noun, according to the dictionary, it meant a “gradual increase of volume of tone in a passage of a piece of music; a passage of this description.”

English borrowed the term from Italian, but the ultimate source is crēscĕre, Latin for to arise, grow, or increase.

The first citation for “crescendo” in the OED is from Musical Travels Through England (1774), by Joel Collier, a pen name often attributed to the English barrister and writer John Bicknell:

“I stood still some time to observe the diminuendo and crescendo.” (The musical direction “diminuendo,” or “decrescendo,” is the opposite of “crescendo.”)

However, a reader of our blog discovered an earlier example from The Present State of Music in France and Italy (1771), by Charles Burney: “each forte, piano, crescendo, diminuendo, and appoggiatura is observed with a minute exactness.”

In a little more than a decade, according to the dictionary’s citations, the musical sense led to the figurative use of “crescendo” as a noun meaning a “progressive increase in force or effect.”

The first example in the OED is from a July 20, 1785, letter by Richard Twining, who was traveling in Wales, to his musical brother, the Rev. Thomas Twining: “The crescendo of mountains, as we went up the lake pleased me as much, I think, as any crescendo of sound can have pleased you.”

The climactic sense of “crescendo” showed up in the US in the 1920s. The OED defines it as the “peak of an increase in volume, force, or intensity; a climax. Esp. in phr. to reach a crescendo.”

The first OED example is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby: “The caterwauling horns had reached a crescendo and I turned away and cut across the lawn toward home.”

Finally, here’s an example from Uncle Fred in the Springtime, a 1939 novel by P. G. Wodehouse: “The babble at the bar had risen to a sudden crescendo.”

[Note: This post was updated on July 23, 2017.]

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Common day occurrence

Q: I don’t hear “common day occurrence” a lot, but the expression does crop up from time to time, and the other day I found myself using it. A friend questioned me and I couldn’t recall where I’d picked it up. Any idea where or when this phrase originated?

A: The expression “common day occurrence” showed up in the late 19th century, probably as a conflation of “common occurrence” and “everyday occurrence,” two more common expressions that mean the same thing.

In fact, we’ve found an even earlier example in The Book of Family Prayer for the United Church of England and Ireland (1856) that uses both  “common” and “everyday” together to modify “occurrence”:

“Have we been separated for a time from our families, and has God brought us together in health and safety? and because this is a common every-day occurrence, shall we hesitate to acknowledge in it God’s protecting arm?”

The earliest example we’ve found for “common day occurrence” is from an 1897 British review of On Many Seas: The Life and Exploits of a Yankee Sailor, a memoir by Capt. Frederick Benton Williams:

“To be jailed for mutiny was a common day occurrence, but then mutiny covered a great many offenses” (from the Review of Reviews, a London journal edited by William Thomas Stead).

The expression “everyday occurrence” dates from the early 19th century. The first example we’ve seen is from a May 17, 1819, debate in the House of Commons: “It was well known that, among officers, the sale and exchange of commissions were matters of every day occurrence.”

And the expression “everyday’s occurrence” dates from the early 18th century. The oldest example we’ve found is from Of the Law of Natur and Nations (1729), an English translation by the Oxford scholar Basil Kennett and others of a Latin work by the German political philosopher Samuel Freiherr von Pufendorf:

“It is therefore necessary to appoint certain Magistrates, as Substitutes or Delegates, who, by the Authority of the whole People, may dispatch Business of every Day’s Occurrence.”

The expression “common occurrence” is even older. The oldest example we’ve seen is from God the Author of Reconciliation (1699), by the English Puritan clergyman Stephen Charnock:

“The illustration should, if possible, be a matter of common occurrence, and the more common the occurrence the more sure it will be not to fix attention upon itself, but serve as a medium through which the truth is conveyed. ”

Although the expression “common day occurrence” has been around for a while, it isn’t all that common, as you’ve observed. We’ve found only a couple of hundred examples in Google searches.

And we couldn’t find the expression in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, or in any of the standard dictionaries we usually consult.

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Flaunting and flouting

Q: While looking into the common but erroneous substitution of “flaunt” for “flaut,” I was flabbergasted to find no entry for “flaut” in any of the dictionaries aggregates. Did I slide into an alternate universe where this word doesn’t exist, or am I simply deranged? PS: To prevent Google Mail from flagging “flaut’ as an error, I had to add it to my email dictionary.

A: You’re right that many people use “flaunt” to mean “flout” (the correct spelling of the word you’re looking for). In fact, a couple of standard dictionaries now accept the usage, though all the rest stick to the traditional view of the two words.

Traditionally, the verb “flaunt” means to show off something ostentatiously or to act in an ostentatious way, while the verb “flout” means to openly or contemptuously disregard something.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), which takes the traditional view, says in a usage note: “For some time now flaunt has been used in the sense ‘to show contempt for,’ even by educated users of English. But this usage is still widely seen as erroneous.”

“In our 2009 survey,” the dictionary adds, “73 percent of the Usage Panel rejected it in the sentence This is just another example of an executive flaunting the rules for personal gain.”

However, the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged and Merriam-Webster Dictionary accept without comment (that is, as standard English) the use of “flaunt” to mean “to treat contemptuously: flout.”

The subscription-based Unabridged gives the example “flaunt army regulations,” while the free M-W dictionary cites this comment by the poet and critic Louis Untermeyer: “flaunted the rules.”

We use “flaunt” and “flout” in the traditional way, and that’s what Woe Is I, Pat’s grammar and usage guide, recommends: “To flout is to defy or ignore. To flaunt is to show off. When Bruce ran that stop sign, he was flouting the law and flaunting his new Harley.”

Other usage guides agree. In Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), for example, R. W. Burchfield writes that “flaunt is often wrongly used for flout,” a usage that “has been particularly prevalent since the 1940s.”

And in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Bryan A. Garner says: “Confusion about these terms is so distressingly common that some dictionaries have thrown in the towel and now treat flaunt as a synonym of flout. But the words are best kept separate.”

The less traditional Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage offers a justification for using “flaunt” to mean “flout,” but ultimately recommends avoiding the usage:

“Both words are used to describe open, unashamed behavior, and both typically suggest disapproval of such behavior. … Add to this similarity of use the obvious similarity of the words themselves, and you have a situation ripe for confusion.

“It is an oversimplification, however, to say that the use of flaunt to mean ‘to treat with contemptuous disregard’ is merely the result of confusion … those who now use it do so not because they are confused—they do so because they have heard and seen it so often that its use seems natural and idiomatic. They use it, in other words, because they are familiar with it as an established sense of flaunt.

“No one can deny that this sense of flaunt is now alive and well, despite its lowly origins.

“Nevertheless, the notoriety of flaunt used for flout is so great and the belief that it is simply an error so deep-seated and persistent, that we think you well-advised to avoid it, at least when writing for publication.”

As for the etymology, both verbs showed up in the 1500s, “flout” first and “flaunt” a decade later.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “flout,” meaning to mock or express contempt for someone or something, may have begun life as a dialectal form of floute, Middle English for “to play the flute.” The OED notes “a similar development of sense in Dutch fluiten to play the flute, to mock, deride.”

The first citation for “flout” in the dictionary is from Ralph Robinson’s 1551 translation of Utopia, a Latin work of fiction by Thomas More: “In moste spiteful maner mockynge … and flowtynge them.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says “flaunt” is of unknown origin, though it cites several theories, including a suggestion that it may be a coined word formed from blending terms like “flounce” and “vaunt.”

The first OED citation for “flaunt” (“to walk or move about so as to display one’s finery”) is from a 1566 translation by the English clergyman Thomas Drant of the Roman poet Horace’s satires: “In suits of silkes to flaunte.”

Before ending, we should note that “flout” is occasionally used to mean “flaunt.” But as Merriam-Webster’s Usage notes, “it is extremely uncommon and can only be regarded as a genuine error.”

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Our slant on ‘bias’

Q: I came across a T-shirt on Amazon that shows a sewing machine and the words “never trust a seamstress, she’s likely biased.” As a sewer who sometimes cuts fabric on the bias, I’m curious about where all the biases come from.

A: English adopted “bias” in the early 1500s from Middle French (spoken from the 14th to 16th centuries), in which biais meant either oblique or obliqueness.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the French term is “of unknown origin,” and notes that a theory that it comes from bifax, classical Latin for two-faced, has been rejected by scholars “as phonetically untenable.”

“Bias” showed up first in English as a noun for an “oblique or slanting line,” the OED says, but adds that this sense now appears only in sewing, where “on the bias” refers to fabric cut or pieced “diagonally, across the texture.”

The earliest Oxford example for “bias” is from John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse (1530), a French grammar for English speakers: “Byas of an hose, bias.”

It’s unclear whether Palsgrave is referring to hosiery with a diagonal design or to hose made from fabric cut on the bias, which allows woven cloth to stretch.

The actual expression “on the bias” didn’t show up in writing until hundreds of years later. The first Oxford example is from the Oct. 29, 1880, issue of the Melbourne Bulletin: “The clothing … may not be cut on the bias.”

However, we’ve found several earlier examples that refer to fabric pieced or cut “on the bias.” The earliest is from the January 1818 issue of the Ladies’ Monthly Museum, a British magazine:

“The petticoat is made full, and trimmed with large satin roses, placed two together on the bias, and attached by a band of crimped crape; long sleeves made rather tight, with a pointed cuff, and trimmed to correspond with the collar.”

The first example we’ve found for cutting “on the bias” is from The Scottish Gaël, an 1831 book about Celtic customs, by James Logan:

“An error in weaving would equally derange the operation of making up a jacket, which consumes a considerable quantity of cloth, being cut on the bias, and is a work of great nicety and skill.”

The OED says the noun “bias” in the sewing sense refers to “a wedge-shaped piece or gore, cut obliquely to the texture of a woven fabric.” (For readers unfamiliar with the term, “gore” refers to a triangular or tapering piece of material.)

The noun gave English the adjective “bias,” meaning slanting or oblique. The first Oxford example is from The Pathway to Knowledge,” a 1551 book on geometry by Robert Record:

“By the Bias line, I meane that lyne, whiche in any square figure dooth runne from corner to corner.”

Two decades later, the noun took on a new sense—as a term in the sport of bowls or lawn bowls.

As the OED explains, the term “bias” here refers to both the “form of the bowl imparting an oblique motion” and “the kind of impetus given to cause it to run obliquely.”

“Thus a bowl is said ‘to have a wide or narrow bias,’ ‘to run with a great’ or ‘little bias’; the player ‘gives it more’ or ‘less bias’ in throwing it,” the dictionary adds.

The first Oxford example for “bias” used in bowls is from a margin note in The Life of the 70 Archbishops of Canterbury (1570), an anonymous translation and update of a work in Latin: “As you haue sett youre bias, so runneth your bowle.”

All the modern meanings of “bias” and its offshoots are derived from the original oblique sense of the noun or from its oblique sense in lawn bowls. We won’t discuss all the senses here, just the most common ones.

The use of “bias” for a tendency, a predisposition, or a prejudice showed up in the early 1570s. The first OED citation is from Ane Detectioun of the Duinges of Marie Quene of Scottes (1571), by George Buchanan: “She commeth to her own byace, and openly sheweth hir owne naturall conditions.”

The term soon came to mean “a swaying influence” that may turn someone to a particular course. This example is from Tragicall Tales (1587), the English poet George Turberville’s translations of Italian stories by Giovanni Boccaccio and Matteo Bandello: “That to the end he might the maid Unto his bias bring.”

In the mid-1600s, the adjective “biased” took on the sense of “Influenced; inclined in some direction; unduly or unfairly influenced; prejudiced,” according to the OED. (The adjective “biased” comes from the verb “bias.” Both had shown up earlier in the 1600s as terms in lawn bowls.)

The first Oxford citation for “biased” used in the “influenced” or “prejudiced” sense is from Trinarchodia (1646), a poem about Richard II by the Yorkshire writer George Daniel: “How byased all humane Actions are!”

In the early 20th century, “bias” became a term in statistics for a “systematic distortion of an expected statistical result due to a factor not allowed for in its derivation” and “a tendency to produce such distortion,” according to the dictionary.

The first OED example is from the July 1900 issue of the monthly London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine: “The results show a bias from the theoretical results, 5 and 6 points occurring more frequently than they should do.”

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Trepid, trepidant, trepidatious

Q: My dictionary has the word “trepidant,” but no definition or example. I believe it means timid, but I’d like to see how it’s used in a sentence before I use it myself.

A: We’ve found the adjective “trepidant” in several standard dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster Unabridged, which defines it as “timid, trembling.” But it’s rarely used, which explains why you’ve had trouble finding an example.

M-W Unabridged also has two related adjectives: “trepidatious,” which is defined as “feeling trepidation: apprehensive nervous,” and “trepid,” defined as “timorous, trembling.” (We discussed “trepidatious” and “trepidated” in previous blog posts.)

All of these words of agitation, including the noun “trepidation” and the obsolete verb “trepidate,” are ultimately derived from trepidāre, classical Latin for to hurry, to bustle, be agitated, or be alarmed.

“Trepidation” is the oldest of the English words and the most common today. When it showed up in the early 1600s, “trepidation” referred to a vibrating, oscillating, or rocking movement.

The first example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, a 1605 book by the philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon:

“Massiue bodies … haue certaine trepidations and wauerings before they fixe and settle.”

However, the noun soon took on the modern sense of “tremulous agitation; confused hurry or alarm; confusion; flurry; perturbation,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first citation for the new sense is from another work by Bacon, a 1625 collection of his essays: “There vseth to be more trepidation in Court, vpon the first Breaking out of Troubles, then were fit.”

The now obsolete verb “trepidate” showed up around the same time, in The English Dictionarie: Or, an Interpreter of Hard English Words (1623), by Henry Cockeram: “Trepidate, to tremble for feare.”

The OED says the rare adjective “trepid” showed up in the mid-1600s, meaning “trembling; agitated; fearful.”

The first of three examples is from Sacred Principles, Services, and Soliloquies, a 1650 book of devotions by William Brough: “Trembling, and chilnesse, and confusion in the powers of action … a stupid, trepid, troubled motion.”

“Trepidant,” the adjective you’re asking about, showed up more than two centuries later. Oxford describes it as rare, and defines it as “trembling with fear or agitation.”

The first example is from an 1891 paper by Philip Coombs Knapp in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease: “Astasia-abasia, with the report of a case of paroxysmal trepidant abasia associated with paralysis agitans.”

Here’s a slightly later OED example in plain English: “In either party are many trepidant hopes and fears” (from the July 2, 1892, issue of Black & White, a British illustrated weekly).

We’ve found an even clearer example in Notable U.S. Ambassadors Since 1775, a 1997 book by Cathal J. Nolan.

This is a description of Clifton Reginald Wharton Sr., an African-American diplomat, taking the Foreign Service exam in the 1920s:

“He scored well on the written part of the examination and, although somewhat trepidant about facing an all-white oral examination board, he sailed through their questions.”

The latecomer here is “trepidatious,” the most common of the adjectives in today’s English. It was first recorded in 1904, the OED says, and means “apprehensive, nervous; filled with trepidation.”

[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 19, 2020, to reflect later dictionary entries.]

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Ego trip: “egoist” vs. “egotist”

Q: Is the proper form “egoist” or “egotist”? Without the “t” it always sounds wrong.

A: The short answer is that you can’t go wrong with “egotist” unless you’re discussing philosophy or ethics.

Technically, “egoism” and “egotism” have different meanings, though the meanings differ from dictionary to dictionary and overlap considerably.

In fact, most people who use “egoist” (or “egoism”) actually mean “egotist” (or “egotism”), and standard dictionaries now accept that usage. However, some sticklers insist on preserving a distinction that has never been very distinct.

Oxford Dictionaries online, in its US and UK editions, defines “egotism” as the “practice of talking and thinking about oneself excessively because of an undue sense of self-importance.” It defines “egoism” as “another term for egotism,” or as an “ethical theory that treats self-interest as the foundation of morality.”

In a usage note in its UK edition, Oxford Dictionaries adds: “Strictly speaking, egoism is a term used in Ethics to mean ‘a theory that treats self-interest as the foundation of moral behaviour,’ although this sense is not dominant today; around 90 per cent of the citations for egoism in the Oxford English Corpus are for the meaning ‘excessive conceit.’ ”

Merriam-Webster Unabridged has similar definitions for the two words. But it adds that “egotism” may also mean self-centeredness and excessive pride, while “egoism” may refer to the doctrine in philosophy “that all the elements of knowledge are in the ego.”

Our own searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus agree with the results from the Oxford English Corpus: “egoism” is now usually used to mean “egotism,” especially in the self-centered sense.

R. W. Burchfield, writing in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), doesn’t quite endorse the use of “egoism” for “egotism,” but says:

“To the general educated public, at any rate those who are uninformed about the technical language of ethics and metaphysics, the net result is a residual and persistent belief that the words are more or less interchangeable.”

Burchfield notes that the “adjectives egoistic and egotistic are now under threat by the increasingly popular adjective egocentric,” which the Macmillan Dictionary defines as “behaving as if you are more important than other people, and need not care about them.”

In Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), a more conservative reference book, Bryan A. Garner insists that “egoism” is a philosophical term and that its use for “egotism” is “widely shunned.” He says the use of “egoism” to mean selfishness “is a slipshod extension.”

What do we think? Well, we use “egotism” for boastfulness, selfishness, or excessive pride. We can’t remember the last time we used “egoism” in conversation or writing, other than in discussing the word’s usage.

As for the etymology, all these terms and their offshoots are ultimately derived from ego, Latin for “I.”

The first to show up in English, “egotism” and “egotist,” were used in reference to the “obtrusive or too frequent use of the pronoun of the first person singular: hence the practice of talking about oneself or one’s doings,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest examples for both words are in a passage (which we’ve expanded) from an essay by Joseph Addison in the July 2, 1714, issue of the Spectator:

“The most violent egotism which I have met with in the course of my reading, is that of Cardinal Wolsey, Ego et rex meus (I and my king); as perhaps the most eminent egotist that ever appeared in the world was Montaigne, the author of the celebrated essays.”

Where did the intrusive “t” in “egotism” and “egotist” come from? “It seems probable,” the OED says, “that egotism was formed on the pattern of some older word [ending] in -otism; compare for example French idiotisme.”

In the late 1700s, the “t”-less terms “egoism” and “egoist” first appeared in English as terms in philosophy (they were later applied to a system of ethics).

In philosophy, the OED says, the words were used in reference to the “belief, on the part of an individual, that there is no proof that anything exists but his own mind,” and they were “chiefly applied to philosophical systems supposed by their adversaries logically to imply this conclusion.”

The OED parenthetically mentions a 1722 sighting of the Latin egoismo, from the title of a religious treatise by the German theologian Christoph Matthäus Pfaff: De Egoismo, Nova Philosophica Hæresi.

But in English, both “egoism” and “egoist” first showed up in Thomas Reid’s Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785):

“I am left alone in that forlorn state of egoism,” and “A sect … called Egoists, who maintained that we have no evidence of the existence of anything but ourselves.”

Soon writers began using “egoism” and “egoist” to mean “egotism” and “egotist.”

For example, the OED says “egoist” means “one who talks much about himself” in this citation from a June 13, 1794, letter by William Eden, 1st Baron Auckland: “My next letter shall be less egoist.”

And the dictionary says “egoism” means “egotism” in this citation from a March 20, 1807, letter by Thomas Jefferson: “Pardon me these egoisms.”

The OED also cites an earlier Feb. 6, 1795, letter by Jefferson that uses “egoisms” to mean selfish acts: “It must be so extensive as that local egoisms may never reach its greater part.”

In the early 1800s, according to the dictionary, the term “egoism” came to be used in ethics for the “theory which regards self-interest as the foundation of morality. Also, in practical sense: Regard to one’s own interest, as the supreme guiding principle of action; systematic selfishness.”

The first Oxford example for the use of “egoism” in ethics is from an 1801 entry in The Annual Register, an annual record of world events published since the mid-19th century:

“Generous sentiment and affection in France … was lost in selfishness or according to their new word Egoism.”

However, writers continued to use “egoism” more widely to mean selfishness, self-importance, and self-centeredness throughout the 19th century, as in these examples from the dictionary:

“Hearsays, egoisms, purblind dilettantisms” (from Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present, 1843; the OED says “egoisms” here are acts of selfishness).

“He is deprived of every shadow of a plea to impute fanaticism or any form of egoism” (from William E. Gladstone’s Church Principles, 1840).

“Note the egoism of this verse and of those preceding it” (from Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s The Treasury of David, 1871).

Interestingly, H. W. Fowler, in the first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), says, “Egoism is showing signs of ousting egotism” in popularity as a term for the “excessive use of I in speech or writing, & self-importance or self-centredness in character.”

It hasn’t happened yet, but “egoism” is still giving “egotism” a good run.

Our searches of the News on the Web corpus, which tracks online newspapers and magazines, show “egotism” ahead by about a third in popularity. Nearly all the citations for “egoism” use the term in the sense of “egotism.”

By the way, the newcomer, “egocentric,” showed up in the early 20th century as an ethnological or philosophical term, but it was soon being used popularly to mean self-centered.

We’ll end with this example from “The Gulf,” a poem by D. H. Lawrence that was  published in 1932, two years after he died: “And then the hordes of the spawn of the machine, / the hordes of the egocentric, the robots.”

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When ‘to have’ is ‘to allow’

Q: What does “have” mean in “I won’t have you stay out all night”? I understand the sentence, but I can’t figure out what “have” is doing there. The usage sounds contemporary to me, but you’ll probably tell me that Alfred the Great coined it.

A: The verb “have” in your example means “to allow or tolerate,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, so that sentence is another way of saying, “I can’t allow you to stay out all night.”

The expression “won’t (or can’t) have someone do something” is usually followed by a present participle (“I won’t have you working all night”), a bare, “to”-less infinitive (“I can’t have you work till all hours”), or a past participle (“I won’t have you worked to death”).

The usage may sound contemporary, but it does indeed date back to Anglo-Saxon times, though as far we know King Ælfred didn’t coin it.

The earliest recorded example in the OED is from an Old English version of The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, a legend about a man who falls asleep and wakes up years later to find the world changed:

“Ælmihtig God … hine þa na lengc ahwænedne habban nolde” (“Almighty God … then would not have him afflicted any longer”).

And here’s an example from The Book of the Knight of the Tower (1484), William Caxton’s Middle English translation of a 14th-century French guide to proper behavior for medieval women, by Geoffrey de la Tour-Landry:

“Ye ben moche beholdynge to god, and to his swete moder, whiche wylle not haue yow dampned” (“You are much beholden to God, and his sweet mother, who will not have you damned”).

This example is from the Coverdale Bible of 1535: “I will not haue the to be afrayd of them” (“I will not have thee be afraid of them”).

The latest example in the OED is from The Boy in the Moon, a 1997 novel by Kate O’Riordan: “I won’t have your father drinking from his saucer like he does, do you hear me?”

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No traffic in both directions?

Q: New York’s MTA uses a construct I haven’t noticed elsewhere: “There is no F train service between West 4th St. and 42nd St. in both directions.” Standard usage, in my book, would be “in either direction.” Is this usage unique to the MTA? Or is it common transit-speak?

A: No, the usage isn’t unique to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

This is from a tweet by Transport for London about problems on the Central line: “No service in both directions btn Liverpool St & Leytonstone.

And here’s a Twitter example from Bay Area Rapid Transit in San Francisco: “No service between 24th-Colma in both directions due to downed tree near Balboa Park.”

The usage may be more common in New York than elsewhere, but not every MTA announcer uses it.

A New York Times reader noted in a contribution to Metropolitan Diary a few years ago that “to my surprise and delight, I heard, ‘There is no service on the N train in either direction.’ ”

And a search online of MTA announcements found a dozen or so of “either” examples, including these:

“No N or R trains in either direction at Jay Street-MetroTech, Court Street, Whitehall Street, Rector Street, Cortlandt Street and City Hall” (Jan. 30, 2014).

“There will be no D service in either direction at 205th Street, Bedford Park Blvd, Kingsbridge Road, Fordham Road, 182nd-183rd Sts, Tremont Avenue, 174th-175th Sts, 170th Street and 167th Street.” (July 12, 2013)

“From 11:30 p.m. Friday, March 11 to 5 a.m. Monday, March 14, there are no Q trains between 57th Street/7th Avenue and Prospect Park in either direction due to BMT track tunnel inspection and structural repair and track and switch work north of Atlantic Avenue” (March 10, 2011).

Is the use of “both” in your example wrong? Well, we find it unidiomatic, but not ungrammatical. And we couldn’t find a single grammar book or usage manual that objects to it.

We did, however, find two grammar books that specifically criticize the use of “both” with a negative verb, though not in other negative constructions.

In your example (“There is no F train service between West 4th Street and 42nd Street in both directions”), a positive verb (“is”) refers to a negative phrase (“no F train service”).

If it had a negative verb (“There isn’t F train service between West 4th Street and 42nd Street in both directions”), the usage would be more questionable.

Those train-service announcements are hard to misunderstand. But some similar constructions could be confusing.

For instance, a sentence like “Both children didn’t get measles” defies an accurate interpretation. Did both fail to catch the disease? Or did the disease strike just one, not both?

We were surprised that we couldn’t find more objections to the use of “both” with a negative verb. Apparently most language writers aren’t troubled by it—or aren’t troubled enough to write about it. Here are the two objections we found.

The “both” entry in English Grammar Today says: “We don’t use both with a negative verb; we use either instead: There was not a considerable difference in percentages for either sex in terms of having a Bachelor’s degree.”

However, the grammar guide, by Ronald Carter, Michael McCarthy, Geraldine Mark, and Anne O’Keeffe, doesn’t offer a reason for its objection.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, a more scholarly reference, says “either” is “strongly preferred” over “both” in sentences with a negative verb. As an example, it cites “He hadn’t eaten either of the pies” as preferable to “He hadn’t eaten both of the pies.”

The Cambridge authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, describe “both” as a “universal quantifier,” a term that expresses all of a quantity, and “either” as an “existential quantifier,” which expresses some of a quantity.

The authors compare “both” to “all,” another universal quantifier, and “either” to “some,” an existential quantifier.

Huddleston and Pullum consider their “both” example above ambiguous, since it could mean that no pies at all were eaten, or only one.

It’s easier to see this with the use of “all” and a negative verb. In Woe Is I, Pat’s grammar and usage book, she uses this sentence as an example: “All Swedes are not blond.”

“To say, All Swedes are not blond, is to say that not a single Swede has golden hair,” Pat writes. Her advice is to negate the “all,” not the verb: “Use not all instead: Not all Swedes are blond.” (We have to admit, however, that not every reader would give that sentence such a literal reading.)

In The Writer’s Art (1984), James J. Kilpatrick says constructions with “every,” “everyone,” and “everything” present a similar problem. He quotes the advice columnist Ann Landers: “Everyone in San Francisco is not gay.” Putting the “not” first solves the problem.

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When roads squeaked

Q: I was reading a free 1904 translation of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education on my Kindle, but it was so klutzy that I downloaded Helen Constantine’s 2016 translation. For example, “the road-metal grated” (1904) versus “the macadam squeaked” (2016).

A: Helen Constantine’s translation is very close to le macadam grinçait, the original French wording in L’Éducation Sentimentale. The French verb grincer can mean creak, squeak, grate, and more.

But the anonymous translator of that 1904 version isn’t as far off as you may think. The term “road metal” here refers to the layers of broken stone used in making macadam roads.

When Flaubert published the novel in 1869, a macadam road was made with layers of broken stone, the largest pieces at the bottom and the smallest at the top.

The process, developed by the Scottish engineer John Loudon McAdam, was modified in the early 20th century, to handle automobile traffic, by adding tar to the surface.

Today, “road metal” refers to broken stone and similar material used to make or repair roads or rail beds. The term is in US dictionaries, but it’s much more common in the UK, according to searches of the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English.

So how did “metal,” a word for a material like gold, silver, iron, copper, and brass, come to mean broken stone?

English adopted the noun “metal” in the early 1200s from Anglo-Norman and Old French, but the ultimate source is the classical Latin metallum and Greek métallon (mine, quarry, and substance obtained by mining).

When the noun showed up in early Middle English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “hard, shiny, malleable material of the kind originally represented by gold, silver, copper, etc., esp. as used in the manufacture of objects, artefacts, and utensils.”

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

“Beo neauer se briht or. Metal. gold. seoluer. Irn. stel. þet hit ne schal drahe rust of an oþer þet is irustet.” (“For neither gold, nor silver, nor iron, nor steel, is ever so bright that it will not draw rust from a thing that is rusty, if they lay long together.”)

The use of “metal” for broken stones to make roads showed up first in Scottish English in the late 1700s. The earliest OED example is a 1782 citation from the Scottish National Dictionary: “The mettle for the road is not to be got but at the south end of the road.”

The next Oxford example, from a 1795 book by John Francis Erskine about Scottish agriculture, spells “metal” the usual way: “The weight of stones (or metals, as they are generally termed by the Scotch road-makers).”

However, that early Scottish spelling leads us to the noun “mettle,” which began life as an alternative spelling of “metal.”

As the OED explains, “The form mettle was a variant spelling used in all senses in the 16th and 17th centuries.”

In the early 1500s, writers began using both “mettle” and “metal” figuratively to mean “a person’s character, disposition, or temperament; the ‘stuff’ of which one is made, regarded as an indication of one’s character,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest Oxford example describes the biblical Adam as “Not lyght of metall but heuy and sad” (from Pylgrymage of Man Kynd, William Hendred’s early 16th-century translation of  a 14th-century allegorical poem by Guillaume de Deguileville).

“The first dictionary to record the figurative senses under the spelling mettle separately from metal is Kersey’s New Eng. Dict.(1702),” the OED says. (John Kersey was the author of A New English Dictionary.)

By the mid-1700s, the dictionary adds, “the form mettle becomes very rare in non-figurative senses,” and is used “now chiefly in to show one’s mettle.”

We also discussed the history of “metal” and “mettle” in a 2014 post about a pun in which the two words were switched in the expression “pedal to the metal.”

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Is ‘kaput’ a loanword?

Q: Is there a better expression than “loan word” to describe “kaput”? I’d say “restaurant” is certainly now an English word on loan from French, but “kaput” seems in a different class—a German word in international use, like “schadenfreude.”

A: We’ve occasionally used “loanword” (standard dictionaries generally run it together) to mean an English word adopted more or less intact from another language. We’ve also used “adoption” several times.

But the noun we use the most for such a term is “borrowing.” The verb “borrow” and its derivatives have been used figuratively in this sense for hundreds of years, as we note in a 2008 post.

We don’t know a better term than “borrowing,” “adoption,” or “loanword” for a word, like “kaput,” that hasn’t quite lost its foreign-ness but is found in standard English dictionaries. However, the linguists Thomas Pyles and John Algeo have suggested a possibility.

In The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed.), Pyles and Algeo divide these borrowings into “popular loanwords” and “learned loanwords.”

Popular loanwords are of oral transmission and are part of the vocabulary of everyday communication,” they write, adding: “For the most part they are not felt to be any different from English words; in fact, those who use them are seldom aware that they are of foreign origin.”

Learned loanwords, on the other hand, may in time become part of the living vocabulary, even though their use may be confined to a certain class or group,” Pyles and Algeo say.

We think “kaput” falls more into the first category than the second, though you seem to disagree with us.

A search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English, for example, finds “kaput” in such diverse media as People magazine, Mother Earth, Esquire, Popular Mechanics, Cosmopolitan, Skiing magazine, the Washington Post, the Antioch Review, CNN, FOX, ABC, and NPR.

Some English dictionaries include the variant “kaputt,” the spelling of the original German word, which means broken, ruined, or done for. The Oxford English Dictionary lists it as slang, but most standard dictionaries consider the word informal.

When the word entered English in the late 19th century, it meant “finished, worn out; dead or destroyed,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Alps From End to End, an 1895 book by Sir William Martin Conway that combines English and German: “The thing would then go wie’s Donnerwetter [like a thunderstorm] and the man would be kaput at once.”

The next Oxford example, which uses the word in the sense of “rendered useless or unable to function,” is from the Dec. 11, 1924, issue of the Glasgow Herald: “The intellectual consciousness is kaput.”

Interestingly, the German kaputt is itself a loan word, or borrowing, from French, though it lost something in translation.

As the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology explains, the German word “was probably abstracted from the earlier phrase capot machen, a partial translation by false interpretation of faire in the French faire capot be defeated.” (The French phrase refers to being without tricks—that is, defeated—in the card game piquet.)

By the way, the English term “loanword” is a borrowing of another sort, a “loan translation,” which Pyles and Algeo define as “an expression made by combining forms that individually translate the parts of a foreign combination.” In this case, “loanword” is a translation of the German lehnwort.

English has many loan translations, especially from French, such as “marriage of convenience” (mariage de convenance), “trial balloon” (ballon d’essai), and “that goes without saying” (ça va sans dire).

“Such forms are a kind of calque,” Pyles and Algeo write, using another term in linguistics for a loan translation.

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