English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Henry the Fifth or Henry Five?

Q: I recently saw Kenneth Branagh on the Stephen Colbert show. When Shakespeare’s Henry V came up, Colbert referred to it as “Henry Five,” Branagh as “Henry the Fifth.” Are both correct?

A: The customary way to pronounce Henry V is “Henry the Fifth,” though some people think it’s creative or cute to say “Henry Five,” while others who say it that way may perhaps be unfamiliar with the usual pronunciation.

We suspect that Colbert was being cute. A creative example would be Dancing Henry Five, the title of a mixed-media work in which the choreographer-writer-director David Gordon deconstructed and reconstructed Shakespeare’s play.

Shakespeare apparently pronounced it “Henry the Fifth” (or, rather, “Henry the Fift,” as the name was written on the title page of the 1600 quarto of the play). The earliest texts of Shakespeare’s plays were printed in quarto format, with each printed sheet folded into four leaves.

The numbers following the names of monarchs in other Shakespeare plays are similarly spelled out on the title pages, as in these examples from the 1596 quarto of Edward III, the 1597 quarto of Richard III, and the 1598 quarto of Henry IV, Part 1.

When Roman numerals are used to differentiate monarchs, popes, and others with the same name and position, the custom is to pronounce them as ordinal numbers. (Ordinal numbers, like “first,” “third,” and “fifth,” indicate place or order in a sequence, while cardinal numbers, like “one,” “three,” and “five,” indicate how many.)

Customarily, Roman numerals are also spoken as ordinals when used to identify family members with the same name (Adlai E. Stevenson III), but spoken as cardinals on clock faces (I, II, III, etc.) and in movie sequels (The Godfather, Part III). Roman numerals can go either way in sports events: Super Bowl XLVI (cardinal, “forty-six”) and  XXIV Olympic Games (ordinal, “twenty-fourth”).

Although the Anglo-Saxons had their own Germanic names for numbers, they used lowercase Roman numerals for the figures. So the Roman numeral v was the figure that represented the Old English word fíf (five) or fífta (fifth). In fact, the two usages were sometimes combined in the same passage.

The entry for the year 900 in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for example, says King Ælfred died “syx nihtum ær ealra haligra mæssan” (“six nights before the All Hallows mass”) after ruling his kingdom “oþrum healfum læs þe .xxx. wintra” (“a year and a half less than thirty winters”).

Roman numerals were generally used for calculations in Old English (roughly 450-1150) and Middle English (1150-1500). Arabic numerals were introduced in Europe during the Middle Ages, but took centuries to replace most uses of Roman numerals in English.

A search of the Early English Books Online database suggests that the use of ordinal numbers to identify English monarchs showed up in the early 1500s, with the numbers sometimes written as Roman numerals and sometimes spelled out.

For example, The Statutes Prohemium Iohannis Rastell, a 1527 compilation of public general acts, by the English writer and printer John Rastell, has numerous references to numbered kings, including “The vi. yere of henry viii” …  “kynge Edwarde the thyrde” … “The .ij. yere of. Richard .ii.” (The letter “j” was sometimes used for the final “i.”)

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A lesson in pornolinguistics

Q: What is the grammar of phrases like “fuck you,” “screw him,” and “damn them”? They seem imperative in force, but who is being damned and who is doing the damning? Could we call these constructions subjectless hortatives?

A: We don’t think those expressions are either imperative (ordering an act) or hortative (encouraging an act). Nobody is really being ordered or encouraged to do anything.

To save ourselves some work, we’ll focus on “fuck you,” which has been exhaustively analyzed by the late James David McCawley, a linguist at the University of Chicago.

In the preface to Studies Out in Left Field, a collection of McCawley’s more unconventional writings, the linguist Arnold Zwicky notes that the book’s author “created the interdisciplinary field of pornolinguistics and scatolinguistics virtually on his own.”

(The collection was originally published in 1971 and reprinted in 1992 with Zwicky’s preface.)

Using the pseudonym Quang Phuc Dong, a linguist at the fictitious South Hanoi Institute of Technology, McCawley discusses “fuck you” in a Feb. 5, 1967, paper entitled “English Sentences Without Overt Grammatical Subject.”

In the paper, McCawley compares two sentences: (1) “Close the door” and (2) “Fuck you.” At first glance, he says, “close” in the first sentence and “fuck” in the second appear to be typical transitive verbs followed by their objects.

The first example is indeed imperative, with “you” as the underlying subject, he writes, but the second is definitely not imperative and the identity of the unstated subject is open to question.

If the subject of “Fuck you” were an unstated “you,” McCawley adds, the sentence would normally be reflexive: “Fuck yourself.” Illustrating the point by using a different verb, he notes that instead of “Assert you,” one would say “Assert yourself.”

McCawley  argues that there are actually two versions of the verb: “fuck1” and “fuck2.” The linguist Gretchen McCulloch considers those two terms “rather dull,” and prefers “copulating fuck” and “disapproving fuck,” according to a Dec. 9, 2014, post, “A Linguist Explains the Syntax of Fuck.” We’ll use her terminology here.

The copulating “fuck,” according to McCawley, acts like any other classic transitive verb (one that takes an object). You can “fuck” a wife, a boyfriend, or a gigolo, just as you can “close” a door, a book, or a deal.

However, McCawley questions whether the disapproving “fuck” is even a verb. To make his point, he expands sentence No. 1 (“Close the door”) and then shows the difficulty of doing the same with sentence No. 2 (“Fuck you”). We’ll list only a few of his examples here:

“Don’t close the door” vs. “Don’t fuck you.”

“Please close the door” vs. “Please fuck you.”

“Close the door or I’ll take away your teddy-bear” vs. “Fuck you or I’ll take away your teddy-bear.”

McCawley also notes that “while ordinary imperatives can be conjoined with each other, they cannot be conjoined with” sentence No. 2:

“Wash the dishes and sweep the floor” vs. “Wash the dishes and fuck you.”

Further, he says, a sentence with two imperative clauses can normally be simplified if the clauses have the same object.

So, “Clean these pants and press these pants” can be shortened to “Clean and press these pants.” But “Describe Communism and fuck communism” can’t be reduced to “Describe and fuck communism.”

McCawley says consideration of these and many other examples we’ve skipped “makes it fairly clear” that the copulating “fuck” and the disapproving “fuck” are “two distinct homophonous lexical items.” (Homophonous terms have the same pronunciation but different meanings.)

He adds that the two terms “have totally different selectional restrictions” (that is, usages), as is shown by these examples:

“Fuck these irregular verbs” vs. “John fucked these irregular verbs.”

“Fuck communism” vs. “John fucked communism.”

Perhaps most important of all, one can use an adverb or adverbial phrase with the copulating “fuck,” but not with the disapproving “fuck,” according to McCawley.

One can “fuck” someone “carefully” or “on the sofa” or “tomorrow afternoon,” but one can’t use “fuck you” with “carefully” or “on the sofa” or “tomorrow afternoon.”

“This restriction suggests that fuck2 not only is distinct from fuck1 but indeed is not even a verb,” McCawley writes.

He cites the linguist Noam Chomsky for support and notes that “no case has been reported of any English morpheme which is unambiguously a verb and which allows no adverbial elements whatever.” (A morpheme is the smallest linguistic unit.)

“Since the only reason which has ever been proposed for analyzing fuck2 as a verb is its appearance in a construction … which superficially resembles an imperative but in fact is not, one must conclude that there is in fact not a scrap of evidence in favor of assigning fuck2 to the class verb.”

McCawley says the expression “fuck you” has “neither declarative nor interrogative nor imperative meaning; one can neither deny nor answer nor comply with such an utterance.” He says it’s similar to utterances like “damn,” “to hell with,” “shit on,” “hooray for,” and so on.

These utterances, he says, “simply express a favorable or unfavorable attitude on the part of the speaker towards the thing or things denoted by the noun-phrase.”

If the disapproving “fuck” is not a verb, then what is it? McCawley considers it an “epithet” or a “quasi-verb.”

“I conjecture that fuck2 arose historically from fuck1, although the paucity of citations of fuck makes the philological validation of this conjecture difficult,” he concludes. “However, it is clearly no accident that many quasi-verbs are homophonous with normal morphemes.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

A rising sophomore?

Q: When did expressions like “rising sophomore” start? It’s new to me, a great-grandmother who was last in college 20 years ago.

A: It was new to us too, but not to the lexicographers at The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

In addition to defining the adjective “rising” as ascending, developing, and increasing in power, American Heritage includes this sense: “About to begin a certain grade or educational level: rising seniors.”

Several other standard dictionaries describe “rising” as a preposition or an adverb with a similar sense.

Cambridge, for example, defines the preposition as “about to become,” and gives this example: “The school accepts children who are rising five years old.” And Collins defines the adverb as “approaching the age” and gives this example: “he’s rising 40.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, includes the use of “rising” as an adjective “designating a student about to enter a specified year of high school or college.”

The first OED citation is in the July 1893 issue of the Kappa Alpha Journal: “Mr. Young is a rising Sophomore and was asked to join us the first of the year.”

We’ve found an even earlier example from another fraternity publication, a report on the 51st annual convention of Beta Theta Pi on Aug. 25-30, 1890, at Wooglin-on-Chautauqua, NY:

“ ‘Did you say that the Lakewood girls like to come to the clubhouse?’ asked the undergraduate, who is a rising sophomore.”

The OED defines this sense of “rising” as “U.S. Educ. Designating a student about to enter a specified year of high school or college.”

The dictionary has three other examples—the latest is an April 22, 2001, advertisement in the New York Times Magazine: “Your rising senior or high school graduate can earn two college credits.”

When the word “rising” showed up in the early 1200s, it was a noun meaning “return to life” or “rising from the dead,” according to the OED. When the adjective showed up in the late 1300s, it meant increasing, advancing, or growing.

Both the noun and the adjective are derived from the verb “rise,” which the Anglo-Saxons inherited from Germanic, a prehistoric language reconstructed by linguists.

In Old English, the verb (spelled risan) originally referred to getting up in the morning or rising from the dead.

Getting back to your question, the educational use of “rising” may have evolved from a much earlier sense of the adjective as moving toward a position of higher social status, greater wealth, or increased power.

The earliest Oxford example for this sense is from The Tragidie of Ferrex and Porrex, a 1570 play by the English writers Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville:

“Who seeth not now how many rising mindes / Do feede their thoughts, with hope to reach a realme?”

The adjective has also been used to describe a horse or person approaching a specified age. The first OED citation is from John Cheny’s 1730 history of horse racing in England and Wales: “All the rising five Years Old, 200 Guineas each, Half forfeit.”

[Note: This post was updated on Aug. 10, 2023.]

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Let’s pick a few nits

Q: I was under the impression “nitpicking” was a seriously racist phrase, originating from when slaves picked cotton.  Am I incorrect about this?

A: “Nitpicking” isn’t racist, and it doesn’t come from picking cotton.

The term originally referred to picking nits, the eggs of lice, from hair, and later to picking out the lice themselves, as in this 19th-century image by the German photographer Giorgio Sommer of a Neapolitan woman and her children.

The word “nit” is very old, with roots in two reconstructed prehistoric languages—ancient Germanic (hnitö) and Indo-European (knid-), according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. It was spelled hnitu when it showed up in early Old English.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Latin-Old English entry in the the Epinal Glossary, believed written in the late 600s: “Lendina, hnitu.”

And here’s a Middle English example that refers to picking lice and nits from men’s heads:

“She can wel pyke out lyse and netis out of mens heedis” (from The History of Reynard the Fox, William Caxton’s 1481 translation of the Reynard fables from Middle Dutch).

The word “nit” has been used figuratively since Shakespeare’s time to mean “an insignificant, inconsequential, or contemptible person,” according to the OED, and later “a foolish, stupid, or incompetent person.”

In this expanded OED citation, from The Taming of the Shrew, written in the early 1590s, Petruchio berates Kate’s tailor:

“O monstrous arrogance! Thou liest, thou thread, thou thimble, / Thou yard, three-quarters, half-yard, quarter, nail! / Thou flea, thou nit, thou winter cricket thou!”

The figurative terms “nitpick” (to criticize overzealously), “nitpicker” (a pedantic fault finder), and “nitpicking” (petty criticism) showed up in the mid-20th century.

The first OED example for “nitpicker” is from the November 1951 issue of Collier’s: “nit-pickers are those who quarrel with trivialities of expression and meaning.”

The earliest “nitpicking” citation is from the Dec. 21, 1951, issue of the Charleston (WV) Daily Mail: “Sen. Johnson is encouraged to proceed with his nit picking.”

Finally, the dictionary’s first example for the verb “nitpick” is from the 1956 issue of the journal Military Affairs:

“His decisions in the main were so well conceived and executed that it would be quibbling to ‘nit-pick’ those few instances where his judgment was fallible.”

Although these terms were often hyphenated or written as two words in the past, “nitpick,” “nitpicker,” and “nitpicking” are usually single words today.

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Why ‘spay’ her, but ‘neuter’ him?

Q: Why do we “spay” a female cat or dog, but “neuter” a male? Why don’t we have a single, unisex word for the procedure?

A: You’re right that we usually say a female cat or dog is spayed, while a male is neutered.

However, “neuter” (as well as “sterilize” and “desex”) can be used with male or female pets, as can euphemisms like “fix,” “alter,” and “doctor.” (“Neuter” itself is a euphemism for “castrate” when used for males.)

Interestingly there’s no good etymological reason for restricting “spay” to females, except that’s how the term has been used since it showed up in English six centuries ago.

“Spay” is derived from the Anglo-Norman espeier (to cut with a sword), but it ultimately comes from the classical Latin spatha (a broad, flat weapon or tool) and the Greek spathe (a broad blade), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

When the verb “spay” arrived in English in the early 15th century, it meant to remove the ovaries and destroy the reproductive power of female animals.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Master of Game, a book on hunting written around 1410 by Edward, Duke of York:

“And bycause þei [they] shuld not lese [lose] her tyme, men make hem [them] yspayed, saue þose men will kepe open to bere whelpes.”

A century later, English adopted “castrate” from castrāre, a classical Latin verb meaning to castrate, prune, expurgate, or deprive of vigor.

The first citation in the OED uses the term to mean deprive of vigor: “Ye castrate the desyres of the fleshe” (from Thomas Martin’s Traictise Marriage of Priestes, a 1554 tract challenging the marriage of Anglican priests).

In the early 17th century, “castrate” came to mean emasculate in the literal sense—that is, to remove the testicles of a man or male animal.

The first OED citation for the new sense is from a 1633 religious tract by the Anglican Bishop Thomas Morton: “Origen—having read that scripture, ‘There be some that castrate themselves for the kingdom of God’ … he did castrate himself.”

(The reference is to the passage in Matthew 19:12 about men who “have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.”)

In the early 20th century, the verb “neuter” showed up, meaning to castrate or spay an animal. It was derived from the adjective “neuter,” originally a grammatical term for words neither masculine nor feminine.

The first example for the verb in the OED is from The Book of the Cat (1903), by Frances Simpson: “A cat should be kept on low, plain diet … before being neutered.”

(In the late 19th century, the adjective “neuter” came to describe a castrated or spayed animal, as in this example from Domestic or Fancy Cats, 1893, by John Jennings: “Among the principal reasons that commend neuter cats as pets, the element of non-production is chiefly important.”)

Finally, here are the other verbs mentioned above and the earliest OED dates for their use in reference to castrating or spaying animals: “alter” (1821), “desex” (1928), “doctor” (1902), “fix” (1930), and “sterilize” (1828, a human citation).

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The convinced and the persuaded

Q: I was taught that “persuade” is used with “to” and “convince” with “of” or “that.” This rule must have changed when I wasn’t looking, since I can’t for the life of me figure out how the two verbs are being used now. Your help would be appreciated.

A: Yes, “convince” and “persuade” once had two different meanings.

The old rule was that you “convince” someone “of” something or “that” something is the case, while you “persuade” someone “to” do something.

In other words, “convince” meant to make someone believe something, while “persuade” meant to make someone believe something and act on that belief.

However, most standard dictionaries have dropped the old distinction. Today both verbs can be used with “to” infinitives, “of” prepositional phrases, and “that” clauses.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, has almost identical definitions of “convince” and “persuade”:

Convince: “To cause (someone) by the use of argument or evidence to believe something or to take a course of action.”

Persuade: “To cause (someone) to accept a point of view or to undertake a course of action by means of argument, reasoning, or entreaty.”

So now you can say: “The polls convinced [or “persuaded”] the candidate to drop out” … “He was convinced [or “persuaded”] of the need to drop out” … “The polls convinced [or “persuaded”] him that he should drop out.”

In fact, “persuade” has been used in all three ways since it showed up in English in the 15th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

And “convince” has been used similarly since the 17th century, according to our searches of literary databases, though its use with an infinitive wasn’t common until the 20th century.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that the expansive use of “persuade” is long established, while the similar use of “convince” is now “fully established.”

Merriam-Webster’s adds that language commentators insisted unsuccessfully for a century and a half that “convince” and “persuade” had distinct meanings.

“The earlier usage writers who tried to fence off persuade from convince and the later ones who tried to fence off convince from persuade have failed alike,” the usage guide says.

Even the conservative Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) acknowledges that the use of “convince as an equivalent of persuade” is “fully accepted” (that is, stage 5 on Garner’s index of language change).

The older of the two verbs, “persuade,” is ultimately derived from persuādēre, classical Latin for to get someone to believe something or do something.

When the verb showed up in English in the mid-15th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant to “induce to believe or accept a statement, doctrine, etc.; to convince that or of; to urge successfully to think, believe, etc.”

The earliest OED citation is from an English translation, dated around 1450, of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Claris Mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women):

“This witty lady togyder didd them call … Persuadynge them …To thynke that they were creatures racionall And vndirstondyng hadd of good and ill.” (The Latin work is a collection of biographies of historical and mythological women.)

The dictionary’s first citation for “persuade” meaning to make someone believe and act on the belief is from a translation, dated around 1487, of Bibliotheca Historica, a 40-book world history written in the first century BC by the Greek scholar Diodorus Siculus:

“They perswade the kyng wilfully to take his deth aftre the accustumable vsaige observed of olde” (originally translated by John Skelton; edited by F. M. Salter and H. L. R. Edwards, 1968-1971).

As mentioned above, we’ve found examples from the 17th century for “convince” meaning to make someone believe something and act on that belief.

Here’s a passage from a statement by Sir Francis Winnington during an Oct. 30, 1680, debate in the House of Commons:

“I conceive, by the proposal of this Question, that the House is fully convinced to proceed to prepare things to bring these persons to Judgment” (from Debates of the House of Commons from 1667 to 1694, published in 1763).

Finally, here’s a 20th-century example from The Powers That Be, a 1979 book by David Halberstam about the American news media: “He worked very hard personally to convince Ike to run.” (The reference is to Henry R. Luce, creator of the Time-Life magazine empire.)

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Nonfiction before ‘nonfiction’

Q: The earliest citation that my OED CD-ROM has for “nonfiction” (it’s hyphenated there) is from 1903. What was it called before then? And why doesn’t “nonfiction” have its own name instead of being defined as not something else?

A: The term “nonfiction” (or “non-fiction”) is older than you think. The online Oxford English Dictionary, which is regularly updated, has an example from the mid-19th century.

As we say in a 2008 post, Oxford cites a passage from the 1867 annual report of the trustees of the Boston Public Library: “This, as we have seen, is above the proportion of our circulation between fiction and non-fiction.”

But how did English speakers refer to factual writing before the term “nonfiction” showed up?

In the past, people used terms for specific types of nonfiction writing: “history” (early Old English), “epistle” (early Old English), “story” (before 1200), “chronicle” (1303), “treatise” (before 1375), “tract” (1432-50), “diary” (1581), “essay” (1597), “journal” (1610), “dissertation” (1651), “memoir” (1659), and others. The dates are for the earliest OED citations of the terms used in their usual literary senses.

We don’t know of a word other than “nonfiction” that encompasses all kinds of writing about facts, real events, and real people, but several of the terms mentioned above, especially “history,” were used broadly in the past, embracing some of the senses of “nonfiction.”

“History,” for example, was used as a factual counterpart to “fiction” in this example from Devereux, an 1829 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton:

“ ‘To be sure,’ answered Hamilton, coolly, and patting his snuff-box— ‘to be sure we old people like history better than fiction.’ ” (The comment concerns whether a description of a person is factual or false.)

English adopted the word “history” from the classical Latin historia in Anglo-Saxon times. In Latin, the word had many senses, including an investigation, a description, a narrative, a story, and a written account of past events.

In Old English, the word (usually spelled stær, ster, or steor), referred to a “written narrative constituting a continuous chronological record of important or public events (esp. in a particular place) or of a particular trend, institution, or person’s life,” according to the OED.

An early Old English translation of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, for example, refers to “þæt stær Genesis” (“the history of Genesis”), while the Harley Glossary defines istoria, medieval Latin for historia, as “gewyrd uel stær” (“event or history”) in late Old English.

In Middle English, the stær spelling gave way to the Anglo-Norman and Old French spellings istorie, estoire, and historie.

An Oxford citation from The Boke of Noblesse, an anonymous patriotic work written in the mid-1400s, says England’s right to Normandy is supported “by many credible bookis of olde cronicles and histories.”

“History” has sometimes been used loosely, from Middle to modern English, in the sense of a “narration of incidents, esp. (in later use) professedly true ones; a narrative, a story,” the OED says.

In this Oxford example from a 1632 travel book, the Scottish writer William Lithgow uses “history” in the sense of a true story: “all hold it to bee a Parable, and not a History.”

Why, you ask, “doesn’t nonfiction have its own name instead of being defined as not something else”?

Well, you can blame the Boston library trustees who used “nonfiction” a century and a half ago. Or you can blame the rest of us for not coming up with a positive word since then.

Some writers use the terms “creative nonfiction,” “literary nonfiction,” or “narrative nonfiction” to describe the more literary factual writing. John McPhee’s writing class at Princeton University has been called “Literature of Fact” as well as “Creative Nonfiction.”

However, the poet and essayist Phillip Lopate has described the term “creative nonfiction” as “slightly bogus.”

In a 2008 interview in Poets & Writers magazine, he says, “It’s like patting yourself on the back and saying, ‘My nonfiction is creative.’ Let the reader be the judge of that.”

Lopate prefers “literary nonfiction,” though he acknowledges that there’s “a bit of self-congratulation” in it.

In an article in the summer 2015 issue of Creative Writing magazine, the author and educator Dinty W. Moore describes some of the ways writers of nonfiction refer to their work.

Moore traces the term “creative nonfiction” to a contribution by David Madden in the 1969 Survey of Contemporary Literature.

Madden, a writer and teacher, uses the term in calling for a “redefinition” of “nonfiction” in the wake of books by Truman Capote, Jean Stafford, and Norman Mailer.

He cites Making It, the 1968 memoir by Norman Podhoretz, who says the postwar American books that mattered most to him were “works the trade quaintly called ‘nonfiction,’ as though they had only a negative existence.”

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Digital footprint

Q: Our local public radio station advertises that it broadcasts “digital.” This doesn’t sound right to me. I would say that it broadcasts “digitally.” Am I correct?

A: It doesn’t sound right to us either. A radio station broadcasts “digitally,” not “digital.”

We’ve checked eight standard dictionaries and all of them of say “digital” is solely an adjective and “digitally” is the adverb. The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, agrees.

And a search of the News on the Web Corpus, a database of billions of words from newspapers and magazines on the internet, shows that contemporary publications use the two terms that way.

As you know, a verb is generally modified by an adverb, not an adjective, which is why a radio station broadcasts “digitally,” not “digital.”

However, adjectives are used with linking verbs (or copulas) like “be,” “become,” “feel,” “look,” and “seem.” Linking verbs convey a state or condition, rather than an activity.

In fact, a good example of this usage is “to go digital” (to become digital, or computerized), as in “The film business has gone digital.” The word “go” in this case is a linking verb because it means “become.” We’ll have more to say about “go digital” later, but let’s look now at some “digital” etymology.

English adopted the word “digital” in the 15th century from digitālis, classical Latin for “measuring a finger’s breadth.” The Latin for “finger” or “finger’s breadth” is digitus.

In English, the word “digital” was originally a noun and an adjective referring to a digit, a whole number less than 10.

The first examples in the Oxford English Dictionary for both the noun and the adjective are from The Art of Nombryng (circa 1450), an anonymous treatise based on a work by the 13th-century French scholar Alexander de Villa Dei.

The noun is now obsolete so we’ll cite only an adjectival example: “Neither of the subtraccioun, tille it come to the first figure vnder the whiche is a digitalle nombre to be founde” (from The Earliest Arithmetics in English, 1922, edited by Robert Steele).

In the mid-17th century, people began using the adjective “digital” in senses “relating to fingers or finger-like structures,” according to the OED. The dictionary’s first example is an entry from Glossographia, a 1656 dictionary by Thomas Blount: “Digital, pertaining to a finger.”

Here’s a modern example of this sense from The Horrors of the Half-Known Life, a book written in 2000 by G. J. Barker-Benfield about the attitudes of men, especially male doctors, toward women in the 19th century:

“He could emulate ‘the finger of God’ by digital examination and repair of reproductive organs.”

The modern technological senses of “digital” began showing up in the 1940s. Here are the most common technical areas where the adjective is used and the earliest Oxford citations:

Signals, information, or data: “In the transmission of direct current digital impulses over a long line the characteristics of the line tend to mutilate the wave shape” (from a 1940 patent for an electrical communications system).

Computers and calculators: “Description of the ENIAC and comments on electronic digital computing machines” (from a 1945 report by the Applied Mathematics Panel, a US agency dealing with mathematical problems during World War II).

Other electronic measurement devices: “Digital voltmeter or potentiometer” (from An Introduction to Electronics, 1964, by Bernard Vincent Rollin).

Audio, video, and other recorded works: “The limb appears in … a few real-time digital A-camera frames” (from the Oct. 3, 1969, issue of Science).

Musical instruments: “A digital electronic organ wherein a digital representation of an organ pipe waveshape is stored in a memory” (from a 1970 patent for a digital electronic organ).

Clocks, watches, and other timepieces: “Digital clock covers a 24-hour period” (from an ad in the Jan. 10, 1958, issue of Science).

Computer culture, on the internet: “The worldwide digital revolution” (from the July 28, 1983, issue of Electronics).

As for “to go digital,” the first example in the OED is from the May 18, 1964, issue of Electronics: “A comparison of factors that influence the decision to go digital or analog.” And if you’d like to read more about linking verbs like “go” here, we discuss them in items #4 and #5 of our Q&A about English.

We’ll end with some other “digital” expressions  and the earliest OED dates: “digital calculator” (1946), “digital TV” (1959), “digital camera” (1961),  “digital audio” (1969), “digital signature” (1976), “digital art” (1978), “digital video disk” (1978),  “digital money” (1984), “digital photo” (1986), “digital rights” (1990), “digital economy” (1994), and “digital footprint” (1995).

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Turning state’s evidence

Q: I have never been able to parse the expression “turn state’s evidence.” Does the witness turn himself into evidence for the state, or turn over evidence to the state?

A: A convicted or accused criminal, as you know, “turns state’s evidence” by testifying in court against former accomplices.

Why “turn” evidence? We don’t know, though we suspect that the usage may have been influenced by both the “turn over” and “turn against” senses of the verb “turn.”

In fact, “turning state’s evidence” indicates both turning against accomplices and turning over evidence.

When the courtroom expression showed up in writing in the early 1700s, it was simply to “turn evidence.”

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Colonel Jack, a 1723 novel by Daniel Defoe: “One of the Gang, who to save his own Life, has turn’d Evidence.”

In modern British usage, the expression now refers to “King’s” or “Queen’s” evidence, as in this citation from The Hillyars and the Burtons, an 1865 novel by Henry Kingsley: “I hate a convict who turns Queen’s evidence.”

Here’s a figurative “King’s” example from the Dec. 25, 1889, issue of the Daily News in London: “The Bishop might have been better employed than in turning King’s evidence against the Sermon on the Mount.”

In the US, such testimony is called “state’s evidence,” as in this OED example from a Dec. 24, 1886, issue of Science: “Mr. Bartlett Channing Paine comes into court, and, as state’s evidence, gives the following testimony.”

Finally, here’s a more recent example for “state’s evidence” from the Oct. 16, 1976, issue of the National Observer: “He fired up his investigators, offered deals to suspects who would turn state’s evidence, and played off the knowledge of one suspect against the other.”

When the verb “turn” showed up in late Old English, it meant to “cause to move round on an axis or about a centre; to cause to rotate or revolve, as a wheel,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints, believed to have been written in the late 990s: “Þa tyrndon þa hæðenan hetelice þæt hweowl” (“then the bloodthirsty heathens turned the wheel savagely”).

By the 1300s, people were using the verb in the expressions “turn against” (change from friend to foe) and “turn one’s back” (abandon someone or something).

Here’s an OED example, dated around 1300, from Thomas Wright’s Political Songs of England (1839): “turnden hem aȝeynes with suerd ant with launce” (“turned against them with sword and with lance”).

And here are a couple of later “turn one’s back” examples from Shakespeare:

“The shame Of those that turnd their backes” (from Henry IV, Part 2, 1600) … “To turne thy hated backe Vpon our kingdome” (from King Lear, 1608).

In the 1500s, people began using the expression “turn one’s coat” to mean change one’s principles or party.

The term “turncoat,” which is more common today, showed up soon after. Here’s an example from a 1570 church history by John Fox:

“I will beleue none of you all, for you be turne coates, and chaungelinges, and be wauering minded.”

Around the same time, the expression “turn over” came to mean to transfer or hand over. The first OED example is from Richard Huloet’s 1552 dictionary, Abcedarium Anglo Latinum:  “Turne ouer, transuerto.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Good grief!

Q: I saw “good grief” used in a story recently, and first encountered it as a child from Charlie Brown. Is it a euphemism for something else?

A: Yes, “good grief” was originally a mild oath. It’s “a euphemism for ‘good God,’ ” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (2d ed.), by Christine Ammer.

Ammer describes it as an “exclamation expressing surprise, alarm, dismay, or some other, usually negative, emotion. For example, Good Grief! You’re not going to start all over again, or Good Grief! He’s dropped the cake.”

Although the noun “grief” is quite old, showing up in the Middle Ages, the exclamation “good grief” is relatively new.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The English Dialect Dictionary, a six-volume opus by the philologist Joseph Wright, published from 1898 to 1905:

“Good grief, a mild imprecation.” We’ve expanded the Oxford citation to add the definition (from the extensive entry for “good” in the 1900 second volume of the dialect dictionary, covering D to G).

The OED notes in an entry for “good” that it’s used “with another word euphemistically substituted” for “God” in such expressions as “good golly,” “good gravy,” “good land,” “good me,” “good gracious,” and “good grief.”

The oldest of these “good” euphemisms in the dictionary, the obsolete exclamation “good lack,” showed up in the early 1600s. (The word “lack” here comes from the archaic interjection “alack,” used to express grief, criticism, surprise, etc.)

The second citation for “good grief” in the OED is from a 1918 issue of Dialect Notes (a publication of the American Dialect Society) that includes the euphemism in a long list of exclamations.

A few exclamations that caught our eye are “good Godfrey,” “holy gumdrops,” “great goldfish,” “golly Moses,” and “gosh all hemlock.”

The first OED example for “good grief” used in popular writing is from a 1937 short story by Raymond Chandler:

“ ‘Good grief,’ De Spain said. ‘He’s up there right now.’ ” (The only version of that quotation that we could find was in a 1938 story by Chandler, “Bay City Blues.”)

However, we’ve found many earlier examples from mainstream publications, including this one from a 1915 issue of Good Housekeeping:

“ ‘Good grief!’ gasped Mannering Hitchcock, and he sank palely into a chair. ‘Are there really three of you?’ ”

We’ll end with a “good grief” example from Laughing House, a 1920 novel by the London-born American writer Meade Minnigerode:

“Good grief!” Isabelle remarked involuntarily, and Newell gave her a quick look.

“What do you mean, ‘good grief’?” he asked.

“I mean ‘good grief,’ ” she explained vaguely. “Good meaning good, and grief meaning grief …” and she refused to say anything more.

(In case you missed them, we’ve had several posts on the blog about euphemisms as mild religious oaths, including one in 2015 that discusses “by jove” and has links to some of the other posts.)

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Is ‘few’ fewer than ‘a few’?

Q: “John has few friends” implies that John is pretty lonely, while “Frank has a few friends” implies that Frank knows some people he can go to a movie with. How does that “a” change the meaning from meager to adequate?

A: This is a subject that demands more than a few words.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language describes “few” as an approximate negator, a word (like “little,” “barely,” “hardly,” “scarcely,” “rarely,” and “seldom”) that is loosely negative.

An absolute negator (like “no,” “nobody,” “nothing,” “neither,” “no,” and “never”) represents zero, the Cambridge Grammar says.

But an approximate negator, write the authors, Geoffrey K. Pullum and Rodney Huddleston, “merely approximates to zero—it is located toward the bottom of the scale, in the area that contains zero.”

“However, the fact that the approximate negators do not indicate absolute zero gives them a somewhat equivocal status with respect to the positive vs negative contrast,” the authors add.

The Cambridge Grammar treats “few” and “a few” as two separate determiners (words that determine or modify nouns). Although it sees “few” as loosely negative, it describes “a few” as “unequivocally positive.”

Pullum and Huddleston use the sentences “A few have resigned” and “Few have resigned” to compare the two usages.

A few have resigned,” Cambridge says, implies that “Many have resigned is false,” but necessitates that “None have resigned is false.” In other words, “a few” could in certain cases refer to “many,” but never to “none.”

As the authors explain, the statement with “a few” would be correct if many had resigned but the number of resignations wasn’t known when the statement was made.

“Now with few we have precisely the reverse situation,” Cambridge says.

Few have resigned,” the authors explain, necessitates that “Many have resigned is false,” but merely implies that “None have resigned is false.” In other words, “few” could never refer to “many,” but it might refer to “none” under certain conditions.

For example, the authors say “few” might imply “none” in this sentence: “Few of you will have experienced that kind of intimidation which our colleague Kim Jones has had to endure over the last several months.”

“Here it could well be that none of you have in fact experienced it: in this case I say few rather than none not because the latter would be false but because I do not have the knowledge to justify the stronger claim that it makes,” they write.

Cambridge notes that the “many” and “none” senses of “few” can be strengthened or weakened by adding a qualifying phrase, as in “A few of them, indeed quite a lot, had found the proposal offensive” and “Few of them, if any, will find the proposal offensive.”

We might add here that something similar happens when we add “a” to “little,” another approximate negator. “Doctors gave them little hope” is negative, while “Doctors gave them a little hope” is positive.

Why does the addition of the indefinite article “a” to the approximate negator “few” create a positive determiner?

Stephanie Solt, an American linguist doing research at the Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft in Berlin, says that “the standard if unspoken assumption” by some linguists “would seem to be that a few is an idiom, that is, a fixed, unanalyzable unit.”

But on closer examination, Solt says in a 2006 paper presented at a conference on semantics, “it is clear that a few does not always function as a unit: a and few may be separated”—by an adverb (as “a very few students”) or by an adjective modifying the head noun (“a lucky few students”).

She says “a few is composed of an independent a and few which combine in the syntax.” Semantically, she argues, both “few students” and “a few students” are negative, “differing only in the scope of negation.”

However, we believe Pullum and Huddleston are right that “few” is somewhat negative and “a few” clearly positive. And we think “a few” is indeed a separate determiner. The indefinite article here turns a rather ambivalent negative term into a definitely positive one.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the article “a” in such a construction expresses “an approximate estimate” and has the meaning “some, a matter of, about.” This use of “a,” the dictionary says, is now chiefly seen in phrases like “a fewa good fewa good manya great many.”

The OED further describes an expression composed of “a” + “few” + a plural noun as “a virtual collective noun … construed with plural verb.”

The positive use of “a few” is quite old, dating from at least the Middle English period (about 1100-1500) and perhaps as far back as Old English.

The earliest definite example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester (1297): “Þe kyng with a fewe men hymself flew at þe laste.”

However, the OED has a bracketed—that is, questionable—Old English citation from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus:

“Ic bydde þe for þynre myltse þæt ðu læte me sprecan ane feawa worda” (“I bid thee that in thy mercy thou let me speak a few words”).

Not surprisingly, the dictionary has several Old English examples for “few” without the indefinite article, including this one from Beowulf, which may date from the early 700s:

“He feara sum beforan gengde” (“He went in front with few men”).

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Pots to cook in, pee in, melt in

Q: Please talk about the origins of the word “pot,” as in “pot luck,” “melting pot,” “potboiler.” Does it refer to mixing things together?

A: Almost all uses of “pot” are derived in one way or another from the word’s original sense: a cylindrical container to hold or heat liquids and other substances.

“Pot” comes from ancient Germanic, a reconstructed prehistoric language that preceded Old English and other Germanic languages.

In Old English, the word for the container was pott. Old Icelandic, Old Swedish, and Old Frisian, had similar words.

The term also showed up in medieval Latin and the Romance languages, suggesting an earlier, shared ancestor. We’re now getting into speculative territory, so we’ll let the Oxford English Dictionary do the speculating for us:

“The word in the Germanic and Romance languages and in post-classical Latin perhaps ultimately shows a loanword from a pre-Celtic language (perhaps Illyrian or perhaps a non-Indo-European substratal language), although a number of other etymologies have also been suggested.” (A substratal language influences one that replaces it.)

The dictionary adds that similar words in Welsh, Irish, and Scottish Gaelic apparently came from English rather than the other way around, as some word sleuths have suggested.

The earliest example for the term in the OED is from Old English Leechdoms (also known as Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England), an 1864 collection of Anglo-Saxon medical remedies and prayers edited by Thomas Oswald Cockayne:

“Nim readstalede harhuna, & ysopo, & stemp & do on ænne neowna pott, an flering of ða harhuna & oðer of ysopo … forð þæt se pott beo full” (“Take red-stalked horehound, and hyssop, and pound, and put in a new pot, one layer of horehound, and another of hyssop, and a third of fresh butter, and again the herbs, and then the butter, until the pot is full”).

This recipe was for a remedy used to treat a pain in the chest. The mixture was boiled and wrung through a cloth, then taken cold in the morning and hot at night in beer or broth or water.

The OED notes that the use of “pot” for such a container was “rare in Old English, the more usual word being crocc,” or crock. The term “pot” was more common after the Norman Conquest, probably reinforced by pot in Anglo-Norman or Old French.

Most of the later uses of “pot” come from the early sense of a cylindrical container for holding or heating things. We won’t discuss all the dozens of “pot” usages, but here are some more common ones, and the first OED examples for them:

“Chamber pot,” a bowl usually kept in a bedroom for one to urinate or defecate in. The first OED citation is from a 1540 inventory (“Item a chamber potte”), but we prefer this later example about someone too lazy to get out of bed: “He will nocht rys to the pott bot pischis amang the strais [straw bedding]” (from a 1568 literary anthology compiled by the Scottish merchant George Bannatyne).

“Go to pot,” originally to be cut in pieces and cooked, but later to deteriorate or be ruined: “Poor Thorp, Lord Chief Justice, went to Pot, in plain English, he was Hang’d” (from The History of Wiggism, circa 1680, by Edmund Hickeringill).

“Potluck,” a meal without special preparation: “That, that pure sanguine complexion of yours may neuer be famisht with potte-lucke” (from Strange Newes, 1592, by the Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe). Later, a communal meal at which guests bring dishes to share: “their pot-luck and their ponies” (from the Aug. 13,1867, issue of the New York Times).

“Pot belly,” a large, protruding stomach: “A great pot Belly, a broad Back, and huge Legs and Arms, enough to squeeze one to pieces” (from The She-Gallants, a 1696 comedy by the English poet and playwright George Granville Lansdowne).

“Potboiler,” a creative work produced to make money by catering to popular taste: “Some others … in great measure compensate for the heaps of inconsequential trash, or pot-boilers (as they are called) which are obtruded upon the public view” (from a 1783 account by the Irish painter James Barry of an art exhibition in London).

“Potpie,” a pie filled with meat and other ingredients: “The snow birds are flying round your own door, where you may … shoot enough for a pot-pye, any day” (from The Pioneers, an 1823 novel by James Fennimore Cooper). The non-meat ingredients were originally fruit and later vegetables.

“Chimney pot,” the pipe at the top of a chimney to improve draft: “Why a church is with a steeple built; / And a house with a chimney-pot?” (from “The ‘How’ and the ‘Why,’ ” in Alfred Tennyson’s Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, 1830).

“Pot shot,” a random or easy gunshot: “Major Swayne … kept them under hedges firing pot shots, on which the enemy reoccupied the position” (from an 1843 Afghan journal by Florentia Wynch Sale, the wife of a British army officer). Earlier, it had meant shot for a cannon or a shot to kill food for the pot. And later, it came to mean random, easy, or unfounded criticism: “But I don’t think much of the pot-shot method of refutation” (from the November 1926 issue of the Forum, a New York magazine).

“Pot of gold,” a fortune or jackpot, real or imagined: “It is the barbarous old legend of the ‘pot of gold’ repeated in ten thousand new forms” (from the Feb. 16, 1847, issue of the New York Times).

“Pot,” the betting pool in poker and other gambling games: “He won the first twenty ‘pots,’ that is to say, the stake” (from Gambling Unmasked, 1847, by Jonathan H. Greene, an ex-gambler who campaigned against gambling).

“Pot roast,” meat, typically beef, cooked slowly in a covered pot or dish: “Sour Braten, or a Sour Pot-roast” (from the April 11, 1880, issue of the New York Times).

“Pot holder,” a pad for holding hot cooking implements: “the grimy apron was stuffed out with the dish-towel, pot-holder, red handkerchief, etc.” (from the March 1888 issue of Harper’s magazine).

“Pothole,” a depression from a defect in the surface of a road: “The surface of the bottom land that they were crossing was here and there broken up by fissures and ‘potholes,’ and some circumspection in their progress became necessary” (from A Waif of the Plains, an 1889 novel by Bret Harte). The potholes here were on a prairie trail.

“Melting pot,” a place where people of different races and cultures assimilate: “The French Canadians had a misgiving that if they too were cast into the American melting pot they would yield to that mysterious force which blends all foreign elements into one homogeneous mass” (from the Sept. 2, 1889, issue of the New York Times). Originally, it referred to a container in which metals or other materials were melted and mixed.

We’ll end with the “pot” that’s smoked: “She made him smoke pot and when he got jagged … she put him out on the street” (from a 1938 story in Black on Black, a 1973 collection of Chester B. Himes’s writings). “Jagged,” an old adjective for “drunk,” means “stoned” here.

Oxford says the marijuana sense of “pot” is of “uncertain and disputed” origin. It debunks the “most popular theory”—that it comes from potiguaya or potaguaya, “supposed Mexican Spanish words” for marijuana leaves, or from the phrase “potación de guaya, lit. ‘drink of grief,’ supposedly denoting a drink of wine or brandy in which marijuana buds were steeped.”

The dictionary says “no corroborating evidence has been found to support the use of any of these terms in Spanish.”

Alternatively, the OED adds, the use of “pot” for marijuana may somehow be connected to the original sense of “pot” or to the noun “pod,” though it doesn’t offer any evidence for such connections.

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English English language Expression Grammar Usage Writing

It’s all about ‘we the people’

(For the Fourth of July holiday, we’re republishing two related posts from 2011. Here is the second one.)

Q: I’m trying to understand the implications of your post last May about “We the People.” In particular, can I use it as the object of a sentence for rhetorical impact if it’s in quotes? I’d like to use this sentence in a speech: “The US Constitution says our republic was ordained and established by quote We the People unquote.”

A: As we said in our blog item, the resonant and historically important phrase “we the people” is demeaned when it’s grammatically misused (as in, “Don’t trample on we the people!”).

But you’re not misusing the phrase in that sentence. By adding the words “quote” and “unquote,” it’s clear that you’re making a rhetorical allusion to the exact phrase used in the Preamble.

(We’ve written on the blog about this use of the words “quote” and “unquote.”)

In writing, of course, you could make the same point by using quotation marks and the original capitalization: “The Constitution says our republic was ordained and established by ‘We the People.’ ”

We quoted from the Preamble in our blog item last May, but let’s end this posting by doing it again:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

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English English language Expression Grammar Usage Writing

‘We the people’ v. ‘us the people’

(For the Fourth of July holiday, we’re republishing two related posts from 2011. Here is the first one.)

Q: Populists often stress democratic values by invoking the phrase “we the people,” but lately they’ve taken to using it not just as a subject but as an object as well. Thus: “We must never allow [insert villain] to trample on we the people!”

A: “We the people” is a subject; “us the people” is an object. Here’s how they look in sentences:

“We, the people, elect our leaders. Our leaders are elected by us, the people.”

In both of those noun phrases, “the people” is an appositive. It identifies or explains the preceding noun or pronoun by using a different term (like the name in “My son, John”).

We’ve written on the blog before about appositives, which are sometimes surrounded by commas, as in our examples above.

An appositive never changes the case (that is, subject or object) of the pronoun it follows. That’s why the entire phrase “we the people” is always a subject and “us the people” is always an object.

The words “we the people” resonate with Americans because they introduce the Preamble to the Constitution:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

If ever a phrase deserved proper handling, it’s “we the people.”

It’s demeaned when misused as a grammatical object (as in, “Don’t trample on we the people!”).

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