The Grammarphobia Blog

Mrs. Elton’s ridicule

Q: Why did Jane Austen call Mrs. Elton’s handbag a “ridicule” instead of a “reticule”? Was it a mistake? Is that why many modern editions of Emma have changed “ridicule” to “reticule”?

A: No, it wasn’t a mistake. Both words referred to a woman’s small handbag when Austen was writing the novel in the Regency England of the early 19th century.

In fact, the use of “ridicule” for a handbag showed up in English two years before the similar use of “reticule,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says both terms apparently came from French, where ridicule was “probably a punning alteration of réticule.”

“The ridicule (or reticule) was introduced in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as an alternative to pockets, which were not suited to the high-waisted Empire-style dresses fashionable at the time,” the OED says.

The ultimate source of “reticule” is rēticulum, classical Latin for a small meshwork bag or a little net, according the dictionary, while “ridicule” ultimately comes from rīdiculum, Latin for a humorous piece or a joke.

The earliest Oxford example of “ridicule” in the handbag sense appears as the caption on a print, dated 1799, in the British Museum’s collection of prints and drawings.

The next citation is from the February 1804 issue of the Lady’s Monthly Museum, an English magazine: “A Kerseymere Spencer of the same Colour, with Tippet. Purple ridicule.”

And here’s one we found in the January 1812 issue of Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, an illustrated British periodical: “Pink embroidered ridicule.”

The earliest OED example of “reticule” used this way is from An Irish Peer on the Continent (1801), by the Irish diarist Catherine Wilmot:

“We have not seen Bonaparte yet, except adorning ‘Reticules’ (which are a species of little Workbag worn by the Ladies, containing snuff-boxes, Billet-doux, Purses, Handkerchiefs, Fans, Prayer-Books, Bon-bons, Visiting tickets, and all the machinery of existence).” We’ve expanded the OED citation.

As for Emma, it was published in three volumes on Dec. 23, 1815 (with 1816 as the date on the title page). The reference to Mrs. Elton’s handbag is on page 296 of the third volume.

You’re right that many modern editions of Emma have changed “ridicule” to “reticule.” Our Oxford Illustrated edition, based on early versions, uses “ridicule,” but our George G. Harrap edition uses “reticule.”

We imagine that editors at publishing houses who changed “reticule” to “ridicule” erroneously believed she had either made a mistake or used an inappropriately slangy term.

For example, Reginald Brimley Johnson, who edited an 1892 collection of Austen novels, left in “ridicule” but added this footnote: “a corruption of ‘reticule’—Johnson’s Dictionary.”

(Samuel Johnson didn’t mention this use of “ridicule” or “reticule” in A Dictionary of the English Language. The usage showed up in writing dozens of years after his dictionary was published in 1755.)

Although the use of “ridicule” for a handbag is now considered obsolete or regional, according to the OED, the dictionary’s citations suggest that the term was standard English when Austen was writing Emma.

We assume that Austen was familiar with both words, but deliberately chose “ridicule,” because of its double meaning, as the better term for describing the gaudy purple and gold handbag carried by the vulgar Mrs. Elton.

Finally, all this talk about “reticule” and “ridicule” reminds us of the polysyllabic definition of “network” in Johnson’s dictionary: “Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.”

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That’s all, ffoulkes!

Q: Why do some British surnames begin with “ff”? Is this an Anglo-Saxonism? I find “ffoulkes,” “ffarington,” “ffolliott,” and others effing peculiar.

A: No, the use of “ff” at the beginning of surnames didn’t originate in Old English, the Anglo-Saxon language spoken from roughly 450 to 1150.

The earliest examples we’ve found in searches of the British National Archives are in Middle English, spoken from about 1150 to 1500.

For instance, a 1398 petition from Robert de ffaryngton, clerk of chancery, asks King Richard II to grant his brother, Nicholas, exemption from holding any office against his will. The King granted the petition.

The National Archives description of the petition refers to the petitioner as “Robert de Faryngton (Farrington),” but the document itself spells the name “ffaryngton.”

The oldest “ff” surname we’ve seen in the archives is in a writ for release from prison, dated 1275 to 1300.

The appellant is identified by the archives as “Simon Feukz (Folke),” but the name in the writ is written as “ffoukz,” apparently an early spelling of “ffoulkes.”

We haven’t found any recent scholarship on “ff” surnames, but 19th-century paleographers (scholars of ancient handwriting) traced the usage to legal scribes in the Middle Ages.

In “The Capital Letter F In Early Chirography,” a note in the April 1893 issue of the scholarly journal Notes and Queries, Sir Edward Maunde Thompson writes that “legal handwriting of the middle ages has no capital F.”

Thompson, a paleographer as well as the chief librarian and first director of the British Museum, says, “A double f (ff) was used to represent the capital letter.”

A note in the January 1893 issue of Notes and Queries, by the philologist, paleographer, and Anglican canon Isaac Taylor, says the “ff” in Middle English legal writing of the 14th century evolved over two centuries from the Latin capital “F.”

He writes that a vertical tick on the upper horizontal bar of the Latin “F” gradually lengthened in legal writing, making it appear that there was a double “f.”

Taylor, author of The AlphabetAn Account of the Origin and Development of Letters (1883), says, “It is this elongated tick which has been mistaken for a second /f/. People who spell their names with /ff/ are merely using obsolete law hand.”

However, it’s clear to us from a survey of Middle English documents that by the 14th century legal scribes were using two distinct letters “f” joined in a ligature. (The letter “f” was also linked to “i” or “l” in ligatures.)

A contributor to the Sept. 1, 1855, issue of Notes and Queries, identified as “M. D. W.,” says “this custom prevailed amongst engrossing clerks and writers in attorneys’ offices to within the last forty years, and in some instances even later.” (Many contributions to the journal are signed with abbreviations.)

Another contributor to the Sept. 1, 1855, issue, identified as “W.,” suggests that the “ff” usage is “a corrupted form” of the capital “F” in the Old English script introduced in the 12th century.

The “F” in some versions of Old English script, also known as Blackletter, can look somewhat like two letters “F” back to back, sharing the same vertical line. Despite the name, Old English script wasn’t used in Anglo-Saxon times.

We’d add that the practice may also have been influenced by the appearance of the double “f” at the beginning of some common nouns in Middle English.

Here are a few examples from the Oxford English Dictionary and the dates of the earliest citations: “ffrendes” (sometime before 1350), “ffolk” (before 1425), “fflessh” (1400s), “ffe” (fee, 1465), and “ffurst” (1500s).

We’re speculating here, but some Middle English scribes may have used “ff” in common nouns to differentiate between the “f” and “v” pronunciations of the letter “f.”

The letter “f” had only an “f” pronunciation when it was borrowed from Latin in early Old English, but the “v” pronunciation developed around the year 700, the linguist Raimo Anttila writes in Historical and Comparative Linguistics (1989).

The letter “f” sounded like “f” most of the time in Old English, according to the OED, but “f” was pronounced like “v” when it appeared between two vowels.

So the “f” sound of wīf, Old English for a woman or female head of household, changed to a “v” sound in the plural wīfes. Similarly, the “f” sound became “v” when lif (“life”) became lifes, and hlāf (“bread” or “loaf”) became hlāfas.

And in southern England, the initial “f” sounded like “v” in the pronunciation of fæt and fyxen, “vat” and “vixen” in Old English.

In Middle English, scribes gradually began replacing the “v”-sounding letter “f” with a “u” in the middle of words. They used the letter “v” at the beginning of words.

However, “f” was sometimes used for “v” sounds, and vice versa, especially in regional speech, through much of the Middle English period, and persisted into the 16th century, according to the OED.

The dictionary cites this passage in Thomas Langley’s 1546 translation of the works of the Italian scholar Polydore Vergil:

“Euen so oure Englishmen vse to speake in Essexe, for they say fineger for vineger, feale for veale, & contrary wyse a voxe for a foxe, voure for foure, etc.”

(In modern English, the OED notes, “F is always sounded /f/, except in the word of, where it is voiced to /v/ through absence of stress.”)

In all that effing confusion, it’s not surprising that legal scribes began, for whatever reason, to use “ff” in place of capital “F.”

By the way, we’ve seen no evidence of the common belief that the use of “ff” at the beginning of surnames comes from Welsh, where “f” sounds like “v” (carafan = caravan) and “ff” like “f” (ffilm = film).

In the 1965 second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Sir Ernest Gowers notes that the “ff” in surnames evolved from a scribal symbol to a symbol of distinction.

He cites Cranford, an 1853 novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, in which Mr. ffoulkes is described as someone who “looked down upon capital letters and said they belonged to lately invented families.”

It was feared that he would die a bachelor, Mrs. Gaskell writes, until he met a Mrs. ffaringdon and married her, “and it was all owing to her two little ffs.”

We’ll end with a passage from “A Slice of Life,” a 1926 short story by P. G. Wodehouse:

“Sir Jasper Finch-Farrowmere?” said Wilfred.

“ffinch-ffarrowmere,” corrected the visitor, his sensitive ear detecting the capitals.

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Do you give good meeting?

Q: I’ve been hearing people say things like “He gives good meeting” and “Do you give good meeting?” I find it strange that “give” is used here, and even stranger that it’s used without an article. Thanks for any insight.

A: One might conduct, hold, lead, or run a meeting, but it’s not idiomatic to “give a meeting,” let alone to “give good meeting.”

The usage isn’t in standard dictionaries, though we’ve found quite a few examples of “give good meeting” and similar expressions in books, film, and on the web.

The earliest example of “give good meeting” that we’ve found is a comment by a guest at a Hollywood party in Woody Allen’s 1977 film Annie Hall:

“Not only is he a great agent, but he really gives good meeting.”

From the examples we’ve seen, the expression can mean either to be good at running meetings or good at taking part in them. Where does it come from?

In “Language and Sexuality,” an article in Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia (1994), Martha Cornog suggests that the slang expression “give good head” inspired “give good meeting” as well as “give good telephone”:

“An interesting reversal of euphemism has occurred with the phrase ‘give good head’ (be skilled at oral sex), since the same construction has been generalized to produce such phrases as ‘give good meeting’ and ‘give good telephone.’ ”

The result, she writes, “has been to imbue nonsexual activities with sexual implications as well as to get a laugh for inventive wordplay.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “to give head” as a slang usage meaning “to perform fellatio or cunnilingus (on a person). Also with qualifying adjective, as to give good head, etc.”

The dictionary’s first example for the slang usage is from Sideman, a 1956 novel by Osborn Duke: “She’s wild, man! Gives the craziest head!”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, edited by J. E. Lighter, has many expressions “reminiscent of (and patterned after) give head.” Here are a few:

“Now look at Tony! He gives good belt!” (From The Dream Girls, a 1972 book by William Murray. An excerpt was published in Cosmopolitan in November 1971.)

“When she finished, the artist said, ‘You give great studio.’ ” (From a 1982 issue of the journal American Speech.)

“Miami does give good sushi.” (From the March 19, 1988, issue of TV Guide.)

“Rush [Limbaugh] gives great spiel.” (From the Sept. 23, 1991, issue of Time.)

Finally, here’s a recent Hollywood example that we found in a Sept. 8, 2016, movie-industry glossary on Vanity Fair’s website:

Good in a Room–Applies mainly to writers; it means you give good meeting. A huge compliment for scribes who tend to live up to the stereotype that they’re anti-social nerds.”

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Supremacist or supremist?

Q: Is it just me, or is the term “supremacist” mispronounced as “supremist” more often than not these days? It’s driving me nuts. I was about to punch a wall, but decided to write you instead.

A: The word “supremacist” has only two standard pronunciations, suh-PREM-a-cist or soo-PREM-a-cist, according to the 10 dictionaries we’ve checked. However, people are indeed using a shorter word, “supremist,” in writing as well as speech.

Although you won’t find “supremist” in standard dictionaries, it’s been used in the same sense as “supremacist” since the late 1800s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

(In fact, “supremist” showed up back in the 1600s with a different meaning—someone who assumes supreme authority—but the OED says that sense is now obsolete or rare.)

It turns out that “supremacist” and “supremist” appeared in writing around the same time in phrases that referred to people who believed whites were superior to others.

The earliest Oxford example for “supremacist” is from the April 5, 1896, issue of the Daily Picayune in New Orleans:

“The combine are determined to register the negroes, and the white supremacists are equally determined that they shall not.”

And the dictionary’s earliest racial citation for “supremist” is from the April 6, 1896, issue of the Daily Inter Ocean, a Chicago newspaper:

“The ‘white supremists,’ or regular Democrats, say that the negroes shall not register.”

The racial sense of “supremacist” and “supremist” probably showed up even earlier in speech, but the use of quotation marks around “white supremists” suggests that it may have been less common than “white supremacists.”

The OED explains that “supremist” was formed by adding the suffix “-ist” to the adjective “supreme,” while “supremacist” was the result of adding the suffix to the noun “supremacy.”

Both “supremacist” and “supremist” are ultimately derived from suprēmus, classical Latin for highest in position, topmost, culminating, and so on.

Getting back to your question, “supremacist” is overwhelmingly more popular than “supremist” today, according to searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the British National Corpus, and News on the Web, a huge database of articles from online newspapers and magazines.

So “supremacist” is still supreme, despite your concerns, though people are indeed using “supremist.” Here are a few recent examples:

“White supremist supporter James Alex Fields Jr drove his car through the anti-racist crowd, injuring 19 people and killing Heather Heyer” (from an Aug. 17, 2017, item on the Mac Observer website).

“Antifa and white supremist rallies” (a headline in the Aug. 15, 2017, issue of the Washington Times).

“An avowed white supremist killed six people at a Sikh Temple in 2012” (from the Aug. 3, 2017, issue of the Houston Chronicle).

Is “supremist” legit? Well, it’s as old as “supremacist,” and the OED doesn’t describe it as nonstandard. But we wouldn’t use it. And we wouldn’t describe a word that hasn’t made it into standard dictionaries as standard.

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“Valet”: VA-lay, VA-let, va-LAY?

Q: It’s recently come to my attention that “valet” should rhyme with “mallet.” The problem is, I don’t know anyone who has this pronunciation. So how does one ask for “valet parking” properly without seeming like a contemptible snoot?

A: It’s hard to mispronounce the noun “valet.” We’ve checked nine standard dictionaries and found three acceptable pronunciations: VA-lay, VA-let, and va-LAY. The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has similar pronunciations.

Some dictionaries list them in a different order and some include only two, but all three are treated as standard in several dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

Three of the dictionaries have pronunciations for “valet” used adjectivally in “valet parking.” The online Cambridge and Longman dictionaries pronounce it VA-lay, while the online Macmillan pronounces it VA-let.

If we were speaking about a manservant in an old English novel, we’d use VA-let. But if we were referring to “valet parking” at a restaurant or “valet service” at a hotel, we’d say VA-lay.

English adopted the noun “valet” in the 16th century from French and Old French. However, the ultimate source is the Old Celtic term wasso- (young man, squire), which has given us “vassal” and “varlet,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

In the 1500s and 1600s, the noun was sometimes spelled “vallett” or “valett,” suggesting that the French pronunciation of valet had been Anglicized, with an audible “t” sound at the end.

However, OED citations show that some English speakers began dropping the “t” sound in the 1700s and 1800s, first in Scotland and then in England.

By the mid-1800s, multiple pronunciations were standard, according to Walker’s Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language.

The 1862 edition of the dictionary, by Francis R. Sowerby, includes these three pronunciations: VAL-et, VAL-lay, and va-LET.

When the noun showed up in English, according to the OED, it meant a “man-servant performing duties chiefly relating to the person of his master; a gentleman’s personal attendant.”

The earliest citation in the dictionary is from Certaine Tragicall Discourses, the English statesman Geoffrey Fenton’s 1567 translation of works by the Italian writer Matteo Bandello: “Not worthy any waye to be valet to the worste of us.”

This 1791 example of a “t”-less pronunciation is from the Scottish poet William Hamilton’s Epistles to his fellow poet Allan Ramsay: “I wad nae care to be thy vallie, / Or thy recorder.”

And here’s an example from Richard Barham’s Ingoldsby Legends (1840) in which “valet” rhymes with “Sally”:

“Thompson, the Valet, / Look’d gravely at Sally.” (Barham, an Anglican cleric, wrote the humorous ghost stories under the pseudonym Thomas Ingoldsby.)

The first OED example for “valet service” is from Some Buried Caesar (1939), a Nero Wolfe detective novel by Rex Stout: “You should have put on some old clothes. The valet service here is terrible.” (The “Caesar” of the title is a champion Guernsey bull, Hickory Caesar Grindon.)

The first Oxford citation for “valet parking” is from the The Britannica Book of the Year (1955): “Valet parking … referred to a system in which an attendant was responsible for parking the car.” The OED describes the usage as North American.

The dictionary also has citations for the verbs “valet” (1840, to wait upon or serve) and “valet-park” (1983).

We’ll end with an example of the verb used in its “manservant” sense: “Fancy me waited upon and valeted by a stout party in black, of quiet, gentlemanly manners” (from Tom Brown at Oxford, an 1861 novel by Thomas Hughes). We’d pronounce the past participle here as VAL-et-ed.

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To each their own

Q: This plural use of “each” in the Washington Post strikes me as wrong: “The two proposals—one from Tillis and Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and the other from Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.)—each seek to check the executive branch’s ability to fire a special counsel.”

A: That passage (from an article in the Aug. 3, 2017, issue of the Post) is not wrong. When “each” follows a plural subject, the verb is plural. (“Tillis” here refers to Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.)

Cutting out the extraneous verbiage, we end up with this clause: “The two proposals each seek.” If we used a pronoun instead of the noun phrase, we’d end up with “They each seek.”

Both are correct. The verbs are plural because the subjects (“proposals” and “they”) are plural.

What is the grammatical function of “each” in a construction like this?

It’s an adjective, according to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. In the two examples we’ve just given, M-W would say that “each” modifies “proposals” in the first and “they” in the second.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language takes a similar view, though it uses more complicated terminology.

Cambridge would call “each” here a determiner—specifically a “quantificational adjunct” that serves to quantify the subject. It has this example of “each” modifying a plural subject: “You each qualify for a prize.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has a good explanation for the complexities of “each”:

“In standard usage, the subject of a sentence beginning with each is grammatically singular, and so the verb and following pronouns must be singular: Each of the apartments has (not haveits (not their) own private entrance (not entrances).

“When each follows a plural subject, however, the verb and subsequent pronouns remain plural: The apartments each have their own private entrances (not has its own private entrance).”

Note that “each” most often precedes a verb. But sometimes, especially in dated or formal English, “each” follows the verb. Here’s American Heritage on that point:

“When each follows the verb, it has been traditionally considered acceptable to say either The boys have each their own bike or The boys have each his own bike, though both of these (and especially the latter) are likely to seem stilted in comparison to The boys each have their own bike or The boys each have their own bikes.”

As a pronoun, “each” generally takes a singular verb: “Each has enough to eat” … “Each sees what he wants to see,” and so on. But, as the Merriam Webster’s usage guide notes, this is not an iron-clad rule.

In standard English, the pronoun “each” followed by “of” and a plural—as in “each of the refugees” or “each of us”—can be accompanied by either a singular or a plural verb.

We can say “each of the refugees is alone in the world,” but “each of us have our own opinions.”

In such “each of” constructions, M-W says, “It seems likely that notional agreement is the decisive force” in the choice of a singular or plural verb. (The concept of “notional agreement” is agreement based on meaning.)

“If you are thinking of each as individualizing, you will use the singular verb; if you think of it as collecting, you will use the plural,” the usage guide says. “Both singular and plural are standard, but singular is much more common.”

Merriam-Webster Unabridged, the most comprehensive Merriam-Webster dictionary, recognizes both singular and plural verbs as standard in these “each of” constructions.

The dictionary’s examples: “each of them is to pay his own fine” … “each of them are to pay their own fine.”

By the way, “each” can be an adverb as well as an adjective and a pronoun. As an adverb, according to standard dictionaries, it means “apiece,” as in “They want three cookies each.”

Small changes in the sentence can change the function of “each.” Here it’s an adjective: “They each want three cookies.” And here it’s a pronoun: “Each wants three cookies.”

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A last-ditch attempt

Q: Does the expression “last ditch” come from trench warfare during World War I?

A: It does indeed come from the excavated defensive positions used in warfare, but the fighting that inspired the phrase “last ditch” took place hundreds of years before World War I.

The usage can be traced back to William of Orange’s vow to fight to the death in the 17th century rather than see the Dutch Republic conquered by invading French and British forces.

William, the Dutch stadtholder, or steward, was the son of the previous stadtholder and Princess Mary, daughter of King Charles I of Britain. He later became King William III of Britain.

On July 5, 1672, an envoy from Charles II, then the ruling British monarch, met with William in southern Holland and offered to make him sovereign prince of Holland if he surrendered to the British and French.

If he refused, the envoy said, William would witness the death of the Dutch Republic.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites two versions of  William’s reply. The first is in Jure Divino, a 1706 poem by Daniel Defoe, but we prefer this one, written sometime before 1715, from Bishop Burnet’s History of His Own Time:

“There was a sure way never to see it lost, and that was to die in the last ditch.” (Burnet was a philosopher, historian, and Anglican bishop of Salisbury.)

The OED defines the noun phrase “last ditch” as “the innermost or only remaining defensive entrenchment, the last line of defence; often fig. and in figurative contexts.”

The dictionary defines the expression “to die in the last ditch” as “to die still fighting to defend something, to resist to the last.”

When the adjective “last-ditch” showed up in the late 19th century, according to the Oxford, it described “fighting, resistance, or opposition to the very last; maintained to the end.”

The first OED citation for the adjective is from Personal Memoirs of P. H. Sheridan, General, United States Army (1888):

“It was said … the French intended to die to the last man before giving up that city. But this proved all fudge, as is usual with these ‘last ditch’ promises.”

In the 20th century, the adjective came to describe something done “at the last minute in an attempt to avert disaster; resulting from desperation.”

The earliest OED example for this new sense is from Death in the Desert: The Fifty Years’ War for the Great Southwest (1935), by Paul I. Wellman:

“It was a last-ditch law, dictated by the fear which death from the north had engendered in every Mexican heart.”

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Locked and loaded

Q: I’ve been thinking about “locked and loaded” since President Trump used it last week to warn North Korea. Why is it “locked and loaded” when the logic of it is “loaded and locked”? Where did this begin?

A: We think “locked and loaded” makes sense, especially when used literally on the firing range. But like many expressions, it’s strayed quite a bit when used figuratively.

We’ve seen a couple of early examples, one from the late 1700s and the other from the early 1800s, of “locked and loaded” used to describe firearms, but the expression may have been used in different ways.

In the first example, it apparently refers to a flintlock musket, loaded with ball and powder, and with its firing mechanism at half-cock, or locked.

Why was “locked” mentioned before “loaded”? Probably because the cock, or hammer, was locked first to prevent an accidental discharge while the weapon was being loaded from the muzzle, or open end, of the barrel.

To fire a flintlock weapon, the hammer must be at full cock when the trigger is pulled. The cock holds a piece of flint that strikes the steel frizzen, creating a spark that falls into the pan, igniting powder and causing the weapon to fire, as in this illustration.

The earliest written example we’ve seen for “locked and loaded” is from a document in the archives of the New Brunswick Historical Society. It describes a dispute on Aug. 6 and 7, 1793, over the possession of a house and lot in what was then the British colony of Nova Scotia.

When a disputant “brought in two musquets and justice Hubbard asked him if the guns were well locked and loaded,” according to the document, he replied, “One of them is.” We assume “well locked” here meant “safely locked.”

The Wiktionary contributor who tracked down the 1793 example has suggested to us that “locked and loaded” may ultimately come from the language of gun crews on British warships. However, he hasn’t found evidence to support this.

It’s unclear in the second example whether “locked and loaded” is being used for a half-cocked or fully cocked pistol. In Lord Roldan, an 1836 novel by the Scottish writer Allan Cunningham, Davie Gellock, a young man posing as a commissioned officer, is asked to show his commission:

“Davie, snatching a pistol from his pocket, and cocking it at the same moment; ‘There is my commission, steel mounted, inlaid with gold, locked and loaded.’ ”

The next example we’ve seen, from a July 20, 1940, US War Department training manual for the M1 rifle, makes clear that the safety should be set, or locked, before the M1 is loaded.

“The instructor, after announcing the range and the position to be used, commands: 1. With dummy cartridges, lock and load; 2. Ready on the right; 3. Ready on the left; 4. Ready on the firing line; 5. Cease firing; 6. Unload. At the first command the rifles are locked and loaded. At the fourth command the safety on all rifles is set in the forward position. When the target is exposed, pupils take position rapidly and simulate firing 16 rounds, reloading from the belt.” (The M1 safety is off when set in the forward position, and on when pulled back.)

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “to lock and load” as “to prepare a firearm for firing by pulling back and ‘locking’ the bolt and loading the ammunition (frequently in imperative, as an order).”

The dictionary’s earliest example, from the Nov. 19, 1940, issue of the New York Times, uses the expression in the imperative: “Lieut. Col. Joseph T. Hart, range officer, boomed through his microphone, ‘Lock and Load.’ ”

The OED says the expression has also been used figuratively as “to ready oneself for action or confrontation.” The first figurative example is from the September 1990 issue of Snow Boarder: “He was locked and loaded in the starting gate, completely focused and obviously amped for his final run.”

Although “locked and Loaded” is the usual expression now, we’ve also found quite a few older examples for “loaded and locked,” as in this one from a Feb. 18, 1912, article in the Dallas Morning News about a rifle shoot: “Competitor stands at the order of trail, piece loaded and locked.”

And here’s one from the Sept. 15, 1911, article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about a rifle match in Essington, PA: “The men were to take their rifles and carry them at the position of trail arms, loaded and locked.”

But as we said at the beginning, we think the expression “locked and loaded” makes sense, especially on the firing line.

By the way, a linguist would refer to two words paired together in an idiomatic expression (like “locked and loaded,” “fish and chips,” “quick and dirty”) as a binomial pair or an irreversible binomial, as we say in a 2016 post.

Many factors determine the choice of which word comes first in the pair, such as meaning, rhythm, chronology, length, and vowel position.

We think “locked” comes before “loaded” because of chronology or rhythm, but a reader of the blog suggests that it’s because a word pronounced with the tongue in front often comes before one with the tongue in back.

We’ll end with a definition of the term from Soldier Talk, Frank A. Hailey’s 1982 book about military language:

Lock and load. A firing range command for soldiers to place safety levers of weapons in the ‘save’ position and load ammunition. Soldiers frequently used the expression when in a group and a brawl or confrontation was imminent.”

[Note: This post was updated on Aug. 16, 2017.]

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the English language and take questions from callers.

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An uncommon courtesy

Q: “Courtesy” as a verb? This is from a local Fox News employee in Austin, TX: “We would courtesy you.”

A: It’s not just Fox News in Austin. We’ve found many examples of the identical wording from broadcasters around the country in offering people credit for using their online videos.

Here’s a request by an assignment editor at KTLA News in Los Angeles for consent to use a rock-climbing video on Facebook:

“I am writing to request permission to use your video ‘The Dawn Wall Push Day 08’ in our newscast. we would courtesy you.”

And here’s a request from NY1 News in New York City on a website about Yaks: “We are seeking permission to use this video during a news piece on Yak Meat. We would courtesy you of course.”

This example on Twitter is from a sports producer at a Fox station in Oakland, CA: “Can we use your Mark Davis sound on air and social media. We would courtesy you.”

Finally, the ESPN assignment desk added this comment to a YouTube video of someone doing a backflip over water on a modified snowmobile:

“ESPN would like permission to use this video on our TV and web platforms. We would courtesy you if approved.”

These media types have turned the phrase “by courtesy of” (that is, “provided as a favor by”) into a verb meaning “to give credit for”—a usage that hasn’t made it into standard dictionaries.

Interestingly, the word “courtesy” has occasionally been used over the centuries as a verb meaning to bow before a superior. (The word in this sense was later shortened to “curtsy.”)

Here’s an example from The History of Sir Charles Grandison, a 1753 novel by Samuel Richardson: “Beauchamp, in a graceful manner, bowed on her hand: She courtesied to him with an air of dignity and esteem.”

In fact, we’ve found several recent examples, including a reader comment last month on the website of the Sunday Express that criticized Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, for curtsying before Queen Elizabeth II:

May courtesied? Disgraceful. No human is superior to another, certainly not by an accident of birth.”

As it turns out, “courtesy” (and “curtsy”) is related to “courtesan,” “cohort,” and “court,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins. All are ultimately derived from cohors, classical Latin for an enclosed yard.

“By extension it came to stand for those assembled in such a yard—a crowd of attendants or company of soldiers; hence the meaning of cohort familiar today,” Ayto writes.

He traces the judicial sense of “court” to “an early association of Old French cort [a judicial tribunal] with Latin curia [a legal tribunal or sovereign’s assembly].”

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Either or neither of three?

Q: I was under the impression that “either”/”neither” constructions are used with only two alternatives. But I often see them with three or more. Am I too restrictive?

A: Yes, you’re too restrictive. “Either” and “neither” usually refer to only two things, but not always.

When “either” showed up in Old English as ǽghwæðer (also contracted as ǽgðer), it meant “each of two.” And when “neither” showed up in Old English as nauðer (næþer in early Middle English), it meant “none of two.”

Yes, there’s clearly an etymological two-ness about the terms. And as we’ve said, that’s the way “either” and “neither” are generally used.

However, writers haven’t been confined by etymology when the terms are used to introduce a series, as in these examples from Shakespeare:

“They say there is divinity in odd numbers, either in nativity, chance, or death” (from The Merry Wives of Windsor, circa 1597).

“You know neither me, yourselves nor any thing” (from Coriolanus, c. 1605-08).

If Shakespeare’s not good enough for you, how about Samuel Johnson? His biographer, James Boswell, quotes the great lexicographer as saying “neither tea, nor coffee, nor lemonade, nor anything whatever.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language notes that the duality of “either” and “neither” is weakened when they’re used as conjunctions to introduce a series.

The authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, say the two terms can be used “in multiple as well as the more common binary coordination.”

Huddleston and Pullum give these examples: “either Kim, Pat, or Alex” and “neither kind, handsome, nor rich.”

Standard dictionaries generally accept the use of “either” or “neither” to introduce a series of more than two items.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for example, says “either” can be used “before two or more coordinate words, phrases, or clauses joined usually by or.” It defines “neither” as “not one of two or more.”

However, dictionaries say “either” and “neither” refer to only two alternatives when used as an adjective (“I’ll take either flavor, vanilla or chocolate”) or a pronoun (“Neither [of them] for me”).

We gave examples above of Shakespeare’s use of “either” and “neither” with more than two items. We’ll end with an example from Hamlet (c. 1600), in which he overdoes the usage to emphasize the pedantry of Polonius:

“The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.”

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She Who Must Be Obeyed

Q: If someone referred to as “She Who Must Be Obeyed” becomes the object of a preposition, should it be “She” or “Her”?

A: We’d treat the noun phrase “She Who Must Be Obeyed” as any other noun. We’d use it as a subject or an object, just as we’d use “Queen Victoria,” “Catherine the Great,” or “Aunt Hilda.”

George Bernard Shaw, for example, uses it as an object in his 1911 play Getting Married. When asked whether he’s staying for breakfast, Hotchkiss replies: “How do I know? Is my destiny any longer in my own hands? Go: ask She Who Must Be Obeyed.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed” (it uses hyphens) as a colloquial, usually mildly depreciative noun for “a strong-willed or domineering woman, esp. a wife or female partner.”

The earliest example in the OED (from H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She) uses the noun phrase as a subject. Here it refers to a powerful queen: “ ‘She-who-must-be-obeyed’ commands thy presence, my Baboon.”

Oxford also cites a TV script by John Mortimer, who uses it as an object in an episode of Rumpole of the Bailey that was aired in 1978, the year the British series had its debut.

In the script, Horace Rumpole says, “Hoping to turn a bob or two which won’t be immediately grabbed by the taxman, or my clerk Henry, or by She Who Must Be Obeyed.”

(Hilda Rumpole, the barrister’s wife, is often referred to as “She Who Must Be Obeyed,” not only throughout Mortimer’s TV scripts, but in the short stories and books that followed.)

The noun phrase is also an object in the most recent OED citation, from the Nov. 18, 2007, issue of the Sunday Mail in Brisbane, Australia:

“The groom [was] wearing his future mother-in-law’s corsage. He had picked up the flowers but didn’t realise the beautiful buttonhole was meant for she-who-must-be-obeyed.” (In British English, a “buttonhole” can be a “boutonnière.”)

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Hit right on the screws

Q: After a fielding play, a baseball announcer recently said the batter “hit it right on the screws, but the first baseman snared it.” This caused me to wonder about targeting phrases like “on the screws,” “on the nose,” and “on the button.” How old are these and how did they develop?

A: “Hit on the screws” or “hit right on the screws” originated as a golfing expression in the mid-20th century, according to our searches of digitized books and newspapers.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from The Driver Book (1963), by Sam Snead: “The clubhead zings through the impact area just a fraction of an inch above the ground and this enables you to hit the ball right on the screws—smack in the center of the clubface—even though half of the ball was resting above the clubface at address.”

Why “on the screws”? The golf-club maker Hireko says on its website that the term originated when woods, the long-distance clubs, were still made from wood.

“To protect the wood against repeated impacts with the ball, wooden woods were equipped with face inserts made from many different materials. To keep the insert in place, some were fastened with ‘screws’ which were located in a small area in the center of the face (as pictured).”

(The heads of woods were generally made of wood until the late 1980s, but most are now made of titanium, steel, or various composites.)

The use of the expression in baseball showed up in the 1970s. The earliest baseball example we’ve found is a comment by Reggie Jackson in the Sept. 15, 1977, issue of the New York Times:

“The night before, I met George Steinbrenner in P. J. Clarke’s and he told me I’d win the next game with a home run. He also picked up my tab, so that’s another 30 dollars in the package. I hit the ball on the screws and I knew it was gone.”

(Jackson met the Yankee owner at the bar on the eve of hitting a 400-foot home run in the ninth inning of what had been a scoreless game with the Boston Red Sox.)

The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3rd ed.) says “on the screws” describes “a hard-hit ball, esp. one that is batted solidly and squarely.”

We haven’t found the expression in any standard dictionary or in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. However, the online collaborative reference Wiktionary has this definition for “hit the ball on the screws”:

“To hit the ball even center with measured force, often resulting in a loud crack of the bat. A slumping batter might be comforted by ‘hitting the ball on the screws’ when not getting a hit. Taken from golf terminology, going back to an era when persimmon woods were used that had a face insert that was affixed by screws.”

As for those other targeting phrases you asked about, “on the nose” and “on the button,” the first one showed up first, according to citations in the OED.

The dictionary defines “on the nose” as meaning “exactly on target; precisely on time; to the point.”

The earliest Oxford citation (from the May 20, 1883, issue of Sporting Life) has a baseball for the target: “He hit the ball fairly on the nose, sending it clear to the right field fence.”

(The OED notes an obsolete 17th-century use of “on the nose” to mean immediately before or on the eve of. It also includes “on the nose” as both an Australian slang term meaning offensive or smelly and a vintner’s term for the aroma of a wine, as in “chocolaty on the nose.”)

As for “on the button,” the dictionary defines it as a colloquial expression meaning “on target, at exactly the right moment; exactly (right), precisely.”

The dictionary’s first example is from The Front Page, a 1928 Broadway comedy by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, set in the Chicago newspaper world.

When Hildy Johnson, star reporter of the Herald Examiner, tosses an empty hip flask out the window of the press room at the Criminal Courts Building, a voice in the yard below yells out and Hildy responds, “On the button!”

The OED also has a 1921 boxing citation for the noun “button” used by itself to mean “point of the chin,” and this punchy 1936 example from P. G. Wodehouse’s 1936 novel Laughing Gas:

“He soaked him on the button, don’t you know.”

[Note: This post was updated on Aug. 6, 2017.]

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Sense and synthesis

Q: I have long used “keyboard grabber” for the person who organizes the creative, smart, or silly ideas generated at a meeting of hand-waving academics or lawyers. But I heard only derision when I used the term recently and had zero hits when I googled it. What term can you recommend for this concept?

A: It’s a good thing you’re looking for an alternative, since “keyboard grabber” brings to mind “keyboard capturing,” which usually refers to the covert recording of computer keystrokes by hackers. The term is also called “keystroke logging” and “keylogging.”

What should one call the person who organizes the clutter of silly, smart, and creative ideas from a meeting of academics or lawyers?

Terms such as “arranger,” “coordinator,” “developer,” “facilitator,” “orchestrator,” and “organizer” would do, but they lack a certain je ne sais quoi, while éminence grise may have too much of it.

Our choice would be “synthesizer,” which can refer to someone who organizes ideas, as well as to the electronic keyboard instrument that combines simple wave forms into complex sounds. Both could be described as “keyboard grabbers,” we suppose.

When the word “synthesizer” showed up in the mid-19th century, it meant someone or something that synthesizes, or combines things into a complex whole.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the January-April, 1869, issue of the Contemporary Review:

“Then for the next ten, twenty, or more years, the competent synthesizer, designer, prescriber, writer, statesman, theorist, is found.” We’ve expanded the citation.

In the 20th century, the term came to mean “one of various types of instrument for generating and combining signals of different frequencies; esp. a computerized instrument used to create music electronically.”

The first OED example is from the 1909 supplement to The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia: “Synthesizer, in acoustics, an instrument for the production of complex tones of predetermined composition.”

The term “synthesizer” is derived from the earlier verb “synthesize” (1830) and noun “synthesis” (1611).

All three terms ultimately come from the classical Latin synthesis (a collection, a set of dishes, a medicinal combination, or a suit of clothes), and the Greek sunthesis, a combination or a putting together.

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