English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

The ‘newfangled’ iPhone X

Q: An article on the tech blog Engadget refers to Apple’s latest novelty as “the newfangled iPhone X.” I assume the adjective “newfangled” is somehow related to the noun “fang,” but I can’t for the life of me see a connection.

A: Yes, “newfangled” is indeed related to “fang,” but we have to go back to Anglo-Saxon days to find the ancestor that gave us both words.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the two terms ultimately come from fōn, an Old English verb meaning to capture. In early Old English, the verb was spelled feng.

The earliest citation for the verb in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Beowulf, an epic poem that may have been written as far back as 725:

“Hēo him eft hraþe andlēan forgeald / grimman grāpum, ond him tōgēanes fēng” (“She rose quickly and seized him tightly in her grim embrace”). We’ve expanded the OED excerpt, which describes Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother.

In the early 13th century, Chambers says, the Middle English words for “new” and “seized” came together to form the adjective neufangel, meaning fond of novelty (literally, seized by the new).

The first OED example is from the Proverbs of Hendyng, a collection of moral advice written around 1250. In the citation, neufangel is used in the sense of fickle—that is, fond of new lovers:

“If þi loverd is neufangel, / Ne be þou nout forþi outgangel” (“If thy husband is fond of new lovers, don’t therefore be thou fond of going out”).

In the late 15th century, the adjective added the “-ed” suffix that it has today. The first OED example is from a sermon, dated around 1496, by the Anglican Bishop John Alcock: “Boyes of fyfty yere of age are as newe fangled as ony yonge men be.”

A few decades later, the adjective took on the usual modern sense: “Newly or recently invented or existent; gratuitously or objectionably modern or different from what one is used to,” the dictionary says.

The first example given is from A Disputation of Purgatory, a 1531 polemic by the English Protestant writer John Frith: “Let vs se and examine more of this newfangled philosophye.”

(Frith, who questioned the belief in purgatory, was burned at the stake in 1533 after Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor, accused him of heresy. More, in turn, was beheaded in 1535.)

Interestingly, the noun “fang” didn’t refer to a sharp tooth when it showed up in the 14th century. It meant the act of seizing, embracing, or protecting. Not surprisingly, it’s derived from the Old English verb meaning to capture.

The first OED citation (from the Romance of Alexander, 1340-70) uses the noun in its protective sense: “In fang with my faire godis.”

In the mid-16th century, “fang” came to mean a canine tooth, especially one of “the teeth of dogs, wolves, or other animals remarkable for strength of jaw,” according to the dictionary.

The first Oxford citation is from The Decades of the Newe Worlde, Richard Eden’s 1551 translation of Latin writings by the Italian historian Peter Martyr d’Anghiera:

“Theyr teeth are very sharpe, and especially theyr fanges or dogge teeth.” We’ve expanded the excerpt, which refers to the teeth of iguanas.

If you’d like to read more, we had a post a few years ago that discusses “fangled” as well as “newfangled.” Yes, “fangled” was once a word, and Shakespeare used it!

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

English English language Expression Grammar Usage Writing

As bad or worse than?

Q: A recent headline in the Washington Post says the Cassidy-Graham health bill “is as bad or worse than all the others.” Politics aside, what do you think of the grammar?

A: Ouch! There’s a missing link in that headline about the legislation proposed by Senators Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

The headline writer intended to link “as bad as” and “worse than” in one construction. But in linking them together, the second “as” got lost.

“As” could be put back—making the bill “as bad as or worse than all the others”—but that’s a bit clunky, especially in a headline.

We’d prefer a version with “worse” at the end, as in these two examples: (1) “as bad as all the others, or worse” and (2) “as bad as all the others, if not worse.”

In her grammar and usage book Woe Is I, Pat discusses this faulty construction as well as two similar ones with missing links:

As bad or worse than. Stay away from this kind of sentence: Opie’s math is as bad or worse than his English. Do you see what’s wrong with it? There are two kinds of comparisons going on, as bad as and worse than. When you telescope them into as bad or worse than, you lose an as. Putting it back in (Opie’s math is as bad as or worse than his English) is correct but cumbersome. A better idea is to put the rear end of the comparison (or worse) at the end of the sentence: Opie’s math is as bad as his English, or worse. (Another way to end the sentence is if not worse.)

As good or better than. This is a variation on the previous theme. It’s better to split up the comparison: Harry’s  broom is as good as Malfoy’s, or better. (Another way to end it is if not better.)

As much or more than. Here’s another variation on as bad or worse than. Don’t use this phrase all at once; split it up: Otis loves bourbon as much as rye, or more. (Another ending is if not more.)”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Green thumbs and green fingers

Q: Why is an ability to grow plants called “a green thumb” in the US and “green fingers” in the UK?

A: Both expressions showed up in writing in the 20th century, “green fingers” first and “green thumb” a few decades later, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Similarly, “green fingered” appeared first, followed by “green thumbed.”

We’ve found “thumb” and “fingers” examples in both American and British writing, but a good gardener generally has “a green thumb” in the US and “green fingers” in the UK, according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus.

We think the written evidence clearly indicates that the original expression was “green fingers,” though F. E. L. Priestley, a language scholar at the University of Toronto, has suggested that “a green thumb” may have come first.

In A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional Language (2006), Eric Partridge quotes Priestley, one of his correspondents, as saying, “I think the original was ‘a green thumb,’ probably by analogy with the miller’s ‘golden thumb’ (as in Chaucer).”

In the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales (circa 1386), Geoffrey Chaucer writes that the miller “hadde a thombe of gold.” Scholars have debated whether the reference is to the grain-colored thumb of the miller or his heavy Midas touch in weighing the flour.

In early editions of his slang dictionary, which was first published in 1961, Partridge says the expression to “have green fingers” was coined by C. H. Middleton, the host of “In Your Garden,” a popular BBC radio program in the 1930s and ’40s.

But as newly discovered written evidence indicated that the expression predated the radio show, later editions of the slang dictionary, edited by Paul Beale, say that “perhaps the phrase was merely popularized by Mr. Middleton.”

Our guess is that the influence of Middleton’s BBC show may have encouraged the use of the “green fingers” idiom in the UK. However, we haven’t seen any reasonable theories of why Americans prefer “green thumb.”

As we’ve said before on the blog, idioms are peculiar to a people, place, or community, and they don’t have to make literal sense. However, we doubt that Chaucer’s “thombe of gold” has anything to do with the American usage. We’ve seen no evidence to support it.

The earliest OED citation for “green fingers” is from The Misses Make-Believe, a 1906 novel by the Scottish-born writer Mary Stuart Boyd: “What old wives call ‘green fingers’: those magic digits that appear to ensure the growth of everything they plant.”

The dictionary defines “green fingers” as a “skill or success in making plants grow, esp. in to have green fingers.” The first example of the verb phrase is from Congo Song, a 1943 novel by the South African writer Stuart Cloete:

“Some men have green fingers. Plants like them. They can make things grow because they love them.”

The first Oxford citation for “green thumb” is from the July 9, 1937, issue of the Ironwood (MI) Daily Globe:

“Besides being green-eyed, Miss Dvorak has what is known as ‘the green thumb.’ That’s horticultural slang for being a successful gardener with instinctive understanding of growing things.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for “green-fingered” is from Colour in My Garden, a 1918 book by the American gardening writer Louise Beebe Wilder:

“Under the care of our green-fingered grandmothers gardens throve and were full of hearty, wholesome colour.” (In addition to “green-fingered,” Wilder uses the British spelling of “color.”)

The first Oxford citation for “green-thumbed” is from the June 6, 1937, Washington Post: “He is, I think, the ‘green-thumbed’ type of gardener, who has lived and loved his flowers and has learned from them and from the soil.”

We’ve seen many theories for why the word “green” is used in both “green thumb” and “green fingers.” The most common are that one’s thumbs or other fingers are stained green by handling mossy flowerpots or by pinching old blooms when deadheading.

Although the two theories make sense, we’ve seen no evidence in early Oxford citations that the writers were using “green fingers” or “green thumb” literally.

We suspect that “green” here is being used loosely in a gardening sense, much as it’s used in an environmental sense in such expressions as “green movement” (1977), “green energy” (1980), “green-minded” (1984), “green economy” (1986), and so on.

We’ve written several times on the blog about “green,” including a post about the golfing expression “rub of the green,” an item about whether a tree can blush green, and a piece about the sexual use of the word.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

On nobs and snobs

Q: I enjoyed your post about “snob,” but I’m wondering if the word is related to “nob,” the British term for someone who’s wealthy or socially prominent.

A: No, the two words aren’t etymological relatives. The only thing they have in common is an “-ob” ending that’s an irrelevant coincidence, as far as we can tell.

When “nob” first appeared, in the 1300s, it meant a knot, a now obsolete usage. The sense of someone important, chiefly a British usage, showed up in the 1600s.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the slang VIP sense is of uncertain origin, though it may have been influenced by the archaic “nab” or colloquial “nob,” terms for the head.

The dictionary says one theory is that “nob” is a shortened form of “noble” or “nobleman,” perhaps originally a graphic representation, but that wouldn’t explain why early written forms of the word were spelled with “a” instead of “o.”

The earliest OED citation for “nob” used in the bigwig sense you’re asking about is from an Oct. 10, 1676, entry in the Inverness Tailors’ Minute Book:

“The said John Baillie … resolved … that the most discreet and sound nabbs of the freemen should join with him in council.”

The dictionary’s first example with the “o” spelling is from Letters of W. Fowler (1809): “My Drawings and Engravings … have recommended me to the notice of the first Nobbs of this Kingdom.” (William Fowler, 1761-1832, was an English artist known for his drawings and engravings.)

The first OED citation with the modern spelling is from The English Spy (1825), a satirical book by the author and journalist Charles Molloy Westmacott about fashionable life in Regency England: “Nob or big wig.”

The noun “snob,” as we wrote in our post last week, meant a shoemaker when it showed up in the late 17th century. The OED describes its origin as obscure.

The noun didn’t get its modern sense (someone who despises the less wealthy or prominent) until the early 20th century.

We haven’t seen any evidence in either the OED or other language references that “snob” and “nob” are etymologically related.

However, the linguist Anatoly Liberman has suggested on the Oxford University Press blog that the two words may be related in a looser way, like “children living in the same orphanage (identical clothes and similar habits, but the union is artificial).” We’re wary of such speculations, but you might find them interesting.

If you’d like to read more, we’ve also discussed “nob” in a 2012 post about “hobnob” and in a 2006 post about the singer known as Her Nibs, Miss Georgia Gibbs (noting the use of “nobs” and “nibs” in cribbage).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Days of our lives

Q: I found your post about the months very interesting. So we got the names from the Romans. And, as far as I can tell, we got the days of the week from Teutonic gods. English seems to gather from everyone.

A: Yes, English is indeed a great gatherer, but the names for the days of the week ultimately come from Roman gods.

Most of the classical deities were replaced by corresponding Teutonic ones when the Latin days of the week were adopted by Germanic speakers.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “The Latin days of the week in imperial Rome were named after the planets, which in turn were named after gods.”

Each day took its name from the planets supposedly controlling its first hour under the Ptolemaic system. Ptolemy considered the Sun and the Moon to be planets.

“The planetary names, classical Latin diēs sōlis, diēs lunae, diēs martis, etc., came into common use in the Roman Empire, and were adopted in translated form by the Germanic peoples, including the Angles and Saxons (before they came to Britain),” the OED says.

The dictionary adds that “the names Mars, Mercurius, etc., being understood as names of Roman gods, were translated using the names of the Germanic gods supposed to correspond to these.”

Here’s a brief history of the English days of the week:

Sunnandæg (Old English for Sunday) comes from the Latin diēs sōlis (day of the sun).

Monandæg (OE for Monday or moon’s day), from diēs lunae (day of the moon).

Tywesdæg (day of Tiw, war and sky god in the Germanic pantheon), from diēs martis (day of Mars).

Wodnesdæg (day of Woden, highest god in the Germanic pantheon), from diēs mercuriī (day of Mercury).

Þunresdæg (day of Thor, god of thunder), from diēs Iovis (day of Jupiter).

Frigedæig (day of Frig, goddess of wisdom and wife of Woden), from diēs Veneris (day of Venus).

Sæternesdæg (day of Saturn), from diēs sāturnī.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation

And check out our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Run the gambit?

Q: I keep hearing “gamut” misused, as in “run the gambit,” which doesn’t make sense. What’s the deal with people confusing these two words?

A: Yes, “run the gambit” is on the loose, but “run the gamut” is much more popular in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the British National Corpus, and News on the Web, a database from online newspapers and magazines.

The original idiomatic expression, “run the gamut,” which means to extend over an entire range, showed up in English nearly three centuries ago.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Courtier, Robert Samber’s 1724 translation of a 16th-century etiquette book by the Italian writer Baldassare Castiglione:

“When they talk with any one, after a Pause, [they] renew their Discourse in such a Tone as if they were running over the Gamut.”

The next example is from Flim-Flams! (1805), a novel by Isaac D’Israeli, father of the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli:

“He runs through the whole gamut of the heart, from bass to treble.”

Those two early citations reflect the musical origins of the expression. As an etymology note at Merriam-Webster Online explains, the term comes from a musical scale developed in the 11th century by the musician and monk Guido d’Arezzo:

“Guido called the first line of his bass staff gamma and the first note in his scale ut, which meant that gamma ut was the term for a note written on the first staff line. In time, gamma ut underwent a shortening to gamut but climbed the scale of meaning. It expanded to cover all the notes of Guido’s scale, then all the notes in the range of an instrument, and, eventually, an entire range of any sort.”

The first English example for the noun “gamut” in the OED is from a treatise on counterpoint, written sometime before 1445, by the English composer Lionel Power:

“Gamut hathe 3 acordis: re, mi, sol be proprechaunt; re a 12, mi a 13, sol a 15.”

The dictionary notes that “run the gamut” has the rare musical sense of to “perform all the notes of the scale, or all the notes within the compass of a particular singer or instrument,” but adds that the usual, more expansive meaning of the expression is “to experience, display, or perform the complete range of something.”

When the word “gambit” showed up in English in the 17th century, according to the OED, it referred in chess to “a game, or sequence of moves, involving a sacrifice to launch an attack or gain some other advantage.”

When used in chess now, the dictionary says, the term usually refers to “an opening in which a player offers a sacrifice, typically of a pawn, for the sake of a compensating advantage.”

The earliest citation in the dictionary is from The Royall Game of Chesse-Play, Francis Beale’s 1656 translation of a work by the Italian chess writer Gioachino Greco: “Illustrated with almost an hundred Gambetts.”

In the mid-19th century, Oxford says, the term “gambit” took on two expanded senses: (1) a “remark intended to initiate or change the direction of a conversation” and (2) a “plan, stratagem, or ploy that is calculated to gain an advantage, esp. at the outset of a contest, negotiation, etc.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the first sense is from the Jan. 1, 1853, issue of Punch: “Would you think I … played Knight’s gambit, or rather opening, if I ventured the colloquial critique—‘very fine oysters!’ ”

The earliest example for the second sense is from Memoirs of the Court and Cabinet of George III (1855), by the Duke of Buckingham:

“The dashing gambit which his opponent directed, was neither evaded with caution nor defended with skill.”

As for “run the gambit,” the misuse has been around for dozens of years. The earliest example we’ve found is from Fuad: King of Egypt, a 1936 biography by the Indian author Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah:

“Zaghlul was the popular idol, and anyone who was even faintly critical of his activities must perforce run the gambit of mob disapproval.”

And here’s a double whammy from the official record of an April 1, 1959, hearing about freight car shortages, held by a US Senate subcommittee in Kansas City, Kansas:

“All the cars that go out to my district, the main industry of which is lumber, have to run the gambit in California, or they have to run the gambit in Washington.” (The speaker, Rep. Charles O. Porter, an Oregon Democrat, addressed the Freight Car Shortage Subcommittee of the Senate Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee.)

This excerpt from a 1947 book in the Foreign Relations of the United States series, the State Department’s official record of major American foreign policy decisions, describes Soviet policies toward the West:

“The zigs and zags have run the gambit from out and out revolutionary hostility to the Popular Front with Social Democrats during the 30’s, the pact with Hitler, Big Power unity, parliamentary ‘cooperation’ and now back to anti-parliamentary, anti-imperialist revolutionary hostility and noncooperation.”

We’ve found hundreds of more recent examples for “run the gambit,” including these:

“Food offerings run the gambit from Wisconsin classics like cheese curds and pretzel sticks to salmon and sirloin” (from the Aug 10, 2017, issue of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).

“Let’s run the gambit of possible outcomes, which not surprisingly range from ‘everyone dies’ to “everyone dies’ ” (from a Jan. 20, 2017, item on Huffington Post).

“Villa options run the gambit from deluxe pads to rustic fincas” (from the July, 18, 2015, issue of the Guardian).

“Wedding flowers are an expression of individual taste and run the gambit from lush exotics to simple handmade arrangements” (from the Feb. 15, 2015, Hartford Courant).

“The Forest Service has closed 886,000 acres of forests to the public because of the infiltration of pot growers, who run the gambit from ‘flower children” caught in a ’60s time warp to dangerous organized criminals” (from the Nov. 2, 1988, Christian Science Monitor).

Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) says, “Misusing gambit for gamut is an increasingly common malapropism,” but Bryan A. Garner, the author, lists it at only the lowest stage in his five-stage language-change index.

The term “malapropism” refers to the unintentionally comic misuse of a word, especially by confusing it with a similar-sounding one. The misuse of “gambit” for “gamut” may also be called an “eggcorn,” mistaking a word or phrase for a similar-sounding one.

In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misunderstandings, we discuss malapropisms and eggcorns, as well as spoonerisms and mondegreens, two other kinds of language bloopers. A 2011 post on our blog includes an excerpt from Origins about such misuses.

A 2005 entry by the linguist Ben Zimmer on the Eggcorn Database cites “run the gambit” and includes several more examples.

The database also has a 2005 contribution by the linguist Arnold Zwicky on the variation “run the gamete.” A “gamete” (1878) is a male or female reproductive cell.

Interestingly, “run the gamete” is almost as popular as “run the gambit” in general online searches, and one of the examples we’ve found even uses the expression correctly:

“Hotels run the gamete” is a Nov. 3, 2005, headline in USA Today about Caribbean procreation vacations that include romantic dinners, spa treatments, and island potions said to increase the chances of a pregnancy.

Finally, here’s a comment about “run the gambit” from The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style:

“As is often the case with idioms, the original meanings of the words composing them can be lost, obscured, or confused. In this case, the uncommon word gamut is sometimes confused with the word gambit.”

Although the term “gambit” has expanded significantly from its original chess usage, American Heritage concludes, “the phrase run the gambit is a mistake.” We’ll add that “run the gamete” is too, despite that procreative exception.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

Snob appeal

Q: What is the origin of the word “snob”? Is it an acronym like “posh”?

A: No, “snob” isn’t an acronym, and “posh” isn’t either.

We wrote a post about “posh” in 2011. The origin of the adjective is unknown, but it may have been influenced by the rare use of “posh” as a noun for a dandy.

As for “snob,” imaginative wordies have suggested a variety of acronyms, but haven’t offered a shred of evidence to support their theories.

The most highbrow of the theories is that “snob” originated as an abbreviated form of the Latin phrase sine nobilitate, meaning “without nobility.”

The abbreviation was supposedly used to indicate which Oxbridge students or ship passengers should be addressed with titles. Oxford Dictionaries online describes this theory as “ingenious but highly unlikely.”

As we’ve written several times on our blog, acronyms were rare before the 1930s, according to the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower.

In The F-Word, a book whose subject is the source of several phony acronyms, Sheidlower writes that “etymologies of this sort—especially for older words—are almost always false.”

In fact, the word “snob” originally meant the kind of person today’s snob would look down on. When it showed up in English in the 18th century it meant a shoemaker, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The earliest citation for the term in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785): “Snob, a nick name for a shoemaker.”

A few years later, Ayto writes, Cambridge University students adopted “snob” as a slang term for a “townsman, someone not a member of the University.”

The first OED citation for “snob” used in the townie sense, dated around 1796, is from Cap and Gown, an 1889 collection of Cambridge humor by Charles Whibley: “Snobs call him Nicholson! Plebeian name.”

A few decades later, Ayto says, the meaning of “snob” widened to the “general sense ‘member of the lower orders.’ ”

The first example he cites is from a July 22, 1831, article in the Lincoln Herald about a newly elected Parliament expected to approve reform legislation in Britain: “The nobs have lost their dirty seats—the honest snobs have got ’em.”

In the mid-1800s, Ayto says, the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray “sowed the seeds of the word’s modern meaning.”

In The Book of Snobs, an 1848 collection of his satirical works, Thackeray uses the term for “someone vulgarly aping his social superiors,” according to Ayto.

The OED cites this example from the book: “such persons as are Snobs everywhere … being by nature endowed with Snobbishness.”

In his etymological dictionary, Ayto writes that the term “has since broadened to include those who insist on their gentility as well as those who aspire to it.”

The OED defines the modern sense of “snob” as a “person who despises those whom he or she considers to be inferior in rank, attainment, or taste.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Doctor’s Dilemma, a 1911 play by George Bernard Shaw:

“All her childish affectations of conscientious scruple and religious impulse have been applauded and deferred to until she has become an ethical snob of the first water.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

An ‘utter’ and an ‘utter’

Q: Is the “utter” that means “absolute” related to the “utter” that means to “make a sound”?

A: Yes. As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “English has two distinct words utter, but they come from the same ultimate source—out.”

In Old English, the adjective “utter” (spelled úteraúterra, úttera, etc.) was the comparative form of “out” (spelled út).

So “utter,” Ayto explains, “morphologically is the same word as outer.”

In Anglo-Saxon times, “utter” meant “farther out than another” or “forming the exterior part or outlying portion” of something, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest Old English example in the OED is from King Ælfred’s Laws (900): “ðæt uterre ban bið þyrel” (“the utter edge of the hole”).

The word “did not begin to be used as an intensive adjective until the 15th century,” Ayto writes.

The first Oxford example for “utter” used intensively to mean absolute, complete, total, and so on is from Generides, a Middle English verse romance dated around 1430: “This wer to vs … an vttir shame for euermore.”

Meanwhile, the verb “utter” meant to make a sound or to say something, when it showed up in the 1400s. (An early sense, now obsolete, was to offer something for sale.)

The OED says the verb comes partly from út, Old English for “out,” and partly from uteren, Middle Dutch for “to drive out, announce, speak.”

The earliest Oxford example for “utter” in its sound-making sense is from a book, written around 1400, on the founding of St. Bartholomew’s Church in London: “the vtteryng of his voice begane to breke.”

The first OED citation for “utter” in its speaking sense is from Twenty-Six Political and Other Poems (circa 1444), by John Lydgate: “Yiff thow art feerffulle to ottre thy language.”

We’ll end with a recent example of the adjective from an Aug. 28, 2017, headline on the website of the magazine Inc.: “Texas Businesses React to ‘Utter Devastation’ of Hurricane Harvey.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Months of our lives

Q: Why do September, October, November, and December come from Latin numbers, but the rest of the months aren’t numerical?

A: We inherited the names for our months from the Romans, who used numerals for some and other designations for the rest. In fact, the Romans sometimes went back and forth, switching from a number to another term and vice versa.

For example, mēnsis Quintilis (“fifth month”) was renamed mēnsis Iulius (“month of Julius”) for Julius Caesar, while mēnsis Sextilis (“sixth month”) was renamed mēnsis Augustus for Augustus Caesar, as Matthew Bunson notes in the Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire (2002).

Caligula changed mēnsis September to mēnsis Germanicus to honor his father, according to the Roman historian Suetonius, but the month went back to its numerical name after the emperor’s death.

And Nero renamed several months, including mēnsis Neroneus for mēnsis Aprīlis, but again, the new names didn’t stick, Suetonius writes in De Vita Caesarum (“On the Lives of the Caesars”).

You didn’t ask, but some readers are probably wondering why September, October, November, and December are our ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth months, while the words mean seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth in Latin.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the “ancient Roman calendar (dating from around the mid 8th cent. B.C.) had ten months.”

The original months were Mārtius, Aprīlis, Māius, Iūnius, Quintīlis, Sextīlis, September, Octōber, November, and December.

Around the year 713 BC, according to the OED, Iānuārius and Februārius were added to the end.

But in 153 BC, the dictionary says, “the beginning of the year was moved to 1 January, when the Roman consuls were elected,” throwing the original meanings of the numerical months out of sync with the calendar.

“This new ordering of the months remained when the Julian calendar was introduced in 45 B.C. and in the Gregorian calendar widely used today,” the OED adds.

As for those non-numerical months, Mārtius was named for Mars, the Roman god of war, according to the OEDAprīlis is “of uncertain origin; perhaps [from] Etruscan.” Māius was named for Maia, the ancient Roman goddess of fertility and spring, and Iūnius for Juno, the goddess of marriage.

Of the two later additions, Iānuārius was named for Janus, the god of beginnings, while Februārius comes from februa, Latin for means of purification (the Roman festival of purification was held on the fifteenth day of February).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

Leery of leers?

Q: I was recently struck by two words that seemed related, but didn’t have an apparent connection in meaning: “leer” and “leery.” I found that interesting. So what’s with these words?

A: As it turns out, “leer” and “leery,” words with negative connotations, began life innocently in Anglo-Saxon times, though their Old English ancestors are now obsolete.

The ultimate source for both is hléor, Old English for the face or countenance of someone, and often used in positive alliterative expressions like “lovely leer,” “lovesome of leer,” or “lily-like leer,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from a Latin-Old English entry in the Epinal Glossary, believed written in the late 600s: “Frons, hleor.” (Frons is “forehead” or “countenance” in Latin.)

The next Oxford example is from Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac, an Old English account written for King Ælfwald around 730 to 740 by an East Anglian monk known as Felix:

“he to eorðan on þam anade hleor onhylde” (“he bowed his face to the ground in solitude”).

And here’s a clearly positive Middle English example from the Legend of St. Katherine, written sometime before 1225: “Þi leor is, meiden, lufsum, & ti muð murie” (“Your leer, oh maiden, is lovely, and your mouth pleasant and wise”).

Meanwhile, the noun “leer” took on a new sense in late Old English: the cheek. The earliest example in the OED is from Old English Leechdoms, a collection of Anglo-Saxon medical texts dated around 1000:

“hwylcum weargbræde weaxe on þam nosum oððe on þam hleore” (“boil, warty eruption, wax on nostrils or cheeks”).

The dictionary says the “cheek” sense of the noun “leer” indirectly inspired the verb “leer,” meaning to “look obliquely or askance; to cast side glances. Now only, to look or gaze with a sly, immodest, or malign expression in one’s eye.”

How did the “cheek” sense of the noun lead to the “look askance” sense of the verb? As the OED explains, “the early examples of the verb suit well the explanation ‘to glance over one’s cheek.’ ”

In fact, the earliest Oxford citation for the verb (from John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse, 1530, a French grammar for English speakers) doesn’t have anything to do with glancing sideways over one’s cheek, though it does suggest sneakiness:

“I leare or lere, as a dogge dothe underneth a doore. Je regarde de longue veue.”

But the next example (from William Stevenson’s 1575 comedy, Gammer Gurtons Nedle) does indeed mention a side glance: “By chaunce a syde she leares / And gyb our cat in the milke pan, she spied ouer head and eares.”

The verb “leer,” in turn,” inspired a new sense of the noun “leer” that the OED defines as a “side glance; a look or roll of the eye expressive of slyness, malignity, immodest desire, etc.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, believed written around 1597:

“Shee discourses: shee carues: she giues the leere of inuitation.” (The quote is from the 1623 first folio. The OED notes that the 1602 quarto spells it “lyre.”)

And here’s Milton’s description in Paradise Lost (1667) of the Devil as he looks askance at Adam and Eve in Eden: “Aside the Devil turnd / For envie, yet with jealous leer maligne / Ey’d them askance.”

The adjective “leery” showed up in the 1600s, but the sense you’re asking about (doubtful or suspicious) didn’t appear until the late 1800s, according to OED citations.

The dictionary’s first example is from Artie: A Story of the Streets and Town (1896), a collection of fictional sketches by George Ade: “The old lady’s a little leary of me, but I can win her all right.”

We’ll end with an example from Academic Graffiti (In Memoriam Ogden Nash), a 1971 poem by W. H. Auden.

The Geheimrat in Goethe
Made him all the curter
With Leute who were leery
Of his Colour Theory.

(Geheimrat was Goethe’s title as Privy Councillor; leute means people.)

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

Is flyering the new leafleting?

Q: The other day I read that someone volunteered to help by “flyering,” as in handing out flyers. It’s not in my dictionary. How about yours?

A: It’s not in any of our standard dictionaries either. Nor is it in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

But standard dictionaries do have entries for a similar usage: “leaflet” as a verb meaning to distribute leaflets, with “leafleting” as the present participle. And the OED has an entry for “leafleting” as a noun meaning the distribution of leaflets.

Although “flyering” isn’t recognized by standard dictionaries, the collaborative Wiktionary has entries for the noun “flyering” (the distribution of flyers) as well as the verb “flyer” (to distribute flyers).

And we’ve seen hundreds of American and British examples for “flyering”—in municipal laws restricting the distribution of flyers, appeals for volunteers to hand out flyers, ads for such jobs, university regulations, and so on.

For example, the University of California at Santa Barbara has a formal process to “request flyering in the residence halls.”

And the Cornwall Council in England has an application for the “Distribution of Free Printed Material (Flyering)” in Newquay Town Centre, and offers “a chargeable service to support Flyering applications.”

An archived Reddit page from the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign offers “Tips and Ideas for Flyering” by someone who “just finished my first flyering experience.”

PureGym, a chain of fitness clubs in the UK, has advertised on the employment website Indeed for “Face-to-face promotion and flyering” jobs in Bury, England.

Also, has this description of such work: “A flyer distributor hands out flyers to promote events, venues or establishments. The job is referred to as ‘flyering’ in the trade.”

And Denver Door2Door Advertising offers “Neighborhood Flyering Services” as the “affordable alternative to direct mail marketing.”

When the noun “flyer” showed up in English in the 15th century, according to the OED, it referred to a “living thing (e.g. a bird or insect) that propels itself with wings; often preceded by some qualifying adj., as high, etc.”

The earliest Oxford example is from Promptorium Parvulorum, an English-Latin dictionary written around 1440: “Flyare, volator.” (The author is said to be a medieval monk known as Galfredus Grammaticus, or Geoffrey the Grammarian.)

The first citation for the term used to mean an aviator is from the 1934 second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language: “Flier, flyer, an airman.”

The noun meaning a leaflet, spelled “flier” or “flyer” and defined as “a small handbill,” showed up in the late 19th century.

The earliest OED example is from the Dec. 21, 1889, issue of the Literary World, an American weekly magazine: “Inserting gaily-colored advertising fliers in the body of the magazine.”

Two earlier terms, “flying sheet” (1769) and “fly-sheet” (1833), also referred to such handouts. The sense of the adjective “flying” here originally referred to a tale or rumor that flies about, according to Oxford.

The OED defines the handbill sense of “leaflet” as a “single sheet of paper, folded or unfolded, containing printed matter, such as advertising or public or political information, and typically distributed free in public places or door-to-door.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from the June 4, 1860, issue of the Daily News in London: “Some of the children … had in their possession leaflets with pictures and prayers in the French language upon them.”

The first OED citation for the noun “leafleting” (distributing leaflets) is from The Psychological Warfare Division (1945), an account of the Anglo-American unit’s operations in World War II:

“The one remaining problem was the inaccuracy of the leafleting.”

The verb “leaflet” (to distribute leaflets) showed up in the early 1960s. The first Oxford citation is from the Sept. 6, 1962, issue of the Concord (MA) Enterprise: “Mrs. Boardman has leafleted at the gates of American Optical.”

Is “flyering” the new “leafleting”?

Well, “leafleting” is nearly five times as popular as “flyering” in the News on the Web corpus, a database of billions of words from online newspapers and magazines.

We don’t recall using either term, but we’d go with “leafleting” if the occasion were to arise.

We wonder, though, if “flyering” or “leafleting” will be around much longer, as more and more handouts go digital and become “spamming.”

Speaking of which, when the word “Spam” showed up in the 1930s, it was the “proprietary name of a type of tinned meat consisting chiefly of pork,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first citation is from the July 1, 1937, issue of the Squeal, a trade magazine published by Hormel: “In the last month Geo. A. Hormel & Co. … launched the product Spam.”

The journal credited Kenneth Daigneau, a New York actor and brother of a Hormel vice president, with thinking up the name:

“Seems as if he had considered the word a good memorable trade-name for some time, had only waited for a product to attach it to.”

In the early 1990s, the OED says, “spam” became slang for “irrelevant or inappropriate postings to an Internet newsgroup, esp. messages sent to a large number of newsgroups simultaneously, often for advertising purposes.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from the May 30, 1994, issue of Network World: “Internet users suffered another ‘spam attack’ last week, this time from a Florida public-access host user who flooded Usenet conferences with ads for a thigh-reducing cream.”

Now, according to the dictionary, “spam” is chiefly slang for “similar unsolicited electronic mail, esp. when sent to individuals as part of a mass-mailing.”

Here’s an OED email example from the Aug. 7, 2000, issue of the Times (London): “Don’t worry. It sounds like some stupid spam to me.”

Meanwhile, “spam” showed up as a slang verb meaning to “flood (a network, esp. the Internet, a newsgroup, or individuals) with a large number of unsolicited postings, or multiple copies of the same posting.”

The first Oxford example is from the July 25, 1994, issue of Time: “What the Arizona lawyers did that fateful April day was to ‘Spam’ the Net, a colorful bit of Internet jargon meant to evoke the effect of dropping a can of Spam into a fan and filling the surrounding space with meat.”

Finally, the use of the slang noun “spamming” for the “practice of sending irrelevant, inappropriate, or unsolicited postings or e-mails over the Internet, esp. indiscriminately and in very large numbers.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from the April 28, 1994, issue of the San Francisco Chronicle:

“People around the world started flooding Canter and Siegel’s mailbox, sending junk faxes to the fax number that was in the ad, and basically doing everything possible to overload them. (This is known as spamming.)”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

On sloth, human and arboreal

Q: Is the slow-moving sloth that lives in trees the source of our word for laziness? Or vice versa?

A: Vice versa. The noun “sloth” (idleness, indolence, or laziness) is derived from the Old English adjective sláw (slow), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example for “sloth” (spelled slauðe in Middle English) is from the Lambeth Homilies (circa 1175): “Þe licome luuað muchele slauðe and muchele etinge” (“The body loves great sloth and great eating”).

The dictionary’s first example for “sloth” used in reference to the “arboreal mammal of a sluggish nature” is from Purchas His Pilgrimage, a 1613 book by the Anglican cleric Samuel Purchas about his travels and observations:

“The Spaniards call it … the light dog. The Portugals Sloth.”

(Purchas is mistaken here. He apparently confused perro, Spanish for “dog,” with perezoso, which means both “lazy” and the arboreal “sloth.” In Portuguese, preguiça means both “laziness” and the “sloth” that lives in trees.)

The OED citation is from a note to an interesting description of the sloth’s habits, in a section of the Purchas book about the wildlife of Brazil:

“There is a deformed beast of such slow pace, that in fifteene dayes it will scarse goe a stones cast. It liueth on the leaues of trees, on which it is two dayes in climing, and as many in descending, neither shouts nor blowes forcing her to amend her pace.”

Getting back to human sloth, writers don’t mention it much these days, though Mike Dover cites “sloth” in his 2016 book, Dante’s Infinite Monkeys, as one of the seven deadly sins of our digital lives:

“The Internet, and technology in general, have provided new ways for wrath, lust, gluttony, sloth, pride, envy and greed to insert themselves into our lives.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.