English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Thou lily-livered boy

Q: Some work colleagues and I were speculating where the expression “lily-livered,” meaning cowardly, came from. Do you know?

A: The use of the lily, especially the white Lilium candidum, to describe a coward dates from the Elizabethan age, but the usage may have roots in ancient Greece.

Shakespeare was apparently the first to use the expression “lily-livered” in writing. In fact, he uses it twice—in two plays believed written in the early 1600s:

“Go pricke thy face, and ouer-red thy feare / Thou Lilly-liuer’d Boy” (Macbeth).

“A lily-liuer’d, action-taking knaue, a whoreson” (King Lear).

Shakespeare is using “lily-livered” here as a metaphorical version of “white-livered,” which showed up in English a half-century earlier and meant “cowardly, feeble-spirited, pusillanimous,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first OED citation for the original expression is from a 1546 collection of proverbs by the English writer John Heywood:

“Why thynke ye me so white lyuerd (quoth she?) / That I will be tong tied? Nay I warrant ye.” We’ve expanded the citation to include two full lines of verse.

The dictionary says the expression may ultimately come from an ancient Greek term for cowardly, λευκηπατίας, or leukēpatias, literally “white-livered.”

As Oxford explains, the usage reflects the belief in ancient and medieval times “that a light-coloured liver was considered deficient in bile or choler, and hence lacking in vigour, spirit, or courage.”

In medieval physiology, as we wrote in 2009, the four humors (or fluids) of the body were blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile), and melancholy (black bile).

These supposedly determined one’s temperament as well as physical and mental health. Imbalances among the humors were blamed for pain and disease.

A temperament governed by blood was buoyant, by phlegm was sluggish, by choler was quick-tempered, and by melancholy was dejected, according to this system.

In “Some Meanings of the Liver,” a paper published in the March 1979 issue of the journal Gastroenterology, Sherman Mellinkoff writes that ancient doctors believed “too much bile caused anger or depression; too little, timidity or cowardice.” Bile, or gall, is produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder.

As Merriam-Webster Online notes, “In the Middle Ages the study of anatomy, or the cutting up and examining of human corpses, was illegal. Most of what was thought about the body thus was based on the theory of humors.”

“The humor, or body fluid, that was supposed to control anger, spirit, and courage was bile, produced by the liver. A person who lacked courage was supposed to have a white liver, because it had no yellow bile to color it. Thus a cowardly person was called white-livered or, more poetically, lily-livered.”

Interestingly, Shakespeare’s use of “pigeon-livered” around 1600 in Hamlet (“I am pidgion liuerd, and lack gall”) reflects the old belief that the pigeon had a mild disposition because of its lack of a gallbladder.

We’ll end with an excerpt from Barchester Towers (1857), the second of six novels in Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire. Here Archdeacon Grantly urges his father-in-law, Mr. Harding, to stand up to Mr. Slope, the Bishop’s chaplain:

“You owe it to us all to resist him in this, even if you have no solicitude for yourself. But surely, for your own sake, you will not be so lily-livered as to fall into this trap which he has baited for you and let him take the very bread out of your mouth without a struggle.”

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I came, I seen, I conquered

Q: Greetings from the OC, where “I seen” is a fairly common regionalism among people of all ages, socioeconomic levels, and walks of life. As in, “I seen him in concert.” I even heard it in a radio commercial. Has “I seen” gone mainstream?

A: The use of “seen” for “saw” isn’t just an Orange County, CA, regionalism. This dialectal usage is heard in much of the US, as well as in England, Scotland, and Ireland, though it’s not at all mainstream.

The Dictionary of American Regional English describes the usage as “widespread” in the US, tersely adding that it appears “esp freq among rural speakers and those with little formal educ.”

We’ll add that some formally educated speakers—rural, urban, and suburban—may be slurring the expression “I’ve seen” so that it sounds like “I seen.”

DARE has examples from across the country or, in the words of Woody Guthrie, “From California to the New York Island, From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters.”

Similarly, the English Dialect Dictionary has many regional examples from England, as well as a few from Scotland and Ireland.

In fact, the use of “seen” as the past tense of “see” is often found in the news media. We saw several thousand examples in a search of the News on the Web corpus, a large database of reports from online newspapers, broadcasters, and magazines.

However, most mainstream examples were quoting people in the news, as in this recent one from the Oct. 16, 2017, issue of the Atlanta Journal Constitution: “After I seen what I seen, you know I called the police.”

And here’s an example from an Oct. 9, 2017, broadcast on the local CBS TV station in New York City: “I seen where it was going, and my friends too.”

The earliest American example in DARE is from an 1818 letter by Henry Cogswell Knight, an Episcopal clergyman in Massachusetts, about his travels in the South and West:

“Some words are used, even by genteel people, from their imperfect educations, in a new sense; and others, by the lower classes in society, pronounced very uncouthly, as … I seen.” (Knight was writing about local speech in Kentucky.)

And here’s a citation from Widow Rugby’s Husband and Other Tales of Alabama, an 1851 collection of short stories by the American humorist Johnson Jones Hooper: “That’s the last time I seen my face.”

The most recent DARE example is from a 1997 report on “coal speak” in eastern Pennsylvania: “Seen: Commonly used instead of ‘saw.’ ‘Don’t tell me yiz wasn’t dere, I seen yiz wit my own eyes!’ ”

The earliest EDD example from the British Isles cites Tom Brown at Oxford, an 1861 novel by Thomas Hughes: “I seen em.” (The novel appeared serially two years earlier in Macmillan Magazine.)

Here’s a Scottish citation from the April 3, 1899, issue of the Glasgow Herald: “Dod aye, I seen him hanged.” And this Irish example is from Mrs. Martin’s Company and Other Stories (1896), by the Irish writer Jane Barlow: “She that seen it took.”

In addition to “seen,” DARE has examples for “see” and “seed” used in place of “saw” as the past tense of “see”:

“I see him yesterday, or I see him last week, for I saw him” (from the May 16, 1781, issue of the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser, Philadelphia).

List of Improprieties … Seed for Saw” (from The Columbian Grammar, 1795, by Benjamin Dearborn).

EDD includes many other regional British dialectal past tenses for “see,” including “saigh,” “seed,” “seigh,” “zeed,” and “zid.”

We’ll end with a “zid” example from Desperate Remedies, an 1871 novel by Thomas Hardy: “When I zid ’em die off so.” (The novel, published anonymously, was Hardy’s first to appear in print. A rejected earlier novel was never published.)

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Mother, can I?

Q: God only knows how many times my parents corrected me for using “can” instead of “may” to ask permission. I probably corrected my own children just as often, but I finally gave up. I assume this is a lost cause.

A: Yes, it’s a lost cause, as you learned from struggling with your children, and it was probably a lost cause when your parents were struggling with you.

The old rule is that “can” means “able to” and “may” means “permitted to.” For example, “Jesse can run fast” and “May I go for a jog, Mom?”

However, dictionaries now accept the use of both “can” and “may” as auxiliary verbs for asking permission, though some suggest that “can” here is informal.

As Merriam-Webster Unabridged explains, “The use of can to ask or grant permission has been common since the 19th century and is well established, although some commentators feel may is more appropriate in formal contexts.”

The M-W lexicographers suggest that the permission sense of “can” evolved from the use of both auxiliaries to express possibility, “because the possibility of one’s doing something may depend on another’s acquiescence.”

Although the use of “can” to indicate permission became more popular in the 19th century, the usage actually showed up hundreds of years earlier, initially as to grant permission.

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Book of Fayttes of Armes and of Chyualrye, William Caxton’s 1489 translation from the French of a work by Christine de Pisan:

“Þe lawe saithe suche a man can not make noo testament nor mary himself nor entre in to religyon.” (The term “can not” here means “is not permitted to.”)

The first OED citation in which “can” is used to ask for permission, rather than to grant it, is from a 1677 French-English dictionary by the Swiss-born English writer Guy Miege:

Y a-t-il moien que je lui parle? Can I speak with him?” (Literally, Y a-t-il moyen que je lui parle? means “Is there any way I can talk to him?”)

Although “may” has been used in the sense of granting permission since Anglo-Saxon times, it wasn’t used to ask for permission until the 17th century, according to citations in the OED.

At first it was used indirectly in parenthetical expressions, as in this example from Conjectura Cabbalistica, an essay by the English philosopher Henry More on cabbalistic views of Moses:

“Justice did but, if I may so speak, play and sport together in the businesse.”

As it turns out, the earliest Oxford citation for “may” used in the direct sense you’re asking about showed up two centuries after the dictionary’s first citation for “can” used that way:

“May we take your coach to town? I saw it in the hangar” (from The History of Henry Esmond, an 1852 novel by William Makepeace Thackeray).

Thus both etymology and common usage support using “can” to ask for permission.

So where did the old rule come from? Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says Samuel Johnson was one of the first language authorities to draw “a strict line of demarcation” between “can” and “may.”

The “can” entry in Johnson’s 1755 dictionary says: “It is distinguished from may, as power from permission; I can do it, it is within my power; I may do it, it is allowed to me: but in poetry they are confounded.”

The M-W usage guide says Johnson’s “definition of can shows that he was ignorant of the origin of the word” and didn’t know its earliest senses, “although such uses may have been the ‘confounded’ ones he found in poetry.”

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

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

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On teens and teenagers

Q: In his 1910 novel Daisy’s Aunt, E. F. Benson writes that Daisy’s parents died “when she was quite young, and not yet halfway through the momentous teens.” I’m shocked that people were using “teens” so long ago.

A: Prepare yourself for another shock. People have been using “teens” for the teenage years since the mid-1600s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

And here’s one more shocker. The OED has a British citation from the early 1800s for “teens” used to mean teenagers—more than a century before the word “teenager” showed up in American English.

The OED defines the “teens” as the “years of the life of any person (rarely, of the age of anything) of which the numbers end in -teen, i.e. from thirteen to nineteen; chiefly in phrases in, out of one’s teens.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Cheats, a 1664 comedy by the English playwright John Wilson: How often have I told you, she was in her Teenes?”

The first Oxford citation for “teen” used to mean an adolescent is from the title of an 1818 guidebook by Isaac Taylor, an English clergyman: “Advice to the Teens; or, Practical Helps to the Formation of Character.”

Despite this early and apparently rare British example, the dictionary says the use of “teen” for a “young person in the teens” is “now chiefly N. Amer. and apprehended as short for teenager.”

The earliest American citation is from the July 30, 1951, issue of the Deseret News (Salt Lake City): “Doing something fun like redecorating your room … is really interesting biz for a teen who loves being busy.

The noun “teenager” showed up (with a hyphen) in the early 1940s, according to OED citations. The first example is from the April 1941 issue of Popular Science Monthly: “I never knew teen-agers could be so serious.”

The adjective “teenage” showed up two decades earlier. The first Oxford citation is from the March 11, 1921, issue of the Daily Colonist (Victoria, BC):

“All ‘teen age’ girls of the city are cordially invited to attend the mass meeting to be held this evening.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the adjective “teenaged” is from a 1953 entry in The American Thesaurus of Slang (1954), by L. V. Berrey and Melvin Van Den Bark: “The teenaged set … a teenaged person.”

We’ll end with an expanded OED citation for “teenager” from a section on American advertising in The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (1947), a poem by W. H. Auden:

Definitely different. Has that democratic
Extra elegance. Easy to clean.
Will gladden grand-dad and your girl friend.
Lasts a lifetime. Leaves no odor.
American made. A modern product
Of nerve and know-how with a new thrill.
Patriotic to own. Is on its way
In a patent package. Pays to investigate.
Serves through science. Has something added
By skilled Scotchmen. Exclusively used
By upper classmen and Uncle Sam.
Tops in tests by teenagers.
Just ask for it always.

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How unique is ‘unique’?

Q: When I was in knee pants, I was taught that something “unique” is “one of a kind.” But when I wasn’t looking, the uniqueness of “unique” was apparently lost. Do I have to accept that it’s now merely “unusual”?

A: We were also taught that “unique” means “one of a kind,” and that’s the way we use it. You can use it that way too.

But while you weren’t looking, the lexicographers who put together dictionaries acknowledged what most English speakers already believed: “unique” can mean “unusual” as well as “one of a kind.”

Nevertheless, many usage authorities still insist on the traditional view, so feel free to use “unique” the way you were taught. But don’t criticize the people who use the term loosely. They have the dictionaries on their side.

English speakers borrowed “unique” in the early 1600s from the French, who got it from the Romans.

In Latin, unicus means “one and only,” and that’s how “unique” was used in English for more than two centuries.

At first, “unique” was mainly used by scholars and others aware of its Latin roots. For them, “unique” was an absolute term (like “infinite” or “eternal”), so there were no degrees of uniqueness. Nothing could be very or almost or sort of “unique.”

But as the word became more popular in the 1800s, it began losing its uniqueness in everyday usage.

As we say in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, writers who didn’t know or care about the word’s history began using it for the merely “unusual” or “remarkable” or “uncommon.”

The watered-down “unique” was often propped up with intensifiers—modifiers like “thoroughly,” “absolutely,” and “totally.” Before long, we had all kinds of uniqueness, from “rather” to “somewhat” to “very” to “most.”

For more than a century, usage guides have complained about the weakening of “unique” and berated “the illiterate” (Henry Fowler’s term) for emasculating it.

The latest version of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, a fourth edition by Jeremy Butterfield, notes that there’s still a “certain amount of hostility” toward the looser usage, and advises readers “to use it with caution.”

However, millions of people have ignored the usage gurus, and dictionaries have joined them. Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, for example, says:

“Many commentators have objected to the comparison or modification (as by somewhat or very) of unique, asserting that a thing is either unique or not unique. The objections are based chiefly on the assumption that unique has but a single absolute sense—an assumption contradicted by information readily available in a dictionary.”

The Unabridged lists many modern example of “unique” used to mean “unusual, notable,” including a 1956 comment by Arthur Miller at a news conference in London with his wife, Marilyn Monroe. Here’s an expanded version:

When Miller was asked how he saw Monroe, he responded: “Through two eyes. She’s the most unique person I ever met.”

In Origins of the Specious, published eight years ago, we acknowledged that “the horse is out of the barn here,” but we hoped that “it would come back home.”

That was wishful thinking. It’s clear today that “unique” means “unusual” as well as “one of a kind.” Thus does language change.

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The noisome origins of ‘noisy’

Q: “Noisome” and “noisy” look alike, despite their different meanings. Are they linguistically related?

A: No, “noisome” (smelly or disgusting) and “noisy” (making a lot of noise) aren’t etymologically related, though “noisy” very likely had smelly origins.

“Noisome,” which showed up in the 14th century, was derived from the combination of “noy,” an archaic form of “annoy,” with the suffix “-some”.

“Noisy,” which also appeared in the 1300s, is derived from “noise,” a word that English borrowed from Anglo-Norman in the 12th century.

Although “noisy” isn’t etymologically related to “noisome,” the noun “noise” probably had noisome origins in classical times, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the classical source of “noise” is likely nausea, Latin for sea sickness. That literal sense apparently evolved in the Romance languages to “upset, malaise,” then “disturbance, uproar” and finally “noise, din.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “noisome” is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: foolys þoo thyngis þat ben noȝesum to þem shul coueiten” (“fools shall covet those things that be noisome to them”).

The first OED example for “noisy” is from The Country-Wife, a 1675 comedy by the English playwright William Wycherley: “Your noisy pert Rogue of a wit, the greatest Fop, dullest Ass, and worst Company as you shall see.”

Finally, the dictionary’s earliest citation for “noise” is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that probably dates from sometime before 1200:

“Þe prude beoð his bemeres; draheð wind inward worltlich hereword, and eft wið idel ȝelp puffeð hit utward as þe bemeres doð, makieð noise” (“The proud are his trumpeters; they draw in the wind of worldly praise, and then, with vain boasting, puff it out again, as the trumpeter doth, to maketh noise”). We’ve expanded the OED citation to add context.

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Biggity: too big for one’s britches

Q: An example in your piece about “ungrateful” and “uppity” uses “bigity,” as in “too big for one’s britches.” Did it originate among African Americans? I’ve heard it only from black folks in in the South.

A: The word “biggity” may indeed have originated in the 19th century among African Americans in the South, though a somewhat similar dialectal term, “bigotty,” showed up a bit earlier in England.

The Dictionary of American Regional English defines “biggity” (also spelled “bigity,” “biggaty,'” “biggedy,” etc.) as “exhibiting a sense of superiority or self-importance; arrogant, insolent, uppity.”

The earliest DARE example for “biggity” is from Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings (1881), by Joel Chandler Harris: “Dey er mighty biggity, dem house niggers is, but I notices dat dey don’t let nuthin’ pass.”

Many African Americans have criticized the portrayal of Uncle Remus, the narrator, as demeaning, patronizing, or racist. But others have said the characterization, with its Gullah dialect, is accurate.

In the foreword of a 1987 retelling of the Brer Rabbit stories, for example, the black folklorist Julius Lester writes:

“There are no inaccuracies in Harris’s characterization of Uncle Remus. Even the most cursory reading of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writer’s Project of the 1930s reveals that there were many slaves who fit the Uncle Remus mold.”

DARE has citations for “biggity” used by whites as well as blacks, in the American South and Midwest, from the late 19th to the early 21st century.

The states include Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and a Northeast outlier, New Jersey.

The latest example is a 2015 Louisiana entry from the dictionary’s Internet files: “I thought that everyone in a highschool band would be biggity and cocky towards freshman. It wasn’t the case though.”

DARE notes that the English Dialect Dictionary has an entry for “bigotty,” meaning “bumptious, overbearing, self-willed,” and suggests that both “biggity” and “bigotty” may have been derived from the noun “bigot.”

In support of this notion, DARE editors point readers to a 1902 citation from Dialect Notes, a journal of the American Dialect Society: “Bigoted or bigoty … Conceited; proud; haughty.”

The earliest citation for “bigotty” in the English Dialect Dictionary is from an 1873 issue of the journal Notes and Queries: “Maayn beg·utee luyk, id-n ur [very bumptious (like), is he not?].” The EDD adds: “Nothing suggestive of religious intolerance is implied.”

The idea that “biggity” originated among African Americans is supported by an example we’ve found in “Negro English,” an article by the American linguist James A. Harrison in the January 1884 issue of Anglia, a German quarterly devoted to English linguistics.

The article, written in English, has a glossary entitled “Specimen Negroisms” that includes this example: “To talk biggity = to talk big, to order.”

Harrison’s work “is believed to be the first linguistic study of ‘Negro English,’ ” according to the Oxford Handbook of African American Language. However, modern scholars have challenged some of Harrison’s ideas, such as his view that “Negro English” would eventually fade away.

In Figures in Black (1987), for example, Henry Louis Gates Jr. notes Harrison’s prediction that African American Vernacular English (the term linguists now use), would become, as Gates says, “a mere relic of the slave past.”

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Is it all relative … or academic?

Q: What is the difference between “it’s all relative” and “it’s all academic”? It seem to me that there’s something hypothetical about both of them.

A: The two usages, which showed up in the early 1800s, have a sense of uncertainty about them. “Relative” here means indefinite or indeterminate, while “academic” means impractical, theoretical, or inconsequential.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “to be relative” as “to be evaluated differently depending on a person’s perspective; to be incapable of definitive or absolute evaluation. Frequently in it’s all relative.”

In other words, it’s all in the eye of the beholder, a usage that showed up in the early 1600s.

The earliest example for “it’s all relative” in the OED is from an 1804 case report by Christopher Robinson, a judge on the High Court of Admiralty:

“It may be difficult to lay down the precise bounds, where ordinary commerce ends, and extraordinary speculation begins. It is all relative.”

The dictionary defines “academic” in the sense you’re asking about as “not leading to a decision; unpractical; strictly theoretical or formal. Now also in weakened sense: of no consequence, irrelevant.”

The dictionary’s first example is from an 1812 issue of the Monthly Review, a British literary journal:

“His erudition must be worked into the edifice, not exhibited in lumpish disconnection. He must preserve the epic form, without sliding into academic discussion.”

The OED doesn’t have a citation for “it’s all academic.” But examples aren’t hard to find.

The earliest example we’ve found is from the February 1892 issue of Books, a publication of the Denver (CO) Public Library: “It is all academic to the last degree. It is perhaps the airiest of suspicions.”

In a recent example, Richard Posner, who had just retired as a federal judge in Chicago, said in a Sept. 14, 2017, interview that he was ordinarily polite in court but found it irritating when lawyers were unprepared or talkative or went off the point:

“So I do get annoyed; I’m criticized for that. I should control myself, but of course now, it’s all academic. I’m not a judge. Too late to correct me.”

As for the etymology, “academic” is ultimately derived from the classical Latin acadēmicus, describing the ancient Academy of Athens or its philosophy, while “relative” ultimately comes from the classical Latin relātus, past participle of referre (to refer).

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Seedy endings

Q: I’m often flummoxed when I try to spell words with endings that sound like “seed.” Is there a way to keep these endings straight?

A: Words that end with a “seed” sound are notoriously hard to spell, as Pat notes in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I.

“It helps to keep in mind that all but four end with cede,” she writes. “Three end with ceed, and only one ends with sede.

The cede-less variety consists of “exceed,” “proceed,” “succeed,” and “supersede.”

When in doubt, look it up. But if you don’t have a dictionary handy and you have to guess, the odds are good that the ending is “-cede.”

The “-cede” ending is ultimately derived from cēdere, classical Latin for to go away or give ground, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

So etymologically, “antecede” means to go before, “intercede” to go between, and “recede” to go back, while “cede” and “concede” both mean to give ground or yield.

The “-ceed” ending is similarly derived from cēdere, the OED says, so “exceed” has the etymological sense of to go out, “proceed” to go forward, and “succeed” to go near.

Although the “-sede” ending in “supersede” may have been influenced by cēdere, according to Oxford, it ultimately comes from supersedēre, classical Latin for to sit on top of or abstain.

We published a post a couple of years ago about the difference between “accede” and “concede.” (“Concede” has an element of defeat, while “accede” implies a more ready acceptance.)

In the earlier item, we cite the OED as saying “cede” originally meant “to give way, give place, yield to”—as in “a servant cedes to his master.”

But that sense is now obsolete, the dictionary says, and “cede” now means “to give up, grant; to yield, surrender: esp. to give up a portion of territory.”

The earliest OED citation for the modern sense is from a 1754 travel book by Alexander Drummond:

“That honour was entirely ceded to the Parthian royal race.” (The Parthian Empire, which existed from 247 BC to 224 AD, ruled parts of ancient Iran and Iraq.)

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Is ‘ungrateful’ the new ‘uppity’?

Q: The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb says “ungrateful” is the new “uppity,” citing its use to condemn wealthy black athletes who take a knee to protest police brutality. Any comment?

A: In his article, Cobb mentions a tweet by Joe Walsh, a conservative talk-show host and former Republican congressman from Illinois:

“Stevie Wonder began a performance in Central Park last night by taking a knee, prompting Congressman Joe Walsh to tweet that Wonder was ‘another ungrateful black multi-millionaire.’ Ungrateful is the new uppity.”

The word “ungrateful” (not feeling or showing gratitude) has been used a lot lately to criticize protesting African-American athletes, along with quite a few other disparaging terms.

For example, a widely circulated post by Breitbart News on Facebook calls the protesters “a bunch of rich, entitled, arrogant, ungrateful, anti-American degenerates.”

However, the use of “ungrateful” to criticize blacks isn’t especially new. It’s been used that way at least as far back as the mid-1800s.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from British Guiana: Demerara After Fifteen Years of Freedom, an 1853 book by John Brummell, a land owner in the Demerara region of the British colony:

“Even now, when the British nation, disappointed at the results of Emancipation in the West Indies, plainly demand that the lazy and ungrateful negro, should not be allowed to relapse into barbarism.”

And an article in the May 1864 issue of the Christian Examiner, an American journal, uses the term in predicting the reaction of plantation owners to the freeing of slaves at the end of the Civil War.

The writer says the planters will complain “that emancipation has been the ruin of the South; that the lazy and ungrateful negro chooses to earn a competency on his own soil.”

But how is “ungrateful” being used in that 1864 example? Did the writer really believe that plantation owners would think their former slaves should feel gratitude for being enslaved?

We suspect that the term is being used here in the sense of “uppity” (arrogant or conceited), a word that showed up later in the 19th century.

The first citation for “uppity” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Uncle Remus, Joel Chandler Harris’s 1881 collection of African-American folk tales. (An earlier term, “uppish,” also means conceited or stuck up.)

Uncle Remus, the fictional black narrator of the stories, uses “uppity” for a stuck-up sparrow that tattles on Brer Fox: “Hit wuz wunner deze yer uppity little Jack Sparrers, I speck.”

Uncle Remus also uses “uppity” to describe Brer Rabbit, Brer Rooster, and a flighty black maid, Tildy.

In a few years, the word “uppity” was being used in mainstream newspapers without racial overtones, according to our searches of NewsBank databases.

The March 20, 1886, issue of the Macon (GA) Telegraph, for example, describes how a woman was tricked into pulling the bell-line to stop a train. When the conductor questions her, the woman says “you needn’t git so uppity.”

And the Jan. 23, 1888, Duluth (MN) Daily News has an account about a merchant in a town who “becomes a little uppity and bigity, and so he moves to the city.”

Of course the term has long been used to disparage African-Americans. The OED cites this example from Frederick Lewis Allen’s 1952 social history The Big Change:

“The effect of the automobile revolution was especially noticeable in the South, where one began to hear whites complaining about ‘uppity niggers’ on the highways, where there was no Jim Crow.”

And we’ll add a comment by Rush Limbaugh, who said that Michelle Obama was booed at a NASCAR event because the crowd didn’t like her travel spending and her campaign for healthy living.

“NASCAR people understand that’s a little bit of a waste,” Limbaugh said on a Nov. 21, 2011, broadcast of his radio show. “They understand it’s a little bit of uppity-ism.”

Getting back to your question, is “ungrateful” being used now in the sense of “uppity”?

Well, Joe Walsh, the talk-show host, does seem to be using it that way. But some other critics of protesting black athletes may be using it in the sense of unpatriotic.

For example, Denise Rohan, national commander of the American Legion, called the NFL protests “misguided and ungrateful.”

“There are many ways to protest, but the national anthem should be our moment to stand together as one UNITED States of America,” she said in a statement.

As for the etymology here, the words “grateful” and “ungrateful” ultimately come from grātus, classical Latin for agreeable, pleasing, popular, and thankful.

In fact, the word “grateful” meant both agreeable and thankful when it showed up in English in the mid-1500s. Similarly, “ungrateful” once meant disagreeable as well as not feeling or showing gratitude.

The earliest example for “ungrateful” in the OED uses the term in the sense of not feeling or showing gratitude:

“The Macedons … confessyng them selues bothe wicked and vngrateful, for depriuynge him of anye name wherof he was worthye.” (From John Brende’s 1553 translation of a work by the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus.)

The first citation for “ungrateful” used to mean disagreeable is from “Orchestra,” a 1596 poem by John Davies about dancing:

“How shee illudes with all the Art she can, / Th’vngratefull loue which other Lords began.” (We’ve expanded the citation to add context).

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One of a kind

Q: I am 74 and grew up in what is now Silicon Valley. When I was a teenager, the phrase “one of” was used to indicate something unique, as in “Hey, man, it’s a one of.” Can you tell me something about the usage?

A: Our guess is that the teenagers you hung out with were using “one of” as short for “one of a kind,” an expression dating back at least as far as the 17th century.

The clipped usage shows up occasionally in writing, as in this example from a 2011 Huffington Post article about disaster relief:

“Rather than ‘one-of’ projects, community literally means a group of interacting organisms sharing a populated environment.”

However, you won’t find the clipped version in standard dictionaries or in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

We also didn’t see it in any of our slang dictionaries. The Dictionary of American Regional English has an entry for “one of,” but it’s used differently to mean an event that one just misses.

Here’s a DARE citation from 1914: “Come within one of … Come near, in the sense of barely to escape … ‘I come within one of breaking my best china platter this morning.’ ”

The earliest written example we’ve found for “one of a kind” (meaning “a unique instance”) is from Primordia, a 1683 work of theology by the English cleric Thomas Tanner:

“And what need Cain have given any name to his City, if there were no other City in the World beside? For names are for distinction, and are useless where there is but one of a kind.”

This example is from an article on antiquities in A New Universal History of Arts and Sciences, a 1759 encyclopedia:

“Singular medals are invaluable. We commonly understand by singular medals, such as are not found in the cabinets of the curious, and are only met with by chance; but in a stricter sense are such whereof there is not above one of a kind extant.”

And here’s an example from The Four Gospels, a 1789 translation of the Greek, with commentary, by the Scottish Enlightenment scholar and clergyman George Campbell:

“A proper name is not necessary where there are no more than one of a kind.”

The OED cites only 20th-century examples in which “one of a kind” is an adjectival phrase meaning “unique.” Here are a few citations:

“Non-recurrent phenomena are one-of-a-kind and uniquely occurrent.” (From Arthur C. Danto’s article “On Historical Questioning,” published in The Journal of Philosophy, Feb. 4, 1954.)

“A one-of-a-kind film.” (From The New Yorker, April 21, 1975, referring to the 1945 movie Children of Paradise.)

“I think of myself standing there in the gallery, surrounded by one-of-a-kind boutique-wear and real pearls.” (From Margaret Atwood’s 1988 novel Cat’s Eye.)

We wrote a post in 2008 about the British usage “one-off,” which began as a commercial term in manufacturing. It was first used in the 1930s as a noun phrase and in the ’40s as an adjective.

In that expression, the OED says, “off” is “used with a preceding numeral to represent a quantity in production or manufacture, or an item or number of items so produced.” Any number can precede “off,” but the OED says the most common is “one.”

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A political groundswell

Q: In The Heir of Redclyffe, an 1853 novel, Charlotte M. Yonge describes a “ground-swell” (she hyphenates it) as “a continuous low moan, or roar, far, far away.” How did it become a political term?

A: When the word showed up in the early 19th century, it referred to a “deep swell or heavy rolling of the sea, the result of a distant storm or seismic disturbance,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But the term was also used figuratively “with reference to mental or political agitation,” the dictionary says, though it doesn’t have any political examples.

In fact, the earliest citation in the OED is a figurative usage from Zapolya: A Christmas Tale (1817), a verse play by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “It is the ground-swell of a teeming instinct.”

The dictionary’s first literal example is from The Heart of Midlothian (1818), the seventh of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels: “The agitation of the waters, called by sailors the ground-swell.”

Interestingly, this literal example was used to describe the agitated state of a crowd. (The novel was originally published as Tales of My Landlord, under the pseudonym Jedediah Cleishbotham.)

By the way, the OED uses a hyphen for “groundswell,” but the dictionary’s entry hasn’t been fully updated. Standard dictionaries now list the term as one word.

Although Oxford doesn’t have any citations for “groundswell” used politically, perhaps the most common sense today, we’ve found several from the 19th century.

For example, a July 12, 1872, headline in the New York Herald sums up reaction to the nomination of Horace Greeley as the Democratic candidate for president as “The Groundswell After the Political Storm at Baltimore.”

And the Aug. 25, 1898, issue of the Minneapolis Journal has this headline on page one: “A GROUNDSWELL / What Senator Davis Predicts for the Republican Party. / Full Control of the Senate and House Is Anticipated.”

Finally, a June 17, 1902, editorial in the Morning Herald (Lexington, KY) comments on “a ground-swell of dissatisfaction against the system” for managing the state’s charitable institutions.

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