English English language Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

The ‘hey’ in ‘heyday’

Q: Did the word “heyday” originally refer to a day when hay is harvested?

A: No, “heyday” isn’t etymologically related to either “hay” or “day.” In fact, it’s probably related to the exclamation “hey,” used to call attention, express surprise, and so on.

“Originally, the word was heyda, an exclamation roughly equivalent to the modern English hurrah,” John Ayto says in his Dictionary of Word Origins. “Probably it was just an extension of hey, modelled partly on Low German heida ‘hurrah.’ ”

When “heyday” first showed up in English writing in the early 1500s, it was an “exclamation denoting frolicsomeness, gaiety, surprise, wonder, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from Magnyfycence, a 1530 morality play by the English poet laureate John Skelton: “Rutty bully Ioly rutterkyn heyda.”

The central character in the play, Magnificence, is tempted by such political evils as Crafty Conveyance, Courtly Abusion, and Cloaked Collusion.

That line of dialogue, a comment by Courtly Abusion to Cloaked Collusion, comes from a medieval song. It’s apparently a satire on the gibberish supposedly spoken by drunken Flemish visitors in England.

The next Oxford example is from Abcedarium Anglo Latinum (1552), an English-Latin dictionary by Richard Huloet: “Heyda or hey, euax.” (The Latin exclamation euax means good.)

And here’s an expanded OED citation from Ralph Roister Doister, a comic play by Nicholas Udall, written around 1550: “Hoighdagh, if faire fine Mistresse Custance sawe you now, Ralph Roister Doister were hir owne I warrant you.”

As for the noun “heyday,” it referred to a “state of exaltation or excitement of the spirits or passions” when it first appeared in the late 1500s, Oxford says.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from Sir Thomas More (circa 1590), a play written and revised by several writers (a three-page, handwritten revision is said to be by Shakespeare):

“And lett this be they maxime, to be greate / Is when the thred of hayday is once spoun, / A bottom great woond vpp greatly vndoun.” (The word “bottom” here refers to a ball of thread.)

Ayto, in his etymological dictionary, says “the influence of the day-like second syllable did not make itself felt until the mid-18th century, when the modern sense ‘period of greatest success’ began to emerge.”

The OED defines the modern sense as the “stage or period when excited feeling is at its height; the height, zenith, or acme of anything which excites the feelings; the flush or full bloom, or stage of fullest vigour, of youth, enjoyment, prosperity, or the like.”

The earliest Oxford example is from The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, a 1751 novel by Tobias Smollett, who refers to Peregrine as an “imperious youth, who was now in the heyday of his blood.”

As for the old interjection “hey,” the OED defines it as a “call to attract attention; also, an exclamation expressing exultation, incitement, surprise, etc.; sometimes used in the burden of a song with no definite meaning; sometimes as an interrogative.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an account of the life of Saint Katherine of Alexandria, written sometime before 1225: “Hei! hwuch wis read of se icudd keiser!” (“Hey! What wise counsel from such a well-known emperor!”)

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

English English language Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Usage Writing

My plastic blue new nice truck

Q: If, as a child, I said, “That me truck,” someone would have corrected me. But if I said, “my plastic blue new nice truck,” I don’t think anyone would have told me the order was wrong. So how do such conventions get passed on?

A: We’ve already written about the order of adjectives in noun phrases. A post in 2010 explains why we say “a perfect little black dress,” not “a black perfect little dress.” And a 2017 post discusses the lack of commas in such a phrase.

However, we haven’t written about how children become aware of the conventions for using premodifiers.

Entire books and countless papers have been written about the order of premodifiers. But we haven’t found a definitive answer as to how this apparently “natural” order is passed on.

As you suggest, a toddler who says “my plastic blue new nice truck” is probably not corrected to say, “my nice new blue plastic truck,” yet somehow the conventional order eventually becomes automatic.

How does this happen? We can offer a couple of possibilities.

As children become more articulate, either (1) they imitate what they hear around them, with adults consistently placing adjectives in a given order, or (2) they intuitively grasp that there’s a natural hierarchy of English adjectives.

We lean toward #2, though #1 may play a role. If #2 is the answer, and there’s a natural hierarchy, it may be organized roughly like this:

The adjectives closest to the noun reflect qualities that exist in the noun (like “blue” or “plastic”), while those further from the noun reflect subjective opinions or evaluations (like “nice” and “new”).

This seems to be the pattern when linguists and grammarians write about the order in which English premodifiers appear.

For example, English Grammar Today, by Ronald Carter et al., divides them into 10 categories, beginning with those that are always first in line—that is, farthest from the noun (the head of the phrase):

“1. opinion (unusual, lovely, beautiful); 2. size (big, small, tall); 3. physical quality (thin, rough, untidy); 4. shape (round, square, rectangular); 5. age (young, old, youthful); 6. colour (blue, red, pink); 7. origin (Dutch, Japanese, Turkish); 8. material (metal, wood, plastic); 9. type (general-purpose, four-sided, U-shaped); 10. purpose (cleaning, hammering, cooking).”

In A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Randolph Quirk and his co-authors suggest that “a subjective/objective polarity” accounts for the order of premodifiers in English:

“That is, modifiers relating to properties which are (relatively) inherent in the head of the noun phrase, visually observable, and objectively recognizable or assessible, will tend to be placed nearer to the head and be preceded by modifiers concerned with what is relatively a matter of opinion, imposed on the head by the observer, not visually observed, and only subjectively assessible.”

It’s interesting to note that English isn’t unique in the ordering of modifiers before a noun. In his book Linguistic Semantics (1992), William Frawley writes:

“English, German, Hungarian, Polish, Turkish, Hindi, Persian, Indonesian, and Basque all order value before size, and those two before color: Value > Size > Color.”

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

English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Not on my watch

Q: I see the expression “not on my watch” all over the place these days. I assume it began life as a naval usage. Right?

A: The noun “watch” has been used for hundreds of years by soldiers, sailors, and officers of the law to mean a period of vigil on land or at sea. It’s unclear whose usage inspired “not on my watch.”

The earliest example we’ve seen for the expression cites a sailor, but he uses it figuratively to mean “no way” or “absolutely not.” A few years later, a police officer on a night watch uses it literally in the sense of “This won’t happen while I’m on duty.”

That early figurative example, tracked down by the lexicographer Jonathan Lighter, is from the March 17, 1907, issue of the Duluth (MN) News Tribune. It appears in an account of a brawl at a Bowery bar in New York City:

“Jack had started to meander on his way, but Tom pinched him and stung him a fifty for the bunch of busted glass. ‘Not on my watch,’ says Jack, and the two mixed it.”

(Jack Rollings, a sailor on shore leave from the USS Alabama, had broken a mirror and refused the demand of Tom Sharkey, the owner, for restitution.)

The earliest literal example that we’ve found (from the May 29, 1911, issue of the San Francisco Call) describes the response of Capt. Steve Bunner, night chief of detectives at the city’s central station, when a man threatened to commit suicide:

“ ‘Not on my watch,’ said Bunner. He pushed the button and two large policemen appeared. ‘Take this man to the detention hospital,’ he said.”

The usage is quite popular now, as you’ve noticed. The Kentucky Secretary of State, Alison Lundergan Grimes, used it recently in commenting on the presidential voter fraud commission’s request for registration information:

“There’s not enough bourbon here in Kentucky to make this request seem sensible. Not on my watch are we going to be releasing sensitive information that relates to the privacy of individuals.” (From the June 30, 2017, issue of the Hill.)

Another version, “not under my watch,” is also popular. The first example we’ve found is from the Sept. 15, 2000, issue of the Globe and Mail (Toronto).

John Hayter, chairman and chief executive officer at Vickers & Benson, explains why he supported the sale of the struggling Canadian advertising agency to Havas Advertising of Paris:

“There is absolutely no glory in overseeing the slow demise of Vickers & Benson. We have been a proud Canadian agency for 76 years, and not under my watch was I going to see it slowly, slowly fade away.”

When the noun “watch” showed up in Anglo-Saxon times (spelled wæcce or wæccan in Old English), it referred to wakefulness, especially keeping awake for guarding, observing, and the like, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first OED example is from King Ælfred’s translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ, a sixth-century treatise by the Roman philosopher and statesman Boethius:

“Hu micele wæccan & hu micle unrotnesse se hæfð þe ðone won willan hæfð on þisse worulde” (“How great the watch and how great the grief of someone with wicked desires in this world”).

This Middle English example is from Confessio Amantis (1393), a long poem by John Gower about the confessions of an aging lover:

“So mot I nedes fro hire wende / And of my wachche make an ende” (“So I must needs go from her and make an end of my watch”).

Over the next two centuries, the noun “watch” came to mean people on guard or observation, as well as their period of duty, especially at night. The term was used for watches in towns, on military posts, and aboard ships.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, first performed in the early1600s: “As I did stand my watch vpon the Hill / I look’d toward Byrnane, and anon me thought / The Wood began to moue.”

This biblical example is from the King James Version of 1611: “I will stand vpon my watch, and set mee vpon the towre, and will watch to see what he will say vnto me.”

And here’s a nautical example from The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), by Capt. John Smith:

“When we had run 30. leagues we had 40. fadom, then 70. then 100. After 2. or 3. Watches more we were in 24. fadoms.”

The OED suggests that the observation sense of “watch” evolved from the periods “into which the night was anciently divided.” The Israelites divided the night into three periods, the Greeks into four or five, and the Romans into four, according to Oxford.

Interestingly, “in my watch” and “upon my watch” showed up in English before “on my watch.” All three expressions originally meant to be on duty as a watchman or sentinel.

The oldest of these phrases in the OED comes from the Coverdale Bible of 1535:

“Whyle they are yet stondinge in the watch, the dores shall be shut and barred. And there were certayne citesyns of Ierusalem appoynted to be watch-men, euery one in his watch” (from Nehemiah 7:3).

The dictionary’s first example for “upon my watch” is in the passage from the King James Version of 1611 cited above.

The OED doesn’t have an example for “on my watch.” The earliest we’ve found is from the March 1733 issue of the London Magazine:

“I was on my Watch in the Temple that Night the Murder was done; and nothing past but Gentlemen going to their Chambers” (from an account of the trial of Sarah Malcolm, a laundress hanged for three murders).

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

English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Usage Word origin Writing

Nonbinary thinking

Q: The company I work for has hired a person who identifies as gender nonbinary, and prefers to be referred to as “they” rather than “he” or “she.” Our new hire adds that a simple, sensitive, and inclusive solution would be to use plural pronouns for everyone. At the risk of sounding like Archie Bunker, geez Louise, this is counter to my 50-plus years of English education! Am I wrong?

A: No, you’re not wrong. It’s silly to use “they” for someone who’s happy to be called “he” or “she.” And the binary majority might not consider the usage simple, sensitive, or inclusive. (We’ll discuss the nonbinary use of “they” later in this post.)

Several months ago we wrote about changing views on the use of the plural pronoun “they” in reference to an indefinite, unknown person.

A sentence like “Someone forgot their umbrella” is now considered standard English, even though “they” is plural and an indefinite pronoun like “someone” is technically singular—that is, it takes a singular verb: “someone is.”

The indefinite singular use of “they” is not new, as we wrote in that post. It’s been common in English writing since the early 1300s, and was considered perfectly normal until 18th-century grammarians took exception to it.

In spite of the admonitions, however, English speakers have continued to use “they” (along with “them,” “their,” and “theirs”) in reference to an unknown “someone,” “everybody,” “anybody” and the rest.

As we’ve said many times, common usage will out! Those old prohibitions are no longer recognized by linguists and lexicographers, and we accept their view (though we prefer to reword our own writing to avoid the plural “they” for indefinite pronouns).

Your question, however, leads us to a different singular use of “they.” Because it is gender-neutral, “they” has recently been adopted as the pronoun of choice by many people who identify as nonbinary—that is, neither male nor female.

We’ll invent an office-type example of this usage, with “Robin” as our nonbinary person: “If Robin is at their desk, please ask them to come to the meeting, since they expressed an interest.”

This nonbinary “they” (we’ll call it #2) is very different from the indefinite “they” (call it #1) that we discussed above.

The #1 “they” represents an unknown person (as in “Someone forgot their umbrella”), but the #2 “they” is a known person who doesn’t want to be referred to as a “he” or a “she.”

As of today, all the major dictionaries recognize the #1 “they” as standard English, but the #2 “they” is mentioned by only one. This is to be expected, since #1 has been around for 700 years while #2 is still unfamiliar to many English speakers.

The only standard dictionary to tackle the subject—at least so far—is The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.). Its entry for “they” includes this definition: “Used as a singular personal pronoun for someone who does not identify as either male or female.”

American Heritage doesn’t label the usage as nonstandard. But it adds this warning in a usage note: “The recent use of singular they for a known person who identifies as neither male nor female remains controversial.”

In fact, the dictionary says a majority of its usage panel was against this new “they” at last report:

“As of 2015 only 27 percent of the Panelists accepted Scout was born male, but now they do not identify as either traditional gender. With regard to this last sentence, the Panel’s responses showed a clear generational shift: the approval rate was 4 percent among Panelists born before 1945 and 40 percent among Panelists born later.”

Dictionaries may lag, but the nonbinary use of “they” has been accepted by the Associated Press and the Chicago Manual of Style, which are looked to as guides by many news organizations and book publishers.

Last March both announced new policies on “they,” allowing its use in reference to a known person who doesn’t identify as either male or female.

AP said in its announcement that the change was “spurred in large part by expanding journalistic coverage of transgender and gender-nonbinary issues.”

The new AP Stylebook recommends using “the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible,” but adds: “If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.”

The newly published 17th edition of the Chicago Manual has this: “For references to a specific person, the choice of pronoun may depend on the individual. Some people identify not with a gender-specific pronoun but instead with the pronoun they and its forms or some other gender-neutral singular pronoun; any such preferences should generally be respected.”

Oddly, both AP and the Chicago Manual only grudgingly accept the use of “they” for an unknown person, a usage that is no longer questioned in dictionaries.

When used in reference to an unknown person, Chicago says, “they and their have become common in informal usage, but neither is considered fully acceptable in formal writing.”

Yet they thoroughly embrace the nonbinary usage, a much newer, potentially confusing, and more grammatically radical use of “they.” And, as we’ve said, a use that has made it into only one standard dictionary so far—with a warning.

What’s our advice? Well, as things stand, the nonbinary use of “they” for a known person is accepted by some usage authorities and not by others. Only time will tell whether it will become common in ordinary English.

In the meantime, companies that want to be sensitive to the wishes of nonbinary employees might follow the examples of AP and the Chicago Manual.

If a pronoun is necessary, use “they,” “them,” and “their” for an employee who has that preference. But clarity is just as important as sensitivity. Be sure to make clear when “they” refers to only one person and when it refers to several people.

And when “they” is the subject of a verb, the verb is always plural, even in reference to a single person: “Robin says they are coming to the lunch meeting, so order them a sandwich.”

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

English English language Expression Grammar Language Punctuation Usage Writing

When commas are uncommon

Q: I give up. How can I tell when to drop the commas in a string of adjectives before a noun?

A: The key here is the kinds of adjectives you’re combining and whether their order makes any difference. Here’s what you need to know.

  • If you can put “and” between the adjectives and make sense, use commas: “Daisy is a healthy, happy, outgoing puppy.” (It would be wordy, but you could say “healthy and happy and outgoing puppy.”)
  • If you can’t use “and” between the adjectives, drop the commas: “Daisy’s favorite toy is a big old blue velvet rabbit.” (You wouldn’t say “big and old and blue and velvet rabbit.”)
  • If the adjectives always occur in a certain order don’t use commas. “Her favorite playmates are two elderly black poodles that live down the block.” (You wouldn’t say “black elderly two poodles.”)

Some adjectives appear in a certain order when combined with dissimilar ones. These include adjectives for number (“two,” “three”), size (“little,” “tall”), age (“young,” “new”), color (“black,” “red”), and composition (“brick,” “leather”).

These adjectives always appear in a particular order. This explains why someone wears a “perfect little black dress,” not a “black little perfect dress,” as we wrote in 2010.

Here’s a parting sentence. It’s a mouthful, but we don’t feel a need to pause between adjectives when reading it aloud. And we didn’t feel a need for commas between adjectives when writing it.

“An overactive young terrier wearing a shiny new pink leather collar came out of an impressive red brick building and walked to the refurbished off-leash dog park to play with three aging French bulldogs in stunning white wool sweaters.”

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

English English language Etymology Expression Pronunciation Usage Word origin Writing

FLAS-id or FLAK-sid?

Q: My girlfriend, an English major, tells me that I’m pronouncing “flaccid” wrong. I say FLAS-id and she says FLAK-sid. Should we call the whole thing off?

A: No, you’re both right, and (as the Gershwin song goes) you’d better call the calling off off.

The word “flaccid” (meaning soft or weak) has two pronunciations in standard dictionaries. Some list FLAS-id first and others FLAK-sid, but both are considered standard English today.

Traditionally, “flaccid” was pronounced only one way—FLAK-sid, similar to the pronunciations of other English words in which the letter combination “cc” comes before “i” or “e” (as in “accept,” “success,” and “vaccination”).

The 1926 first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, by Henry W. Fowler, lists only the traditional pronunciation.

But the 2015 fourth edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, edited by Jeremy Butterfield, says it can be pronounced either way, though FLAS-id “is probably more frequently heard.”

A more conservative usage guide, Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), prefers the traditional pronunciation, but Bryan A. Garner, the author, warns readers about using the term:

“In short, the word is a kind of skunked term: pronounce it in the traditional way, and you’ll take some flak for doing so; pronounce it in the new way, and the cognoscenti will probably infer that you couldn’t spell or say cognoscenti, either.”

We think the traditionalists are fighting a losing battle. If we have to use the term, we’ll pronounce it FLAS-id, never mind the cognoscenti.

Language commentators began criticizing FLAS-id in the 19th century, as in this example from Pronouncing Handbook of Words Often Mispronounced (1873), by Richard Soule and Loomis J. Campbell: “flaccid, flak’sid, not flas’id.”

However, we’ve found many earlier examples from the 18th and 19th centuries for “flaccid” misspelled as “flacid,” suggesting that it was pronounced like—and perhaps influenced by—“placid.”

Here’s an example from A Dictionary of Surgery (1796), by Benjamin Lara: “When the parts continue mortisied for a great length of time, without either turning flacid, or running into dissolution, it is called a dry gangrene.”

In fact, the misspelling is common enough now to be cited by Garner, who gives this example from a May 12, 2002, restaurant review in the New York Post:

“The succulent shellfish practically melted on the tongue, but the tempura coating was oddly flacid.”

As for the etymology, English borrowed “flaccid” from French in the early 1600s, but the ultimate sources are the classical Latin flaccidus (limp) and flaccus (flabby).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as “wanting in stiffness, hanging or lying loose or in wrinkles; limber, limp; flabby.”

The earliest citation in the OED is from Via Recta ad Vitam Longam, a 1620 book about health and hygiene. The author, Tobias Venner, a physician in the English spa town of Bath, warns against the dangers of drinking milk:

“And whosoeuer shall vse to drinke milke, because that it is hurtfull to the gummes and teeth; for the one it maketh flaccide, and the other subiect to putrefaction.”

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

English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Is ‘trialed’ a trial?

Q: I recently read a British news report in which the word “trial” was being used as a verb meaning to test. Has this become a common usage? It sounds clunky to me.

A: Although the use of “trial” as a verb showed up in the US about a century and a half ago, it’s more common now in the UK.

The earliest example we’ve found is from Bessie and Her Friends, an 1868 novel in a series of children’s books by the American writer Joanna Hooe Mathews:

“Oh! we are very much trialed; are we not, Maggie?” (Bessie and Maggie were thwarted in their plans to pay for the medical treatment of a blind boy.)

The verb “trial” here is being used intransitively (without an object) in the sense of being tried or troubled.

The next example we’ve found (from the March 1888 issue of Wallace’s Monthly, an American sporting magazine) uses “trial” intransitively in the sense of competing in a horse race:

“She is a substantially put-up mare of well proportioned conformation and shows pure trotting-action, having trialed in 2:48 in her three-year-old form.”

And here’s an account of a dog field trial in the May 8, 1891, issue of the Fanciers’ Journal, a Philadelphia magazine:

“They would not put much pace on, and I don’t think Master Sam is nearly the dog at trialing as he was a couple of years ago.”

The earliest example for the verb in the Oxford English Dictionary uses “trial” transitively to mean “submit (something, esp. a new product) to a test or trial.” Here’s the quotation:

“Several distribution models are already being trialled in the United Kingdom,” from Computers in Education (1981), by Robert Lewis and Eric Donovan Tagg. (The past tense and past participle are usually spelled with a single “l” now.)

The OED is an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. Oxford Dictionaries Online, a standard dictionary, says “trial” can also be an intransitive verb in reference to a horse, dog, or other animal that competes in trials (as in our 1888 example, cited above).

We compete with our golden retrievers in obedience trials, and sometimes hear “trial” used as an intransitive verb by handlers. But the intransitive use of “show” seems more common at US trials, as in “We showed in Utility B last weekend.”

A search of the News on the Web corpus, a database from newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters on the Internet, indicates that the use of “trial” as a verb is significantly less common in the US than in other English-speaking countries.

Here’s a Commonwealth example: “Researchers from the University of South Australia have successfully trialed the use of drones to remotely measure heart and breathing rates” (from a Sept. 28, 2017, article on New Zealand Doctor Online).

And here’s one from the US: “This is the first time that Walmart had trialed a service where delivery personnel would directly enter a customer’s home” (from a Sept. 21, 2017, article on TechCrunch).

The NOW corpus also has some examples for the verb “trial” used in the sense of trying out for a sports team.

An Oct. 25, 2017, article in the Connaught (Ireland) Telegraph, for example, refers to “all of the players who trialed and trained” for the Irish team in an International Rules football competition with Australia.

When the noun “trial” showed up in English in the early 16th century, it referred to the “action of testing or putting to the proof the fitness, truth, strength, or other quality of anything,” according to the OED.

The earliest example in the dictionary is from Pylgrimage of Perfection, a 1526 treatise by William Bonde, a priest-brother at Syon Abbey in England: “The tryall of our faythe, & examynacion or proue of our hope.”

The OED says the legal sense (“the examination and determination of a cause by a judicial tribunal”) showed up half a century later.

The first citation is from De Republica Anglorum: The Maner of Gouernement or Policie of the Realme of England (1583), by Thomas Smith:

“The Clarke asketh him howe he will be tryed, and telleth him he must saie, by God and the Countrie, for these be the words formall of this triall after Inditement.”

We’ll end with an example from Shakespeare’s Richard II (circa 1595). Here Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, responds when Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, accuses him of treason:

“Ile answer thee in any faire degree, / Or chiualrous designe of knightly triall.”

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

English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

All fixed for some pie

Q: I just read your “All the fixings” article about using the verb “fix” to mean “get ready” or “be ready.” It reminded me of a phrase my father used when he didn’t get a treat he was hoping to have: “I had my mouth all fixed for some pie.”

A: Your father was using the expression “all fixed for” in the sense of wanting something very much or longing for it.

This dialectal usage is sometimes followed by a gerund (“all fixed for eating some pie”) or, as in your father’s case, the treat itself (“I had my mouth all fixed for some pie”).

As far as we can tell from our searches of newspaper databases, the usage showed up in the late 19th century. In many of the examples, the person all fixed for something is disappointed—similar to your father’s use of the expression.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from the July, 4, 1895, issue of the Phillipsburg (KS) Herald: “Win Bissell got his mouth all fixed for a big feast of roasting ears on the Fourth, but a cow got in and cleaned up the patch Sunday night.”

And here’s one from the Oct. 21, 1909, Hammond (IN) Times: “Christ Brookham of 3619 Elm street reports to the police that duck thieves are abroad in the land, and that he is shy two nice fat ones, and was compelled to eat a third one when he had his mouth all fixed for chicken.”

In this example from the Jan. 16, 1915, Coronado (CA) Eagle and Journal, the person’s face, not his mouth, is “all fixed for” something good to eat:

“Did you ever get your face all fixed for a turkey dinner and find that the turkey supply was exhausted and all you could get was hamburger?”

And here’s a “throat” example, minus the word “all,” from the Aug. 25, 1917, issue of the Loveland (CO) Daily: “We had our throat fixed for trout, but they wan’t nothin’ come of it.”

But most of our sightings were of the “mouth all fixed for” variety. Here are a few more.

From the Nov. 4, 1921, Mohave County (AZ) Miner and Our Mineral Wealth: “J. H. Smith is short two fat ducks that were nabbed in back yard under the guise of a Halloween prank. Hubert says he would rather they had taken his chicken coop as his mouth was all fixed for a duck dinner.”

From the June 27, 1924, Clare (MI) Sentinel: “Oh, say! We are going to be invited out to supper this week and we have our mouth all fixed for chicken; but don’t mention it, as we are telling you this in confidence and wouldn’t like it to reach the ears of our expected hostess.”

And finally, from an advertisement for Junket in the April 3, 1947, San Bernardino (CA) Sun: “I had my mouth all fixed for that rennet-custard dessert you’re givin’ to Daddy! ’Course, Daddy likes it too—who wouldn’t? But you know rennet custards are my dish from ’way back. So how about it?”

This sense of “all fixed for” as longing for something is apparently derived from the use of the verb “fix” to mean be prepared or get ready, a usage that dates back to the early 1700s.

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1715 entry in The Early Records of Lancaster, Massachusetts (1884), edited by Henry S. Nourse: “We’d fix things directly; I’ll settle whatever you please upon her.”

By the early 1800s, the verb was being used in the sense of preparing a drink or a meal, as in this OED example from Frances Trollope’s notes for Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832): “You must fix me a drink.” Frances Trollope was the mother of the novelist Anthony Trollope.

And later in the 19th century, the expression “all fixed for” was being used in the sense of ready for a meal.

This example is from an ad for Platt’s buckwheat flour in the Nov. 6, 1871, issue of the Hartford (CT) Daily Courant: “Now we are all fixed for a good breakfast.”

The verb “fix,” which meant to make firm or stable when it showed up in English in the 1400s, is ultimately derived from fīxus, the past participle of fīgĕre, classical Latin for to fix or fasten.

The earliest OED example is from a collection of 15th-century songs and carols edited by Thomas Wright in 1847: “I thouȝt in mynd / I schuld ay fynd / The wehle of fortunat fyxyd fast.”

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

English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

Who put the ‘dis-’ in ‘dissent’?

Q: I’ve told my students that “dis-” is a prefix in “dissenter.” But now I’m being told in grad school that a prefix isn’t a prefix if the rest of the word doesn’t exist. So can I still refer to “dis-” as a prefix in “dissenter”?

A: The “dis-” in “dissent” and “dissenter” is indeed a prefix, especially if you go back to their etymological source, dissentīre, a classical Latin verb meaning to differ in sentiment.

Dissentīre was formed by adding the prefix dis- (in different directions) to the verb sentīre (to feel or think).

The Latin sentīre is also the source of “assent,” “consent,” “resent,” “sentiment,” and other English words, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Can a lexical element at the beginning of a word be called a “prefix” if the rest of the word isn’t found by itself in standard dictionaries?

Well, some dictionaries do indeed define “prefix” in a restrictive way as an element added to the front of a word to change its meaning.

However, the two dictionaries we rely on the most, the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Unabridged, define “prefix” more broadly as an element added to the front of either a word or a stem.

The “sent” in “dissenter” is a lexical stem or base referring to the sense of feeling. You can find the same stem in all the words cited above from Ayto’s etymological dictionary.

The OED defines “dissenter” as “one who dissents in any matter: one who disagrees with any opinion, resolution, or proposal; a dissentient.”

The earliest Oxford citation is from Philosophicall Rudiments Concerning Government and Society (1651), by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes:

“If any one will not consent … the City retaines its primitive Right against the Dissentour, that is the Right of War, as against an Enemy.” Hobbes had published the work in Latin in 1642 as De Cive (On the Citizen).

The dictionary says “dissenter” was formed by adding the suffix “-er” to the verb “dissent,” which it defines as “to withhold assent or consent from a proposal, etc.; not to assent; to disagree with or object to an action.”

The first OED citation for the verb is from The Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland, a work of history written around 1425 by the Scottish poet Andrew of Wyntoun: “Fra þis he dyssentyd hale” (“From this he dissented wholly”).

The noun “dissent,” which showed up more than a century later, is defined in the dictionary as “difference of opinion or sentiment; disagreement.”

The first Oxford citation for the noun is from The Faerie Queene, an epic poem by Edmund Spenser. The first three books were published in 1590 and the next three in 1596.

Here Artegall, the hero of book five, tries to resolve a dispute: “Did stay a while their greedy bickerment, / Till he had questioned the cause of their dissent.”

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

English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Usage Word origin Writing

Pre-, post-, and ante- position

Q: In addition to the grammar term “preposition,” is there such a thing as a “postposition” or an “anteposition” as a part of speech? Or am I mistaking “pre-” as a prefix in “preposition”?

A: Yes, “postposition” and “anteposition” are grammatical terms, though they aren’t among the terms for the traditional parts of speech.

And yes the “pre-” in “preposition” is a prefix—or rather was a prefix in its Latin source.

All three terms are etymological cousins. They’re ultimately derived from three related classical Latin verbs:

“preposition” comes from praepōnere (to put in front of), “postposition” from postpōnere (to put after), and “anteposition” from antepōnere (to put before).

As you know, a “preposition” is a term that’s typically put in front of a noun or noun phrase to position it in relation to other words, as “by” is used in “the house by the creek,” or “in back of” in “the copper beech in back of the house.”

“Postposition” refers to the placement of a term, or to a term that’s placed, after a grammatically related word or phrase. For example, “-ward” is a postposition in “homeward,” and “royal” appears postposition in “battle royal.”

“Anteposition” refers to the placement of a word or phrase before another, especially if that position is unusual. Examples: “fiddlers” in “fiddlers three” and “echoed” in “echoed the thunder.”

The first of the three terms to show up in English was “preposition,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example, dated around 1434, is from the writings of John Drury, a canon of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle:

“With what case xal þe [shall the] comparatif degre be construid with be cause of his degre? With an ablatif case of eyþer nownbre [either number] with oute a preposicion.” (The dictionary also cites two earlier uses of the Latin noun praepositiō in Old English.)

The first Oxford citation for “postposition” (from a 1736 English translation of a French history of China) says the prepositions in two Chinese phrases “are Postpositions, because they are put after the Nouns.”

And the earliest OED example for “anteposition” is from a 1728 Italian-English dictionary by Ferdinando Altieri: “The Position, or Anteposition causes the o to be pronounced open.”

By the way, the traditional parts of speech are noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, preposition, conjunction, and interjection, though modern grammarians and linguists often use more precise classifications.

In Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I, she includes a sentence that uses all the traditional parts of speech:

“But [conjunction] gosh [interjection], you [pronoun] are [verb] really [adverb] in [preposition] terrible [adjective] trouble [noun]!”

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

English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

There, their, they’re

Q: Can you give me a very simplified way to remember how to use “there,” “their,” and “they’re”? I know “there” is a place or shows ownership, and “their” is more figurative, but I still sometimes get them wrong. HELP!

A: First of all, “there” does not show ownership, and “their” is not figurative. But like you, many people are confused by these sound-alike words.

Pat wrote a limerick about the various “there/their/they’re” words for her grammar and usage book Woe Is I, and it might help you to keep them straight. Here it is:


They seem to have taken on airs.
They’re  ever so rude with their stares.
They get there quite late,
There’s a hand in your plate,
And they’re eating what’s not even theirs.

Here’s the accompanying explanation:

● They’re is shorthand for “they are”: They’re tightwads, and they always have been.

● Their and theirs are the possessive forms of “they”: Their money is theirs alone.

● There (meaning “in or at that place,” as opposed to “here”) isn’t even a pronoun, unlike the others. Neither is there’s, which is shorthand for “there is.” But there and there’s frequently get mixed up with the sound-alikes they’re, their, and theirs.

We hope this helps.

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

English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Is Angelina a celeb or a sleb?

Q: Is “sleb” a word you would find useful?

A: No, we don’t use “sleb,” and don’t expect to. If we want a short, informal version of “celebrity,” we use “celeb,” an older and far more popular term.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “sleb” as a British colloquial “alteration of celeb n., reflecting a monosyllabic pronunciation in rapid speech.”

The earliest example for “sleb” in the OED is from the title of a May 1, 1996, posting to the Usenet newsgroup alt.showbiz.gossip: “Sleb sighting.”

All the other Oxford citations are from British sources, as are most examples in the News on the Web corpus, a database from online newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters.

The earliest OED example for “celeb” is from the December 1907 issue of the Smith College Monthly: “She is a Senior Celeb and I’m just any Freshman.”

When “celebrity” showed up in English in the late 1300s, it meant the “state or fact of being well known, widely discussed, or publicly esteemed,” according to Oxford.

The first citation is from Chaucer’s Middle English translation, dated around 1380, of De Consolatione Philosophiae, a sixth-century Latin work by the Roman philosopher Boethius:

“þat is ryȝt clere and ryȝt noble of celebrate of renoun” (“that is right worthy and right noble of celebrity of renown”).

It wasn’t until the early 1800s that the word “celebrity” came to mean “a well-known or famous person,” according to the dictionary.

The first OED example is from the August 1831 issue of the New Monthly Magazine (London): “How will the new Chamber be composed? Of mayors, and notaries, and village celebrities.”

Now, according to Oxford, the term usually refers to “a person, esp. in entertainment or sport, who attracts interest from the general public and attention from the mass media.”

Finally, for American readers who may not have seen “sleb” in the wild, here’s an example from the May 10, 2017, issue of the Spectator (London):

“It’s an open secret that the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh are none too comfortable with all the emoting and the sleb mingling.”

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

English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Iteration and its iterations

Q: My latest pet peeve is people saying “iteration” when they could easily say “version.” It’s quite a fad in Washington journalism.

A: We’ve written a post about the meaning of “iterate” and “reiterate” (they mean the same thing), but we haven’t discussed the use of “iteration” for a version of something.

Although this usage is relatively new, standard dictionaries are beginning to accept it. Some define an “iteration” broadly as any kind of version, while others define it as a version of computer hardware or software.

We’re not particularly bugged by the new use of “iteration” for “version,” though we’re not surprised that such a stuffy-sounding word would insinuate its way into the officialese spoken in Washington.

When “iteration” showed up in English in the 1400s, it referred to the act of repeating. The ultimate source is iterāre, classical Latin for “do a second time” or “repeat.”

For hundreds of years, as “iteration” appeared in writings on alchemy, religion, medicine, mathematics, computer science, and so on, it meant either the act of repeating or a repeated action.

The earliest example of “iteration” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Ordinall of Alchymy, a 1477 illuminated manuscript by the English poet and alchemist Thomas Norton: “The multitude of their Iteration.”

The OED says the term was often used for “readministering a sacrament,” as in this example from The Apology of Iohan Bale Agaynste a Ranke Papyst (circa 1550): “the iteracyon of baptysme.” (John Bale, a Carmelite friar, converted to Protestantism during the reign of Henry VIII.)

By the late 1600s, according to citations in the dictionary, “iteration” was being used to mean a specific repetition. The first example is from Pharmacopœia Bateana (1694), a six-volume work by the English physician and medical writer William Salmon:

“For the three or four Iterations, the Regulus becomes apparently more bright and pure.” (In medieval Latin, regulus referred to metallic antimony.)

In the early 20th century, “iteration” came to be used in mathematics as “the repetition of an operation upon its product, as in finding the cube of a cube,” according to the OED.

The dictionary says this sense is especially used for “the repeated application of a formula devised to provide a closer approximation to the solution of a given equation when an approximate solution is substituted in the formula, so that a series of successively closer approximations may be obtained.”

If that left your head your head spinning, here’s a simpler definition from Merriam-Webster Unabridged: “a procedure in which repetition of a sequence of operations yields results successively closer to a desired result.”

The first Oxford example for the mathematical sense is from The Calculus of Observations, a 1924 treatise by Edmund Taylor Whittaker and George Robinson:

“In 1674 a method depending on a new principle, the principle of iteration, was communicated in a letter from Gregory to Collins.” We went to the source to expand on the citation, but gave up after being bogged down in a Grimpen Mire of equations.

A computer sense developed in the mid-20th century.

In programing, according to M-W Unabridged, “iteration” refers to “the repetition of a sequence of computer instructions a specified number of times or until a condition is met” or to “one execution of a sequence of operations or instructions in an iteration.”

The earliest computer example in the OED  is from Numerical Methods for High Speed Computers, 1960, by Godfrey Newby Lance:

“Whichever criterion is used to determine the end of the iteration, it is clear that the orders to evaluate f(xr) and f(xr + 1) are identical except that xr + 1 is used instead of xr. This kind of modification is made extremely simple on high-speed computers.”

The citations in M-W Unabridged suggest that this technical computer usage may have led to the looser use of “iteration” for a version of something, first in reference to versions of software, and then more broadly.

A citation from the March 10, 1998, issue of PC Magazine, for example, uses “iteration” for a version of an operating system: “Current iterations of Windows 95 and Windows NT are far from perfect, but they’re easier to use and more stable.”

The word is used similarly in this citation from the winter 2000 technology issue of Fortune: “No one cares much about the latest iteration of a spreadsheet program or word processor.”

Finally, the term breaks free of computers in this M-W example:

“The scene, and hundreds of others from the first five seasons of ‘The Sopranos’ (as well as its current, sixth iteration), are in the process of being edited ever so slightly by the A&E Network” (from the May 9, 2006, issue of the New York Times).

We’ll end with a recent Washington sighting that we found online:

“Civil and Human Rights Coalition Denounces Latest Iteration of Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban” (from a Sept. 24, 2017, news release by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights).

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