The Grammarphobia Blog

In line, on line, and online

Q: I’m curious about the origin of the New Yorkism “on line” for “in line,” and why this regionalism has persisted for so long when it’s not particularly correct.

A: We’ve written twice about the usage on our blog—in 2007 and 2010—but we haven’t found any evidence indicating how the regionalism originated.

In our 2010 post, we debunk the myth that the usage originated at Ellis Island as immigrants were told to stand on lines painted on the floor. We also say that correctness doesn’t enter the picture.

“Some of our readers have suggested over the years that ‘wait on line’ is grammatically incorrect,” we write. “Not so. This is a regional usage that’s as idiomatic to New Yorkers as asking for ‘regular’ coffee when they mean coffee with milk.”

We checked recently for any new research that might answer your question. We found studies about the frequency of the usage, but none on how it developed.

In “Dialect Boundaries in New Jersey,” published in the journal American Speech in November 2009, the linguist Dale F. Coye tracks preferences for “wait on line” versus “wait in line” among New Jersey college students.

Coye concludes that the closer the students live to New York City, the more likely they are to prefer the “on line” version.

Wait on line is a shibboleth of New York City speech,” he writes, “while in New Jersey it is restricted to the northeastern part of the state, with evidence of its use extending as far south as the Trenton suburbs, Monmouth County, and west to eastern Sussex and Hunterdon counties.”

As Coye writes, “It was not reported at all on the upper Delaware and only very rarely in South Jersey, where the typical American wait in line is used.”

On line was strongest in Bergen County (78%), with the other counties bordering New York City selecting it by a two-thirds to three-quarters margin,” he adds.

The farther one gets from New York City, Coye writes, “the usage of on line diminishes. In addition, on the outer edge of the on line region, the numbers of informants reporting they used both forms increased.”

“The numbers using wait on line may dwindle rapidly in the future,” he says. “Some informants reported that although their parents used wait on line, they themselves did not because of the newer meaning of online referring to the Internet.”

(The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary of the word used in the computing sense is from High-speed Computing Devices1950, edited by W. W. Stifler Jr.: “In on-line operation the input is communicated directly … to the data-reduction device.”)

In a 2003 nationwide study, the “Harvard Dialect Survey,” more than 10,000 Americans responded to this question:

“When you stand outside with a long line of people waiting to get in somewhere, are you standing ‘in line’ or ‘on line’ (as in, ‘I stood ___ in the cold for two hours before they opened the doors’)?”

The responses nationwide were “in line” (88.30%); “on line” (5.49%); “both sound equally good” (5.36%); “neither” (0.12%); and “other” (0.73%).

The responses for New York State were “in line” (57.34%); “on line” (23.67%); “both sound equally good” (18.14%); “neither” (0.12%); and “other” (0.73%).

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Running amok

Q: I just wanted to call your attention to an interesting article in the NY Times that says the phrase “running amok” originated in the Malay language. Have you ever written about this usage?

A: No, we haven’t written about “running amok,” at least not until now. It does indeed come from Malay, a language spoken in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and some other Southeast Asian nations.

In A Dictionary of the Malayan Language (1812), the English linguist and orientalist William Marsden defines āmuk, his transliteration of a Malay adjective, as “engaging furiously in battle; attacking with desperate resolution; rushing, in a state of frenzy, to the commission of indiscriminate murder; running a-muck.”

In “The Malayan Words in English,” a paper presented to the American Oriental Society in April 1896, C. P. G. Scott notes similar words in various versions of Malay: “Lampong amug, Javanese hamuk, Sundanese amuk, Dayak amok.” (In addition to his interest in Malay, Scott was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Columbia College in New York City.)

Duarte Barbosa, a Portuguese writer living in India, apparently introduced the usage to the West.

In a travel book written around 1516, he says Javanese who go on a rampage “are called amuco.” (From A Description of the Coasts of East Africa and Malabar in the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century, Henry E. J. Stanley’s 1866 translation of Barbosa’s work.)

In the 17th century, the word “amok” came to be used both literally and figuratively in English as an adverb, almost always to modify the verb “run,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Literally, the OED says, “to run amok” means “to run viciously, mad, frenzied for blood.”

The earliest citation is from The Rehearsal Transpros’d, a 1672 prose political satire by the English poet Andrew Marvell: “Like a raging Indian … he runs a mucke (as they cal it there) stabbing every man he meets.”

Figuratively, according to Oxford, the expression means to act “wild or wildly, headlong or heedlessly.”

The dictionary’s first figurative citation is from A Speech Without-Doors (1689), a collection of essays criticizing restraints on the press, by the English pamphleteer Edmund Hickeringill: “Running a Muck at all Mankind.”

In the latest OED example for “run amok,” the expression is used literally:

“ ‘Here,’ an acquaintance said to me, ‘you either reach for the stars or you crack up and run amok with a chainsaw.’ ” (From Black & White, a 1980 book by Shiva Naipaul about the 1978 Jonestown massacre in Guyana. Shiva Naipaul was the younger brother of the novelist V. S. Naipaul.)

In the Times article that got your attention, Geoffrey Robinson, a professor of Southeast Asian history and politics at the University of California, Los Angeles, says the Malay term mengamok roughly means making a furious, desperate charge.

Robinson says the usage referred to someone who endured an unbearable indignity and lashed out by attacking everyone in sight until he was eventually killed.

He notes that there was a mystique about the amucos, not unlike the notoriety of mass killers today. The practice faded away during British and Dutch rule as the colonial authorities lessened the mystique by committing amucos to institutions.

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Does Santa have a gender issue?

(We’re repeating this post for Christmas Day. It originally ran on Dec. 24, 2012.)

Q: Santa Claus is male, so why isn’t he Saint instead of Santa? Does he have a gender issue?

A: In English the name of a canonized person, whether a man or a woman, is traditionally prefixed by the word “Saint” or its abbreviation.

Although a female saint has occasionally been called a “santa” in English, the Oxford English Dictionary describes this usage as obsolete.

The OED’s only written example is from The Book of the Knight of La Tour Landry, a 15th-century translation of a French guide to court etiquette:

“And for-yete not to praie to the blessed virgine Marie, that day and night praieth for us, and to recomaunde you to the seintes and santas.” (We’ve expanded on the OED citation.)

So why is Father Christmas or Saint Nicholas referred to as “Santa Claus”?

The OED says the usage originated in the US in the 18th century. Americans adopted it from the dialectal Dutch term Sante Klaas.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the dialectal term is derived from the Middle Dutch Sinter (Ni)klaas. In Modern Dutch, the short form of “Saint Nicholas” is Sinterklaas.

Chambers explains that Saint Nicholas “owes his position as Santa Claus to the legend that he provided three impoverished girls with dowries by throwing three purses of gold in their open window.”

“From this legend is said to derive the custom of placing gifts in the stockings of children on Saint Nicholas’ Eve (the night of December 6) and attributing the gifts to Santa Claus.”

In the US and some other countries, Chambers notes, the custom “has been transferred to Christmas Eve.”

We enjoyed reading this definition of “Santa Claus” in the OED:

“In nursery language, the name of an imaginary personage, who is supposed, in the night before Christmas day, to bring presents for children, a stocking being hung up to receive his gifts. Also, a person wearing a red cloak or suit and a white beard, to simulate the supposed Santa Claus to children, esp. in shops or on shopping streets.”

That pretty much sums it up. And here are the OED’s earliest two published references for the usage:

Dec. 26, 1773:  “Last Monday the Anniversary of St. Nicholas, otherwise called St. A Claus, was celebrated at Protestant-Hall.” (From the New York Gazette.)

Jan. 25, 1808: “The noted St. Nicholas, vulgarly called Santaclaus—of all the saints in the kalendar the most venerated by true hollanders, and their unsophisticated descendants.” (From the satirical periodical Salmagundi.)

Although the earliest citations in the OED are from American sources, the last three are from British publications. The latest is from a Dec. 24, 1977, issue of the Times of London:

“Santa must have been updated over the years. Presumably girls hang out their tights now, instead of a solitary stocking.”

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Wallflowers and shrinking violets

Q: Did botanical “wallflowers” and “shrinking violets” inspire the timid human ones?

A: Yes, though we wouldn’t describe botanical wallflowers and violets as timid or inconspicuous, especially when planted in a bed or border of a garden.

The term “wallflower” usually means Cheiranthus cheiri, a European plant “growing wild on old walls, on rocks, in quarries, etc., and cultivated in gardens for its fragrant flowers,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest literal example in the OED refers to “Wall floures” and several other names for the plant (from A Niewe Herball, Henry Lyte’s 1578 translation of a plant history by the Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens).

Jonathon Green, writing in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, says the figurative sense is derived from the literal “wallflower,” apparently the wild variety that climbs up old walls and into crevices.

Green’s Dictionary defines the figurative “wallflower” as “a woman (occas. a man) who does not join in dancing at a ball or dance, either through her inability to find a partner or through her desire to remain solo; thus a retiring, shy person.”

The OED says “violet” refers to a “plant or flower of the genus Viola, esp. V. odorata, the sweet-smelling violet, growing wild, and cultivated in gardens; the flowers are usually purplish blue, mauve, or white.”

The first written mention of the flower in English, according to Oxford, is from Arthour and Merlin, an anonymous Middle English romance written around 1330:

“Mirie it is in time of June … Violet & rose flour Woneþ þan in maidens bour.” (By 1370 the name of the flower, from the Old French violete, was being used for a color.)

The earliest example we’ve found for “shrinking violet” uses the term literally to describe a flower that’s hard to see in the wild (suggestive of the modern figurative sense):

“There was the buttercup, struggling from a white to a dirty yellow; and a faint-coloured poppy, neither the good nor the ill of which was then known; and here and there by the thorny underwood a shrinking violet.”

(From “Ronald of the Perfect Hand,” an essay by the English poet and critic Leigh Hunt in the Feb. 23, 1820, issue of The Indicator, a literary magazine edited by Hunt.)

Oxford defines the figurative meaning of “shrinking violet” as “a shy or modest person.” The dictionary’s first example is from In Times Like These, a 1915 book by the Canadian feminist Nellie McClung:

“Voting will not be compulsory; the shrinking violets will not be torn from their shady fence-corner; the ‘home bodies’ will be able to still sit in rapt contemplation of their own fireside.”

However, we’ve found many earlier examples, including one in an 1833 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book, an American magazine, that compares Thekla in Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein trilogy to Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

“The timidity of Thekla in her first scene, her trembling silence in the commencement, and the few words she addresses to her mother, reminds us of the unobtrusive simplicity of Juliet’s first appearance; but the impression is difficult: the one is the shrinking violet, the other the expanded rose-bud.”

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The corporate ‘we’

Q: This sentence is on a literary agency website: “We offer our clients unusually meaningful editorial guidance and inspiration, and serve as their advocate throughout the publishing process.” Shouldn’t “we” take the plural “advocates”?

A: The literary agency is using what’s often called “the corporate we.” The firm itself is the “advocate” (singular), but refers to itself in the plural (“we”).

This is a very common practice in business language; in fact, it’s the rule rather than the exception in corporate discourse.

A company, an organization, or an institution will commonly refer to itself with the first-person plural “we” (along with “us,” “our,” and “ourselves” where appropriate), rather than with the impersonal pronoun “it.”

Here are some examples plucked randomly from the Internet. Note that in each case a singular entity (“company,” “university,” “medical center,” “firm”) refers to itself in the plural:

“We want to be your car company” … “We’re America’s first research university” … “We are a not-for-profit, 912-bed academic medical center” … “We are a major employer in the area” … “As a ‘main street’ accounting firm, we set ourselves apart” … “As a company we pride ourselves on our customer service and satisfaction” … “But we’re not just bigger—we’re one of the best colleges” … “It’s what makes us the business we are today.”

And commercial and institutional websites invariably use language like “who we are” and “what we do,” never “what it is” and “what it does.”

The corporate “we” isn’t a recent invention. You can find commercial examples from the early 20th century. But the usage began to surge in the 1980s, Lester Faigley writes in Fragments of Rationality: Postmodernity and the Subject of Composition (1992).

“Use of the corporate we is one of the tactics stressed in popular books on corporate management during the 1980s,” Faigley writes, mentioning specifically the influential book Corporate Cultures (1982), by Terrence E. Deal and Allan A. Kennedy. That book refers to the use of “we” as “a clever ploy for communicating corporate principles.”

Another book, Ruth Breze’s Corporate Discourse (2013), has this to say:

“There is an almost overwhelming insistence on collective identity: the corporate ‘we,’ which reports achievements in positive terms, and is used variously to include ‘we the employees,’ ‘we the management,’ ‘we the company and its investors’ and ‘we the general public.’ Self-praise is risky when one individual indulges it in front of others. … However, self-praise is socially admissible if the entity being praised is a collective ‘us’ that potentially involves the reader/listener.”

The corporate usage isn’t the only notable “we” on the landscape. Two others have been around for much longer—the “editorial we” and the “royal we.”

The “editorial we” is sometimes adopted by the author of a book or article, particularly an opinion column. It’s defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the pronoun we used by a single person to denote himself, as in an editorial.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a letter written by Charles Dickens in 1841: “Every rotten-hearted pander who … struts it in the Editorial We once a week.”

The “royal we,” the oldest of the three, is the one used by English kings and queens. The OED defines the “royal we” as “the pronoun ‘we’ used in place of ‘I’ by a monarch or other person in power, esp. in formal declarations, or (frequently humorously) by any individual.”

The earliest definite known use in English is from a proclamation of Henry III in 1298, the dictionary says. But perhaps the most famous example is Queen Victoria’s reported response to a joke told at dinner: “We are not amused.”

(The remark was passed on by Her Majesty’s secretary, and reported in the press during her lifetime, but it has never been definitively confirmed.)

The practice of referring to oneself in the plural actually has a name, “nosism,” as the two of us wrote on our blog in 2011. The word comes from the Latin nos (“we”), so it literally means we-ism.

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A rapist or a raper?

Q: Why is a person who rapes called a “rapist” and not a “raper”?

A: Someone who rapes can be called a “raper” as well as a “rapist,” though “rapist” is much more common and slightly older.

You can find both terms in several standard dictionaries. Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for example, defines a “raper” as “one who rapes,” and a “rapist” as “one who commits rape.”

The two terms showed up within a few years of each other in the 19th century, with “-er” and “-ist” suffixes added to the much older verb “rape,” which appeared in the 14th century.

The “-er” and “-ist” suffixes can be added to verbs to form agent nouns—nouns that refer to someone who does something.

In the past, the “-er” suffix was generally added to words of Germanic origin and the “-ist” suffix to words of Latin or Greek origin. However, the use of the two suffixes to form nouns from existing words hasn’t been consistent in modern times.

So why is “rapist” more common today than “raper”? Perhaps the usage was influenced by “racist” or other negative “-ist” words, such as “antagonist,” “apologist,” “bigamist,” “dogmatist,” “egotist,” “hedonist,” “imperialist,” “materialist,” “misogynist,” “opportunist,” “plagiarist,” “separatist,” and “sexist.”

On the other hand, many “-ist” words are positive (“altruist,” “idealist,” “humanist,” “optimist,” “rationalist,” “realist,” etc.), and many more are neutral (“archeologist,” “cyclist,” “dramatist,” “etymologist,” “journalist,” “linguist,” “lyricist,” “philologist,” “physicist,” “scientist,” “ventriloquist,” and so on).

The earliest example for “rapist” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Feb. 27, 1869, issue of the Dallas Weekly Herald. We’ve expanded the citation for context:

“The Charleston (S.C.) News says their Reconstruction Constitution, when finished, had a plank from Ohio, many a plank from Vermont, and a whole board beam from Africa the blest. Our Texas Convention had a whole raft of such lumber, including Bryant, the rapist.”

The dictionary’s first example for “raper” is from another Texas periodical, the Dec. 12, 1878, issue of the Galveston Daily News:

“The President has pardoned two mail robbers and commuted the sentences of two murderers and one raper from death to imprisonment for life.”

The most recent OED example for “rapist” is from the Aug. 18, 2007, Toronto Star: “It’s tough to judge love songs and social commentary from a convicted rapist.”

And Oxford‘s latest citation for “raper” is from the Oct. 14, 1992, Tucson (AZ) Weekly: “An election year that already looked like a showdown between the tree-huggers and the land-rapers.”

A somewhat earlier sexual example in the OED is from “The Shadow on the Wall,” a short story by the British writer L. P. Hartley:

“Some women locked theirs [bedroom doors] even when there was no threat of a nightly visitant, burglar, marauder, raper, or such-like.” (From Mrs. Carteret Receives, and Other Stories, 1971.)

When the verb “rape” first showed up in English in the late 1300s, it meant to take something by force, according to Oxford.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the English verb comes from rapere, classical Latin for to seize by force. The OED describes this derivation as probable.

The earliest Oxford citation is from “Redde Rationem Villicationis Tue,” a sermon preached in 1388 by Thomas Wimbledon at Paul’s Cross, an open-air pulpit on the grounds of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was on the site of the present St. Paul’s in London:

“Rauenes fisches haueþ sum mesure. Whan þey hungreþ, þey rapeþ; but whan þey beþ fulle, þey spareþ” (“Ravenous fish have some measure. When they hungereth, they rapeth; but when they are full, they spareth”). The Latin title of the sermon, which means “Give an Account of Thy Stewardship,” is from the Gospel of Luke 16:2.

In the 1400s the verb took on the sense of carrying someone off by force, especially a woman, and in the 1500s it came to mean to “violate (a person) sexually; to commit rape against (a person); esp. (of a man) to force (a woman) to have sexual intercourse against her will,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example for the verb “rape” used in the modern sexual sense is from a 1574 translation of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, apocryphal scripture written in Hebrew and Greek:

“The Sichemites … Raped Dina … Persecuted straungers … Rauished their wiues.”

(In the book of Genesis, Sichem, also spelled Shechem, rapes Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah. Most English translations of Genesis 34 use such words as “humble,” “defile,” or “humiliate,” rather than “rape.”)

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Book ‘depository’ or ‘repository’?

Q: What’s the difference between “repository” and “depository”? Why, for example, is the Beinecke library at Yale often referred to as a repository while that notorious building in Dallas was called the Texas School Book Depository?

A: The two words overlap, but “repository” is more expansive than “depository.”

Standard dictionaries define both “repository” and “depository” as a place where something is stored, but then go on to say a “repository” can specifically mean a warehouse, a museum, a burial vault, a person entrusted with secrets, the site of a natural resource, and someone or something considered a store of knowledge.

Both words are of Latin origin. “Depository” ultimately comes from dēpōnere, classical Latin for to lay away, while “repository” is ultimately derived from repōnere, classical Latin for to put away or store. (In ancient Rome, a repositōrium was a portable stand for serving courses at a meal.)

When the oldest of the English terms, “repository,” showed up in writing in the 15th century, it meant a “place or receptacle in which things are or may be deposited, esp. for storage or safe keeping,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from The Lyf of the Noble and Crysten Prynce, Charles the Grete, William Caxton’s 1485 translation of a French biography of Charlemagne:

“Of the floures charles put a parte in a reposytorye.” (The flowers here are said to have bloomed on thorns that came from Jesus’s crown of thorns.)

When “depository” appeared in the 18th century, the dictionary says, it similarly referred to a “place or receptacle in which things are deposited or placed for safe keeping; a storehouse, a repository.”

The first OED citation describes Alexandria as “the depository of all merchandizes from the East and West” (from a 1752 book on commercial law by the English entrepreneur Wyndham Beawes).

“Depository” is still primarily used to mean a place to store things safely, but “repository” has taken on many more specific senses, though all are related in one way or other to its original storage sense.

In the 16th century, for example, “repository” began being used for someone entrusted with confidential information. In the 17th, it came to mean a burial vault, warehouse, marketplace, art museum, and someone who’s a store of knowledge. In the 18th century, it became the site of a natural resource, and in the 19th, an archive or a library.

That’s why the Beinecke library is referred to as a repository for rare books and manuscripts while the Dallas building, primarily a place to store textbooks for distribution, was called a depository.

We’ll end with an example from Charles Dickens’s 1850 novel, David Copperfield, of “repository” used in the sense of a confidante: “I wanted somebody to talk to, then. I missed Agnes. I found a tremendous blank, in the place of that smiling repository of my confidence.”

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When ‘even’ is odd

Q: Is the use of “even” correct in all these sentences? (1) “Even when he is sick, she works.” (2) “She works even when he is sick.” (3) “She even works when he is sick.” Thanks for any insight you can provide.

A: All three are correct: #1 and #2 mean the same thing, but the meaning of #3 is slightly different.

As an adverb, “even” has a number of uses, and one of them is to point out a special case or an unusual situation.

In your first two examples, “even” is used emphatically to suggest that the main clause (“she works”) is true not just normally but in an unusual situation (“when he is sick”).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this use of “even” as “intimating that the sentence expresses an extreme case of a more general proposition implied.”

Here the “general proposition” is that “she works”; the “extreme case,” introduced by “even,” is “when he is sick.”

Interestingly, this use of “even,” the OED says, didn’t come into English until the 1500s and is unknown in the other Germanic languages.

In this sense, the dictionary says, “even” is “attached to a word or clause expressing time, manner, place, or any attendant circumstance.” In your first two sentences, the clause expresses a circumstance: “when he is sick.”

The earliest written example in Oxford comes from this lyrical passage in a 16th-century work on husbandry, or agriculture. The “husbande” here is a farmer:

“The leafe … turneth with the Sunne, whereby it sheweth to the husbande, euen in cloudie weather, what time of the day it is.” (From Foure Bookes of Husbandry, Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation from the Latin of Conrad Heresbach.)

Getting back to your question, the meaning doesn’t change when the order of the clauses is reversed, as in #1 (“Even when he is sick, she works”) and #2 (“She works even when he is sick”).

In both examples, “even” identifies “when he is sick” as the unusual circumstance under which “she works.”

But the meaning is slightly altered when “even” is attached to a different part of the sentence, as in #3 (“When he is sick, she even works”).

In this example, the emphasis has changed, because “even” is attached directly to the verb “works.” This makes the act of working (not his being sick) the extreme case.

The implication in #3 is that she does many things “when he is sick”—in fact, she “even works.” Imagine what’s unspoken here: “When he is sick, she [does this and that and] even works.”

We’re speaking now about a written sentence. In a spoken sentence, however, the speaker can influence the way the sentence is interpreted, as we’ll explain below.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language would call “even” in these senses a “focusing modifier.” It focuses meaning on a particular part of the sentence, much in the same way as “also,” “as well,” and “too.”

Even is typical of focusing adverbs in being able to occur in a wide range of positions,” write the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum. They illustrate with these sentences (note the shift in emphasis as “even” is moved):

Even you would have enjoyed dancing tonight.

“You would even have enjoyed dancing tonight.

“You would have enjoyed even dancing tonight.

“You would have enjoyed dancing even tonight.”

In the first, third, and fourth examples, the authors say, there’s only one possible interpretation—each of them different.

But where “even” modifies an entire verb phrase, as in the second example, “You would even have enjoyed dancing tonight,” there are three possible interpretations, and speakers can pinpoint their meaning by vocally stressing the word they intend as the focus:

“YOU would even have enjoyed dancing tonight” … “You would even have enjoyed DANCING tonight” … “You would even have enjoyed dancing TONIGHT.”

The authors add that “even” usually precedes what it modifies, “but in informal speech it occasionally follows,” as in “You would have enjoyed dancing tonight, even.”

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On sneakers and plimsolls

Q: Why do the British use “plimsolls” for what Americans refer to as “sneakers”?

A: The British generally use “plimsolls” or “plimsoll shoes” for low-tech athletic shoes with canvas uppers and flat rubber soles. They use “trainers” or “training shoes” for more serious athletic footwear.

Americans use “sneakers” broadly for all sorts of athletic shoes: running shoes, tennis shoes, gym shoes, and so on.

However, “sneakers” does appear now and then in searches of the British National Corpus, and “plimsolls” is not unknown to the Corpus of Contemporary American English.

Although “sneakers” is much more common in the US now, an early version of the term, “sneaks,” originated in the UK in the mid-19th century. It referred to noiseless (and presumably sneaky) rubber-soled shoes.

The earliest example for “sneaks” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Female Life in Prison, an 1862 account by “A Prison Matron,” pseudonym of the British novelist Frederick William Robinson:

“The night-officer is generally accustomed to wear a species of India-rubber shoes or goloshes on her feet. These are termed ‘sneaks’ by the women.”

The next OED citation, which we’ve expanded, is from In Strange Company, an 1883 book by the British journalist James Greenwood about the dark side of English life:

“My guide wore a pair of what, in criminal phraseology, are known as ‘sneaks,’ and are shoes with canvas tops and indiarubber soles.”

The word “sneakers” showed up in the footwear sense a few years later in the US. The earliest example we’ve seen is from the Sept. 2, 1887, issue of the New York Times. A column, “Crisp Sayings” includes this example from the Boston Journal of Education:

“It is only the harassed schoolmaster who can fully appreciate the pertinency of the name boys give to tennis shoes—sneakers.”

Both “sneaks” and “sneakers” are derived from the verb “sneak,” which the OED defines as to “move, go, walk, etc., in a stealthy or slinking manner; to creep or steal furtively, as if ashamed or afraid to be seen; to slink, skulk.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the verb is from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, believed written in the late 1590s: “Sicke in the worlds regard: wretched and low / A poore vnminded outlaw sneaking home.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

The OED says “sneak” is of “doubtful origin,” and apparently is not related to the Old English snícan and early Middle English snīken, both meaning to creep or crawl, nor to the Old Norse sníkja, with similarly sneaky senses.

Getting back to your question, the British use of “plimsolls” (sometimes spelled “plimsoles”) for basic athletic shoes showed up in the UK around the same time that “sneakers” appeared in the US.

The first Oxford example is from an Aug. 19, 1885, entry in the Trade Marks Journal, a publication of the British Patent office, now the Intellectual Property Office: ”Universal Plimsoll … Plimsoll Shoes.

Other early examples include a March 24, 1899, advertisement from a shoe and leather journal for “ ‘Plimsoll’ gymnastic and tennis shoes,” and this excerpt from James Joyce’s 1939 novel Finnegans Wake: “Their blankets and materny mufflers and plimsoles.”

The OED says the name of the shoes is apparently derived from “Plimsoll line,” the marking on the hull of a ship that indicates the maximum depth a vessel can safely be submerged when loaded with cargo.

The line itself was named for Samuel Plimsoll (1824-98), a member of Parliament for Derby, who was noted for his work on the Merchant Shipping Act of 1876.

The dictionary cites a 1975 biography of Plimsoll, by George H. Peters, that says a salesman suggested the name for the footwear because the rubber strip between the sole and canvas resembled the Plimsoll line on a ship.

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The missile link

Q: How did an “intercontinental ballistic missile” become an “ICBM” instead of simply an “IBM”?

A: The original abbreviation for “intercontinental ballistic missile” was indeed “I.B.M.” (with dots), and some standard dictionaries—Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for example—still include both “IBM” and “ICBM” as the abbreviations.

The earliest example we’ve found for either initialism (an abbreviation that’s spoken as letters) is from the July 27, 1954, issue of the Birmingham (AL) News:

“In the year 1960, by the agreed estimate of the Pentagon’s official analysis, the Soviet Union will fly its first intercontinental ballistic missile. That missile, or I.B.M. as the experts call it, will be an accurately guided rocket, comparable to a giant V-2, capable of carrying a hydrogen warhead over a range of 4000 to 5000 miles.”

The earliest example for ICBM that we’ve seen (from the May 30, 1955, issue of Newsweek) explains why the longer term is more common today:

“The Air Force is now calling the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile the ICBM instead of the IBM. Too many people got the missile confused with International Business Machines Corp.”

We found both examples above in “Among the New Words,” a column by I. Willis Russell, in the May 1957 issue of American Speech.

Finally, here’s an early “ICBM” example cited by Russell that seems relevant now:

“The ICBM—the intercontinental ballistic weapon—has become, even before its first test flight, part of the language of power politics” (from the June 2, 1956, issue of the New York Times Magazine).

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Kicking down the ladder

Q: In reading my mother’s 1931 diary, I’ve noticed the expression “kicking over the lighter,” as in “The boys tried kicking over the lighter.” I can’t believe it should be taken literally. Any thoughts?

A: We aren’t familiar with “kicking over the lighter,” and we haven’t found the expression in slang and etymological dictionaries or in book and newspaper databases.

Perhaps your mother was thinking of “kicking over the ladder,” and either misheard the expression or misspelled it.

In that expression, and the more common “kicking down the ladder,” the word “ladder” is being used figuratively for the means by which one gets ahead in life.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “kick down the ladder” as “said of persons who repudiate or ignore the friendships or associations by means of which they have risen in the world.”

The earliest OED example for the figurative use of “ladder” as a means to get ahead is from the Lambeth Homilies (circa 1175): “Ðis is sunfulla monna leddre” (“This is the ladder of sinful men”).

The dictionary’s first citation for the expression “kick down the ladder” is from a July 18, 1794, letter by Horatio Nelson (Vice Admiral Lord Nelson) to Samuel Hood (Admiral Lord Hood):

“Duncan is, I think, a little altered; there is nothing like kicking down the ladder a man rises by.”

The verb “kick” has been used since the 14th century in various expressions of equine origin that figuratively mean to rebel uselessly and painfully.

The earliest example in the OED is from a religious tract written around 1380 by the English theologian John Wycliffe:

“It is hard to kyke aȝen þe spore” (“It is hard to kick against the spur”). Oxford also has examples for “kick against the prick” (or “pricks”), and “kick against the goad.”

In addition, the dictionary has citations for the equine expression “kick over the traces” used figuratively to mean throw over the usual restraints.

The first example is from Ravenshoe, an 1861 novel by Henry Kingsley: “I’ll go about with the rogue. He is inclined to kick over the traces, but I’ll whip him in a little.”

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‘I bet’ or ‘I’ll bet’?

Q: What are your thoughts about using “I bet” versus “I’ll bet” to introduce a statement? I prefer “I’ll bet,” but I can’t explain why.

A: The verb “bet” has several meanings in addition to its usual gambling sense:

1. to agree (“I was bummed out” … “I bet you were”); 2. to disagree (“I’ll really stick to my diet this time” … “Yeah, I bet”); 3. to mean certainly (“You bet I’ll be there”); 4. to say you’re fairly sure (“I bet she felt crummy,” “I bet he’ll forget,” “I’ll bet you come late tomorrow,” “I’ll bet they’re late again”).

In #4, the usage you’re asking about, “I bet” or “I’ll bet” introduces a subordinate construction. You can find examples in standard dictionaries for both “I bet” and “I’ll bet” used in this sense, though “I bet” is more common.

In our opinion, “I bet” (present tense) sounds more natural when the subordinate construction is in the past tense (“I bet she felt crummy”) or the future tense (“I bet he’ll forget”).

But “I’ll bet” (future tense) seems more idiomatic when the complement uses the present tense to express the future, either with a time element (“I’ll bet you come late tomorrow”) or without a time element (“I’ll bet they’re late again”).

A few years ago, we wrote a post about the futurate—a usage that expresses the future with a tense not normally used for it, as in “He arrives Saturday.”

Something similar is at work when we use “bet,” “wager,” and “hope” to talk about the future. These verbs, according to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, often introduce “subordinate constructions allowing pragmatically unrestricted futures.”

For example, the underlined complements of “bet” in “I’ll bet you come late tomorrow” and “I’ll bet they’re late again” express what the Cambridge Grammar calls a “deictic future time.” The sense of a deictic expression depends on how it’s used.

As the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, explain, “The construction generalises to the deverbal nouns bet, wager, hope.” In other words, “I’ll bet they’re late again” is another way of saying “My bet is that they’re late again.”

Getting back to your question, we’ve generally (though not always) used “I’ll bet” or “we’ll bet” with complements that indicate the future but aren’t expressed in the future tense.

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We were sat … or were we?

Q: Do all British people say “sat” instead of “sitting,” as in this example from a Brit’s blog: “we were sat around the coffee table”?

A: No, not all British people would say something like “we were sat around the coffee table.” That usage isn’t considered standard English in either the UK or the US.

However, quite a few people in the UK do indeed use “sat” that way, and the usage shows up once in a while in the US too.

In an Oct. 3, 2012, post on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, the lexicographer Catherine Soanes notes the increasing nonstandard use of the past participles “sat” and “stood” for the present participles “sitting” and “standing” in British English.

She reports hearing several instances of the usage on the BBC, including “She’s sat at the table eating breakfast” and “we were stood at the bar waiting to be served.”

Soames, editor or co-editor of several Oxford dictionaries, says the use of “sat” and “stood” for “sitting” and “standing” in continuous, or progressive, tenses is “regarded as non-standard by usage guides.”

“So are we witnessing a general decline of continuous tenses?” she asks. “Thankfully, no: this error predominantly seems to crop up with ‘stand’ and ‘sit.’ ”

So why do so many people, primarily in the UK, say things like “She’s sat” and “we were stood”?

“The answer’s not clear,” Soames says, “but my research shows that this usage (which used to be restricted to some regional British dialects) is becoming more widespread in British English, and is even appearing in edited writing such as newspapers and magazines.”

She reports finding over 3,000 instances of this construction in the Oxford English Corpus, including these two examples from the database:

“It is 2pm and I am sat in my parents’ living room, talking to one of the cats.”

“Three hooded kids are stood around the corner drinking alcopops and it’s raining.”

Although the usage is uncommon in US English, she says, it “isn’t completely unknown there, with around 340 examples (11% of the total)” in the Oxford corpus, including this example:

“My Mom and Alison were stood in the hallway watching me as I limped down the stairs.”

She also reported finding examples in the Oxford corpus from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and India.

We suspect that in some cases “sat” is being used in place of “seated” (that is, as the past tense of the verb “seat”) rather than in place of “sitting.” So “we were sat around the coffee table” may be another way of saying “we were seated around the coffee table.”

Our own searches of the News on the Web corpus generally confirm Soames’s findings, though we’ve found the usage more overwhelmingly British now than she found it five years ago. Here are a couple of recent examples from London newspapers:

“We were sat in a pub having a drink” (from the Oct. 7, 2017, issue of the Telegraph).

“We were sat there for two and a half hours just studying it, watching it flying around the sky” (from the Sept. 21, 2017, issue of the Sun).

When the usage shows up in an American publication, a British citizen is often being quoted, as in this example from the July 9, 2017, issue of the Washington Post, about tennis fans living in a tent city near the Wimbledon tournament:

“And so all we had was a rucksack and an umbrella, and it started to rain, so we were sat up leaning against somebody’s garden wall, and it poured down with rain.”

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