English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

The bitterness of wormwood

Q: I’m watching Wormwood, a Netflix miniseries about the mysterious death of a CIA scientist in the 1950s. I’ve read that the title refers to a passage in the Book of Revelation, but what is the origin of the word “wormwood” and its sense of bitterness and grief?

A: The word “wormwood” comes from wermod, Old English for Artemisia absinthium, a plant known as “common wormwood.” Traditionally, the plant was used as an ingredient in absinthe, vermouth, and other alcoholic beverages.

The Old English term, which has relatives in Old Saxon, Old High German, and other Germanic languages, is “of obscure origin,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) traces it back to wermōdaz, a prehistoric Germanic term for “wormwood.”

Etymologists have theorized that the Old English word comes from the bitter taste of the plant (wermo- is a prehistoric Germanic term for bitter) or from the plant’s ancient use to treat intestinal worms (wer- is the Proto Indo-European source of wyrm, Old English for “worm”).

One British philologist, Ernest Weekely, even speculates in An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1921) that wermod may have been an aphrodisiac in Anglo-Saxon times, combining the Old English wer (man) and mod (mood).

The earliest OED citation for the Anglo-Saxon version of “wormwood” is from a Latin-Old English glossary, dated around 725, in the Parker Library at the University of Cambridge: “Absinthium, wermod.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the “wormwood” spelling evolved in Middle English as a “folk etymology” (one that’s mistaken but popular), influenced by the use of the plant as a worm medicine.

The earliest Middle English spellings were “wormwode” and “wyrmewode.” The first example in the OED is from a collection of medieval medical recipes, written in the late 1300s or early 1400s: “For to makyn surripe of violet; it. of wormwode.”

The next citation is from the Promptorium Parvulorum, a Middle English-Latin dictionary from around 1440: “Wyrmwode, herbe, absinthium.”

The first OED example with the modern spelling is from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, written in the early 1590s: “When it did tast the wormwood on the nipple of my dug, & felt it bitter.”

(Juliet’s old nurse had put wormwood, an insect repellant, on her breast while sunbathing, and the baby refused to suckle.)

Oxford says the plant is “proverbial for its bitter taste. The leaves and tops are used in medicine as a tonic and vermifuge [worm remedy], and for making vermouth and absinthe; formerly also to protect clothes and bedding from moths and fleas.”

The plant’s names in German and Latin have given English as well as French the beverage names “vermouth” and “absinthe.”

Thujone, a chemical found in wormwood, is said to cause seizures and hallucinations, which has led the US and many other countries to restrict its use in absinthe, vermouth, and other beverages.

In the 16th century, the word “wormwood” took on the figurative sense of an “emblem or type of what is bitter and grievous to the soul,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example is from the Coverdale Bible of 1535: “Lest there be amonge you some rote, that beareth gall & wormwodd” (Deuteronomy 29:18).

In the 19th century, the expressions “to be wormwood” and “to be gall and wormwood” appeared, meaning “to be acutely mortifying or vexing.”

This example is from The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane, Benjamin Heath Malkin’s 1809 translation of the French novel by Alain René Le Sage: “The accounts her ladyship brought from Madrid were wormwood to the duke.”

And here’s an example from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Kenilworth (1821): “His presence and his communications were gall and wormwood to his once partial mistress.”

Getting back to your question, “wormwood” appears twice in the Book of Revelation—as the name of a star that falls upon the waters, and as the bitterness caused by the falling star:

“And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.” (Revelation 8:11 in the King James Version.)

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A defiling moment

Q: In The Dark Defile, Diana Preston’s 2012 book about the First Anglo-Afghan War, the reputation of the British army is defiled in the defiles of Afghanistan. What can you tell us about this interesting word?

A: As you point out, the title of that book about a 19th-century British military disaster can be read two ways, thanks to two unrelated words spelled “defile.”

John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, notes that the verb “defile” (to make dirty) and the noun “defile” (a narrow pass) are distinct words in English.

The verb, originally “defoul” in Middle English, comes from defouler, Old French for to trample down or injure. The ultimate source, Ayto says, is fullō, Latin for someone who cleans and treats cloth by stamping on it.

When the verb first appeared in English, it meant to trample underfoot. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to bones “defoulede” (from the South-English Legendary, circa 1290, a chronicle of the lives of church figures).

The spelling and meaning of the verb evolved over the next century and a half, influenced by two native words, “befoul” and the synonymous (and now obsolete) “befile.” In Old English, fúlian and fýlan meant to be foul or become foul.

In the 1400s, according to the OED, the verb “defyle” could mean to bruise, dirty, corrupt, pollute, deflower, debauch, profane, and so on.

Here’s a Middle English “deflower” example from the Ludus Coventriae, a cycle of medieval mystery plays believed written in the mid-1400s: “She wold not be defylyde / With spot or wem [stain] of man.”

And this “profane” example is from a collection of Middle English political, religious, and love poetry that the OED dates at around 1450:

“With outen grace I am bot beste, & warre pan beste defyled with syne” (“Without grace, I am but a beast, and worse than a beast, defiled by sin”). We’ve expanded the citation to add context.

The verb “defile” isn’t used much today to mean “deflower,” but standard dictionaries still include such senses as “sully,” “debase,” “desecrate,” “profane,” “corrupt,” and “dishonor.”

As for the noun “defile,” it had both military and general meanings when it appeared in English in the late 17th century.

Militarily, it referred to a narrow passage through which troops had to march in a single file or a narrow column. In general use, it meant a narrow pass between mountains.

The earliest military example in the OED is from a 1685 entry in the London Gazette, a journal of record for the British government: “They repassed the Defilés on the side of the Moras.”

The dictionary’s first general citation is from a 1686 entry in the London Gazette: “A Valley, to which there was no passage but by a very narrow Defile.”

English borrowed the term from French, where défilé was the past participle of the verb défiler (to march in a line or in files). At first the final syllable was often pronounced and written as “é” or “ee” in English, according to Oxford, but it eventually became a mute “e.”

The noun “defile” now means a narrow pass or gorge, often between mountains. This example from Oxford Dictionaries online describes a footpath through a pass in Scotland:

“From here a footpath runs north, through a narrow defile between Meall na h-Aodainn Moire and Creag Bhreac past Loch a’Choire and up steep slopes to the summit ridge.”

Finally, we should mention that the title of Diana Preston’s book comes from Arithmetic on the Frontier, an 1866 poem in which Rudyard Kipling depicts the unheroic death of a young subaltern, “shot like a rabbit,” on a “canter down a dark defile.”

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Is GM an “it” or a “they”?

Q: Can you write on whether a company should be referred to as “it” or “they” when writing in the third person? Similarly, should a company’s name get a plural or singular verb? Does it depend on if the proper name appears singular or plural?

A: As we said in our recent post about the corporate “we,” a company generally refers to itself in the first person plural, with the pronouns “we,” “us,” “our,” and “ourselves.”

But when somebody else writes or speaks about a company, the third person is used. And from a grammatical point of view, the singular “it” is more appropriate than the plural “they.”

We’re taking the restrictive American view here, because the word “company” is a singular noun and so is a corporate name—even if it’s plural in form, like Acme Industries or Widget Services or Smith & Son. The company is an “it,” not a “they.”

However, it’s not unusual for people to refer to a company as “they,” especially in speech.

This may be because they’re thinking of it in terms of the people who work there. As in, “I called the company and they gave me a credit” or “The insurance company says it’s not their responsibility.”

This usage is understandable in casual writing or speech. After all, when you make contact with a company, you’re speaking with a person, not an “it.”

And when the person’s gender is irrelevant, the default pronoun is often “they,” as we wrote in a 2017 post.

Occasionally this casual usage is found even in published writing that’s informal and addresses the reader personally.

A case in point, from an article that ran in Forbes Magazine last March: “Here are five signs your company values you—and five signs they don’t!” The pronouns “they” and “their” are used throughout in reference to “your company,” and the article is written in a conversational tone.

So far we’ve been speaking of American English. The picture is very different in the UK, where a company is more likely to be a “they” than an “it,” even in published writing.

In British English, “company” (like “firm,” “committee,” “government,” “cabinet,” and many other words) is regarded as a collective noun that’s singular in form but can be treated as plural. So you’ll find both singular and plural references to companies in British English—often in the same news story.

These snippets are from an article in the Daily Post, a newspaper in North Wales (note the pronouns “it” and “they”): “Sainsbury’s said it was ‘reviewing’ proposals” … “Sainsbury’s said they will now work to find an alternative.”

And these are from a report in the Hull Daily Mail (note the verbs “is” and “are”):  “BP is attempting to boost its brand” … “BP are supporting a regime.”

Jeremy Butterfield discusses this subject in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.):

“In British English it is in order to use either a plural verb or a singular verb after most collective nouns, so long as attendant pronouns are made to follow suit.”

Butterfield uses the examples “when the jury retires to consider its verdict” and “when the jury retire to consider their verdict.”

This principle, he adds, “applies to all the main collectives like army, audience, clan, committee, company, court, crew, folk, government, group, herd.”

In British English, he says, if the term is considered as a unit, the verbs and accompanying pronouns are singular. But if the members of the group are thought of as individuals, plural verbs and pronouns are appropriate.

“By contrast,” Butterfield says, “in American English the choice is much more restricted. For such words the following verb and any attendant pronouns are usually in the singular.”

However, The Gregg Reference Manual, an American guide for business writing, is not as restrictive as more general American usage guides. It has this to say:

“Organizational names may be treated as either singular or plural. Ordinarily, treat the name as singular unless you wish to emphasize the individuals who make up the organization; in that case, use the plural.”

Gregg uses these examples: “Brooks & Rice has lost its lease. It is now looking for a new location.” …. “Brooks & Rice have lost their lease. They are now looking for ….”

We wonder whether those plural examples would sound natural to American ears if the company didn’t have a compound name (“Brooks & Rice”).

Only in the UK, we think, would someone write, “Acme have lost their lease. They are now looking for a new headquarters.”

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The lights of our lives

Q: Which “light” came first, the one that refers to illumination or the one that means not very heavy? Is one of them the source of the other?

A: The “light” that shines and the one that’s easy to carry both appeared in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, but they aren’t etymologically related.

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the “light” that refers to illumination comes from the Indo-European root leuk- (bright, brightness), source of the prehistoric Germanic leukhtam (to produce light) and the Old English léoht (bright).

That Indo-European root also gave Greek leukós (white) and Latin lux (light), Ayto says. Leukós, in turn, is the source of our word “leukemia,” while lux gave us such words as “lucid,” “luster,” “luminous,” and “Lucifer” (literally light-bearer).

The “light” that’s easy to carry comes from the prehistoric Germanic term lingkhtaz, a close relative of the source of the English word “lung,” which etymologically means “something full of air and not heavy,” according to Ayto.

Getting back to your question about which “light” came first, scholars disagree on the dating of some relevant Old English manuscripts, so it’s impossible to give a definite answer.

All we can say is that the adjective meaning bright, the noun for brightness, and the adjective meaning of little weight may all date from the 700s in writing. The verb that means to illuminate came a couple of centuries later.

The earliest example of the noun in the Oxford English Dictionary, spelled leoht in Old English, is from Beowulf, an epic poem that some scholars date at about 725:

“Him of eagum stod ligge gelicost leoht unfæger” (“a dreadful light, more like a flame, shoots forth from his eyes”). The description is of the monster Grendel during a battle with Beowulf.

The first OED example of the adjective meaning “bright, shining, luminous” is from the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript that the British Library dates to the second quarter of the 700s:

“Bibod dryhtnes leht inlihtende egan” (“The commandment of the Lord is luminous, enlightening the eyes”). In the interlinear manuscript, the Old English leht is a translation of the Latin lucidum (bright, shining, clear). Many modern versions of Psalm 19:8 use “pure.”

The first Oxford example of the adjective “light” meaning “of little weight, not ponderous” is from a riddle that some scholars believe may have been written in the early 700s, though the earliest manuscript containing the riddle dates from the late 900s.

Here’s the citation, with “lighter” spelled leohtre, from Riddle 40 in the Exeter Book, a collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry at the Exeter Cathedral Library in southwest England:

“Leohtre ic eom micle þonne þes lytla wyrm þe her on flode gæð fotum dryge” (“I am much lighter than this little bug that walks on the water with dry feet”).

The first OED example of the verb “light” meaning to “give or shed light” (that is, to shine) is from the Gospel of John in the West Saxon Gospels, written around 990: “Þæt leoht lyht on ðystrum” (“the light shines on darkness”), from John 1:5-9.

The word “light” has many other meanings, such as understanding (“The study sheds light on a problem”), a notable person (“He’s one of England’s brightest lights”), and a match (“Do you have a light?”), but we’ll save them for another day.

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How to turn into a driveway

Q: If I “turn into” a driveway, am I located in the driveway or have I become the driveway? In other words, does a driver “turn into” or “turn in to” a driveway? I’ve found many conflicting answers on the Internet.

A: A driver “turns into” a driveway. And no, that doesn’t mean he becomes a driveway. It means he enters one.

The phrase “turn into” can be read correctly in two ways—to enter (“the driver turned into my lane”) or to become (“the prince turned into a frog”).

The context makes clear which meaning is intended. No one would ever think that the driver was transformed into a stretch of pavement, or that the prince somehow got inside a frog.

It’s not true, as many websites claim, that “turn into” always means to become, and that you should use “turn in to” for any other meaning.

You can enter a driveway by “turning into” it, just as you can “drive into” or “walk into” or “go into” one. This sense of “turn into” can be found in any dictionary.

Within its entry for the verb “turn,” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has the definition “to direct one’s way or course,” illustrated with this example: “The truck turned into the gas station.”

Merriam-Webster Unabridged has a similar definition, with the example “turn a car into a stream of traffic.”

The phrase has been used that way for hundreds of years. This May 29, 1672, example from the domestic state papers of King Charles II orders damaged warships to turn into a swale, or depression, filled with water:

“The Earl of Arlington to Major Darell. You are to order a vessel to lie a little off the fort, at the entrance into the river, with directions to warn all maimed and disabled ships coming from the fleet to turn into the Swale, where they are to be repaired, and not to proceed up into the river.”

When used with a verb showing motion or change, “into” has a number of meanings that concern entering a place or a condition.

Among other things, “into” can mean toward—either to the inside of (“he turned into the garage”) or in the direction of (“he was looking into space”).

It can also indicate a contact with (“he crashed into the garbage can”), a state (“he got into trouble with his wife”), or a transformation (“his relief turned into dismay”).

The Oxford English Dictionary has examples of “turn into” used to mean both “to direct one’s course; to set oneself to go in a particular direction,” and “to change into … to become.”

People who mistakenly criticize that first use of “turn into” may be unaware of the difference between a phrasal verb (like “turn in”) that incorporates the adverb “in,” and an ordinary verb of motion (like “turn”) that’s properly followed by the preposition “into.”

A phrasal verb is a single idiomatic unit consisting of a verb plus an adverb, a preposition, or both. Examples: “break down” (collapse), “see to” (handle), “look forward to” (anticipate).

The phrasal verb “turn in” consists of the verb “turn” and the adverb (“in”), and means to hand over or to go to bed.

And when “in” is part of a phrasal verb, it’s always separate, even if “to” comes right after it. Examples: “The pistol was turned in to a police officer” … “The pistol was turned in to make sure it didn’t fall into the wrong hands.”

A few other common phrasal verbs are “give in” (to surrender), “drop in” (to visit), “chip in” (to contribute), and “tune in” (to listen).

Here are some examples in which “to” connects a phrasal verb with an object and with an infinitive.

“Applications must be turned in to the registrar” …  “Applications must be turned in to insure candidacy.”

“He would not give in to the demands” … “He would not even give in to save his life.”

“Did you drop in to the office party?” … “Did you drop in to say hello?”

“We’ll all chip in to the office kitty” … “We’ll all chip in to buy a gift.”

“Let’s tune in to the program” … “Let’s tune in to learn something new.”

It should be noted that many verbs—“give,” “drop,” “chip,” and others in addition to “turn”—are used with “into” when they’re not part of phrasal verbs.

For instance, a valuable can be “given into” someone’s keeping. A pebble can be “dropped into” a hole. A sculptor can “chip into” a piece of marble.

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The ‘mare’ in ‘nightmare’

Q: Does the “mare” in “nightmare” have anything to do with the word for a female horse?

A: No, the two terms aren’t related.

The “mare” of “nightmare” comes from mære, an Old English term for an evil spirit that was supposed to settle on a sleeper’s chest and cause a feeling of suffocation.

The “mare” that means an adult female horse was a merging of two Old English words: mearh (horse) and mīre (mare). And in case you’re wondering, the word “horse” also showed up in Old English (spelled hors).

The compound “nightmare,” which first appeared in Middle English writing, originally referred to the evil spirit, not the feeling of suffocation or a scary dream.

Over the years, “nightmare” took on new meanings: first a suffocating feeling, then a bad dream that causes such a feeling, and much later simply a frightening dream.

The earliest example of “nightmare” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from “The Life of St. Michael” (circa 1300), found in The South-English Legendary, a collection of manuscripts chronicling the lives of church figures:

“Þe luþere gostes … deriez men in heore slep … And ofte huy ouer-liggez, and men cleopiet þe niȝt-mare” (“The treacherous spirits … harmed men in their sleep … And often lay over them, and were called the nightmare”).

The OED says “nightmare” in that citation refers to a “female spirit or monster supposed to settle on and produce a feeling of suffocation in a sleeping person or animal.”

In the 16th century, according to the dictionary, the term came to mean “a feeling of suffocation or great distress experienced during sleep.”

The first Oxford example is from the 1562 second volume of A New Herball, a three-book work by the English botanist William Turner: “A good remedy agaynst the stranglyng of the nyght mare.”

In the 17th century, according to OED citations, the term came to mean “a bad dream producing these or similar sensations.”

Here’s an example from The Marriage of Belphegor, a 1675 translation of a work by Machiavelli: “This was no fantastick imagination, nor fit of the Night-mare.”

And in the early 19th century, according to Oxford citations, “nightmare” took on its usual sense today: “an oppressive, frightening, or unpleasant dream.”

This OED example is from a Nov. 29, 1826, entry in the journal of Sir Walter Scott: “Awaked from horrid dreams … I had the nightmare in short, and no wonder.” We’ve expanded the OED citation to add context.

Soon afterward, the dictionary says, “nightmare” took on its familiar figurative meaning: an “oppressive fear; a frightening experience or thing; a source of fear or anxiety.”

The earliest citation is from Sartor Resartus, an 1834 novel by Thomas Carlyle: “Not till after long years … did the believing heart … sink into spell-bound sleep, under the nightmare, Unbelief.”

(Carlyle’s title roughly means “the retailored tailor” in Latin. Sart-, the participial stem of sarcīre, meaning to patch or mend, has given English the adjective “sartorial.”)

Finally, “night hag” is another term for that female demon that supposedly caused a feeling of suffocation. The demon also supposedly caused sleep paralysis, a sense of being unable to move while falling asleep or waking up.

The earliest OED example for “night hag” is from The Birth of Merlin, a 1662 play by the English dramatist William Rowley: “Where no Night-hag shall walk, nor Ware-wolf tread.”

The dictionary’s most recent citation is from the fall 1992 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer: “My friend and I were experiencing … ‘night terror.’ My friend’s were more like the classic variety, complete with a night hag.”

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Can ‘so don’t I’ mean ‘so do I’?

Q: There’s a grammatical quirk in northern New England in which a negative is used affirmatively: Example: “I love it when the leaves turn in the fall.” … “Oh, so don’t I. It’s my favorite time of year.” Any ideas where that might have come from?

A: You’re right that this quirky use of “so don’t I” is peculiar to New England. A native Bostonian would understand it immediately as meaning “so do I,” while a Californian would probably hear just the opposite—“I don’t.”

The linguist William Labov has said this use of “so don’t I” represents a “reversal of polarity,” a kind of construction in which “negative comes to mean positive or positive negative.” (From his 1974 paper “Linguistic Change as a Form of Communication.”)

Labov, an expert in the fields of sociolinguistics and regional variation, says the usage is common to eastern New England. It has also been called “the Massachusetts negative positive,” and research has shown that it extends into Maine.

He and his colleagues conducted a study in which subjects were given this question: “Somebody said, I like liver and then somebody else said, So don’t I. What do you think he meant?”

A majority of those from outside eastern New England interpreted the answer in the negative: “I do not.” But all the native New Englanders interpreted it as positive: “I do too.”

As Labov notes, “So don’t I has risen to the level of an overt stereotype in eastern New England.” However, “most outsiders are puzzled by the apparent contradiction between the positive so and the negative n’t.”

The usage consists of the adverb “so,” followed by a negative auxiliary verb (“don’t,” “didn’t,” “can’t,” “couldn’t,” etc.), and a noun or pronoun subject.

It’s always spoken in response to an affirmative statement. And despite the negative “-n’t,” the speaker is being affirmative too.

Labov notes a similarity with a “tag question” that’s another form of reverse polarity: “Don’t I though!”

Another similar usage has been noted by the Yale University linguist Laurence R. Horn. In Smoky Mountain English, someone who responds to a suggestion or invitation by saying, “I don’t care to” actually means “I don’t mind if I do” or “I’m pleased to.”

As Horn writes, this usage is as likely as “so don’t I” to be “misinterpreted by outlanders.” (From his paper “Multiple Negation in English and Other Languages,” 2010.)

Jim Wood, another Yale linguist, argues that there’s a shade of difference between a New Englander’s affirmative “so don’t I” and a straightforward “so do I.” A speaker who responds with “so don’t I,” he says, is correcting an assumption.

In his paper “Affirmative Semantics with Negative Morphosyntax” (2014), Wood uses the following exchange to illustrate his point. Speaker A: “I play guitar.” Speaker B: “Yeah, but so don’t I.”

Here Speaker A seems to imply he’s the only one (that is, in the relevant context) who plays the guitar. Speaker B’s response sets him straight, and can be seen as meaning “It’s not true that I don’t play the guitar too.”

Wood, as a native of southern New Hampshire, has firsthand experience of the usage. He (along with Horn, Raffaella Zanuttini, and others) collaborated on a broad-ranging language study, the Yale Diversity Project, which researched several dozen usages in addition to “so don’t I.”

The study found that “so don’t I” had been recorded as far north as York, ME, as far south as New Haven, CT, and as far west as Erie, PA.

You can read more online about the Yale study’s “so don’t I” research, and see a map plotting its usage.

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Black (or African) American?

[Note: We’re repeating this post for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It originally appeared on March 21, 2010. However, usage changes, so we’ve inserted updates indicating the latest preferences.]

Q: I was reading an article in the New York Times that used “Black American” and “African American” interchangeably. Is there a proper time for using one term or the other?

A: In general the terms “Black American” and “African American” are synonymous.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, for example, defines “African American” as a “Black American of African ancestry.”

The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary have similar definitions.

Definitions aside, debates about the nomenclature of race are nothing new. How accurate, or appropriate, is the term “African American”? How meaningfully connected to Africa are most Black Americans anyway?

The linguist John McWhorter, for instance, has argued in The New Republic that the “African” part should be dropped. He is, he says, a Black American.

But you don’t have to look hard to find other opinions. Keith Boykin of The Daily Voice, a Black news organization, has this to say:

“I don’t care if you call yourself Negro, colored, African American or black (in lower case or upper case). … The true diversity of our people cannot be fully represented by any one term.”

We recently came across an interesting and fairly exhaustive analysis of this subject by Tom W. Smith, whose article “Changing Racial Labels: From ‘Colored’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘Black’ to ‘African American’ ” ran in The Public Opinion Quarterly in 1992.

Smith (who, by the way, capitalizes all racial terms throughout his article) sets out to discuss “changes in the acceptance of various labels, not the creation of new terms.”

He notes that “Colored,” “Negro,” “Black,” and “African” were all “established English terms for Blacks when America was first settled. ‘African American’ was in use at least as early as the late 1700s.”

The dominant label in the mid- to late-19th century, he writes, was “Colored,” which was accepted by both Whites and Blacks. But “Colored” was too inclusive, because it covered “not only Blacks but Asians and other non-White races.”

Consequently “Negro” began to replace “Colored” as the favored term in the late 19th century, in a movement that Smith says was “led by such influential Black leaders as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois.”

By the 1930s, he says, “Negro” had supplanted “Colored,” which had begun to seem antiquated.

“But as the civil rights movement began making tangible progress in the late 1950s and early 1960s,” Smith writes, “the term ‘Negro’ itself eventually fell under attack.”

Thus “Black,” like “Negro” before it, according to Smith, was seen as “forward-looking” and “progressive,” besides appearing to promote “racial pride, militancy, power, and rejection of the status quo.”

So “Black” became ascendant in the 1970s, though it briefly competed with “Afro-American,” which was popular among academics.

But for the most part, from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, “the position of ‘Black’ was virtually unchallenged,” Smith writes.

This all changed in December 1988, when the National Urban Coalition proposed that “African American” replace “Black” as the preferred term.

The goal “was to give Blacks a cultural identification with their heritage and ancestral homeland,” Smith writes.

“Furthermore,” he says, “it was seen as putting Blacks on a parallel with White ethnic groups.” By using a term based on culture and homeland, Blacks were redefined “as an ethnic group rather than a race.”

This distinction—race versus ethnic group—is important, because “racial differences are viewed as genetically based and thus as beyond the ability of society to change,” Smith writes.

“Racial prejudice and discrimination have greatly exceeded ethnic intolerance,” he adds. “On balance, America has a better record of accepting and fairly treating ethnic groups than it does racial groups.”

Smith also touches on the criticisms of the “African American” label, which many people feel “calls for identification with a culture to which almost no actual ties exist.”

In addition, the term “has the classic ‘hyphenated American’ problem.” Whether or not there’s an actual hyphen, he notes, ethnic compounds like “German-American” sometimes have been “regarded as symbolizing divided loyalties.”

Smith, who was writing in 1992, says that “among those with a preference, ‘African American’ has grown in acceptance although ‘Black’ still is preferred by more Blacks.”

A usage note in American Heritage (the fourth edition, published in 2000) points out that “African American,” despite its popularity, “has shown little sign of displacing or discrediting black, which remains both popular and positive.”

[Update, Sept. 5, 2021: American Heritage dropped the usage note from later editions. “African American” is now overwhelmingly more popular than “Black American,” according to our searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the News on the Web corpus, a database of articles from online newspapers and magazines. Furthermore, the capitalization of “Black” has now become widely established.]

Does  any of this really matter? Smith quotes DuBois as saying: “The feeling of inferiority is in you, not in a name. The name merely evokes what is already there. Exorcise the hateful complex and no name can ever make you hang your head.”

“Yet names do matter,” Smith says. “Blacks have successively changed their preferred term of address from ‘Colored’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘Black’ and now, perhaps, to ‘African American’ in order to assert their group standing and aid in their struggle for racial equality.”

“While symbolic, these changes have not been inconsequential,” he adds. “For symbols are part and parcel of reality itself.”

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A great eye for art

Q: I saw this the other day in the NY Times: “I love these African wood sculptures, and the antique Buddha head. You and your wife have a great eye.” That sounds odd! How can two people have “a great eye”?

A: Steven Kurutz, a Times feature reporter, made the comment in interviewing the “60 Minutes” correspondent Bill Whitaker.

The “eye” in his remark isn’t being used literally for one of the two organs of sight each of us is born with. In this sense, “eye” means visual discernment, taste, judgment, or appreciation.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the usage this way: “The faculty of appreciation or judgement of visual objects (also situations, etc.), either in a particular context or for a specific quality.”

So a person—or a husband and wife who collect art together—might have “a great eye” for antiquities, for African sculptures, for design, or for anything else that’s visual.

The OED’s examples of this usage date back to the 16th century. The earliest is about combat and the importance of being able to visualize the enemy’s position:

“There must be a speciall care taken in viewing by experience, & the eye of a soldior, the scituation which the enimie occupyeth.” (From Sir Edward Hoby’s Theorique & Practise of Warre, a 1597 translation of the Spanish of Bernardino de Mendoza.)

In this later example, the “eye” is possessed by more than one person, represented by “we.” It comes from James Beattie’s Dissertations Moral and Critical (1783):

“If we have any thing of a painter’s eye, we are struck with the waving lines that predominate so remarkably in his figure.”

And the two of us can never resist citing P. G. Wodehouse. This is from his novel Hot Water (1932): “House-broken husband though he was, he still had an eye for beauty.”

In most cases, one person is said to have “an eye” for something, but there’s no reason that two people can’t share “an eye.” That is to say, they can share the same faculty for visual appreciation.

There are many other usages in English in which “eye” is used in the singular to mean something other than the organ of sight.

The expression “to have an eye for [or an eye to] the main chance,” for instance, has been around for more than 400 years. The OED says the expression means “to have consideration for one’s own interests.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an Elizabethan drama, Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London (1584):

“Trust me thou art as craftie to haue an eye to the mayne chaunce: / As the Taylor that out of seuen yardes stole one and a halfe of durance.”

This later example comes from Studies of a Biographer (1902), by Sir Leslie Stephen, who was Virginia Woolf’s father: “It … cannot be said that an eye for the main chance is inconsistent with the poetical character.”

The word “ear” has been used in much the same way. It’s often said of people who appreciate music that they have “a good ear.” This usage, too, has been around since the 16th century.

The earliest OED citation is from William Bonde’s The Pylgrimage of Perfection (1526): “In the psalmody … haue a good eare.”

And in this example, from William Hubbock’s Great Brittaines Resurrection (1606), both “eye” and “ear” are used this way:

“As the cunning eye in pictures, the skillfull eare in musicke discerneth more then the vulgar sort.”

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Mary and me at the Eiffel Tower

Q: I often put captions above photos that I embed in emails, but I always have this problem: Should it be “Mary and me at the Eiffel Tower” or “Mary and I at the Eiffel Tower”? And why?

A: It doesn’t matter. Either caption is OK.

“Mary and me at the Eiffel Tower” and “Mary and I at the Eiffel Tower” are just verbless sentence fragments.

If you add a verb form, though, you do have to choose between “I” (a subject pronoun) and “me” (an object pronoun).

In the presence of a verb, the phrase could be either a subject (“Mary and I are pictured at the Eiffel Tower”) or an object (“This photo shows Mary and me at the Eiffel Tower”).

We had a post on this topic back in 2009, when a reader questioned a caption in a photographic memoir by Gore Vidal.

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Are you dumbfounded?

Q: The verb “dumbfound” leaves me dumbfounded. How does combining “dumb” and “found” give us a word that means to bewilder?

A: “Dumbfound” began life in the 17th century as a combination of “dumb” (speechless) and “confound” (to surprise and confuse). It was originally spelled “dumfound,” and is still sometimes seen that way.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “dumbfound” as to “strike dumb; to confound, confuse; to nonplus.”

In its entry for “confound,” the dictionary notes that the verb could be “expressed colloquially by dumfound, flabbergast, etc.”

The earliest OED example for “dumbfound” is from the Scottish author Thomas Urquhart’s 1694 translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel, a series of novels by François Rabelais:

“I beseech you never Dum-found or Embarrass your Heads with these idle Conceits.”

The next Oxford citation uses “dumb” rather than “dum,” but continues to hyphenate the word:

“He has but one eye, and we are on his blind side; I’ll dumb-found him” (from The Souldiers Fortune, a 1681 comedy by the English playwright Thomas Otway).

The first OED example for “dumbfound” spelled without a hyphen is from Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy (1762): “To cramp and dumbfound his opponents.”

And here’s a passive example from a March 27, 1861, letter by Charles Darwin: “I cannot wriggle out of it; I am dumbfounded.”

The only Oxford example for the word used as an adjective is from a March 27, 1815, letter by the Irish poet and songwriter Thomas Moore:

“I am not at all surprised by the dum-founded fascination that seizes people at such daring.” (We’ve expanded the citation, which refers to Napoleon’s return to Paris from exile on the island of Elba.)

As for the etymology here, the verb “confound” is ultimately derived from confundĕre, classical Latin for to mix together, mix up, or confuse.

The adjective “dumb” meant mute or speechless when it showed up with the same spelling in Old English. There are similar words in Old Norse and other Germanic languages.

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Merry or happy Christmas?

Q: Why do our British cousins say “happy Christmas” while we say “merry Christmas”?

A: You can find “merry Christmas” and “happy Christmas” in both the US and the UK, though Christmas is more often “merry” in American English and “happy” in British English.

Our searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus show that “merry Christmas” is overwhelmingly more popular in the US, while “happy Christmas” is somewhat more popular in the UK.

Here’s a recent “merry Christmas” example from the UK: “Hundreds of well-wishers turned out to catch a glimpse of the royal family, with some calling out ‘merry Christmas’ as they walked past” (from a Dec. 25, 2017, report in the Guardian on the crowd outside Sandringham House, Queen Elizabeth’s Norfolk estate).

And here’s a recent “happy Christmas” example from the US: “So, this year, for the first time in a long time, this native will not return to the scene of the happy Christmases of his childhood” (from the Dec. 7, 2017, issue of the Chicago Tribune).

Some language commentators have attributed the British preference for “happy Christmas” to the use of the expression by the royal family in annual Christmas broadcasts. King George V began the practice in his 1932 Christmas radio message, written by Rudyard Kipling:

“I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all. To men and women so cut off by the snows, the desert or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them; to those cut off from fuller life by blindness, sickness, or infirmity; and to those who are celebrating this day with their children and grand-children. To all—to each—I wish a happy Christmas. God Bless You!”

Queen Elizabeth II, who has continued the usage, concluded her 2017 Christmas TV broadcast this way: “Whatever your own experiences this year; wherever and however you are watching, I wish you a peaceful and very happy Christmas.”

However, the royal family isn’t unanimously “happy” in its Christmas greetings. A recent holiday photo issued by Kensington Palace was accompanied by this wording: “A new family photo—Merry Christmas from The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince George and Princess Charlotte.”

Kipling’s choice of “happy” in the speech he wrote for King George may have been influenced by the feeling among some Anglican clerics in the 19th century that “merry” suggests noisy, boisterous, or drunken behavior, while “happy” signifies a deeper, more loving enjoyment.

In “Happy Christmas,” an 1864 lecture, the Rev. Gordon Calthrop, a prebendary at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, says, “Now it is usual, I believe, to speak rather of a ‘Merry,’ than of a ‘Happy’ Christmas. But I had a reason in my own mind for departing in this particular instance from the general custom.”

“There seems to me to be a difference—a considerable difference between the thing signified by the word ‘merry,’ and the thing signified by the word ‘happy,’ ” Calthrop explains.

He says “merry” indicates “boisterous gaiety” and “extravagant demonstrations,” while “happy” reflects “the true spirit of this most blessed season” and a feeling “too deep to be very demonstrative.”

Interestingly, “merry” meant simply pleasing or delightful when it first appeared in Old English. It didn’t come to mean boisterous or tipsy until the late 14th century. “Happy” meant lucky or fortunate when it showed up in writing in the late 14th century. It didn’t take on the sense of pleased or contented until a century later.

Getting back to your question, “merry Christmas” was first used in writing in the early 1500s, while “happy Christmas” came along nearly two centuries later.

The earliest example of “merry Christmas” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Dec. 22, 1534, letter by John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, to Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to King Henry VIII: “And thus our Lord send yow a mery Christenmas, and a comfortable, to yowr heart desyer.”

(The bishop, a prisoner in the Tower of London, asks Cromwell in the letter for better clothing and other necessities, as well as a priest to hear his confession. He was executed on June 22, 1535, for refusing to accept Henry VIII as head of the Church of England.)

The OED defines this use of “merry” as “characterized by celebration and rejoicing. Frequently in Merry Christmas! and other seasonal greetings.”

The dictionary says “happy” is used similarly “in expressions of good wishes for a person or persons on a celebratory occasion, event, day, etc., as happy birthday, happy Christmas, happy New Year, etc.”

The earliest Oxford example of “happy Christmas” is from a 1707 memoir by Frances Shaftoe: “I wish you a happy Christmas and New Year.”

However, we’ve found many earlier examples, such as this excerpt from a Dec. 20, 1688, letter by George Wheler, a canon of Durham Cathedral, to George Hicks, Dean of Worcester:

“I Send You this to express my hearty Wishes, That You may enjoy a Happy Christmass and New-Year.”

The linguist Arika Okrent has noted that “happy” is the usual adjective for expressing good wishes on a festive event: “happy birthday,” “happy New Year’s Day,” “happy Thanksgiving,” “happy Easter,” “happy St. Patrick’s Day,” and so on. She suggests in a video on the Mental Floss website that “happy” may be seen as a classier term than the rowdy, tipsy “merry.”

Classy or not, “merry Christmas” is alive and well on both sides of the Atlantic, though merrier in the US. We’ll end with the last of the many examples of the expression in A Christmas Carol, the 1843 novella by Charles Dickens:

“A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”

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The Reader Over Your Shoulder

Read Pat’s essay today in The Paris Review about The Reader Over Your Shoulder, a guide to writing, written in the 1940s by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge.

The essay is excerpted from Pat’s introduction to a new edition of the book, scheduled to be published this year by Seven Stories Press. 

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Dreaming of a white sale

Q: I’m dreaming of a “white sale” so I can replace my threadbare linens. In the meantime, can you enlighten me about the history of the expression?

A: The phrase “white sale” showed up in the late 1800s in reference to a January or February sale of household linens, also known as “white goods,” at reduced prices.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Feb. 2, 1894, issue of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

“At 8 o’clock yesterday morning J. L. Hudson’s furnishing goods departments were packed with eager buyers, being attracted there by the announcement of a ‘White Sale.’ ”

However, the OED has an earlier citation for a similar usage from a July 3, 1878, ad in the Iowa State Reporter in Waterloo:

“Remember! The Linen and White Goods Sale at Glover & Arther’s on Tuesday, July 9, at 10 o’clock a.m.”

We’ve also found quite a few examples of the shorter phrase “white sale” used in the late 1880s and early ’90s in newspaper ads announcing sales of sewing fabrics or undergarments, though not household linens.

In Wanamaker’sMeet Me at the Eagle (2010), Michael J. Lisicky credits the American merchant John Wanamaker with coming up with the idea for a white sale:

“In January 1878, he introduced the first annual White Sale. This sale was an attempt to sell excess stock in bedding during a traditionally slow time of the year.”

Lisicky, the author of several histories of department stores, says Wanamaker “chose the name White Sale since all linens were exclusively sold in White.”

However, we haven’t been able to confirm that or any other 19th-century use of the term “white sale” by the Philadelphia department store.

In fact, the earliest example we’ve been able to find for a Wanamaker “white sale” refers to a sale in its store at Broadway and Ninth Street in Manhattan: “Plain Facts About the White Sale” (from the Jan. 3, 1900, New-York Tribune).

The earliest OED citation for “white goods” is from A Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts, an 1807 book by the English scientist Thomas Young:

“About one half [of imported cotton] is consumed in white goods, one fourth in fustians, and the remainder in hosiery, mixtures, and candle wicks.” (Fustian is a durable twilled fabric.)

The dictionary defines “white goods” as “household linen, traditionally white in colour, such as sheets and towels.” It says the usage is seen now only in references to the past.

We often call these household items “linens,” though they’re more likely to be made of cotton or a cotton blend. Technically, “linen” is cloth woven from flax, but for many centuries the word has been used loosely to mean either undergarments or household goods like sheets, towels, napkins, and tablecloths

Sometimes linens or muslins or other fabrics that were not bleached and retained their natural color were called “brown goods,” but that term was also used for fabrics that had been dyed brown or a brownish color.

Interestingly, both the terms “brown goods” and “white goods” were resurrected in the 20th century with more modern meanings.

In the 1940s “white goods” came to mean large household appliances that were traditionally white, like refrigerators and washing machines.

The first OED example is fromthe June 13, 1947, issue of the New York Times: “$50,000 worth of white goods like stoves and washers are available for immediate delivery.”

And later in the 20th century the term “brown goods” came to be used to mean electrical appliances like radios, TV’s and phonographs that were often housed in brown cases.

The first Oxford citation is from a March 1976 report by the London consumer organization Which?

“Electrical equipment … includes things like washing machines and fridges (what the trade calls white goods) as well as TVs and audio (which the trade calls brown goods).”

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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 topics: the history of “white sales,” and words of the year.

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On holy days and holidays

(We’re repeating this post for New Year’s Day. It originally ran on Dec. 15, 2011.)

Q: Happy holidays! Apropos of the holiday season, when did “holiday” become a word and when did it lose its holiness? I assume it was originally “holy day,” but I’ve never looked into it.

A: The word “holiday” was first recorded in English around the year 950, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it looked a lot different back then.

In Old English, it was written haligdæg or hali-dægh (literally “holy day’). And later, in Middle English, the first vowel was also an “a”: halidei, halidai , halliday, haliday, etc.

A bit later in the Middle English period (12th to 15th centuries) the “a” became an “o,” and eventually the usual forms of the word became “holy day,” “holy-day,” or “holiday” (a spelling first recorded in 1460).

The different forms of the word—that is, whether it was written as one word or two—had something to do with its different meanings.

Originally, the word meant a consecrated day or a religious festival. But in the 1400s, it acquired another, more secular meaning.

The OED defines this sense of the word as “a day on which ordinary occupations (of an individual or a community) are suspended; a day of exemption or cessation from work; a day of festivity, recreation, or amusement.”

That’s how the single word “holiday” came to include the secular side of life and became identified with vacations. But the two–word versions (“holy day,” “holy-day”) retained the original meaning—a day set aside for religious observance.

Today we still recognize these different senses and spellings.

Now here’s an aside. In the Middle English period, people sometimes observed holy days by eating a large flatfish called butte. Thus this fish became known as “halibut” (“hali” for holy and “but” for flatfish).

And happy holidays to you!

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