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

The birds and the bees

Q: When did “the birds and the bees” become a euphemism for sex?

A: The use of the expression as a euphemism for the basic facts about sex, as told to children, showed up in print in the first half of the 20th century, but it was undoubtedly used in speech before it appeared in writing.

The earliest written example we’ve seen for “the birds and the bees” used this way is from a Feb. 12, 1940, Associated Press article that appeared the next day in various newspapers around the country.

Here’s the headline in the Feb. 13, 1940, issue of the San Bernardino County (CA) Sun: “Objection to Pictures of Nudes Irks Girl, 12 / Child Suggests That He Learn About Birds and Bees Before Voicing Disapproval.”

In the AP article, a man says schoolchildren shouldn’t be allowed to see two Thomas Hart Benton nudes at a museum. A girl responds that “there is no harm in looking at art exhibitions” and “if you know about the birds and the bees you wouldn’t want to hide the pictures.”

The editors of the San Bernardino newspaper wouldn’t have used “Birds and Bees” in the headline unless the usage was already familiar to readers in the sex-education sense.

A somewhat earlier newspaper example (from the April 29, 1939, issue of the Argus in Melbourne, Australia) uses “the birds and the bees” to mean lovers in nature. A movie reviewer complains about the scarcity of romantic films coming out of Hollywood, then adds:

“I am not suggesting that Hollywood is plastered with posters reading ‘Down With Love.’ Nor do I even hint that it should be given back to the birds and the bees and the flowers and the few Viennese remaining in old Vienna.”

Of course writers have linked birds and bees for centuries as symbols of nature, and noted the care in which birds rear their young.

In a 1675 religious treatise, for example, the Anglican priest John Smith says man should imitate the “well timed and orderly actions of birds and bees,” especially the ingenuity of birds “in making their nests” and in the “parental care of their young.”

(The treatise is entitled Christian Religion’s Appeal From the Groundless Prejudices of the Sceptick to the Bar of Common Reason. Smith was rector of St. Mary at the Wall Church in Colchester, England.)

And here’s a 19th-century example from “Nature,” by the Scottish poet Allan Cunningham:

“Untrodden flowers and unpruned trees / Gladden’d with songs of birds and bees.” (The poem was first published in the Edinburgh Literary Journal on Dec. 27, 1828, and was widely reprinted in the US.)

A more recent, suggestive example is from “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love,” a song that Cole Porter wrote for the 1928 musical Paris: “Birds do it, bees do it, / Even educated fleas do it.”

Porter changed the original wording (“Chinks do it, Japs do it, / Up in Lapland, little Lapps do it”), when told that it was offensive, Philip H. Herbst writes in The Color of Words: An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States (1997).

All the early recordings we’ve heard, including those by Rudy Vallée (1928), Bing Crosby (1929), Mary Martin (1941), and Billie Holiday (1941), use the original lyrics. The Yale Book of Quotations, edited by Fred R. Shapiro, dates the new version at 1954.

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‘Underway’ or ‘under way’?

Q: I’d love to understand why it’s apparently now acceptable to cast “under way”  as “underway”—one word, not two. “Negotiations are underway” just seems wrong!

A: Yes, “under way,” an expression that began life as two words, is increasingly—and more popularly—being written as one. Today you can use either version and be in respectable company.

More and more standard dictionaries are recognizing the one-word version. In fact, two prominent American dictionaries, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.) now recommend “underway” exclusively.

The term began life as a two-word adverbial phrase composed of the preposition “under” and the noun “way.”

When first recorded in the early 17th century, the expression was used in a nautical sense. It comes from the Dutch onterweg (“on the way”), and was adopted into English at a time when the Netherlands ruled the sea.

A ship was said to be “under way,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, when it was moving freely through the water as opposed to being anchored, moored, or aground.

The earliest written example in the OED is a seafaring usage from Richard Hawkins’s “Observations in His Voiage into the South Sea” (1622):

“The windermost shippe, by opening her sayle, may be vpon the other before shee be looked for, either for want of steeridge, not being vnder way, or by the rowling of the Sea.”

In later use, the OED explains, the term became broader. It was used with reference to other sorts of travel, as well as to anything in progress.

Again, the earlier citations use two words, as in this Oxford citation from Sacred Geography (1671) by Joseph Moxon, a printer and globe-maker:

“That night he went to Bethania, and lodged there…. And in the Morning again to Jerusalem, where under way he cursed the Fig Tree, which presently withered.” (The reference is to a passage in Matthew 21, where Jesus curses a fig tree that has no fruit.)

And this example is from a letter written in Paris by Thomas Jefferson in 1788, on the eve of the French Revolution: “While our second revolution is just brought to a happy end with you, yours here is but cleverly under way.”

But by the late 1700s and early 1800s the one-word spelling “underway” was also being used, nautically and otherwise, as in these OED citations:

“We shall get underway in a jiffy, the pilot’s coming on board.” (From George Brewer’s novel The Motto, 1795.)

“As soon as the vessel was got underway, the captain discovered the money had been stolen.” (From a weekly magazine, Lady’s Miscellany, Nov. 16, 1811.)

“It was about day-break when the caravan got underway at Trebizond.” (From John Galt’s novel Earthquake, 1820.)

The OED has this to say about the spellings: “The one-word spelling has become increasingly common since the mid 20th cent. The two-word spelling continues to be recommended by most usage guides.”

Actually, that last statement is no longer true. Usage guides today either lean toward “underway” or leave the choice up to the writer.

For example, the fourth and latest edition of Garner’s Modern English Usage (2016) encourages the one-word spelling:

“In the phrases get underway (= to get into motion) and be underway (= to be in progress), the term is increasingly made one word, and it would be convenient to make that transformation, which has been underway since the 1960s, complete in all uses of the word.”

Jeremy Butterfield, in the fourth edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2015), says the “mysterious gravitational force” that  earlier brought “any way” and other adverbial phrases together has been doing the same to “under way” since the 1930s.

With dictionaries at odds over whether to use one word or two, Butterfield says, it’s up to the writer to decide: “Follow your nose or your gut, whichever is the more prominent organ.”

Even 16 years ago, Merriam-Webster’s Guide to English Usage noted that the term was increasingly written as one word, “underway.”

The editors of the 2002 edition added: “It is quite possible that this solid form will eventually predominate over the two-word form, but for the time being under way is still somewhat more common.”

Again, that last statement is now outdated. The NOW Corpus, a database of 5.6 billion words published in web-based newspapers and magazines between 2010 and the present, shows “underway” ahead of “under way” by more than two to one. As of this writing, “underway” appeared in roughly 112,000 articles during this period, compared with 45,000 for “under way.”

The growing acceptance of “underway” is no surprise. Virtually all other compounds formed with “under” are single words: “underdog,” “underage,” “undersecretary,” “underprivileged,” “underground,” “underfed,” “underdeveloped,” and so on. (The only exceptions we can think of are hyphenated adjectives occurring before a noun and beginning with “under-the-,” where the last element is “counter” or “table” or “radar.”)

You can also expect to see the “underway” version in many newspapers. The Associated Press Stylebook, widely used by journalists, had long recommended “under way” for “virtually all uses.” But since 2013 it has recommended “underway: One word in all uses.”

Similarly, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, which had previously recommended “under way (adv.),” now has “underway,” without a label, in its fifth edition, published in 2015.

Still, if you prefer to use “under way,” you can do so with a clear conscience.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged has “under way” for the adverb, “underway” for the adjective.

This brings us to the subject of terminology. When is this term an adverb, and when is it an adjective? On this issue, as it happens, chaos reigns.

The Oxford English Dictionary labels it an adverb in all uses. This is true even in examples like “the dance was underway,” where it looks more like a predicate adjective because it follows a form of the verb “be” and complements the noun.

In the other camp are three standard British dictionaries—Macmillan, Longman, and Cambridge—which regard “underway” as an adjective exclusively, even after the verb “get.” (All three spell it as one word, though Cambridge gives “under way” as a variant.)

Apparently those three dictionaries regard “get” in this case as a copula or linking verb, like “become” or “is.”

Webster’s New World, too, labels “underway” solely as an adjective, though it doesn’t give examples.

American Heritage labels “underway” as both adverb and adjective—spelled one word in both cases—but unfortunately it doesn’t give examples either.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged, as we said, labels it both an adverb and an adjective, but with differing spellings. Its adverbial examples include both “gets under way” and “was well under way,” so in that respect it agrees with the OED.

The only adjectival examples in the Unabridged have “underway” immediately before a noun, as in “underway refueling.” But in fact the term rarely pre-modifies a noun; it almost always comes afterward, generally after a form of the verb “get” or “be.”

M-W likens the word to “afoot” when used adverbially, but “afoot” is generally a predicate adjective, as in “the game is afoot” or “a conspiracy was afoot.”

We would argue that in sentences like “The project was underway,” or “The project underway was a costly one,” the term is an adjective. In that first example, where it follows a form of the verb “be,” it’s a predicate adjective. And in the second, it’s an adjective that post-modifies a noun.

Whether or not if you continue to spell it “under way,” the term has graduated from its beginnings as only a two-word adverbial phrase.

After all, former two-word adverbial phrases like “under cover” and “on line” are now used legitimately as adjectives (and generally written as one word).

Finally, we’ve written before about the term “under weigh,” which originated as a variant of the earlier “under way.” The variant spelling is now accepted as standard, though it began as a misspelling due to an erroneous association with the phrase “weigh anchor.” (The verb “weigh” in the phrase means to raise or lift.)

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Breaking wind

Q: My boyfriend and I are having an argument over whether the word “fart” is vulgar. I say “yes” and he says “no.” I’ve searched your blog, but don’t see anything about it. Can you help settle this?

A: Lexicographers, the people who write dictionaries, differ on how to label this word. It’s variously described as vulgar, informal, rude, impolite, colloquial, and slang. The Oxford English Dictionary puts it this way: “Not now in decent use.”

In other words, “fart” is not quite quite, though dictionaries disagree on the extent of its not-quite-quiteness. One wouldn’t use it in an audience with Queen Elizabeth II, but it’s probably been heard in her private apartments at Buckingham Palace.

Interestingly, the first Queen Elizabeth is said to have used the term to remind Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, of an embarrassing incident, according to Brief Lives, a collection of biographical sketches written by John Aubrey in the late 1600s:

“This Earle of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travell, 7 yeares. On his returne the Queen welcomed him home, and sayd, My Lord, I had forgott the Fart.”

The medievalist Valerie Allen says early “instances of misplaced farts suggest the cultural constancy of its shame value.”

In On Farting: Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages (2007), Allen writes, “There is evidence aplenty that one could be ‘just as squeamish of farting’ in the Middle Ages as today.”

She cites “How Abu Hasan Brake Wind,” a tale in the Arabian Nights about a man who emits a “great and terrible” fart at his wedding banquet and flees. After 10 years, he returns and hears a mother say her daughter was born “on the very night when Abu Hasan farted.” He flees again and never returns.

As for the etymology here, the word “fart” is very old, with roots in prehistoric Germanic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The reconstructed Germanic fertan gave Old English feortan, an early version of the verb “fart.”

Although feortan itself has been reconstructed by linguists (it isn’t found in existing Old English manuscripts), written relatives survived in Old High German (ferzan) and Old Norse (freta).

The earliest written ancestor of “fart” showed up in Middle English. The first citation in the OED is from “Sumer Is Icumen In” (“Summer’s Come In”), a song written around 1250:

“Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ [verteth]” (“The bullock cavorts; the buck farts”). In Middle English, the verb evolved from “verten” to “ferten” to “farten.”

The next Oxford citation is from “The Miller’s Tale,” the second of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1390): “He was som del squaymous Of fartyng” (“He was rather squeamish about farting”).

We’ll end with a comment by the linguist Anatoly Liberman. In a post about the etymology of “fart” on the Oxford University Press blog, he explains why linguists aren’t squeamish about discussing such words:

“Scatological words are always embarrassing to discuss. But linguists are like doctors: desensitizing makes them indifferent to many things that excite others. In the office they are professionals, and words are just words to them. Other than that, they are normal people.”

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Misgivings about ‘misgiving’

Q: I’ve just used “misgiving” in an email, but it strikes me now that the word doesn’t make much sense. How can adding a negative prefix to “giving” result in a word that means a feeling of doubt or distrust?

A: The verb “give” once meant to suggest, so to give something was to suggest it, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. The addition of the prefix “mis-” (badly, wrongly) made the suggestion dubious.

Although the “suggest” sense of “give” is now archaic, Chambers says, it was still being used in the 19th century. The dictionary cites this example from Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel Ivanhoe: “Therefore, do as thy mind giveth thee.”

The noun “misgiving” was formed in the late 16th century when the suffix “-ing” was added to the verb “misgive,” which appeared in writing in the early 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first Oxford citation for “misgive” is from Thomas More’s History of King Richard III, which the British Library dates at 1513-18: “Were it that before such great thinges, mens hartes … misgiueth them.”

The OED adds that “misgive” combined the prefix “mis-” and the verb “give,” two terms of Germanic origin. In Old English, the prefix was mys-, mis-, or miss-, while the verb was geaf, géafon, or giefen.

The first Oxford citation for “misgiving” is from A Booke Which Sheweth the Life and Manners of All True Christians, a 1582 treatise by Robert Browne: “How doo they make light of his grace and blessinges? They haue their misgeuing from goodnes.”

Browne was founder of the Brownist dissenters, early separatists from the Church of England. Many Brownists were among the pilgrims who established Plymouth Colony, though Browne himself returned to the established church and became an Anglican priest.

The OED defines “misgiving” as a “feeling of mistrust, apprehension, or loss of confidence,” and notes that the noun is frequently used in the plural.

We’ll end with a plural example from Right Ho, Jeeves, a 1934 novel by P. G. Wodehouse. Here Bertie Wooster talks his Aunt Dahlia into pretending she’s lost her appetite in order to make Uncle Tom feel sorry for her:

“ ‘It’s all right,’ I said. ‘Have no misgivings. This is the real Tabasco.’ ” As usual, Bertie ends up in the soup—or, as he’d put it, waist high in the gumbo.

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English English language Punctuation Usage Writing

With malice toward none

[Note: In observance of Presidents’ Day, we’re republishing a post that originally appeared on May 13, 2011.]

Q: On a recent visit to the Lincoln Memorial in DC, I noticed that there were no commas in the Second Inaugural Address carved into the wall. There are dashes and periods, but no other punctuation. Did writers of the time not use commas?

A: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address has plenty of punctuation—commas, semicolons, periods, and dashes.

At least it did when he wrote it. For example, here’s the concluding paragraph of the speech, as written:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

You can see images of Lincoln’s manuscript of the speech, in his own handwriting, at the Library of Congress website.

Of course, mid-19th-century prose had a lot more semicolons than we use today. When the speech is reproduced these days, the punctuation is usually somewhat simpler, with commas replacing the semicolons.

But the version engraved at the Lincoln Memorial is simpler still.

Both the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address are engraved at the site in their entirety. And, as is usual with public memorials, the engravers have done their best to make the writing unreadable.

The speeches are rendered in all capital letters, with paragraph indentations barely visible and punctuation reduced to a minimum. The website of the National Parks Service has an image of the speech as engraved.

See what we mean? The stone inscription certainly doesn’t invite readers in, to say the least. And that’s too bad.

The Second Inaugural is one of the most powerful and stirring speeches in our history. Lincoln delivered it on March 4, 1865, during the final days of the Civil War. Little over a month later, he was assassinated.

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Can a ‘regime’ be a ‘regimen’?

Q: I’ve always thought of a “regime” as an autocratic government, and a “regimen” as something like a diet or exercise plan. However, I often hear people refer to the latter as a “regime.” What is the difference between these two words?

A: The word “regime” can refer to either a government (especially an authoritarian one) or a systematic way of doing something, as in a diet or exercise regime. The word “regimen” once meant a government too, but now it usually means a regulated system for doing something.

In fact, both of these English words ultimately come from the same Latin source, regimen, either directly or by way of French.

In classical times the Latin word meant management, guidance, or guide, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and in the Middle Ages it came to mean a course of medical treatment.

The first of the words to appear in English writing was “regimen,” which was borrowed partly from Latin and partly from French in the 1300s, the OED says. It originally meant the regulation of diet, exercise, and other aspects of life that influence health, as well as a way of treatment.

The earliest citation in the dictionary is from Science of Cirurgie, a Middle English translation, written sometime before 1400, of a medical text by the Italian surgeon Lanfranc of Milan:

“Þou schalt kepe him wiþ good regimen, & he schal vse no metis ne drinkis þat engendrith scharp blood” (“Thou shall keep him on a good regimen, and he shall use no meat or drink that causes sharp blood”).

In the 15th century, “regimen,” came to mean the act of governing, according to the OED, and in the 17th century it meant a specific form of government.

Although the governing sense is now considered rare or obsolete, it occasionally shows up, as in this Oxford citation from the May 26, 2006, issue of the Washington Post: “My hope is that inside of the new political regimen, we develop a center, a left and a right.”

The word “regime,” borrowed directly from French, appeared in English writing in the 15th century, according to the OED.

Originally it meant “the regulation of aspects of life that affect a person’s health or welfare,” especially “a particular course of diet, exercise, medication, etc., prescribed or adopted for the restoration or preservation of health.”

The dictionary’s earliest written example is from a translation, dated around 1475, of Livre du Corps de Policie, a political work by the Italian-born French author Christine de Pisan (or Pizan):

“Wyse men … to that entent that they may leve in wellfar and in helthe, likethe theim to haue a regime for the preseruyng of the same.”

In the late 18th century, “regime” came to mean a “method or system of rule, governance, or control,” according to the OED, and in the early 20th century it took on the negative sense of an authoritarian government.

Both “regime” and “regimen” have several other contemporary senses derived from their Latin roots.

“Regime,” for example, can also mean something that occurs regularly, such as “a seasonal climate regime,” and “regimen” can mean a way of managing something, such as “a crop-rotation regimen.”

In case you’re wondering, “regiment,” another word dating from the 1300s, originally meant rule or governance, especially “royal authority,” the OED says. It didn’t mean a military body until the mid-1500s.

All of these words have a common ancestor that predates Latin. Etymologists have traced the origin to a prehistoric Indo-European root, reg-, meaning to go in a straight line and consequently to direct or to rule.

Descendants of this ancient root include the Latin regimen, regula (rule), and rex (king), as well as our words “rule,” “right,” “regular,” “regulate,” “rector,” “regent,” “regal,” “royal,” “raj,” “reign,” “regalia,” “rich,” and “direct.”

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Checkmates and roommates

Q: My dorm roomie is a chess fiend, hence my question. Is the “mate” in “checkmate” related to the “mate” in “roommate”?

A: No, they aren’t etymological mates. The one in “checkmate” comes from Arabic and Persian, while the one in “roommate” has been traced back to prehistoric Germanic.

The chess term, which English borrowed from Old French in the mid-14th century, is ultimately derived from the Arabic shāh māt (the king is dead), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Chambers says the Arabs got the chess expression from Persian, but in the process confused the Persian māta (to die) with mat (to be astonished). The dictionary says the original Persian version meant “the king is astonished or stumped.” (Modern Persian is known as Farsi.)

The Oxford English Dictionary has entries for “checkmate” as an exclamation, a noun, a verb, and an adjective. It says the term refers to putting an “adversary’s King into inextricable check, a move by which the game is won.”

Today, the dictionary says, the shorter form “mate” is commonly used for “checkmate.” In fact, “mate” showed up before “checkmate” in English writing about chess, according to OED citations.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “mate” in the chess sense is from Sir Tristrem, a 13th-century Middle English romance that features a game in which one player bets 20 shillings and the other a hawk:

“Oȝain an hauke … Tventi schillinges … Wheþer so mates oþer fair, Bere hem boþe oway” (“Against a hawk … twenty shillings … whoever mates the other fair, bear them both away”).

The earliest written examples for “checkmate” in the OED use it as a general term for defeat, not as a chess term.

The dictionary’s oldest citation is from “An Invective Against France,” a political poem written in Middle English and Latin sometime before 1346, during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France:

“In proprio climat tibi dicet aper cito chekmat (“In your very own state, the boar will say to you checkmate”). The reference is to King Edward III of England (referred to as the boar) and Philip VI of France (called the hare).

The next OED citation is from Roberd of Cisyle (circa 1390), a medieval romance about an arrogant king who is humbled when God replaces him with an angel and makes him the angel’s jester:

“He wende, in none wyse þat God Almihti couþe deuyse Him to bringe to lower stat; / Wiþ o drauht he was chekmat!” (“He thought that in no way could Almighty God bring him to a lower state: With one move he was checkmated!”).

The word “checkmate” is used as a chess term in The Booke of the Pylgremage of the Sowle, John Lydgate’s 1413 translation of a French work by Guillaume de Deguileville, but “chess” here is a metaphor for a moral battle:

“A shame hath he that at the cheker pleyeth, / Whan that a pown seyith to the kyng, chekmate!” (“Cheker” is an obsolete term for the game of chess as well as for a chess board.)

The first Oxford example for “checkmate” used clearly as a chess term in writing is from The Royall Game of Chesse-Play, Francis Beale’s 1656 translation of a book by the Italian chess writer Gioachino Greco: “The maine designe of the game … is as suddenly as can be to give check mate.”

As for “roommate” and other words in which “mate” refers to a companion, associate, friend, or spouse, the ultimate source is the prehistoric Germanic gamaton, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The element mat in this prehistoric word, Ayto says, is “also the source of English meat; so etymologically mate (like companion) is ‘someone you eat with or share your food with.’ ” For example, gemetta, Old English for “tablemate,” literally means a guest who shares meat. (A recent post discusses “companion,” literally someone you share bread with.)

When the noun “mate” showed up in English writing in the late 1300s, it meant a comrade. The earliest citation in the OED is from Sir Ferumbras (circa 1380), a medieval romance about a Saracen knight:

“Maumecet, my mate, y-blessed mot þou be, / For aled þow hast muche debate” (“Maumecet, my mate, blessed may you be, for you have laid aside much discord”).

The dictionary notes that “mate” is frequently seen “as the second element in compounds, as bed-, flat-mate, etc. (in which it is generally less colloq. than when standing alone).”

The OED has several examples from the 1500s for “mate” used in compounds—whether separated, joined, or hyphenated.

This one is from “Prayse of All Women,” a poem by Edward Gosynhyll: “And nowe more valued than man myne / Lyke so dyd god the femynyne Plaimate of the masculyne.” Most sources date the poem from the early 1540s.

And with that, Happy Valentine’s Day to you and your mate.

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When biscuits were baked twice

Q: Why does “biscuit,” which literally means “baked twice,” refer to food that, in most instances, is not baked twice?

A: When the word “biscuit” showed up in English in the Middle Ages (spelled “besquite”), it did indeed refer to food that was baked twice.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the word is derived “from the original mode of preparation.” The ultimate source of the word, according to the OED, is “the Latin biscoctum (panem), bread ‘twice baked.’ ”

In the original method of cooking, John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the biscuits were “returned to the oven after the initial period of baking in order to become dry or crisp.”

When the term first appeared in Middle English writing in the 14th century, according to Merriam-Webster Unabridged, it referred to “hard or crisp dry baked products” (similar to what Americans today would call a “cracker” or “cookie,” and the British a “biscuit”). In the US, a “biscuit” is a quick bread leavened with baking powder or baking soda.

The British cooking writer Elizabeth David has suggested that the American use of “biscuit” may have been influenced by a similar usage in Scotland and Guernsey, where the term can refer to soft biscuits like scones. It may be that Scottish immigrants brought the usage to America.

“It is interesting that these soft biscuits (such as scones) are common to Scotland and Guernsey, and that the term biscuit as applied to a soft product was retained in these places, and in America, whereas in England it has completely died out,” she writes in English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977).

The earliest example of “biscuit” in the OED is from a chronicle written around 1330 by the English monk Robert Mannyng: “Armour þei had plente, & god besquite to mete” (“They had plenty of armor and weapons, and biscuits for good measure”).

The first Oxford example of “biscuit” used in the American sense of a quick cake is from John Palmer’s Journal of Travels in the United States of North America and Lower Canada (1818): “Hot short cakes, called biscuits.”

Interestingly, the “biscuit” spelling is the result of the Frenchification of “bisket,” which was the standard English spelling for hundreds of years.

As the OED explains, “The regular form in English from 16th to 18th cents. was bisket, as still pronounced; the current biscuit is a senseless adoption of the modern French spelling, without the French pronunciation.”

[Update, Feb. 13, 2018: A reader points out that the German term zwieback literally means twice-baked, from zwei (“two”) and backen (“to bake”). And the Italian biscotti has a similar meaning.]

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Comparatively speaking

Q: I am having a discussion about “older” and “oldest” with several friends. We know the general rule, but the issue concerns a family with three children, and reference is made to two of them. Are they the two “older” or “oldest” children?

A: There’s disagreement among language authorities about what you refer to as the “general rule” for the use of the superlative (“-est”) and comparative (“-er”) forms in English.

Many of them believe that the “-er” form should be used when comparing two things, while the “-est” form is used when comparing three or more. However, we’d call this belief a convention, or common practice, not a rule.

We’ll have more to say later about the differing opinions among language commentators on the use of comparatives and superlatives, but let’s first consider your question

Even if you feel that “-er” should be used only with two things and “-est” with three or more, the use of either the comparative or superlative can be justified in your example.

You could choose “-est” because three children are involved. Or you could choose “-er” because two of the children, considered as a single unit, are being compared with one.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language makes a similar point. As the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, write, “Kim is the best of the three is equivalent to Kim is better than the other two: there is no difference in degree.”

Now let’s look at the practice of using the comparative “-er” for two things and the superlative “-est” for three or more, a subject that we’ve discussed several times on the blog.

In its definitions of the grammatical terms, the Oxford English Dictionary says a “comparative” is used “in comparing two objects,” while a “superlative” is used “in comparing a number of things.”

So when speaking of three or more things, one would have to use a superlative. But do two objects qualify as “a number of things”? If so, then it would be legitimate to use either a comparative or a superlative when speaking of two.

As we wrote on the blog in 2010, “-er” and “-est” suffixes (or versions of them) have been used to compare things since the earliest days of Old English. The practice was handed down from older Germanic languages and ultimately from ancient Indo-European.

However, the belief that a superlative shouldn’t be used for comparing two things originated much later, in the late 18th century.

Is it legitimate? Well, many great writers, including Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Byron, Scott, Hawthorne, Thackeray, and Emerson, have used superlatives to compare two things, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

The usage guide says the convention requiring the comparative for two things “has a dubious basis in theory and no basis in practice, and it serves no useful communicative purpose.”

“Because it does have a fair number of devoted adherents, however, you may well want to follow it in your most dignified or elevated writing,” Merriam-Webster adds.

A devoted adherent of the convention, Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), considers the use of the superlative for two things an increasingly common “blunder.”

Bryan A. Garner, the author, ranks the usage Stage 4 (ubiquitous) on his Language Change Index. Stage 5 is fully accepted.

The Cambridge Grammar authors, Huddleston and Pullum, discuss the usage in A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar (2005):

“Usage manuals commonly say that the superlative is incorrect when the set has only two members (the tallest of the twin towers). However, the superlative is the default for set comparison, and it’s fairly common as an informal variant of the comparative with two-member sets.”

They say the use of the superlative is “relatively unlikely” with an “of” phrase (“Kim is the taller of the two”), but “sentences like Kim and Pat were the only candidates, and Kim was clearly the best are certainly grammatical.”

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Prostitute or sex worker?

Q: A recent headline on the website of the NY Times refers to prostitutes as “sex workers.” For me, “sex workers” is bloodless and sanitized. What’s the latest on the usage here?

A: You can find both “prostitute” and “sex worker” in the New York Times, though “prostitute” is found much more often.

A recent search of the newspaper’s online archive shows that “prostitute” has appeared 147 times over the last 12 months, compared to 11 appearances for “sex worker.”

In fact, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (5th ed.) recommends against using the term “sex worker” for “prostitute” in most cases. Here’s the relevant section:

sex worker. Avoid this vague and euphemistic term, except on the rare occasions when a blanket term is needed to encompass a range of activities. Ordinarily prostitute is preferable. But be sensitive to the fact that in many situations prostitution is linked to human trafficking and violence. Whenever possible, describe the circumstances.”

The Jan. 9, 2018, article on the Times website, a feature about a shelter in Mexico City for former prostitutes, uses “prostitute” or “prostitutes” five times, once in a photo caption and four times in the body of the article.

Although the term “sex worker” or “sex workers” appears three times, one appearance is in a comment by a former prostitute and another is in a remark by the director of the shelter.

The headline on the website is “Retired From the Brutal Streets of Mexico, Sex Workers Find a Haven.” The headline in the Jan. 10, 2018, print edition is “A Shelter With No Room for Stigma.”

Why was “sex workers,” not “prostitutes,” used in the website headline? And why was neither term in the print headline?

The copy editor who wrote the website headline may have been unaware of the stylebook’s objections. The editor who wrote the print headline had more time to consider the issue, and less space to deal with it.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “sex worker” as “a person who is paid or employed to provide sexual services, esp. one working in the pornography business or as a prostitute.”

“Typically,” the OED adds, the term is “used (esp. when in preference to prostitute) to avoid or reduce negative connotations and to evoke affinity with conventional service industries.”

The earliest example in the dictionary is from a review in the Nov. 7, 1971, issue of the Times of Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, a musical by Melvin Van Peebles:

“Coupling rage and laughter, detailing joys among urban field hands, thieves, postal workers, sex workers, factory workers, and the inevitable unemployed, and letting them specify what America is to a great many black folks.”

Although “sex workers” is often used as a euphemism for “prostitutes,” it’s also used as a more general term that includes phone-sex operators, actors in porn films, “adult” models, and so on.

Some organizations opposed to sex trafficking support legalizing “sex work” and unionizing “sex workers.” They believe that unions could help combat forced prostitution and child prostitution. The Gates Foundation, for example, has supported such a union in Calcutta.

However, the issue is controversial. When Amnesty International decided in 2015 to endorse the “full decriminalization of consensual sex work,” many members in Norway and Sweden resigned, saying the organization should seek to end prostitution, not condone it.

Nicholas Kristoff, a Times columnist who has written extensively about forced prostitution and childhood prostitution, is opposed to using the term “sex worker” for “prostitute.”

In a column published on Jan. 23, 2006, Kristoff says: “I’m in the ‘prostitute’ camp; I don’t see any reason for euphemisms, particularly those that tend to legitimize something that is usually closely linked to organized crime and violence.”

As for us, we’d use “prostitutes” for people who engage in sexual intercourse for money, though we might use the broader term if we were referring to several different kinds of “sex workers.”

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A dog in this race?

Q: Why do people say “I don’t have a dog in this race” when the word should be “fight,” not “race”?

A: Those people may be conflating two figurative expressions that mean the same thing: “I don’t have a horse in this race” and “I don’t have a dog in this fight” (“this” is often replaced by “that” or “the.”)

Those two expressions, as well as “I don’t have a dog in the hunt” and “I don’t have skin in the game,” mean the speaker doesn’t have a personal interest or stake in the outcome of the matter.

However, it’s possible that some of the people who say “I don’t have a dog in this race” may be referring figuratively to dog racing.

Despite the folksy, old-time sound of these metaphorical expressions, all of them are relatively new. They didn’t show up in writing until the second half of the 20th century, according to our searches of various databases. (A variation of the “dogfight” expression appeared in the early 1900s.)

We could find only one of these expressions in our language reference sources. The Oxford English Dictionary says “to have (one’s) skin in the game and variants” originated as a colloquial North American business usage.

The OED defines the expression as “to have a stake in the success of something, esp. to have a financial or personal investment in a business; to be closely involved in something.”

“It is not clear,” the dictionary adds, “whether the metaphor underlying this phrase is to do with putting oneself at risk … or with risking one’s money.” Both possibilities, Oxford says, have been suggested. (The word “skin,” as the dictionary explains elsewhere, can refer to one’s identity as well as one’s money.)

The earliest Oxford example for the usage is from the March 1976 issue of Infosystems: “I suggest that the various groups of participants should consider that they do not have any skin in the game.”

The latest OED example refers to an orchestra’s financial contribution to the performance of a piece of music commissioned by a patron: “We’ll pay for the commission, but we want the orchestra to have some skin in the game” (from the Jan. 23, 2005, issue of the New York Times).

The oldest “dog hunt” example we’ve seen is from an Aug. 10, 1988, op-ed column in the State Journal-Register (Springfield, IL) about the opposition of a state official, Jim Edgar, to a constitutional convention:

“That’s one reason Edgar has gone public on the constitutional reform issue, even though the conventional wisdom would be that he doesn’t have a dog in the hunt—that he doesn’t need to run the risk of making unnecessary enemies.”

The earliest “dogfight” example we’ve found is a comment by Vice President George H. W. Bush about financial questions concerning Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic candidate for vice president, and her husband, John Zaccaro:

“I don’t have a dog in that fight” (from an Aug. 20, 1984, report on the United Press International newswire).

However, we’ve found a much earlier variation on the “dogfight” theme in the Aug. 28, 1919, issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which quotes a school official about the awarding of building contracts:

“ ‘I sympathize with the union men,’ he said, ‘but there is another dog in this fight—the non-union man—and we must consider him.’ ”

The oldest “horserace” example we’ve seen is a comment by Marlin Fitzwater, the White House press secretary for President George H. W. Bush, on the choice of David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, as the Republican candidate for governor of Louisiana:

“Basically, we don’t have a horse in that race” (from the Oct. 22, 1991, issue of the Houston Chronicle).

We found an earlier variation on the “horserace” usage in a Feb. 13, 1983, UPI report on the views of Democratic officials around the country about the 1984 Democratic National Convention:

“The highlight in Des Moines was a private luncheon with key state Democrats including former Iowa governor and senator, Harold Hughes, who still hasn’t picked his horse in the race.”

Finally, the earliest example we’ve come across for the “dog race” expression is from an article in the March 6, 1986, Seattle Times about plans to build new naval bases around the country:

“Rep. David Martin, R-N.Y., also defended the home-porting plan. While one big base is to be built at Staten Island, N.Y., Martin noted his district is 300 miles from there. ‘I don’t have a dog in this race,’ he said.”

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Companion piece

Q: My companion and I were wondering about the origin of the term “companion,” so we’re going to our go-to source.

A: We, in turn, are going to some of our go-to sources.

Etymologically, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, a “companion” is “someone who shares your ‘bread’ with you.”

Ayto says English borrowed the term from Old French in the 14th century, but it’s ultimately derived from the classical Latin com (with) and pānis (bread).

When “companion” originally appeared in Middle English writing, it meant someone who spends time with another or accompanies another on a trip. The earliest two citations in the Oxford English Dictionary are dated around 1300:

“To symon Cumpayngnoun ic habbe y-ȝyue power of disciplyne” (“To companion Simon I have given the power of discipline”). From a Palm Sunday poem.

“He bitok him sir henri is sone to be is compainoun, wiþ him to wende aboute” (“Sir Henri betook his son as his companion to wend about with him”). From The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, an account of early British history.

Interestingly, the noun “companion” came to mean a spouse in the 16th century, hundreds of years before it took on the modern sense of a domestic partner.

The first OED citation for “companion” used for a spouse is from the Coverdale Bible of 1535: “Yet is she thyne owne companyon and maried wife” (Malachi 2:14).

The dictionary describes the evolution of the usage this way: “Originally: a spouse, esp. a wife. Now usually: a member of a couple in any type of permanent or long-standing relationship, esp. if not married; a lover, a partner.”

The earliest Oxford example for “companion” used in this modern sense is from an article in the April 27, 1972, issue of Jet about the funeral of Adam Clayton Powell, who had represented Harlem in Congress:

“Powell’s companion of recent years, Darlene Expose, came to the church early.”

The first OED citation for “companion” as a member of a same-sex couple is from a June 2, 1996, article in the New York Times about the architect Philip Johnson and the art collector David Whitney:

“The tall, baby-faced Mr. Whitney was sitting in a sunny corner of the one-bedroom apartment that he and Mr. Johnson, companions now for 36 years, share at the Museum Tower in midtown Manhattan.” (We’ve expanded the citation to add context.)

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