The Grammarphobia Blog

Are you woke?

Q: I’m seeing the word “woke” all over the place. What’s the story about this word du jour. It seems to mean “politically aware.”

A: Yes, the adjective “woke” has become trendy of late, but it’s not new.

In the figurative sense of “alert” or “hip,” the word has been around since the early 1960s. But in recent decades it has come to have a more specific figurative meaning—alert to racial or social injustice.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the usage is derived from the “woke” that’s a past tense of the verb “wake”—to become awake or emerge from sleep. (We discussed the verbs “wake,” “waken,” “awake,” and “awaken” in 2012.)

Originally, the OED says, the figurative adjective “woke” meant “well-informed, up-to-date.”

The dictionary’s earliest figurative example is from “If You’re Woke, You Dig It,” an article about black slang that appeared in the May 20, 1962, issue of the New York Times Magazine.

The article, by the Harlem novelist William Melvin Kelley, includes a lexicon in which he describes “woke” as an adjective meaning “well-informed, up-to-date,” as in “Man I’m woke.”

Today, the dictionary says, the word chiefly means “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.”

The next example in the OED illustrates that sense of the word: “I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon stay woke. And I’m gon help him wake up other black folk.” (A line of dialogue in Barry Beckham’s 1972 play Garvey Lives!)

As Oxford explains, the adjective is frequently heard in the phrase “stay woke,” which is “often used as an exhortation.”

The dictionary’s most recent citation has the same phrase: “He, just like the activists of the Black Lives Matter movement, wants America to ‘stay woke.’ ” (From the Sept. 18, 2016, issue of the Washington Post.)

This activist use of “woke,” Oxford says, was “perhaps popularized through its association with African-American civil rights activism (in recent years particularly the Black Lives Matter movement), and by the lyrics of the 2008 song ‘Master Teacher’ by American singer-songwriter Erykah Badu, in which the words ‘I stay woke’ serve as a refrain.”

The OED is an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. Standard dictionaries, too, have entries for this use of “woke.”

Merriam-Webster.com labels the usage “chiefly US slang” and defines it as “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).”

M-W illustrates the usage with quotations from the news: “We have a moral obligation to ‘stay woke,’ take a stand and be active,” and “Brad Pitt is not only woke, but the wokest man in Hollywood.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) calls it “slang” derived from African-American Vernacular English and defines it as “aware of the injustice of the social system in which one lives.”

Oxford Dictionaries online labels it “US informal” and says it means “alert to injustice in society, especially racism.”

The American Dialect Society is hip to “woke.” In January 2017, at the society’s annual meeting, members chose it as the Slang Word of the Year for 2016 (definition: “socially aware or enlightened”).

The journal American Speech, in its “Among the New Words” column in May 2017, described “woke” as “an item of long-standing African American usage … that has recently undergone cultural appropriation.”

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An “&” or an “and”?

Q: If a character in a novel mentions a company that uses an ampersand in its name, such as H&H Consulting or Metro Film & Video, should the dialogue use an ampersand or the word “and”?

A: We’d stay with the ampersand in writing dialogue about H&H Consulting or Metro Film & Video. We see no reason to spell out the “&” character, especially since “and” is often elided when such terms are spoken—M&M’s, for example, usually sounds like “M ’n’ M’s.”

Novelists often use ampersands in both dialogue and narrative. In Humboldt’s Gift, for example, Saul Bellow uses one during Charlie Citrine’s conversation with Polly Palomino:

“I said, ‘Well, thanks for dropping in, Mrs. Palomino. You’ll have to excuse me, though. I’m being called for and I haven’t shaved or eaten lunch.’

“ ‘How do you shave, electric or steel?’

“ ‘Remington.’

“ ‘The electric Abercrombie & Fitch is the only machine. I think I’ll shave, too.’ ”

In Portnoy’s Complaint, which is written in the first person, Philip Roth uses an ampersand in this passage:

“ ‘The Most Benevolent Financial Institution in America’ I remember my father announcing, when he took me for the first time to see his little square area of desk and chair in the vast offices of Boston & Northeastern Life.”

In fact, the usage has been around for some time. In Dombey and Son, Charles Dickens puts these words in the mouth of Mr. Toots:

“Poor Dombey! I’m sure I never thought that Burgess & Co.—fashionable tailors (but very dear), that we used to talk about—would make this suit of clothes for such a purpose.”

By the way, the “&” sign is thought to be a stylized blend of the letters in the Latin word et (“and”). It used to be common in “&c.,” an abbreviated version of “etc.,” which in turn is a shortening of the Latin et cetera (“and others”).

Interestingly, the word “ampersand” is a corruption of “and per se and,” which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “the old way of spelling and naming the character &.

The usage was derived from the traditional way of reciting the alphabet. The OED says a schoolchild would refer to the letter “A” as “A per se a” and “I” as “I per se I” because each of those letters could be a word “by itself” (per se in Latin).

The earliest citation in the dictionary for “ampersand” is from The Clockmaker, an 1837 account of the fictional adventures of Sam Slick, by the Nova Scotian writer Thomas C. Haliburton: “He has hardly learned what Ampersand means, afore they give him a horse.”

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How can an airhead be dense?

Q: Why is the word “dense” used to describe both an empty-headed person and a novel stuffed with too much information?

A: For hundreds of years, someone with a low gray-cell count has been described as “empty-headed” or “thickheaded.” And “dense” has been used for nearly as long to describe such a person or a novel overloaded with plots, characters, and description.

How can an empty head be described as “thick” or “dense”? Perhaps because knowledge can’t penetrate it.

When the adjective “dense” appeared in English in the late 16th century, it meant “having its constituent particles closely compacted together; thick, compact,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first OED citation is from a section on eye diseases in The Boock of Physicke, a 1599 translation of a medical work by the Dutch physician Oswald Gaebelkhover:

“When as the Cataracte is so dense and of such a crassitude [thickness] that heerwith they will not be soackede.”

In the 18th century, the adjective took on the figurative sense of being overwritten and unclear. The first Oxford citation is from a 1732 issue of Historia Litteraria, a monthly literary journal edited by the Scottish historian Archibald Bower:

“Sometimes the Author is not so properly concise, as dense, if I may use the Word. When the Subject is limpid of it self, he frequently inspissates [thickens] it, by throwing in a heap of Circumstances not Essential to it.”

In the early 19th century, the adjective came to mean stupid, as in this OED citation from an 1822 essay by Charles Lamb in the London Magazine: “I must needs conclude the present generation of play-goers more virtuous than myself, or more dense.”

The term “empty-headed,” which appeared in the early 17th century, describes someone “having or showing little intelligence; lacking sense; foolish, frivolous,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest Oxford citation is from The History of the World, a 1614 book by Sir Walter Raleigh: “Wise men depend vpon so many vnworthy and emptie-headed fooles.” (Raleigh wrote the history while he was in the Tower of London, awaiting execution.)

The term “thick-headed,” used figuratively to mean “dull of intellect; slow-witted, obtuse,” showed up in the early 19th century, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Good French Governess, an 1801 children’s novel by the Anglo-Irish writer Maria Edgeworth: “He was so ‘thick-headed at his book,’ that Mrs. Grace … affirmed, that he never would learn to read.”

English has many figurative adjectives and nouns for someone who’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Here are a few, with the earliest OED citations: “harebrained” (1548), “blockhead” (1589), “scatterbrained” (1804), “pea-brain” (1938), and “airhead” 1971.

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When ‘to be’ is in question

Q: I’m confused by the use “to be” plus a past participle after a noun, as in this comment about millennials: “They’re also the first generation of women to be raised by mothers who worked.” What purpose does “to be” serve here? The meaning seems the same to me with or without it.

A: The passage you’re asking about is from a tweet by Claire Lehmann, an Australian writer and editor of the online magazine Quillette:

“They’re also the first generation of women to be raised by mothers who worked, and so may have a realist as opposed to romantic view of work.”

In that sentence a passive infinitive (“to be” plus the past participle “raised”) is being used to modify the noun “women.”

Yes, the sentence would make sense with either the passive infinitive or just the past participle: “the first generation of women to be raised by mothers who worked” versus “the first generation of women raised by mothers who worked.”

However, the two versions convey somewhat different shades of meaning. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, one of the meanings of the verb “be” in the passive infinitive is to express “objective possibility or opportunity.”

The millennials in that example were “to be raised”—their raising was still a future possibility at the time they were born.

So the construction with the passive infinitive means “the first generation of women who could have been raised by mothers who worked” while the construction with just the past participle means “the first generation of women who were raised by mothers who worked.”

We think that tweet is more appropriate with a passive infinitive than with simply the past participle. The millennial generation was the first that could have been raised by mothers who worked; but not all millennial women were actually raised by working mothers.

When the passive infinitive showed up in Middle English in the late 1300s, it was used to express “necessity, obligation, duty, fitness, or appropriateness,” according to the OED. The dictionary’s first citation, which we’ll expand a bit, is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382 (Leviticus 11:13):

“Þees been that ȝe shulen not eete of bryddes, and been to be shoned of ȝow: an Egle & agriffyn” (“These things are the birds that you shall not eat, and are to be shunned by you: an eagle, and a vulture”).

In the early 16th century, writers began using the passive infinitive to express possibility or opportunity—the sense used in the tweet that got your attention. The first OED citation is from The Grete Herball, a 1526 encyclopedia of plants in medicine:

“Apostolycon is a playster or salue so named and is to be had at the poticaries and is specially ordeyned for woundes in the hede.”

Finally, a few words about infinitives.

An infinitive is the bare, most elementary form of a verb (like “raise”), and it may or may not be accompanied by “to,” as wrote on the blog in 2013.

A passive infinitive consists of three elements: “to” + a form of the verb “be” + a past participle (the simple past tense of a verb), as in “to be raised.”

And the passive perfect infinitive consists of “to” + “have been” + past participle: “to have been raised.”

Any of these, or a past participle alone, can modify a preceding noun. Here are examples.

past participle: “a child raised”;

infinitive: “a child to raise”;

passive infinitive: “a child to be raised”;

passive perfect infinitive: “a child to have been raised.”

The differences between some of these can be subtle.

In many cases, you can modify a noun with either an ordinary infinitive (“there is work to do”) or a passive infinitive (“there is work to be done”).

Both indicate uncompleted work, though the first emphasizes the work and the second emphasizes the doing of it.

Besides that, the passive infinitive may be more literary-sounding. Sherlock Holmes might say, “Quick, Watson! There is work to be done,” instead of the more prosaic “work to do.”

Infinitives are used to modify adjectives as well as nouns. And here again, the type of infinitive used can slightly influence the meaning.

There’s a difference in emphasis between “he is eager to go” (infinitive) and “he is eager to be gone” (passive infinitive). The first stresses the going; the second stresses the state of being gone—he’s eager not just “to go” but to be elsewhere.

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Parking lot or car park?

Q: A “parking lot” in the US is a “car park” in the UK, except when it isn’t. What can you tell me about these two terms?

A: Yes, “car park” is the usual term in the UK for what is referred to as a “parking lot” in the US, though “car park” is not unknown to Americans, nor “parking lot” to the British.

Our recent searches of the Corpus of Contemporary English got 11,215 hits for “parking lot” and 146 for “car park,” while our searches of the British National Corpus had 1,439 hits for “car park” and 35 for “parking lot.”

Not surprisingly, “lot” and “park” had nothing to do with storing vehicles when they first appeared—”lot” in Old English and “park” in Middle English.

The original meaning of “lot” was an object drawn randomly to make a decision, while “park” was originally an enclosed hunting preserve granted by the crown.

The story begins in Anglo-Saxon times, when a “lot” (spelled hlot in Old English) was one of the pieces of straw, wood, paper, and so on used to resolve disputes, divide goods, choose someone for a position, etc.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the process as “an appeal to chance or a divine agency believed to be involved in the results of chance.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the Old English term ultimately comes from khlut-, a reconstructed prehistoric Germanic base that “appears to have denoted the use of objects to make decisions by chance.”

The earliest OED citation for the random selection sense of “lot” is from an Old English version of the Acts of Andrew, an early Christian apocryphal document about the Apostle Andrew:

“Hie sendon hlot him betweonum, hwider hyra gehwylc faran scolde to læranne” (“They cast lots among themselves to learn where each of them should travel”).

The “lot” that was drawn to decide who got a share of divided land later came to stand for the share of land itself.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Charters of Northern Houses (2012), a collection of Anglo-Saxon land charters from Northumbria, dating back to the 10th century, edited by the Cambridge historian David Woodman:

“On Fearnesfelda gebyrað twega manna hlot landes into Sudwellan” (“In Fearn’s field, extend a lot of land for two men into Southwell”).

Although this use of “lot” in Anglo-Saxon charters to mean a portion of land is now considered historical, according to the OED, a similar sense showed up in the US in the 17th century.

Oxford describes the modern use of “lot” to mean a “plot or parcel of land” as originally and chiefly North American.

The dictionary’s first citation is from a 1633 entry in the records of the Massachusetts Bay Colony: “The westermost part of the Governors greate lot.”

Over the years, the OED says, this sense evolved from “a piece of land assigned by the state to a particular owner” to “a piece of land divided off for a particular purpose” and then to “a fairly small plot of land with fixed boundaries and in separate occupation or ownership from surrounding plots.”

The first Oxford citation for “lot” as an “area of land used for parking motor vehicles” is from the Aug. 12, 1909, issue of Motor World:

“The owner of the big lot on the north side of the road reaped a harvest. He raised his prices from ‘two bits’ to $1, but even this did not keep out the cars, and there were fully 500 machines parked in the lot.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the phrase “parking lot” is from R.F.D. #3, a 1924 novel by the American writer Homer Croy: “Some of the people still lingered under the arc light, with its summer collection of bugs still in it, waiting for the two to come from the parking lot.”

As for “car park,” the story begins in the 13th century, when “park” appeared as an “enclosed tract of land held by royal grant or prescription and reserved for keeping and hunting deer and other game,” according to the OED.

Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the term comes from parc in Old French, but ultimately “goes back to a prehistoric Germanic base, meaning ‘enclosed space.’ ”

The first OED citation for “park” is from a document, dated 1222, that lists the cost of maintaining a park fence in Cambridgeshire, England:

“Summa de parkselver per annum de operariis ix d. ob. q” (from Customary Rents, a 1910 monograph about manorial rents, by the American historian Nellie Neilson). The term “parkselver” (“park” + “silver”) refers to a fee for park repairs.

In the 17th century, “park” took on its modern sense of a “large public garden or area of land used for recreation.”

The first Oxford example is from In Lesbiam, & Histrionem, a poem by the British writer Thomas Randolph:

“Keepe his Race-nags, and in Hide-parke be seen.” The poem, published posthumously in 1638, is about a lesbian who keeps a young male actor as an ostensible lover.

The phrase “car park” showed up in the UK in the early 20th century, a couple of years after “parking lot” appeared on the other side of the Atlantic. The OED describes “car park” as a chiefly British term for “an open space or building for the parking of motor vehicles.”

The dictionary’s first example is from the Dec. 1, 1926, issue of the Daily Mail: “Glastonbury Car Park. Indignation has been aroused … by a proposal … to purchase part of the land … as an extra parking space for motor cars.”

By the way, the verb “park” meant to fence in animals when it appeared in Middle English in the early 1300s, according to the OED. It later came to mean to fence in a pasture or other land, and still later to create a park.

The dictionary’s earliest example of the verb “park” used for parking vehicles is an 1846 entry in The Mexican War Diary of George B. McClellan (1917), edited by William Starr Myers.

McClellan, a Union general during the Civil War, was a second lieutenant and recent graduate of West Point when he made these remarks at the beginning of the diary:

“To the left of the sand hills in front are a number of wagons parked, to the left of them a pound containing about 200 mules.”

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Does Betsy DeVos need a rethink?

Q: As a follow-up to your recent post about “Heavens to Betsy,” what do you think of the controversy over our education secretary’s use of the word “rethink” on Twitter?

A: We see from the Twitter comments that some people were bothered by Betsy DeVos’s use of “rethink” as a noun, and others by her faux dictionary entry, which mixes together parts of the real Merriam-Webster.com entries for “rethink” and “school.”

Let’s begin with her use of “rethink” as a noun. In her March 13, 2008, tweet, she writes: “It’s time we pursue a paradigm shift, a fundamental reorientation—a rethink.”

The use of “rethink” as a noun strikes us as the kind of usage favored by a bureaucrat with a tin ear. However, editors at standard dictionaries don’t seem to be bothered by it.

The noun “rethink” is listed without comment (that is, as standard English) in three of the four American dictionaries we checked, and in four of the five British dictionaries.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for example, defines the noun as “an act or instance of rethinking.” Merriam-Webster.com lists different pronunciations for the verb (re-THINK) and the noun (RE-think).

Oxford Dictionaries online, in both its US and UK versions, defines the noun as a “reassessment, especially one that results in changes being made,” and gives this example: “a last-minute rethink of their tactics.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has a fuller definition of the noun: “An act of rethinking, esp. one that leads to change; a reappraisal, a reassessment; (occasionally) a result of this.”

All four OED citations for the usage are from British sources. The earliest cites the Sept. 12, 1958, issue of the Times Literary Supplement: “Then came Mr. Khrushchev’s speech at the Twentieth Party Congress and close behind it the great Communist re-think.”

The next Oxford example for the noun is from the Aug. 8, 1968, issue of the weekly New Scientist: “The need for a widespread rethink on attitudes in science education, particularly at university level.”

The verb “rethink” is much older, dating from the early 1500s. The dictionary’s first example is from Shyppe of Fooles, Henry Watson’s 1509 translation of Das Narrenschiff, a 1494 satire by the German writer Sebastian Brant:

“Thynke and rethynke … whan thou takest ye ordre of preest hode, for thou ought not to receyue the ordre withoute consyderynge of dyuers thynges.”

As for the education secretary’s tweeted dictionary entry (verb · \ ˈrē- ˌthiŋk ˈskül\), we find it a confusing pastiche.

A typical dictionary entry for a verb has a pronouncer and a definition followed by an example. She has no definition, and she uses a phrase (“rethink school”) as a pronouncer for the verb.

Ms. DeVos adds to the confusion by using a Merriam-Webster pronouncer for the noun (ˈrē- ˌthiŋk), with its primary accent on the first syllable (RE-think), instead of an M-W pronouncer for the verb (ˌrē-ˈthiŋk), with the accent on the second syllable (re-THINK).

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Heavens to Good Queen Bess?

Q: I believe that Queen Elizabeth I was the source of the expression “Heavens to Betsy!” Good Queen Bess was known for playing the various political, diplomatic, and religious factions in Elizabethan England against each other, leaving them in a state of surprise or shock.

A: This is doubtful. As we wrote more than 10 years ago, in a post that was updated recently, the expression “Heavens to Betsy!” originated in the US and was not recorded until 1857. It could not have originated in Elizabethan England and remained unrecorded in writing for more than two centuries.

The earliest published reference found so far, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, comes from an 1857 issue of Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine: “ ‘Heavens to Betsy!’ he exclaims, clapping his hand to his throat, ‘I’ve cut my head off!’ ”

The OED says the word “heaven,” used chiefly in the plural, has appeared since the 1500s in “exclamations expressing surprise, horror, excitement, etc.” It’s frequently accompanied by an intensifying adjective, Oxford adds, as in “good heavens,” “gracious heavens,” “great heavens,” “merciful heavens,” and so on.

We have extensively researched “Heavens to Betsy!” and have concluded that the “Betsy” in the expression is untraceable—if she even existed.

The name, an extremely common one, was probably used in a generic way to refer to no one in particular, as in “every Tom, Dick, and Harry” and similar expressions.

We’ve written several posts about the generic use of common names, including one in 2007 about “Tom, Dick, and Harry,” and one in 2013 about “Johnny come lately.”

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Got a chip on your shoulder?

Q: How did having “a chip on one’s shoulder” come to mean spoiling for a fight?

A: When the expression originated in 19th-century America, it referred literally to a wood chip “carried as a challenge to others,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Today it’s a colloquial term for “a belligerent attitude,” says the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

Etymologists have traced the usage back to the early 1800s, when an American boy looking for a fight would place a chip of wood on his shoulder and dare another boy to knock it off—reminiscent of the medieval knight who’d throw down his gauntlet, challenging another to pick it up.

The earliest written reference that we’ve seen for the American practice is in Letters from the South, an 1817 collection of letters written the year before by the American writer James Kirke Paulding:

“A man rode furiously by on horseback, and swore he’d be d—d if he could not lick any man who dared to crook his elbow at him. This, it seems, is equivalent to throwing the glove in days of yore, or to the boyish custom of knocking a chip off the shoulder.”

An OED citation from the May 20, 1830, issue of the Long Island Telegraph (Hempstead, NY), describes the practice in more detail:

“When two churlish boys were determined to fight, a chip would be placed on the shoulder of one, and the other demanded to knock it off at his peril.”

By the mid-1800s, “a chip on one’s shoulder” was being used figuratively, as in this Oxford example from the March 17, 1855, Weekly Oregonian (Portland), which refers to a challenge made in a newspaper editorial:

“Leland, in his last issue, struts out with a chip on his shoulder, and dares Bush to knock it off.” (Alonzo Leland was editor of the Democratic Standard, and Asahel Bush was editor and owner of the Oregon Statesman.)

And here’s a figurative canine example in the dictionary: “The way that dog went about with a chip on his shoulder … was enough to spoil the sweetest temper” (from the October 1887 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine).

Some websites mistakenly trace the expression to a labor protest at the Chatham Dockyard in Kent, England, in the mid-18th century.

Although a shipwright carried wood home on his shoulder to protest regulations prohibiting the practice, the expression “a chip on one’s shoulder” didn’t show up in writing until a century later—on the other side of the Atlantic. There’s no evidence that would connect the protest with the American usage.

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Brownie points and brown-nosing

Q: How did “brownie points” come to mean the credit one gets for sucking up to the boss?

A: The most common explanations are that the expression is derived from either the term “brown-nose” or the merit points supposedly earned by the young Girl Scouts known as Brownies. Two of our favorite language references differ on this.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “brownie point,” a colloquial usage that originated in the US, is “probably a development” from “brown-nose,” but it’s “popularly associated” with Brownies, “hence frequently spelled with capital initial.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says the expression comes “from the point system used for advancement by the Brownies of the Girl Scouts of America; but strongly reinforced by brown-nose.”

All the evidence we’ve seen supports the OED explanation. What’s more, there has never been a point system for getting ahead in the American Brownies.

Lauren Robles, a spokesman for the Girl Scouts of the USA , told us that “there has not been a point system to earn badges or for advancement for Brownies in Girl Scouts.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines “brownie point” as “a notional credit for an achievement; favour in the eyes of another, esp. gained by sycophantic or servile behaviour.”

The dictionary’s earliest written example is from a 1963 issue of the journal American Speech: “To curry favor with a professor: brown nose … brownie … get brownie points.”

The word “brownie” in that citation was student slang for the noun “brown-nose.” A 1944 issue of American Speech includes this definition:

Brownie. A person who is always asking and answering questions in class to impress the instructor. Also a person who stays after class to try to insinuate himself into the teacher’s good graces.”

(Some standard dictionaries consider “brown-nose” and “brownnose” equal variants, but we think the hyphenated spelling is easier to read.)

Getting back to “brownie points,” the earliest example we’ve seen is a dozen years older than the OED’s.

A column in the March 15, 1951, issue of the Los Angeles Times uses the term for imaginary credits to determine whether a husband is in favor at home or in the doghouse.

The phrase is found several times in the column, beginning with this comment overheard in an elevator: “I should have been home two hours ago. … I’ll never catch up on my brownie points.” When questioned about the usage, the speaker replies:

“You don’t know about brownie points? All my buddies keep score. In fact every married male should know about ’em. It’s a way of figuring where you stand with the little woman—favor or disfavor. Started way back in the days of the leprechauns, I suppose, long before there were any doghouses.”

The speaker was probably using “days of the leprechauns” to mean olden times, not suggesting that leprechauns had anything to do with the origin of the expression.

Interestingly, however, the Girl Scout “Brownies” were named after other mythical creatures—the helpful household sprites called “brownies” in Scottish and English folklore.

Robert Baden-Powell, founder of Scouting, got the name from “The Brownies,” an 1870 short story by Juliana Horatio Ewing about two children who try to be as helpful as the spirits.

You’ll probably run across several questionable theories on the internet about how “brownie points” came to mean imaginary credits earned to curry favor, including these:

  • World War II food rationing, where brown points were used to buy meat and fat;
  • the use of “brownie points” for demerits in World War II army jargon;
  • brown vouchers, or “brownies,” awarded to Saturday Evening Post delivery boys in the 1930s;
  • demerits, or “brownie points,” that G. R. Brown, general superintendent of the Fall Brook Railway in New York and Pennsylvania, gave to employees in the late 19th century.

However, we agree with the OED that “brownie points” is probably derived from “brown-nose,” a term that showed up in the late 1930s.

The dictionary defines the verb “brown-nose” as “to curry favour (with), to flatter,” and the noun (as well as “brown-noser”) as “a sycophant.” It describes the usage as “chiefly U.S slang.”

Oxford cites Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged (1961) as saying the term is derived “from the implication that servility is tantamount to having one’s nose in the anus of the person from whom advancement is sought.”

The earliest examples we’ve seen for both the noun and verb “brown-nose” are from a 1939 issue of American Speech that describes the usage as “military college slang.”

Although the slang term originated “among speakers in the military,” the journal says, it’s “now widespread but chiefly among young and mid-aged speakers.”

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Why a pet peeve is an uggie

Q: I see a question on your blog in which the word “uggie” is used to describe a pet peeve. I consider myself intelligent and well read, but I’ve never heard it. Is “uggie” a modern derivative of “ugly”? Is it pronounced like UGG boots?

A: It’s more than likely that “uggie,” used as both a noun and an adjective, is derived from “ugly.” We haven’t found any published evidence that would prove this definitively, but it seems obvious. And yes, the “ugg” part is pronounced as in the boots, but we’ll get to the footwear later.

When a questioner referred to “irregardless” in 2007 as “No. 1 on my list of ‘uggies,’ ” we assumed that it was being used lightheartedly to mean something ugly. Since then, we’ve used it the same way a couple of times on the blog.

Standard dictionaries, even most slang dictionaries, don’t mention this use of “uggie.” But Urban Dictionary, a collaborative online reference written by users, has these definitions for the adjective:

“Uggie: Unpleasant or repulsive, esp. in appearance,” and “arousing revulsion or strong indignation. Being disgusting, gross and/or vile.”

And a reader of the Collins Dictionary has submitted “uggie” as a “Word Suggestion,” for a noun meaning “an ugly person.”

Despite the lack of information in standard references, we’ve found evidence that “uggie” (sometimes spelled “uggy”) has long been used to represent baby talk for “ugly.”

This passage is from a short story about a person who’s considered unattractive: “Little Mollie often came and lisped, ‘Me sorry you uggy!’ ” (From “Love the Transformer,” by Mrs. E. L. Griffith, published in September 1867 in Arthur’s Home Magazine, Philadelphia.)

This one is from a British novel, John Darker (1895), by Aubrey Lee: “ ‘You must never be rude, my beautiful boy,’ and he passed a caressing hand over the baby face; ‘rudeness is very, very ugly.’ ‘Welly, welly uggy,’ repeated Percy.”

And Clipped Wings (1899), by the Canadian novelist Lottie McAlister, has a scene in which the grown-up heroine complains about the unattractive dog and cat portraits that have been clumsily embroidered on a pair of floor mats.

She imagines childishly destroying the mats “while her baby tongue lisped, ‘Bad pussy, uggie pussy, tooked pussy; uggie, uggie doggie.’ ” (Our guess is that “tooked” here may mean “crooked.”)

A more recent illustration is from History, a 1977 translation of La Storia, a 1974 novel by the Italian writer Elsa Morante.

In one scene, a little boy tears up an illustrated magazine, “repeating his mother’s words: ‘It’s uggy’ (ugly).” Elsewhere, it’s explained that the child says “uggy” because he’s too young to manage the “gl” consonant cluster.

Another modern example is from a feature article about foods that small children hate. One boy says, “Lima beans are so uggie.” (From the April 17, 1985, issue of the Philadelphia Daily News. Most of the kids quoted preferred the word “yucky.”)

Even adults have used “uggie” to mean “ugly” since the 19th century, perhaps in imitation of baby talk.

The English writer John Ruskin used baby talk throughout his extensive correspondence with his favorite cousin, Joan Severn. He writes on Oct. 9, 1887: “I sent also the 4th Folk [part of a work on the Italian peasantry] with a pretty bit added to replace the uggie one taken out.”

A glossary in John Ruskin’s Correspondence with Joan Severn, a collection published in 2009, defines “uggie” as “ugly.”

And here’s the noun, in a reference to a woman in a bar. The writer, a college student, takes up a position “conveniently proximate to an uggie and a wowie, and as is usually the case, the uggie did all the talking.” (From the Columbia Spectator, a student newspaper, Sept. 8, 1972.)

As we said, standard slang dictionaries don’t include this use of “uggie.” The only ones that mention it at all define it as meaning “ugg boots,” the ungainly, flat-soled footwear with sheepskin on the inside and untanned leather on the outside.

However, the name for the boots apparently does come from the word “ugly.” Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, for example, says the noun “uggies” means “ugg boots,” and is derived from “ugly.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang (which like Cassells is edited by Jonathon Green) says that “ugg boots” (as well as the variations “ug boots,” “uggies,” and “ugh boots”) is derived from “ugly” and originated as an Australian term for “sheepskin boots or slippers.”

The earliest written reference in Green’s Dictionary (to “ugh boots”) is from 1951, though an Australian legislator has suggested that the term is much older.

“In Australia, we have been calling sheepskin boots ‘ugg boots’ for about 85 years,” Sharryn Jackson, a member of the Australian House of Representatives, said in a speech before the House on Feb. 11, 2004.

The footwear spelled “ugg boots,” “ug boots,” “ugh boots” (and more recently “uggies”) was first used by sheep ranchers Down Under and was adopted in the 1960s by Australian surfers to warm their cold feet.

California surfers borrowed the trend in the 1970s, and the ungainly boots became popular in the US, first as beachwear and then as an urban fashion statement.

After almost two decades of brand-name disputes, UGG is now a registered trademark in most countries of the California-based Deckers Brands. But not in Australia and New Zealand, where “ugg” and “ugg boots” remain generic terms.

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Is ‘what’ singular or plural?

Q: Which of these sentences is correct? (1) “Books are what make you smarter.” (2) “Books are what makes you smarter.” Option 1 hurts my ears, while option 2 seems wrong to my friends.

A: We would choose plural verbs all the way—”Books are what make you smarter”—because the principal subject is “books.”

In a sentence starting with a singular principal subject we’d choose singular verbs: “Education is what makes you smarter.”

As we wrote in 2012, the word “what” can be construed as either singular or plural. It takes its number (singular vs. plural) from the context, and here the context is “books” (plural). Thus, “Books are what make you smarter.”

In a sentence like that, the main clause is “Books are,” and the subordinate clause, introduced by “what,” is the object of the main clause.

George O. Curme, in A Grammar of the English Language (Vol. II, 1931), uses the examples “Truth is what hurts” (singular) and “The factories are what blacken up the city so” (plural).

As Curme explains, sentences like these—written with “what” clauses as predicates—are more emphatic than if they had been written simply as “Truth hurts” or “Factories blacken up the city so.”

“The principal verb [hurts, blacken up] is stressed by putting it in an unusual position,” Curme writes, “especially by forming a predicate clause in which what is subject and the emphatic verb is predicate.”

Now, how about a sentence that starts with “what”?

In a simple sentence, with only one clause, the choice of verb with “what” is easy. Just match it with the complement: “What is your suggestion?” (singular), or “What are your suggestions?” (plural).

But when there are two clauses, as we wrote in that 2012 post, there’s some wiggle room in the choice of verbs. As we said, what’s known as “notional agreement”—the writer’s meaning—plays a role here.

You could justify either “What make you smarter are books” or “What makes you smarter is books.” In the first example, the writer regards books as “the things that make you smart,” while in the second, books represent “the thing that makes you smart.”

It’s our feeling that two singular verbs are more natural than two plural verbs when the complement—even though formally plural like “books”—represents a singular concept. So we’d choose “What makes you smarter is books.”

There’s an excellent usage note about all this in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) We’ll underline the verbs to make the examples clearer:

“Occasionally the choice of a singular or plural verb may be used to convey a difference in meaning. In the sentence What excite him most are money and power, the implication is that money and power are separable goals; in What excites him most is money and power, the implication is that money and power are inextricably bound together.”

The dictionary continues: “When the verb in the what-clause is singular and the complement in the main clause is plural, one finds both singular and plural verbs being used. Sentences similar to both of the following are found in respected writers: What drives me crazy is her frequent tantrums; What bothers him are the discrepancies in their accounts.

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Here you go

Q: How did “Here you go” come to mean “Here is the thing you wanted”?

A: “Here you go,” an idiomatic expression that showed up in writing in the 1800s, is a casual way of saying “Here it is” when you give someone something that’s requested.

That’s why an easygoing barista says “here you go” rather than the more formal “here it is” when he hands over your mocha latte.

Like other idioms, “here you go” is not meant literally and doesn’t even make sense on a literal level. But it’s so common that most of us don’t stop to think about it.

We haven’t seen much linguistic scholarship about the expression, though the British linguist Michael Fortescue comments briefly about “here you go” in Semantix, a 2014 book about semantics and pragmatics.

In discussing how the verb “go” has evolved in meaning and usage over the years, he says “here you go” reflects “the gradual historical bleaching of the original motion sense of the verb as it gradually became more grammaticalized.”

Grammaticalization is a process in which lexical terms acquire new grammatical functions over time. In the idiomatic expression “here you go,” Fortescue writes, “there is of course nothing left of any of the original meaning of ‘go’ at all.”

As we’ve said, “here you go” has been used in writing since the 19th century to mean “here it is.” In searches of newspaper databases, the earliest example we’ve found is from a short story in the Dec. 25, 1879, issue of the Door County Advocate in Sturgeon Bay, WI.:

“ ‘You’ve both won the heat, race, and money. Here you go,’ and he tipped the two lads handsomely.” (The speaker gives the boys, who have tied in a race, a “five-dollar piece” each.)

And this example (from the Oct. 15, 1885, Daily Yellowstone Journal in Montana) is in a joke about an elderly man asking for a light from a child’s cigar:

“Old gentleman, full of fun, to infant of eight summers, who is smoking a cigar—Can I trouble you for a light mister?

“Infant of eight summers—Here you go my boy, but be sure you give me back the right one.”

Since 1900, sightings of “here you go” used in the sense of “here it is” have become much more common.

Cambridge Dictionaries says “here you go” means “this is the object you asked me to give you.” It has this example: “ ‘Would you please pass the sugar?’ ‘Here you go.’ ”

The Macmillan Dictionary and The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English have similar definitions.

Dictionaries also include three similar idiomatic expressions that can be used the same way: “here you are,” “there you go,” and “there you are.”

Some dictionaries label these expressions informal or colloquial. One grammar book, English Grammar Today (2016), by Ronald Carter et al., considers the “go” versions more informal than the “are” ones:

“We can use here you are and there you are (or, in informal situations, here you go and there you go) when giving something to someone. Here and there have the same meaning in this use.”

A more scholarly grammar book, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk et al., says in a footnote that “here [or there] you are” when used in this sense is equivalent to “this is for you.” (It adds that “there you are” has an additional idiomatic meaning: “That supports or proves what I’ve said.”)

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t discuss “here you go” in its entry for the verb “go,” which was revised in 2015 and now includes 603 senses of the word.

However, the OED does refer to the “are” version, saying that “here we [or you] are” can mean “Here is what we [or you] want.” The usage is labeled colloquial.

The dictionary’s only example is from the mid-19th century: “Hum! ha! now let’s see, here we are—the ‘G-i-a-o-u-r’—that’s a nice word to talk about.” (From Frank Fairlegh, an 1850 novel by Francis Edward Smedley. The noun “giaour” is a derogatory term for a non-Muslim.)

In that example, however, there’s no sense of one person presenting another with a physical item, like the barista offering you your coffee.

And the OED defines “there you are” as drawing attention to a completed action (not to a physical thing), or as meaning “What did I tell you?” or “expressing resignation to an unpleasant fact.”

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Visiting fireman

Q: I’ve read online that the Native American firekeeper inspired the use of “visiting fireman” for an out-of-town VIP whose presence demands an extra effort in the hospitality department. As a Native American, I’m aware that firekeepers existed in some cultures (think Cherokees), but I doubt that they traveled much. Can you confirm  the Native American origin?

A: No, we haven’t found any evidence that “visiting fireman” is derived from the Native Americans who tended sacred fires. Although a few language sources make that claim, we think the expression probably evolved from the literal use of the phrase for a firefighter on an out-of-town visit.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “visiting fireman” as American slang for “a person given especially cordial treatment while visiting an organization or place” or “a tourist expected to spend freely.”

The OED begins its entry with a bracketed literal example, which may suggest that the dictionary’s editors believe, as we do, that the literal usage inspired the figurative one:

“A company of firemen from Rochester, N.Y., … continue to receive the attentions of their brother firemen of Baltimore. … This evening the visiting firemen will be the guests of the Washington Hose Company” (from the Oct. 25, 1855, Baltimore Sun).

We’ve seen many similar literal examples from the second half of the 19th century in searches of newspaper databases.

The next Oxford citation, which isn’t enclosed in brackets, also uses the term literally, though in a looser way. This is an expanded version from Mantrap, a 1926 novel by Sinclair Lewis:

“Oh, I guess I’m an awful fly-paper. It looks like I just couldn’t keep my hooks off any he-male that blows into town with the visiting firemen!” The reference is to a Canadian air force pilot (the “he-male”) and two forest-fire rangers.

The third example in the OED, from Choose a Bright Morning (1936), a satirical novel by Hillel Bernstein, uses the expression for visiting VIPs who get to meet with a fascist dictator:

“He never sees people who might have legitimate business with him, such as correspondents who are stationed here. But he receives all the visiting firemen.”

As you’ve noticed, some language writers trace the expression “visiting fireman” to the role of the Native American firekeeper.

In The Dictionary of American Slang (4th ed.), for example, Barbara Ann Kipfer and Robert L. Chapman say the usage comes from “a Native American ceremonial dignitary who was responsible for lighting the fires.” However, the authors offer no evidence.

Why, you may wonder, does the expression refer to a visiting fireman, rather than a visiting accountant, chemist, or piano tuner?

Probably because firefighters have a tradition of visiting their counterparts in other cities, especially to attend the funerals of those who have died in the line of duty. And traditionally, they’re given red-carpet treatment.

In Firefighters: Their Lives in Their Own Words (1988), Dennis Smith describes a trip by 20 New York City firefighters to Boston to attend the funeral of nine firefighters killed in a 1972 fire at the Hotel Vandome.

The author, one of the 20 firefighters from Engine Company 82 and Ladder Company 31 in the Bronx, said the trip showed “what it was like when a city decided it was going to make itself host to the visiting firemen.”

“Boston and its citizens opened themselves up, the hotels held free rooms for the visiting firefighters, and the firehouses, of course, welcomed their visitors,” Smith writes. “The city donated its buses for transport duty, and the bus drivers volunteered their time and their days off to drive them.”

Interestingly, Smith generally uses the unisex “firefighters” when writing about people who fight fires, but “firemen” slips in when he writes about them as visitors who get special treatment.

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