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

Betwixt and between

Q: Where am I when I’m “betwixt and between,” and how did I get there?

A: You’re neither here nor there. To answer the second part of your question, we’ll have to go back to Anglo-Saxon times.

When the individual words appeared in Old English (“betwixt” as betweox and “between” as betweonum), they were synonyms. And they still mean the same thing, though the old-fashioned “betwixt” now conveys an air of antiquity when used alone.

Both words are derived from prehistoric Germanic compounds—reconstructed as bi-twiska and bi-twihna—meaning “at the middle point of two,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

The earliest example for “between” in the Oxford English Dictionary (with be and tweonum separated) is from Beowulf, an epic poem that may have been written as early as 725. We’ve expanded the citation to give readers a better sense of the Anglo-Saxon writing:

“ðær wæs Beowulfes mærðo mæned; monig oft gecwæð þætte suðne norð be sæm tweonum ofer eormengrund oþer nænig under swegles begong selra nære rondhæbbendra, rices wyrðra.”

(“There was the glory of Beowulf hailed; it was oft said by many that nowhere south or north between the two seas, nowhere over the whole sweep of earth under the boundless heavens, was there ever one worthier to bear a shield or rule a kingdom.”)

The earliest OED example for “betwixt” is more down to earth. It’s in an Anglo-Saxon land charter, dated 931, from the reign of King Æðelstan: “betweox ða twégen wegas burh ðone leá” (“the meadow betwixt the two roads of the town”).

It took hundreds of years for the two words to come together in the expression “betwixt and between,” which the OED defines as “in an intermediate or middling position; neither one thing nor the other.” Merriam-Webster Unabridged defines it as “in a midway position” or “neither one thing nor the other.”

The first Oxford citation for the expression, described as colloquial and dialectal, is from Newton Forst, an 1832 seafaring novel by Frederick Marryat: “[He] took the lease of a house in a betwixt and between fashionable street.”

We’ll end with an earlier example that we found in The Children of Thespis (1786), a satirical poem by Anthony Pasquin (pseudonym of the English writer John Williams):

So beckon’d by Hope, yet by Hope so oft cheated
For ever contending, yet ever defeated;
Too eccentric to make a sound mathematician;
Too proud for attendance, too vain to beseech,
Too poor to be happy, too candid to preach:
Thus he swims in a strange indeterminate mean,
Neither hallow’d nor damn’d, but betwixt and between.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Making shift

Q: Can you explain the word “makeshift”? The parts don’t add up to what it brings to mind—improvised or cobbled together.

A: The word no longer makes literal sense because the noun “shift” has shifted its meaning. Once upon a time, a “shift” was a substitution, and to “make a shift” was to make do with a lesser substitute.

The noun is related to the verb “shift” (circa 1000), which originally meant to put in order or arrange, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The verb came from ancient Germanic and was written as sciftan in Old English.

By the early 1300s, this verb was used to mean “to change, to replace by another of the kind,” the OED says. And in the 1600s, “to shift with (or without)” meant “to manage with something inferior or without something desirable.”

Meanwhile, the noun had been developing along the same lines. By the early 1500s, it was being used to mean “an expedient, an ingenious device for effecting some purpose,” Oxford says, and later in the century it meant a substitution.

Consequently, “for a shift” (first recorded in 1523) meant “for want of something better”; and “by the shift” (1665) meant “at a pinch,” Oxford explains.

Similarly, to “make a shift” or “make shift” simply meant to make efforts, try all means, contrive, or succeed with difficulty. And by the 1570s, the OED says, the phrase (followed by “with”) also meant “to do one’s best with (inferior means), to be content with, put up with.”

Here’s the dictionary’s earliest use of the verb phrase in that sense.

“The bread is very drye … but the common people remediyng that with Larde or Oyle, doo make a shift with it as wel as they can.” (From Foure Bookes of Husbandry, Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation of a Latin treatise on farming, by Conrad Heresbach.)

The dictionary’s next example is from Ben Jonson’s comedy The New Inne (1661): “Thou must make shift with it.”

The verb phrase “make shift” survived into the late 19th century, as in this OED example from a monthly trade journal, The Bookseller (1885): “We cannot afford to employ … efficient assistants but have to make shift with cheap labour.”

This brings us to the 17th-century adjective “makeshift” and its younger cousin, the 19th-century noun.

The OED’s earliest written use of the adjective refers to an outdated printing press: “A make-shift slovenly contrivance.” (From the second volume of Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises, 1683.)

This is Oxford’s definition of the adjective: “Of the nature of a makeshift; serving as a temporary substitute, esp. of an inferior kind; improvised; formed haphazardly.”

The dictionary’s earliest written use of the noun is from an essay by Charles Lamb in the September 1822 issue of the London Magazine: “The cottage (a sorry antediluvian make-shift of a building).”

Here’s the OED definition of the noun: “That with which one makes shift; a temporary substitute, esp. of an inferior kind, an expedient.”

The definitions of “makeshift” haven’t changed over the years, though writers have stopped using the hyphens.

Today The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines the adjective this way: “suitable as a temporary or expedient substitute,” as in “used a rock as a makeshift hammer.”

And AH defines the noun as “a temporary or expedient substitute for something else,” as in “lacked a cane but used a stick as a makeshift.”

As you know, the noun “shift” has lots of other meanings. And many are connected with the verb that originally meant to arrange or put in order and later meant to substitute.

For example, the notion of change or substitution is behind the “shift” that originally (1601) was a piece of underclothing and later (1950s) came to mean a woman’s “straight loose dress,” the OED says.

The same idea of change or substitution is reflected in the “shift” that means the length of a work period (1809), the “shift” that’s a new set of workers (1812), and the “shift” that means to change gears in a car (1910).

Even the adjective “shifty” is derived from those original senses of the verb “shift.”

In the 16th-century, the OED says, the verb came to mean  “to employ shifts or evasions; to practise or use indirect methods; to practise or live by fraud, or temporary expedients.”

In the same century (1570), “shifty” meant “full of shifts or expedients,” and by the 19th century it was used to mean “fond of indirect or dishonest methods; addicted to evasion or artifice; not straightforward, not to be depended on.”

The OED’s earliest examples are from the works of Thomas Carlyle (“one of the shiftiest of men,” 1837) and John G. Kinnear (“A most shifty old fox he is,” 1841).

But we can’t resist quoting some later ones from Thackeray (“A handsome, tall, sallow-faced man, with a shifty eye,” before 1863) and Dickens (“I scorn your shifty evasions,” 1864).

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English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Why is a beeline straight?

Q: Why does the term “beeline” refer to a straight line even though bees zigzag from flower to flower?

A: The noun “beeline,” the Oxford English Dictionary explains, refers to “a straight line between two points on the earth’s surface, such as a bee was supposed instinctively to take in returning to its hive.”

The earliest example for the usage in the OED has a squirrel acting beelike: “The squirrel took a bee line, and reached the ground six feet ahead” (from the Nov. 24, 1830, issue of the Massachusetts Spy).

Researchers have confirmed that bees generally head straight to their hives after collecting nectar and pollen. However, the researchers have debated about whether the bees navigate by using the sun, a mental map, or a combination of both.

Recent research supports the mental map theory. That’s the conclusion of a study entitled “Way-Finding in Displaced Clock-Shifted Bees Proves Bees Use a Cognitive Map” (PNAS, the journal of the National Academy of Sciences, June 2, 2014).

The authors of the study, James F. Cheeseman et al., describe how anesthetized bees were too disoriented to use the sun for navigation but still managed to return accurately and quickly to their hive.

“This result rules out the sun-referenced home-vector hypothesis, further strengthening the now extensive evidence for a metric cognitive map in bees,” the study concludes.

Some beekeepers believe “beeline” refers to the path that bees take from the hive to the source of nectar and pollen, but all the standard dictionaries we’ve seen accept the OED explanation that the term refers to the path of the returning bees.

However, bees do indeed often take a straight path from their hive to a source of nutrition—helped by nectar-laden returnees. When bees return with nectar and pollen, they do a waggle dance to let the rest of the hive know where to find the good stuff.

In “The Flight Paths of Honeybees Recruited by the Waggle Dance,” a paper in the May 2005 issue of the journal Nature, the authors J. R. Riley et al. say that “the dancer generates a specific, coded message that describes the direction and distance from the hive of a new food source.”

We couldn’t find a good place above to insert the OED’s exhaustive, one-sentence definition of “bee,” so we’ll end with it:

“A well-known insect, or rather genus of insects, of the Hymenopterous order, living in societies composed of one queen, or perfect female, a small number of males or ‘drones,’ and an indefinite number of undeveloped females or ‘neuters’ (which are the workers), all having four wings; they collect nectar and pollen, and produce wax and also honey, which they store up for food in the winter.”

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

Umpteen hyperbolic numerals

Q: What’s the story behind such fanciful numbers as “umpteen,” “zillion,” “jillion,” and “gazillion”?

A: When precision doesn’t matter, and exaggeration is allowed, it’s useful to have whimsical alternatives for large numbers. The linguist Stephen Chrisomalis calls these inventions “indefinite hyperbolic numerals.”

In fact, the earliest known examples we’ve seen for “umpteen” and “zillion” were discovered a couple of years ago by Chrisomalis, a linguistic anthropologist at Wayne State University.

In “Umpteen Reflections on Indefinite Hyperbolic Numerals,” a paper published in the February 2016 issue of the journal American Speech, Chrisomalis cites this 19th-century New Zealand example of “umpteen”:

“They are like you and me, and never trot round with a credit balance of more than about umteen pence.” (From an article in the Christchurch Press, Sept. 14, 1878.)

And here’s an American example with “umpteen,” spelled the usual way and used to mean a large number, not an indefinite small one:

“Increase acreage ‘umpteen’ per cent.” (From an article about wheat crop forecasts in a Minneapolis trade journal, Northwestern Miller, July 21, 1882.)

Chrisomalis’s first example for “zillion” is from a satirical article in a California newspaper: “They’re going to bring ’em over here—zillions of ’em.” (Oakland Tribune, Dec. 12, 1916.)

The Oxford English Dictionary hasn’t yet caught up to these early sightings. Its oldest example of “zillion” is from 1944, and its first “umpteen” sighting is from 1918.

Chrisomalis says indefinite hyperbolic numerals like these emerged “principally in the period from 1880 to 1930, frequently in American contexts.”

His research suggests that “zillion” probably comes from African-American speech. It’s now “the most common indefinite hyperbolic numeral in English,” he says.

“Umpteen,” although first recorded in New Zealand in the 1870s, became a common American usage by the 1890s, according to Chrisomalis. (The similar-sounding “umpty,” recorded in both Australia and the US in 1886, represented a vague number rather than a large one.)

Here are some of the other hyperbolic words the author discusses, along with the earliest dates he’s found and possible origins:

“forty-leven” (1839), a combination of “forty” and “eleven,” was “associated with white, well-educated Northeastern writers of a Unitarian or Universalist bent”;

“squillion” (1878), US, associated with children’s speech;

“steen” (1882), now obsolete American college slang, modeled after “sixteen” but without that meaning;

“skillion” (1923), first recorded in Canada as a variant of “squillion” that quickly became more popular;

“jillion” (1926), associated with cowboy speech in rural and small-town Texas and surrounding Plains states;

From the 1930s onward, prefixes like “ba-” and “ga-” were added to “zillion” and “jillion” to make them seem even bigger: “bazillion” (1939), “umptillion” (1948), “kazillion” (1969), “gazillion” (1974), “bajillion” (1990).

Chrisomalis differentiates between hyperbolic numerals and what are known as “hyperbolic quantifiers,” words like “scads,” “oodles,” “heaps,” “wads,” and “slew.”

He also notes that even a definite number can be used hyperbolically, as in “I’ve told you a hundred times.” (The French, he points out, use the actual number 36, trente-six, hyperbolically to mean a large number. A Frenchman might say, “I’ve told you 36 times.”)

However, unlike definite numbers, “zillion” and “umpteen” can never have a literal meaning. And words like that, Chrisomalis writes, are “cross-linguistic” rarities—that is, they’re rare in other languages.

Two exceptions he points to are from the 1970s or later: “Spanish tropecientos (from tropel ‘mob, heap, mass’ + cientos ‘hundreds’) and Italian fantastilione (from fantastico+ ilione).”

English speakers, however, keep inventing new humongous numbers. In his paper Chrisomalis shares a few, including this one from Ian Frazier’s short story “The Killion” (New Yorker, Sept. 6, 1982):

“The killion, as every mathematician knows, is a number so big that it kills you.”

We’ll end with some definite, non-hyperbolic numerals. Here are the current meanings of some “-illion” words that are for real:

  • million = one thousand thousands
  • billion = one thousand millions
  • trillion = one thousand billions
  • quadrillion = one thousand trillions
  • quintillion = one thousand quadrillions

From there, the numbers proceed to such stratospheric levels that we get nosebleeds just thinking about them.

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

Are you out of it?

Q: I was reading The Ladies of Lyndon, a 1923 novel by Margaret Kennedy, when my eyes fell upon the expression “out of it” used to mean isolated or not part of things. I’m surprised that the usage is that old. It sounds so contemporary.

A: Yes, the use of “out of it” to mean isolated or rejected is that old. In fact, it’s even older. Here’s the story.

When the expression “to be out of it” showed up in English writing in the early 19th century, it meant something a bit different—“not involved or included in an action or event,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a Dec. 8, 1830, letter by the Anglo-Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth: “Poor Davies Gilbert to whom the place was in every way unsuited is well out of it. I hope he thinks so.” (Gilbert, a Cornish engineer, was succeeded by the Duke of Sussex as president of the Royal Society.)

In the late 19th century, the OED says, the expression came to mean “removed or distant from the centre or heart of something; isolated; uninformed.”

The earliest Oxford citation for this sense is from the June 18, 1884, issue of the Pall Mall Gazette: “Indeed, ‘C’ Troop … has been rather ‘out of it’ in the matter of field service.”

And that’s how the fictional James Clewer, an English artist who travels to Paris to paint, uses it in the 1923 passage that got your attention:

“I used to think that it would be different if I got away and went to Paris. But it wasn’t. Paris was all right for working in. I learnt a lot. But I felt just as out of it there as here.”

In the mid-20th century, the usage took on its contemporary slang sense of “confused, stupefied, or unconscious, esp. after consuming drink or drugs; (also) unable to think or react properly as a result of being tired,” according to the OED.

The dictionary includes a questionable early example that its editors say “appears to have a somewhat different meaning,” though we’ll let you decide for yourself: “One who is extremely happy is on cloud 88 or out of it” (from a 1959 issue of the journal American Speech).

The next Oxford citation, from a 1963 issue of American Speech, clearly uses the expression in the modern slang sense: “Drunk: soused, out of it, stoned, bombed.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Cays, keys, and quays

Q: Why do we have two words for a small island—“key” and “cay”? And are they related to “quay,” the word for a wharf?

A: “Key” and “cay” are just different spellings of the same 17th-century word for a small, low island, especially in the Caribbean or off the coast of Florida.

“Key” is more common in Florida and “cay” in the Caribbean, and it’s likely that local customs and place names have kept the different spellings alive.

As we’ll explain later, both of them are probably derived from “quay,” a word from French that means a wharf.

First let’s talk about the pronunciations.

“Key” is pronounced KEE, like the unrelated word for something that opens a lock. “Cay” is usually pronounced the same way (KEE), but some dictionaries give an alternate pronunciation, KAY.

“Quay” was originally pronounced KEE, and that’s still the preferred pronunciation (it was once spelled “key”). Some dictionaries give only that pronunciation, though in American English two variant pronunciations are recognized as standard: KAY and KWAY.

We’ll have more to say about “quay” later.

The geographical terms “key” and “cay” were “originally the same word,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Although “key” was recorded in writing first (1693), Oxford says it originated as a variant spelling of “cay,” which wasn’t recorded until 1707 but was no doubt known to explorers much earlier. In 17th-century English, “key” was pronounced KAY.

Oxford defines “key” as “a low-lying island or reef, esp. in the Caribbean or off the south coast of Florida.” And it says the earlier “cay” was similarly used for “islets” of sand, mud, rock, or coral lying “around the coast and islands of Spanish America.”

Here is the dictionary’s earliest citation for “key”:

“The place whereon Port-Royal was since built, was like one of the Keys or little Islands that lie off this Harbour.” (From a letter written on July 3, 1693, and published the following year in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.)

“Key,” as we’ve said, was originally a variant spelling of “cay.”  As for “cay,” it was derived from the 16th-century Spanish word cayo (shoal or barrier reef).

That old Spanish word is “of uncertain origin,” Oxford says, but it’s “perhaps ultimately the same word as French quai … or perhaps a loanword from an indigenous language of the Antilles.”

Other etymologists are more definite about the French connection.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (2nd ed.) says that “cay,” and “key” are descended from the Old French quai, the source of “quay.”

And the French word, American Heritage adds, comes from caio (rampart or retaining wall) in Gaulish, an extinct Celtic language once spoken by Celts in what is now France, Belgium, and other parts of northern Europe.

Going even further back, etymologists have identified a prehistoric Indo-European ancestor, a root reconstructed as kagh– that meant a wickerwork or a fence. This ancient meaning is reflected in the Gaulish and early French versions of the word.

“The French word was probably originally used with reference to fence-like wooden revetments, which were used to stabilize riverbanks and allow boats to moor,” the OED explains.

When the word first came into English in 1399, the OED says, it was spelled “key” and meant “a man-made bank or landing stage” for ships, either along the water or projecting into it.

The earliest OED example is from Aberdeen, Scotland. A notation in town records for 1399 describes a contract for the construction of 12 windows and 12 doors, to be delivered by the following Easter “at ony key of Abirden, or ellis at the sandis at Lawrence of Lethis howss” (“at any key of Aberdeen, or else at the sand beach at Lawrence of Leth’s house”).

The quotation appears in Extracts From the Council Register of the Burgh of Aberdeen, 1398-1625. We’ve added a few words from the original for context.

Though this is the first known example in written English, the word was familiar in Britain much earlier through Anglo-Norman French (spellings include kaye, kaiekei, key, and many others).

And similar-sounding words meaning a fence or enclosure—and traced to the same prehistoric Indo-European root—existed in Celtic languages spoken in Britain, like Welsh (cae) and Cornish ().

The spelling “quay” showed up in the mid-1500s, more than 150 years after that 1399 example, when it was borrowed from French, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The earliest citation in the OED is from a letter written to Sir Thomas Gresham on Dec. 31, 1561, by his agent in Antwerp:

“So many Quays crowne-serchers, wayters, and other powlyng [plundering] offycers.” (The letter is about the chaotic customs searches on the London docks, as compared to more sedate Antwerp.)

Today “quay” still means what it originally meant—a wharf. But it’s always been less common in the US than in the UK, Canada, and other Commonwealth countries.

Finally, as we mentioned earlier, the “key” that opens a lock is unrelated, as far as anybody knows. It’s been traced back to Old English (caeg), but no further.

“No one knows where the word originally came from,” Ayto says, adding that “it has no living relatives in other Germanic languages.”

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

General Tso’s chicken

Q: I love General Tso’s chicken, but it leaves me hungry to learn more about this general and why my favorite Chinese dish is named for him.

A: The 19th-century general is known in China for his military, not his culinary, accomplishments. He helped the Qing dynasty win a civil war that lasted 14 years and cost millions of lives.

The general (Tso Tsung-t’ang in the old Wade-Giles system of transcribing Mandarin and Zuo Zongtang in the modern Pinyin system) came from Hunan, the home province of Peng Chang-kuei, the chef who created and named an early version of the dish in the 1950s in Taiwan.

Peng, a caterer for the Nationalist Chinese government, fled to Taiwan after the Nationalists were defeated by Mao Zedong’s Communists in 1949, according to the food writer William Grimes.

In Peng’s Dec. 2, 2016, obituary in the New York Times, Grimes says the chef created the dish for a visit “by Adm. Arthur W. Radford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1955,” and “on the spur of the moment, he assigned it the name of a Hunanese general, Zuo Zongtang.”

In a Feb. 4, 2007, article in the New York Times Magazine, the British food writer Fuchsia Dunlop quotes Peng as saying the original dish was a sour, salty version of the sweet, tangy, deep-fried dish familiar to Americans.

“Originally the flavors of the dish were typically Hunanese—heavy, sour, hot and salty,” he said in a 2004 interview in Taiwan with Dunlop, author of Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, a 2009 collection of Hunan recipes.

In the early 1970s, several Chinese chefs introduced Americanized versions of Peng’s original dish at New York restaurants, including Wen Dah Tai at Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan, the city’s first Hunan restaurant, and Tsung Ting Wang at Hunan.

In 1973, Peng joined them in New York at Uncle Peng’s Hunan Yuan. “The original General Tso’s chicken was Hunanese in taste and made without sugar,” Peng told Dunlop. “But when I began cooking for non-Hunanese people in the United States, I altered the recipe.”

The earliest written reference we’ve seen for the Americanized dish is from a review of Peng’s Manhattan restaurant by Mimi Sheraton in the March 18, 1977, issue of the New York Times: “General Tso’s chicken was a stir‐fried masterpiece, sizzling hot both in flavor and temperature.”

As for Peng, he returned to Taiwan in the late ’80s and opened the first in a chain of Peng Yuan restaurants there.

Like many Americanized Chinese dishes popular in the US, the General Tso’s chicken you love was unknown in China until recently, according to Grimes, a former restaurant critic at the Times and the author of Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York (2009).

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

In the hopper

Q: I’ve lived all my life in Greater Boston, where “in the hopper” means “in the toilet.” How did the expression come to mean “in progress” elsewhere in the country?

A: The word “hopper” has had many senses, both literal and figurative, since it showed up in the mid-13th century as a term for a grasshopper or similar hopping insect.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the noun has been used for “a locust or grasshopper, a saltatorial beetle as the turnip flea, a saltatorial homopterous insect as a froth-hopper, a flea, the cheese-hopper or maggot of the cheese-fly.”

(A “saltatorial” insect is a leaper; the Homoptera are plant-feeding insects like aphids and cicadas.)

The earliest OED example is from a Middle English version of Exodus, dated around 1250:

“And so dede, and on wind cam fro westen, and ðo opperes nam, and warpes ouer in-to ðe se” (“And so [the Lord] did, and a western wind took away the locusts and blew them out into the sea”). We’ve expanded the citation from Exodus 10:19.

More than a century later, the term came to mean a receptacle, shaped like an inverted pyramid or cone, through which grain passed into a mill to be ground. The OED says the “hopper” was “so called because it had originally a hopping or shaking motion.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from “The Reeve’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1390):

“Yet saw I neuere by my fader kyn, / How þt the hoper wagges til and fra” (“Yet I never saw, on my family’s honor, how the hopper shakes to and fro”). The “reeve” in the tale is the manager of an estate.

In the 18th century, Oxford says, the use of “hopper” widened to include “similar contrivances for feeding any material to a machine, and, generally, to articles resembling a mill hopper in shape or use.”

The first OED citation for this sense is from Commercium Philosophico-Technicum, a 1763 book by William Lewis about using science to improve art, commerce, and manufacturing:

“The space included between the pipes, at their lower end, under the bason, is a kind of hopper.”

Jumping ahead a century, American politicians began using the word “hopper” in the late 1800s for a box in which proposed bills were dropped for consideration by a legislative body.

The OED, an etymological dictionary, doesn’t include this sense, but its “hopper” entries haven’t been fully updated.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged, a standard dictionary, says one meaning of the term is “a box usually on the desk of the clerk or other official of a legislative body into which a proposed bill is dropped.”

The earliest example we’ve seen for the political usage is from the March 3, 1889, issue of the Indianapolis Journal, which uses grinding-mill terminology in reference to a hopper in the Indiana legislature.

An article in the paper says the governor’s “veto-mill stopped grinding yesterday for want of grist” when he rejected the final bill approved by the legislature. But it adds that the grinder “is in excellent order for another run” and all the Democratic majority has to do “is throw a few more longeared bills in the hopper.”

In the 20th century, the phrase “in the hopper” took on the expanded sense of “in progress” or “under consideration.” The first example we’ve found in searches of newspaper and magazine databases appeared during World War II.

A Nov. 29, 1943, article from the Catholic News Service noted that millions of Americans in the military would be spending Christmas away from home, but “parents need not fear that their loved ones will be lonesome or neglected, for USO has plans in the hopper which would delight the folks back home.”

The usage caught on after the war. An article in the October 1951 issue of the Vassar Alumnae Magazine, for example, mentions several foiled efforts to encroach on national parks, and warns that there “are numerous similar detrimental proposals in the hopper.”

(A similar figurative expression, “in the pipeline,” showed up at the end of World War II. A Sept. 7, 1945, article in the Times, London, refers to “purchases of all goods in the pipeline or in storage.”)

When the two of us hear “in the hopper” used figuratively now, it’s always in the sense of “in progress” or “under consideration.” We don’t recall ever hearing the expression used in the sense of “in the toilet.” (Pat grew up in the Midwest and Stewart in the Northeast.)

However, the Dictionary of American Regional English says “toilet” is indeed a meaning of “hopper,” especially in the Northeast. And the earliest of several DARE citations is a 1957 report from your home state, Massachusetts:

“The maid on our floor [at college], complaining about the strict new housekeeper [said], ‘She won’t even let us use the word ‘hopper’ anymore. We’re supposed to say ‘closet bowl.’ ”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

On Eve and evening

Q: In a 2016  post, you say there’s no etymological connection between the biblical name “Eve” and the word “evil.” Is there by any chance such a connection between “Eve” and “eve,” as in “evening”?

A: No, there’s no etymological connection between the name “Eve” in Genesis and the word “eve” used to mean “evening.” The word “eve” began life as a shortening of “even,” a now obsolete term for “evening.”

In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the word for “evening” was ǽfen. Here’s an example from Beowulf, an epic poem that may have been written as far back as 725:

“Syþðan æfen cwom ond him Hroþgar gewat to hofe sinum, rice to ræste” (“As evening came, Hrothgar left for home, the noble king to rest”).

The noun ǽfen gave rise to the verbal noun ǽfnung (“the coming of evening”). Later, ǽfen became “even” (then “eve”), while ǽfnung became “evening.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for “evening,” which we’ve expanded, is from an Old English translation of Genesis, written around 1000, by the Benedictine Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham:

“Heo com ða on æfnunge eft to Noe, ond brohte an twig of anum elebeame mid grenum leafum on hyre muðe” (“She [a dove] came again that evening to Noah, and brought in her beak a twig with a green olive leaf”). From Genesis 8:11.

The first OED example for the noun “evening” with much like the modern spelling is from Layamon’s Brut, a Middle English poem written sometime before 1200:

“Riht to þan euening þa fleh Cadwalan þe king” (“King Cadwalan escaped right into the wet evening”). In Middle English, the “v” sound in the middle of a word was written as “u.”

The short form “eve” appeared in writing for the first time in The Owl and the Nightingale, a Middle English poem believed written in the late 12th or early 13th century: “Thu singest from eve fort a morȝe” (“Thou singest from eve right to morn”).

As for the name “Eve,” it’s derived from biblical Hebrew, where the first woman is referred to as hawwa in Genesis 3:20. The name became “Eva” in Latin and Greek translations of the Bible, and “Eve” in later French and English translations.

The meaning of the original Hebrew name has been the subject of much scholarly debate over the years. We discussed the issue extensively in our 2016 post, but here’s a brief summary.

A common suggestion is that hawwa means “life” or “living” or “life giver,” assuming a connection with the Hebrew haya (to live) or hay (living).

However, biblical scholars have questioned such a connection, saying there’s no direct linguistic link between hawwa and the other two words.

Some scholars say hawwa may have been a play on those other Hebrew words, or perhaps the words were indirectly connected through other Semitic languages.

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

Why piece + meal = piecemeal

Q: Does the word “piecemeal” have anything to do with eating? I know that “piece” is used to describe the equivalent of eating a sandwich over the sink, as in “I’m not eating dinner. I’m just piecing.”

A: “Piecemeal” is an interesting word. Etymologically it means “by piece measure.”

But not many people realize this, since it’s the last remaining example in English of a word formed with the obsolete suffix “-meal,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

And as we’ll explain later, both parts of the word have connections with eating.

In Old and Middle English, the suffix “-meal” (which meant a “measure”) was used to form compound adverbs. Long-dead examples include “fingermeal” and “footmeal,” units of measure about equal to the breadth of a finger or the length of a person’s foot.

Today we might use the phrase “piece by piece” as a synonym for “piecemeal.” As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the adverbial equivalent in modern English for those old “-meal” compounds would be “the formula ‘— by —,’ with repetition of the noun.”

In fact, “footmeal,” which existed only in Old English (as fotmælum), was not just a unit of measure but also meant “step by step” or “bit by bit,” Oxford says.

The compound adverb “piecemeal” was formed in Middle English when the “-meal” suffix was added to the noun “piece” (a part or portion), which had come into English from French about 1230.

The adverb was first recorded in the Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, which was written around 1300: “Folc to drou þat traytour, ech lime pece mele” (“Men drew [dismembered] the traitor, each limb piecemeal”).

In the late 16th century, English writers began using “piecemeal” as an adjective to mean consisting of or done in pieces.

The earliest OED example for the adjective is from Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, a prose romance he was working on when he died in 1586: “He did with a broken peece-meale speach … remember the mishaps of his youth.”

Now for the eating connections. That old “-meal” suffix is related to the word we use to mean a repast.

In Old and Middle English, the noun “meal,” derived from Germanic, meant not only a measure but a time or an occasion. It no longer exists with those general meanings, but survives in a particular sense—an occasion for eating.

The sense of “meal” as an occasion for eating emerged in early Old English. The OED defines the usage as “a customary or social occasion of taking food, esp. at a more or less fixed time of day, as breakfast, dinner, etc.”

The earliest known example is from Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s ninth-century translation of a sixth-century work by Pope Gregory:

“Ne fæst se no Gode ac him selfum, se þe ðæt nyle ðearfum sellan ðæt he ðonne on mæle læfð, ac wile hit healdan eft to oðrum mæle, ðæt he eft mæge his wambe gefyllan” (“He fasts not for God but for himself, who will not give the poor what he leaves of his meal, but wishes to keep it for another meal, to fill his belly with it afterwards.”)

Very soon, “meal” was used more widely in Old English to mean the food itself.

Jumping ahead a millennium or so, someone without the time or inclination to eat an actual meal might “piece” instead—that is, nibble casually or eat small pieces of this or that.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged says the verb “piece” is “chiefly dialectal” and means “to eat between meals” or “nibble at snacks.”

M-W gives an example from Eudora Welty’s short story “Why I Live at the P.O.” (1941): “there he was, piecing on the ham.”

As far as we can tell, no other standard dictionaries have entries for this sense of the verb “piece.” Wordnet, an electronic word database, says it means to “eat intermittently” or “take small bites of,” as in “He pieced at the sandwich all morning.”

The usage is more common in books devoted to slang or regionalisms, where it was recorded at least as far back as mid-19th century America.

The earliest example we’ve found is from John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (2nd ed., 1859), where the usage is traced to Pennsylvania:

“TO PIECE. To eat pieces of bread and butter, to eat between meals. ‘He has n’t eaten much dinner, because he’s been a piecin’ on’t all the mornin’.’ Pennsylvania.”

The word is also discussed in a review of Bartlett’s dictionary, entitled “Americanisms,” in the April 1861 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. In commenting on verbs formed from familiar nouns, the review writes: “ ‘To piece,’ is to take an irregular snack between meals.”

The verb is also recorded in Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present (1902), by John S. Farmer and W. E. Henley, which defines “to piece” (or “to eat a piece”) as colloquial American English for “to eat between meals.”

Pat recalls the usage as extremely common in Iowa, where she grew up. It often meant to pick at leftovers, as in “Long after Thanksgiving, they were still piecing on the turkey.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Pronunciation Usage Word origin Writing

Geezers and geysers

Q: I’m revisiting season one of Rumpole and I’m up to “Rumpole and the Married Lady.” Leo McKern has just pronounced “geyser,” the British term for a water heater, as “geezer.” I’m probably in my cups or I wouldn’t be asking this, but are the two terms related?

A: In Britain, the words “geyser” and “geezer” are commonly pronounced alike, as you noticed in Rumpole of the Bailey. However, we’re sorry to disappoint you, but there’s no etymological connection.

In the US, “geyser” is pronounced GUY-zer and has one meaning, a bubbling hot spring that erupts periodically.

But in British English, it has two meanings; a “geyser” can be a hot spring or a water heater. And for both senses of the word, most British speakers rhyme it with “geezer.”

You can click the loudspeaker icons at two dictionary websites to hear the typical British and American pronunciations.

In its entry for “geyser,” Oxford Dictionaries online has these definitions: (1) “A hot spring in which water intermittently boils, sending a tall column of water and steam into the air,” or any such “jet or stream of liquid”; (2) “British: A gas-fired water heater through which water flows as it is rapidly heated.”

The noun used in sense #1 was first recorded in travel writing from the late 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Here’s the dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded:

“Among the hot springs in Iceland, several of which bear the name of geyser, there are none that can be compared with that which I am going to describe.” (From Letters on Iceland, a 1780 translation of a work by the Swedish naturalist Uno von Troil.)

The use of the noun in sense #2 was first recorded in the late 19th century. This is the first OED citation:

“The instantaneous water heater; or Maughan’s Patent Geyser … so constructed that any quantity of hot water can be drawn from it with the utmost facility.” (From an advertisement in an 1878 issue of the British journal Gas Engineer.)

Two Oxford citations from the 1920s—one American and the other British—shed some light on the pronunciation of the water heater:

“The aristocratic landlady was telling me of the advantage of her own particular geezer. … I moved closer to descry the lettering on the cylinder, and lo! it was a geyser. I suppose the word is universally mispronounced over here because they have not been brought up in a geyser country” (from An American’s London, by Louise Closser Hale, 1920).

“The mechanical device for heating bath-water made geyser a household word, and though the introducers gave it the vowel of grey, the pronunciation as in key gained ground” (from the Society for Pure English Tract No. XXXII, 1929).

As for its etymology, “geyser” comes from the Icelandic Geysir, the proper name of a hot spring in southwest Iceland. The word literally means “gusher,” the OED explains, and is related to the Old Norse verb geysa (to gush).

Going back even further, etymologists point to an ancestral Proto-Indo-European root, reconstructed as gheu– (to pour), according toThe American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

Interestingly, the dictionary’s editor, Calvert Watkins, says gheu– may be the source of our word “god.”

The ancient root, he explains, played an important role in prehistoric religious terminology, since gheu– implied the pouring of a libation or a liquid sacrifice, as well as the heaping of earth on a burial mound.

Consequently, Watkins says, gheu– may have led to gudam, the reconstructed prehistoric Germanic term for “god.”

Moving on from the sublime to the ridiculous, we come to the noun “geezer,” which is pronounced similarly in British and American English. (The only difference is in the treatment of the “r.”)

The word, which the OED dates from the late 19th century, has different meanings in the US and the UK.

The definition of “geezer” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) is typical of the meaning in US dictionaries: “An old person, especially an eccentric old man.” It’s generally described as humorous or disparaging.

But most standard British dictionaries define a “geezer” as simply a “man,” and the word is used casually much like “guy” or “bloke.”

The OED, a historical dictionary based on etymological evidence, says “geezer” is a ” term of derision applied esp. to men, usually but not necessarily elderly; a chap, fellow.” However, the definition hasn’t been fully updated since 1898.

The first example given in the OED has the phrase twice: “If we wake up the old geezers we shall get notice to quit without compensation” … “the two old geezers, as Sandy styled the landlord and his wife.”

(The lines are from an actor’s memoir, The Truth About the Stage, published in 1885 under the pseudonym Corin. Oxford mistakenly omits the “old” in the second quotation; we’ve restored it here.)

The earliest American example we’ve found is from the Oct. 18, 1889, issue of Tobacco, a weekly trade journal: “J. H. Coyne, a member of the Chicago Press Club, is responsible for the following:  ‘There was an old Geezer, / And he had a wooden leg, / And he never had Te Baky, / Eksep wot ’e kud beg.’ ”

As we said, the words “geyser” and “geezer” aren’t related. “Geezer” is thought to be adapted from “guiser,” a Scottish word first recorded in the late 1400s and meaning “one who guises” (that is, dresses up or goes in disguise) or “a masquerader, a mummer. ”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

A cock and bull story

Q: Why is a ridiculous tale called “a cock and bull story”? Was there indeed such a story and did it give rise to the expression?

A: The expression is believed to be derived from an old animal fable, but etymologists have yet to find a story about a cock and a bull that might have inspired it.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the expression as in “its origin apparently referring to some story or fable,” and notes that the “early use of the phrase is parallel to that of the French coq-à-l’âne.”

The French phrase ultimately comes from a 14th-century Middle French expression, sallir du coq en l’asne—literally “to go from the cock to the ass” but figuratively “to jump from one subject to another.” In modern French, the expression is sauter du coq à l’âne.

The earliest example we’ve found is from Respit de la Mort, a 1376 poem in which the French author Jean le Fèvre de Ressons uses it in the sense of going off in different directions:

“Tant ay saillii du coq en l’asne / Et ay divers chemins tenu / Que je suis jusquez chy venu” (“So often I’ve gone from the cock to the ass, and taken such diverse paths, until this is what I’ve come to.”)

The 19th-century lexicographer Émile Littré, in his Dictionnaire de la Langue Française, cites a Middle French example from Le Loyer des Folles Amours, believed written in the late 1400s or early 1500s by the French poet Guillaume Crétin:

“De moi vraiment / Vous vous raillez ; / Trop vous faillez, / Car vous saillez / Du coq en l’asne” (“I really think you’re laughing at yourself. You’re jumping from the cock to the ass”).

Littré notes a theory that the expression may have come from the original fable that inspired The Town Musicians of Bremen, an 1819 Brothers Grimm tale about four animals, including a rooster and a donkey. In English, he says, the donkey became a bull.

However, Littré points out that the Grimm rooster and donkey “produce a terrible confusion” that thwarts a robbery, while the French cock and ass signify jumping “from one subject to another.”

In the 16th century, the French poet Clément Marot sent two rambling letters, or epistles, in verse to his friend Lyon Jamet. They were published as the first Epistre du Coq en l’Asne in 1531 and the second 1539.

The French phrase entered Scottish English in the early 17th century as “cockalan,” meaning “a comic or ludicrous representation,” according to An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808), by John Jamieson.

The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a 1605 entry in the records of Ayr, Scotland, that requires anyone who finds, hears, or sees a rhyme or a cockalan to notify the authorities privately and tell no one else about it:

“In case ony persoun or persouns at ony time sail find, heir or see ony ryme or cokalane, that they sail reveil the same first to ane eldar privatlie, and to na uther.”

The usage soon evolved to mean “a disconnected story, discourse, etc.,” similar to the meaning of coq-à-l’âne in French. The first OED citation for the new sense is from a Jan. 17, 1627, letter by Sir John Wishard:

“Excuse the rather cockaland then Letter from him who carethe not howe disformall his penn’s expression be.”

Meanwhile, the phrase “cock and bull” showed up, first in the expression “to talk of a cock and bull,” which Oxford defines as to tell “a long rambling, idle story.”

The first OED example is from Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621): “Some mens only delight is … to talke of a Cock and a Bull ouer a pot.”

The dictionary doesn’t specifically say “cock and bull” comes from coq-à-l’âne, either directly or by way of Scottish English. However, its “cock and bull” entry points readers to the French and Scottish expressions.

In the late 1600s, the phrase “a story of a cock and bull” came to mean a long, rambling, disconnected story, as in this OED example from The Arraignment, Tryal and Condemnation of Stephen Colledge for High-Treason, a 1681 account of the proceedings:

“We call you to that particular of the papers, and you run out in a story of a Cock and a Bull, and I know not what.” (Colledge, a Protestant activist, was convicted of sedition after threatening King Charles II. He was hanged and quartered on Aug. 31, 1681.)

The noun phrase “cock-and-bull story” showed up in the late 1700s, meaning “an idle, concocted, incredible story; a canard,” according to the dictionary.

The first citation is from the March 2, 1795, issue of the Gazette of the United States, a biweekly in Philadelphia: “A long cock-and-a-bull story about the Columbianum [a proposed national college].”

One last note: There’s no etymological evidence to support two cock-and-bull stories about “cock and bull” that are floating around the internet.

The expression is not a corruption of “concocted and bully story,” and it does not come from the gossip of travelers at The Cock and The Bull, two coaching inns in Stony Stratford, England.

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English English language Etymology Expression Linguistics Usage Word origin Writing

Is ‘comedic’ or ‘comic’ funnier?

Q: Last weekend a friend went on a rant about the unnecessary introduction of “comedic” into the English language. I think it’s overused for “comic,” but has different connotations. Your mission, should you choose to accept it!

A: We won’t go so far as to say that “comedic” is unnecessary. But it can usually be replaced by “comic,” a simpler and less academic-sounding term.

Of the two adjectives, “comedic” has a narrower meaning. Most dictionaries define it as having to do with comedy.

But “comic” means that and something more—funny.

For example, you could use either word here: “He prefers comic [or comedic] roles to tragic ones” … “Satire is just one element in the comic [or comedic] genre.”

But only “comic” will do when you’re talking about something that makes you laugh: “The feud stemmed from a comic misunderstanding” … “The dog provided comic relief.”

So writers who use “comedic” to mean funny—as in “several comedic moments” or “a comedic facial expression”—are misusing the word.

The standard American dictionaries, and most British ones, recognize this distinction. (Two of the British dictionaries—Longman and Macmillan—have no entries at all for “comedic.”)

The definitions in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) are typical:

“Comedic” is defined solely as “of or relating to comedy.” But “comic” is defined as both “characteristic of or having to do with comedy” and “amusing; humorous.”

The definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, are similar, though those for “comic” go into much more detail.

Of the two adjectives, “comic” is older. It was first recorded in English writing, the OED says, in the sense “of, relating to, or of the nature of comedy (esp. Greek or Roman classical comedy) as a literary or dramatic genre.”

The earliest known example of the adjective used in this sense is from a 1567 translation of Horace’s Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry):

“To Menander the Commicke gowne of Afphranus was fit.” (The references are to two comic playwrights—Menander in ancient Greece and Lucius Afranius in Rome.)

And here’s the dictionary’s most recent example for this sense of the word: “The comic playwrights seeking to follow Plato had to come to terms with Aristophanes whether they wanted to or not.” (From Martin Puchner’s book The Drama of Ideas, 2010.)

As for “comic” in the sense of funny or amusing, the earliest example in the OED is from the early 17th century:

“That Comicke impreza: If wise, seeme not to know that which thou knowest.” (From Richard Brathwait’s The English Gentleman, 1630. An “impreza,” normally spelled “impresa,” is a maxim or proverb.)

And here’s the dictionary’s most recent citation for “comic” in the laughable sense: “Mary Alice leans forward and scrunches up her face into a delightfully comic mug.” (From the Christian Science Monitor, May 13, 1995.)

This meaning of “comic,” by the way, is pretty much identical to that of the earlier “comical,” which is defined in the OED as “intentionally humorous; funny,” and dates from about 1590.

As for “comedic,” it was first recorded in the 17th century, according to the OED, but after that it wasn’t used much—if at all—until the mid-19th century.

Here’s the dictionary’s first example: “This might be the comedick catastrophe of our verie fearfull-like Episcopall tragedie.” (From a letter written in 1639 by Robert Baillie, a Church of Scotland minister and author.)

This is the dictionary’s second example: “Such a definition … would have the singular luck of excluding our very best comedic dramas from the list of comedies.” (From George Darley’s introduction to an 1840 collection of the works of Beaumont and Fletcher.)

Even as late as the 1860s, “comedic” was so uncommon that this writer thought he (or she) had invented it:

“The comic element … soon associated with itself a comedic element, manifested in the representation of manners and characters of the current age. … I ask pardon for coining this word comedic; but comic, in the signification which it has gradually assumed, does not express what I mean.” (By an author signed “J.A.” in the Ladies’ Companion, 1864.)

George Bernard Shaw also felt called upon to substitute “comedic” for “comic” in an article he wrote for the Saturday Review in 1897:

“Speaking of the masters of the comedic spirit (if I call it, as he does, the Comic Spirit, this darkened generation will suppose me to refer to the animal spirits of tomfools and merryandrews).”

Apparently both “J.A.” and Shaw felt that “comic” had begun to imply too much revelry, and wasn’t appropriate in serious discussion of comedy as a dramatic genre.

As you might suspect, all these words have roots in classical Latin and Greek.

The adjective “comic” is from the Latin cōmicus (of or belonging to comedy, or comic). The Romans got it from Greek: kōmikos, derived from kōmos (a festivity or revel with music and dancing).

“Comedic” is from the classical Latin cōmoedicus (of or relating to comedy, or comic), which in turn is from the Greek kōmōidikos, derived from kōmōidia (comedy).

Finally, “comedy,” which came into English in the late 14th century, is partly from Anglo-Norman and Middle French (comedie) and partly from Latin (cōmoedia), which is derived from Greek (kōmōidia).

We like the definition Samuel Johnson gives “comedy” in his dictionary of 1755: “A dramatick representation of the lighter faults of mankind.”

In our opinion, writers sometimes use “comedic” as a pompous substitution for “comic.” But that’s one of their lighter faults.

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