The Grammarphobia Blog

Roots of the grapevine

Q: I assume the word “grapevine” originally referred to a vine on which grapes grow. When did it come to mean a casual way of passing information along, as in the Motown song of the ’60s?

A: Yes, “grapevine” did originally refer to Vitis vinifera, the vine of the common grape. It first showed up in New England in the mid-17th century as two words.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ll expand here, is from a Jan. 19, 1654, entry in the town records of Providence, RI:

“five Acres of Low Land Layd out on the South side of the West River for Robert Pike to make Medow, bounded on the West End with a black Oak markt on 4. Sides, and on the East end on the lower side (that small slipe of low Land) by the grape Vines.”

The use of “grapevine” to mean an informal source of information began life in the mid-19th century as “grapevine telegraph,” according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

The slang dictionary defines the usage as “any informal or unofficial method of relaying important or interesting information, esp. by word of mouth,” or “the means by which gossip or rumor travels.”

When “grapevine telegraph” first appeared in the early 1850s, it referred to the transmission of questionable or outdated information.

The earliest examples we’ve found in searches of digitized newspaper databases are from two weeklies that were published on the same date—April 17, 1852—in different states.

This one is from the editorial page of the Freeman (Fremont, OH): “The following important dispatch was recived [sic] by the ‘Grape Vine’ telegraph—It came to hand just in time for this week’s ‘issoo,’ and the attentive ‘operator’ at Tiffin city has our thanks for his invaluable favor.”

What follows is an anonymous, satirical letter to the editor, full of outlandish misinformation about an election for township offices.

The second example published that day is from the Wabash Courier (Terre Haute, IN): “the aforesaid writer is awfully behind the times, a resident, perhaps, of some deep diggings where the sun never shines, and the inhabitants get their news by the grapevine telegraph. It would be no easy matter to ascertain the number of people badly fooled.”

The fact that the expression appeared on the same day in different states suggests that it was around much earlier in speech.

It shows up again a couple of months later, on June 30, 1852, in another Terre Haute weekly, the Wabash Express: “We suppose the information came from Maine and California (the Aroostook and Sierra Nevada,) by the mud turtle line, or the grapevine telegraph.”

And the July 17, 1852, issue of the Wabash Courier uses the phrase to introduce a mock letter from James Buchanan, then a former secretary of state and later a president, to Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan:

From the Pittsburgh Despatch. By the Grape Vine Telegraph line, in connection with Virginia Fence and Mason & Dixon’s Line, we have received the following interesting correspondence—far ‘ahead of the foremost,’ which we hasten to lay before our readers.”

(The word sleuth Barry Popik has found an earlier reprint of that passage in a New Jersey newspaper, the Trenton State Gazette, June 22, 1852. We haven’t been able to find the original Pittsburg Dispatch article.)

During the American Civil War, “grapevine telegraph” was used to describe doubtful information about the war that was passed along from mouth to mouth. Union supporters often used the phrase for what they considered Confederate propaganda, as in this example from the Jan. 8, 1862, Evansville (IN) Daily Journal:

“Some of those who are so very anxious that the South should have its rights, were very much elated at the news by grapevine Telegraph from Evansville via Phillipstown, to the effect that there had been a fight in Kentucky, in which the Federals were badly whipped, and were rushing into Evansville by the thousands, perfectly panic-struck.”

And this example comes from the June 12, 1862, Daily Alta California (San Francisco): “Yesterday the rebel grapevine telegraph was actively employed. It gave out oracularly that [Maj. Gen.] Sterling Price had crossed the Tennessee River near Florence, Ala., with 10,000 men, and was making his way to Nashville.”

The OED notes that the word “grapevine” was also used by itself during the war to mean a false or unfounded rumor or story. The dictionary cites a passage, which we’ve expanded, from “The Old Sergeant,” an 1863 poem by Forceythe Willson.

In the poem, a dying Union soldier imagines that he wasn’t really wounded at Shiloh and that his memory of being cut down is all in his mind: “It’s all a nightmare, all a humbug and a bore; / Just another foolish grape-vine—and it won’t come any more.”

Random House has a somewhat earlier example that uses both long and short versions of the expression:

“We get such ‘news’ in the army by what we call ‘grape vine,’ that is, ‘grape vine telegraph.’ It is not at all reliable.” (From an 1862 diary entry by James A. Connolly, first published in the Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society, 1928. Connolly enlisted as a private in the Union Army and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.”

The next Oxford example is from a postwar article by Horace Carpenter, a former lieutenant in the Ninth Louisiana Battalion, about life at Johnson’s Island, a prison-of-war camp for Confederate officers in Lake Erie near Sandusky, OH. Here Carpenter discusses rumors of prisoner exchanges:

“The ‘grape-vine’ spoke to us of little else. The main feature of this prison telegraph was its complete unreliability. As I remember, it was never correct, even by accident.” (We’ve expanded the citation, from the March 1891 issue of the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine.)

Today the word “grapevine” refers to the informal transmission of information that may or may not be true. As the OED explains, “Now in general use to indicate the route by which a rumour or a piece of information (often of a secret or private nature) is passed.”

The earliest Oxford example for this sense is from The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (1934), the second novel in James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy: “Down there at that express company they find out about everything a guy does. They got the best grapevine in the world.

Random House has an earlier example from John Brown’s Body, a 1928 poem by Stephen Vincent Benét: “And the grapevine whispered its message faster / Than a horse could gallop across a grave.”

In a 2009 post, we dismissed the notion that the usage ultimately comes from The Old Grapevine, a Greenwich Village tavern frequented by politicians, artists, and intellectuals.

We’ve found no evidence that the tavern was the source of the old usage, though it may have helped popularize it. We also haven’t seen evidence that the usage was inspired by hastily strung early telegraph wires that twisted like grapevines.

The expression “grapevine telegraph” showed up in the US as telegraph wires were spreading across the country. Samuel Morse sent his famous message, “What hath God wrought,” from Washington to Baltimore in 1844.

We suspect that the simple presence of telegraph wires inspired the figurative use of “grapevine telegraph” for the informal transmission of information. As Merriam-Webster Unabridged explains, the usage was “probably so called from the grapevine’s being thought of as a humble substitute for a telegraph line.”

A similar expression, “clothesline telegraph,” appeared during the Civil War. The March 22, 1862, Cambridge (MA) Chronicle describes Southern women who spread Confederate propaganda as “tattlers, and operators upon the clothesline telegraph, mischief makers.”

Similarly, the figurative expression “bush telegraph” showed up in the late 19th and “jungle telegraph” in the early 20th century.

In his 1901 autobiography Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington writes that slaves on the plantation where he grew up used the “grapevine” expression for their whispered conversations about the war:

“Though I was a mere child during the preparation for the Civil War and during the war itself, I now recall the many late-at-night whispered discussions that I heard my mother and the other slaves on the plantation indulge in. These discussions showed that they understood the situation, and that they kept themselves informed of events by what was termed the ‘grape-vine’ telegraph.”

However, we haven’t seen any written wartime examples for “grapevine” or “grapevine telegraph” used to describe such slave discussions. And as we’ve said, “grapevine telegraph” was often used during the war in the sense of Confederate propaganda.

We’ll end with a few lines from Marvin Gaye’s version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” the Motown song, written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, that was a hit in the 1960s for Gaye as well as Gladys Knight & the Pips:

You could have told me yourself
That you loved someone else
Instead I heard it through the grapevine
Not much longer would you be mine
Oh, I heard it through the grapevine
And I’m just about to lose my mind

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When the simple past is perfect

Q: I don’t see why the past perfect, not the present perfect, is used in the following sentence: “The Putinversteher, who until recently had dominated the German media and are still heavily present in the German-language book market, have contributed to this development.”

A: We wouldn’t use either the present perfect (“have dominated”) or the past perfect (“had dominated”). We’d use the simple past tense (“dominated”):

“The Putinversteher, who until recently dominated the German media and are still heavily present in the German-language book market, have contributed to this development.”

The present perfect (e.g., “have dominated”) generally refers to an action that began in the past and continues into the present, or to one that occurred at some indefinite time in the past. The past perfect (“had dominated”) is used to differentiate a past action from one that happened at a more recent time in the past.

Neither perfect tense applies in this case.

The key passage here refers to one specific past action, which the author describes as the recent domination of the German media by the Putinversteher (German for “those who understand Putin”). The use of “until recently” shows that the action ended before the current time, so the simple past tense is appropriate.

The passage, as you undoubtedly know, is from a Jan. 21, 2016, article in the Harvard International Review by the German political scientist Andreas Umland. The article, translated from German, criticizes the German defenders of the Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

The article could have used the present perfect if the domination continued into the present (“… who have dominated the German media and are heavily present in the German-language book market …”) or if the domination was for an indefinite time in the past (“… who have sometimes dominated the German media and are heavily present in the German-language book market …”).

The past perfect could have been used if one past action preceded another (“… who had dominated the German media and were still heavily present in the German-language book market …”).

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Backstage with ‘crisis actors’

Q: Thanks for answering my question about “false flag.” Now, who came up with the term “crisis actor”? I can’t believe what’s happening to the English language. This whole country has gone crazy. It makes you want to pull out your brain and give it a good shake.

A: Now that you’ve vented, let’s take a look at “crisis actor,” a relatively new term that’s being used to question the legitimacy of victims or survivors of mass shootings.

When the phrase first appeared in print 50 years ago, “crisis actor” was a term in political science that referred to a country in conflict.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from the Proceedings of the International Peace Research Association Second Conference: Poverty, Development and Peace (1968):

“McClelland argues that performance characteristics of crisis actors, both in crisis and non-crisis behavior, can be identified, and that phase characteristics of particular crises and of crises in general as one type of international behavior, can be distinguished.”

The reference is to a 1965 paper (“Systems Theory and Human Conflict”) by the political scientist Charles A. McClelland. Though he refers to countries in conflict as “actors” in “crisis,” he doesn’t actually use the phrase “crisis actor” or “crisis actors.”

The phrase took on a new sense a few months after the July 20, 2012, mass shooting inside a movie theater in Aurora, CO.

On Oct. 31, 2012, Visionbox, a nonprofit acting group in Denver, issued a press release announcing that it was offering actors to help shopping malls prepare for dealing with the victims of mass shootings:

“Visionbox Crisis Actors are trained in criminal and victim behavior, and bring intense realism to simulated mass casualty incidents in public places,” the press release says.

The release adds that the actors can “help first responders visualize life-saving procedures, and assist trainers in delivering superior hands-on crisis response training.”

However, the phrase was soon co-opted by people who questioned the official version of the Dec. 14, 2012, mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

The earliest written example we’ve seen for the new usage is in a Dec. 25, 2012, article on the Washington Examiner website that includes a “partial list of interesting questions being raised all over the internet” about Sandy Hook, including this one:

“Was the school part of the shooting spree an emergency response exercise using paid crisis actors funded by a grant from our federal government?” The article has a link to the Visionbox press release.

The now-deleted article, by Lori Stacey, was captured on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine and tracked down by the linguist Ben Zimmer.

“That tenuous chain of reasoning was enough for conspiracy theorists to begin imagining that Newtown was a staged event populated with ‘crisis actors,’ ” Zimmer wrote in a March 2, 2018, article in the Wall St. Journal.

Days before the Washington Examiner piece appeared, people were raising questions online about Sandy Hook, as Jason Koebler points out in a Feb. 22, 2018, article on the Motherboard website.

For example, James Tracy, a professor of communications at Florida Atlantic University, suggested in a Dec. 20, 2012, post on his Memory Hole Blog that the official Sandy Hook account was a “meticulously crafted façade” with a “made-for-television storyline.”

Tracy, who was later fired by the university, didn’t use the phrase “crisis actor” in that post but a Dec. 22 comment to it used the term “actors” in suggesting that the mass shooting was staged by broadcasting “gunshots and mayhem over the intercom system.”

The commenter, using the handle “andrew.w,” says such a broadcast “adds a bit of zing to what is essentially a drill and allows the actors and children to actually relate what they heard and did with a bit more reality.”

Enough. We’d better stop here or we’ll have to pull out our brains and give them a good shake.

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Soul of discretion

Q: What is the origin of the phrase “soul of discretion”? Google just leads to its being an idiom, and I thought you might know how to dig more deeply.

A: When the word “soul” appeared in Anglo-Saxon times, it referred to the “essential principle or attribute of life,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED has several early Old English examples, including this one from the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript written in the 700s, with the Psalms in Latin and Old English:

“Conturbata sunt omnia ossa mea et anima mea turbata est ualde: gedroefed sindun all ban min & sawl min gedroefed is swiðe” (“All my bones are troubled, and my soul is troubled sorely,” Psalm 6:2).

In the late 1500s, the noun “soul” came to mean the personification of some admirable quality or thing.

The first Oxford example is from The First Part of Ieronimo, an anonymous play published in 1605 but probably written in the 1580s: “Prince Balthezer. … The very soule of true nobility.”

(The play, about a Spanish knight marshal, may have inspired, or been inspired by, the English playwright Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, believed written sometime in the 1580s.)

And here’s an example from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, possibly written sometime before 1610, perhaps with the playwright Thomas Middleton: “O he’s the very soule of Bounty.”

The OED also has an example of “soul” used in the exact sense you’re asking about, as the personification of discretion. It’s from You May Now Kill the Bride, a 2006 mystery by the American novelist Deborah Donnelly: “I haven’t always been the soul of discretion myself.”

However, the usage has been around for much longer. We found this example in Phyllis of Philistia, an 1895 romantic novel by the Irish writer Frank Frankfort Moore: “ ‘You are the soul of discretion, my beloved,’ said the husband.”

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The truth about trees

Q: The words “tree” and “true,” according to a TED video, have a common ancestor. From what I gather, this was back in prehistoric times, before there was writing. So how do we know the first thing about an ancient language if there’s no written record of it?

A: Historical linguists believe that “tree” and “true” have a common prehistoric ancestor, a belief that’s based on studies of a reconstructed, hypothetical ancient language known as Proto Indo-European (PIE for short), not on any written evidence.

By studying members of the present Indo-European family, linguists have extrapolated back to the presumed prehistoric language. The Indo-European family comprises many European and Asian languages, including English.

In reconstructing the PIE vocabulary, for example, linguists have used the comparative method, a technique for finding similar words in various Indo-European languages.

As the linguist and phonologist Calvert Watkins explains, similar words, or cognates, in present Indo-European languages “provide evidence for the shape of the prehistoric Indo-European word.”

Watkins, author of The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, says “tree” and “true” are ultimately derived from deru-, a Proto Indo-European root meaning to “be firm, solid, steadfast.”

This PIE root gave prehistoric Germanic the terms trewam (“tree”) and treuwithō (“truth”), and Old English the words trēow (“tree”) and trēowe (“true”), Watkins writes. (Old English spellings vary considerably.)

The earliest example of “tree” in the Oxford English Dictionary (with the plural treo) is from the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript dated around 825:

“Muntas and alle hyllas, treo westemberu and alle cederbeamas” (“Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars”). We’ve expanded the citation, from Psalm 148.

And in Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s late ninth-century translation of a sixth-century work by Pope Gregory, an unbeliever is compared to a barren tree:

“Ælc triow man sceal ceorfan, þe gode wæstmas ne birð, & weorpan on fyr, & forbærnan” (“Every tree that does not bear good fruit shall be cut down and cast into the fire and burnt”). We’ve expanded the OED citation, which refers to Matthew 7:19. The dictionary describes triow here as a variant reading of treow.

When “true” showed up in Old English, it meant loyal, faithful, or trustworthy. Here’s an example from Beowulf, an epic poem that may have been written as early as 725:

“Þa gyt wæs hiera sib ætgædere, æghwylc oðrum trywe” (“The two were at peace together, true to each other”). Here trywe is a variant spelling of trēow.

As Old English gave way to Middle English in the 12th century, the word “true” came to mean accurate or factual, as in this example from Layamon’s Brut, an early Middle English poem written sometime before 1200:

“Belin ihærde sugge þurh summe sæg treowe of his broðer wifðinge” (“Belin heard it said through some true report of his brother’s marriage”). The passage refers to Belin and Brennes, brothers who vie in Anglo-Saxon legend to rule Britain.

And this example is from Wohunge Ure Lauerd (“The Wooing of Our Lord”), a Middle English homily written sometime before 1250. The author, presumably a woman, tells Jesus of her passionate love for him:

“A swete ihesu þu oppnes me þin herte for to cnawe witerliche and in to reden trewe luue lettres” (“Ah, sweet Jesus, you open your heart to me, so that I may know it inwardly, and read inside it true love letters”).

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What about ‘whatnot’?

Q: For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard the phrase “what not” used much like “et cetera.” I’m curious about the etymology. I searched your archives but can’t find that you’ve written about it. Have you?

A: No, we haven’t written about it yet, so let’s remedy that now.

You may be surprised to hear this, but the term “whatnot” (it’s usually one word today) has been around for hundreds of years, dating back to the mid-1500s.

When the usage first appeared, as two words, it could mean “anything,” “everything,” “anything and everything,” or “all sorts of things,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example is from The Comedye of Acolastus, John Palsgrave’s 1540 translation of a Latin carnival play written in 1529 by the Dutch writer Gulielmus Gnapheus:

“Excesse of fleshely pleasures … hath taken awaye all thynges … my goodes or substance, my name .i. my good name and fame, my frendes, my glory .i. my renoume or estimation, what not? .i. what thyng is it that she hath not taken from me?” (Palsgrave uses the abbreviation “.i.” for the Latin id est, or “that is,” usually rendered as  “i.e.”)

Today, according to the dictionary, “whatnot” is used as a “final item of an enumeration” and means “anything else, various things besides; ‘whatever you like to call it.’ ”

The first Oxford example for the term used as a final item in a series is from a Dec. 21, 1663, entry in the diary of Samuel Pepys: “The strange variety of people … bakers, brewers, butchers, draymen, and what not.”

Since the early 1800s, the OED says, the term has also been used for an “article of furniture consisting of an open stand with shelves one above another, for keeping or displaying various objects, as ornaments, curiosities, books, papers, etc.”

The dictionary’s first example of the term used for an open stand for bric-a-brac is from a Dec. 21, 1808, letter by Lady Sarah Spencer (later Baroness Lyttelton) to her brother, Bob, a 16-year-old midshipman in the Royal Navy and later Capt. Sir Robert Cavendish Spencer. Note her italics for “what-nots,” suggesting the usage was relatively new:

“There is a new and very handsome thick carpet put down in the old library; of course therefore we breakfasted in the drawing-room, while all the old chairs, tables, what-nots, and sofas were torn up by the roots to make room for the new-comer.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation.)

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Wolf tickets for sale

Q: I recently heard a television commentator use the phrase “selling wolf tickets.” After research, I found both a Russian and an African-American Vernacular English source for somewhat related phrases. Did these evolve independently or is there evidence for cross pollination?

A: To “sell wolf tickets,” an expression that’s about 60 years old, is to oversell yourself—to spread boasts or threats that you can’t (or won’t) back up.

The usage was first recorded in writing in 1963, when sociologists noted its use by black gang members in Chicago. The sociologists had reported it two years before in a speech, and it was undoubtedly used on the streets even earlier than that.

Some commentators have suggested that the expression comes from “to cry wolf” (to bluff or raise a false alarm). But a more likely theory is that the “wolf” here was originally “woof” and was intended to mean a bark without a bite.

In African-American Vernacular English, to “woof” has meant to bluff or challenge since at least as far back as 1930. In fact, the phrase has been recorded as “sell woof tickets” since the 1970s.

But as we said, the earliest written example we’ve found for the complete phrase is the “wolf” version; this may reflect the way “woof” was interpreted by white sociologists in the mid-20th century.

Let’s start with “woof” and come later to “sell wolf [or woof] tickets.”

The Dictionary of American Regional English defines the verb “woof,” used “chiefly” among black speakers, as “to engage in behavior, esp speech, intended to impress, intimidate, or provoke; to bluff, kid.” DARE also mentions “woofer,” “woofing,” and other related words.

The dictionary’s earliest example of “woof” used in this way comes from a play written in 1930: “Stop woofing and pick a little tune there so that I can show Daisy somethin’.” (From Mule Bone, written in black vernacular, by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes.)

In December 1934, the journal American Speech published a paper mentioning both “woof” and “woofer” as terms in black college slang. Here are the examples:

“WOOF. To talk much and loudly and yet say little of consequence,” and “A WOOFER. Applied to one who talks constantly, loudly, and in a convincing manner, but who says very little.” (From “Negro Slang in Lincoln University,” a paper by Hugh Sebastian.)

The earliest published example we’ve found for “sell wolf tickets” is from a 1963 paper on the sociology of gang behavior, though an unpublished version dates from 1961. Here’s the relevant passage (“worker” is a social worker and “Commando” a gang leader):

“In a conflict situation, without a worker present, Commando would find it difficult not to ‘sell wolf tickets’ (i.e., challenge) to rival gang members and instigate conflict.”

The paper, “The Response of Gang Leaders to Status Threats: An Observation on Group Process and Delinquent Behavior,” by James F. Short, Jr. and Fred L. Strodtbeck, was published in the American Journal of Sociology in March 1963. This was a revised version of a paper (now lost) read on Sept. 1, 1961, at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

In answer to an email query, Dr. Short told us that the same passage, with the phrase “sell wolf tickets,” probably appeared in the earlier, unpublished version that was delivered in 1961. “I cannot imagine that it was not in the earlier version,” he said.

Over the years, both “wolf tickets” and “woof tickets” have appeared, with variant spellings for “woof” and with “tickets” in singular as well as plural.

DARE, for example, says the phrase “woof ticket,” used “especially” among black speakers, means a “lie, bluff, challenge.” Its earliest written use was recorded in 1971.

The scholar Geneva Smitherman, writing in the English Journal in February 1976, wrote: “ ‘Sellin woof [wolf] tickets’ (sometimes just plain ‘woofin’) refers to the kind of strong language which is purely idle boasting.” The bracketed and parenthetical additions are hers.

Time magazine also used both versions in its Aug. 20, 1979, issue: “ ‘To sell wolf tickets’ (pronounced wuf tickets) means to challenge somebody to a fight” (from “Outcry Over Wuff Tickets,” an article about black English in the classroom).

And in 1982, an early rap group called Wuf Ticket briefly appeared on the singles charts.

A few years later, the linguist Carolyn G. Karhu said that “wolf ticket” (defined as an empty threat) and “selling wolf tickets” (making an empty threat) were terms used by prison inmates in Tennessee (American Speech, summer 1988).

But by the 1990s, these terms had apparently become passé in the language of the streets.

“ ‘Woof ticket’ is a somewhat dated phrase,” Betty Parham and Gerrie Ferris wrote in 1992 in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. And “selling wolf tickets” was defined as “archaic black slang” by Jack E. White, writing in Time magazine’s issue of Oct. 24, 1995.

So was this “woof” merely a black pronunciation of “wolf”? The language columnist William Safire thought so. Commenting on the phrase “woof ticket,” he wrote, “Woof is a Black English pronunciation of ‘wolf’ ” (the New York Times Magazine, Nov. 5, 2000).

That assertion brought a response from Peter Jeffery, now a professor of medieval studies at the University of Notre Dame. His letter, later published in Safire’s book The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time (2004), objected to Safire’s explanation for “woof ticket.”

“The origin had nothing to do with ‘wolf,’ ” Jeffery wrote. “The metaphor was of a barking watchdog (‘woof, woof!’).”

Jeffery, who grew up in Brooklyn and heard the phrase as a youth, added: “By the 1970s, ‘woof ticket’ had disappeared from the speech of young black Americans, though it may still be remembered among those are old enough.” He noted, “I’ve since heard that ‘woofin’ is still sometimes used among jazz musicians to describe the back-and-forth challenges between instrumental soloists.”

Well, old slang terms have a way of reviving, and that appears to be the case here.

Today the phrase is usually seen as “to sell wolf tickets,” and its meaning has become broader. It’s sometimes used to describe a hyped-up promotion or an inflated sales pitch—for a product or event that doesn’t live up to the hype.

(By the way, we’ve found no connection with the use of the phrase in Russian slang, in which it originally meant a document or a pass that might be withdrawn at any time. However, Russians may since have adopted the phrase in the American sense. That’s not cross-pollination, just borrowing.)

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The true history of false flags

Q: I simply don’t understand how “false flag” has come to mean (I guess) a staged tragedy to create sympathy for a group or to push an agenda such as outlawing automatic weapons. It supposedly relates back to pirate ships flying false flags, but that doesn’t seem parallel.

A: Yes, the term “false flag” conjures up images of pirates on the high seas, flying friendly colors to conceal their larcenous motives. However, we haven’t found any evidence that the phrase was ever used literally for a real flag on a real pirate ship.

In the 16th century, when the phrase first appeared in writing, it was strictly a figurative expression. It wasn’t used literally—to mean an actual flag—until almost 300 years later. And pirates weren’t mentioned.

“False flag” is one of those expressions that exist almost solely in figurative use. And its meaning hasn’t changed over the centuries.

In figurative contexts, the Oxford English Dictionary says, a “false flag” means “a deliberate misrepresentation of someone’s affiliation or motives; something used deliberately to misrepresent in this way.”

It first appeared, according to the OED, in a religious tract published in the mid-1500s: “Of this sort was Gardiner that abused K. Henry with a false flagge of religion, when he made hys booke of true obedience” (from Thomas Norton’s A Warning Agaynst the Dangerous Practises of Papistes, 1569).

At that time, the word “flag” itself was still new. The noun for a square or rectangular piece of cloth, varying in color and design and flown “as a standard, ensign or signal, and also for decoration or display,” first appeared in writing in 1530, the OED says.

The dictionary’s next example of “false flag” is also figurative, though the writer alludes to pirates. In a sermon published in 1689, George Halley called Roman Catholicism “a Religion that acts in disguise and masquerade, changes frequently its colours, and puts out a false Flag to conceal the Pyrate.”

Similar uses of “false flag,” mostly in political writing, have continued into the 21st century. This is the most recent one in the OED: “These are the true Tory colours, not the false flag of convenience he flies for the working poor” (from the Daily Mirror, London, 2008).

As we said, it wasn’t until the 19th century that “false flag” showed up in the literal sense, defined in the OED as “a flag used to disguise a ship by misrepresenting its nationality, allegiance, intent, etc.”

Here is Oxford’s earliest example: “The boarding officers must, in their discretion, decide, whether this be a true or false flag, and of the character of the vessel” (from a May 29, 1824, article in the Daily National Intelligencer, Washington, DC, that refers to searching merchant vessels sailing under foreign flags).

And here’s the OED’s most recent literal citation: “The Obama administration is urging global port authorities to be on the watch for Iranian shipping vessels flying false flags or sailing under fraudulent registrations” (from an Associated Press article that appeared in print and online on July 19 and 20, 2012).

As Oxford notes, the term “false flag” is also used adjectivally, as in “false flag operation” (first recorded in 1982) and “false flag provocation” (2002).

In this sense, the dictionary says, the term describes “an event or action (typically political or military in nature) secretly orchestrated by someone other than the person or organization that appears to be responsible for it.”

Here’s the OED’s latest citation: “Some of those who believe that the 7/7 London bombings were a ‘false flag’ operation by state forces rejects [sic] as fake all the state’s evidence” (from a British monthly, Fortean Times, May 23, 2011).

More recently, an April 3, 2018, article in the Los Angeles Times about the Parkland, FL, high school shootings says “conspiracy theorists deemed the incident itself a hoax, or false flag, something that’s further marred the aftermath of every major shooting, including at Sandy Hook Elementary.”

As in those examples, the phrase is often used by people who argue that widely publicized mass shootings, bombings, and so on are actually “false flags” or “false flag operations,” staged by the government or interest groups for political purposes.

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Can ‘refute’ mean ‘deny’?

Q: The increasing use of “refute” as a synonym for “deny” is threatening to finally separate me from the last vestiges of my sanity. I have always thought the former to mean “disprove,” which is very different than “deny.” I just read such an example in an Alaskan news article that sent me running to you.

A: You’ll be disappointed by our answer. Historically, “refute” and “deny” have had separate meanings. But over the last half-century or so the distinction has blurred, and today the use of “refute” to mean “deny” is accepted as standard English—at least by the editors of all nine dictionaries we’ve checked.

However, you’re not alone in objecting to the newer usage. Even some of the standard dictionaries that accept this sense acknowledge that there’s still resistance to it. And none of the usage manuals we’ve consulted wholeheartedly endorse the new sense, though some see the writing on the wall.

Here, for instance, are the senses of “refute” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.):

(1) “To prove to be false or erroneous; overthrow by argument or proof,” as in “refute testimony.”

(2) “To deny the accuracy or truth of,” as in “refuted the results of the poll.”

Both are accepted as standard, but the dictionary adds this in a usage note:

“This second use has been criticized as incorrect or inappropriate since the early 1900s, despite being common. A majority of the Usage Panel accepts the use as a synonym of deny, but not by a wide margin. In our 2002 survey, 62 percent accepted the example In the press conference, the senator categorically refuted the charges of malfeasance but declined to go into details. This suggests that many readers are uncomfortable with this usage and would prefer to see deny in these contexts.”

Merriam-Webster Unabridged has similar definitions but adds that the second meaning “has frequently been cited as an error by commentators on English usage.”

The same is true with Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.), which accepts both meanings, but adds that the “deny” sense of “refute” is a “usage objected to by some.”

However, Merriam-Webster.com, an updated and expanded version of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), accepts both meanings as standard, and without comment.

Similar definitions, without caveats, appear in four of the standard British dictionaries we consulted—Collins, LongmanMacmillan, and Cambridge online. All accept without reservation that “refute” can mean either to prove that something is untrue or to say that something is untrue.

Another British reference, Oxford Dictionaries online, accepts the new and old senses of “refute,” but adds a caveat similar to ones in American dictionaries.

Just because the newer sense is standard, though, doesn’t mean you have to use it. We don’t use “refute” to mean “deny.” The traditional sense is also standard, and that’s the one we use. However, you’ll have to endure the use of the newer sense by others.

For the time being, you’ll find support in most usage guides. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, for example, notes that “refute” has “two senses, both of which are in common use, but one of which is widely regarded as an error.”

The usage guide notes, however, that the disputed use of “refute” to mean “deny” is “extremely common, and the contexts in which it occurs are standard”—that is, in speech or writing widely accepted as correct.

“Its most frequent use is by journalists reporting the emphatic denials issued by those accused of wrongdoing,” the usage guide adds. “Hardly a day now goes by, it seems, without one government official or another refuting a new set of allegations.”

In The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (2004), the linguist Pam Peters says “it seems unlikely that the objections can be sustained much longer in the face of usage. It may rankle with those who like to keep words in the state to which they are accustomed, but language moves on.”

We suspect that the traditional use of “refute” to mean “disprove” may be lost as the verb is increasingly used to mean “deny.” At some point, even traditionalists may have to abandon “refute” and use a term like “disprove” or “rebut” to make sure they’re understood.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary, says English borrowed “refute” in the early 16th century from Anglo-Norman and Middle French, where refuter meant to prove something wrong, contest something, or reject someone. The ultimate source is refūtāre, classical Latin meaning to suppress or disprove something, or to prove someone wrong.

The verb meant to refuse or reject someone or something when it first appeared in English, according to the OED. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from the Benedictine monk Henry Bradshaw’s biography of St. Werburgh, patron saint of the author’s monastery in Chester, England:

“Her royall dyademe, and shynynge coronall / Was fyrst refuted, for loue of our sauyoure” (from The Holy Lyfe and History of Saynt Werburge, written sometime before Bradshaw’s death in 1513 and published posthumously in 1521). An Anglo-Saxon princess, Werburgh gave up her coronet to become an abbess.

Two decades after Bradshaw’s death, the verb took on what is now considered its traditional sense, which the OED defines as to “prove (something) to be false, esp. by means of argument or debate.”

The first Oxford example is from a 1533 polemic that Thomas More wrote during a theological debate with William Tyndale: “If Tyndale wold now refute myne obieccion of ye Turkes and theyr Alcharon.”

The use of “refute” to mean “deny” showed up in the 19th century. The earliest OED citation is from an 1886 satire of poor English: “Mind, i ain’t a snob; I utterly refute that idear. I don’t judge bi the koat he wares, or the joolery, or nothing of that kind.”

The dictionary’s next example is from a Canadian newspaper, the Manitoba Morning Free Press, Jan. 13, 1895: “Members wish to refute the assertions … that Hayes council ‘is on its last legs.’ Never in the history of the council was it in better shape.”

We’ve seen several possible earlier sightings, though it’s often hard to tell whether “refute” is being used in the sense of “disprove” or “deny.” As the OED notes, “In many instances it is unclear whether there is an implication of argument accompanying the assertion that something is baseless.”

In Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma, for example, Emma wonders why she doesn’t like Jane Fairfax:

“Mr. Knightley had once told her it was because she saw in her the really accomplished young woman, which she wanted to be thought herself; and though the accusation had been eagerly refuted at the time, there were moments of self-examination in which her conscience could not quite acquit her.”

And in The Warden (1855), the first of Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, Eleanor Harding is asked if she’s in love with John Bold:

“ ‘I—’ commenced Eleanor, turning sharply round to refute the charge; but the intended falsehood stuck in her throat, and never came to utterance. She could not deny her love, so she took plentifully to tears.” (The excerpt is from a conversation between Eleanor, the warden’s daughter, and Bold’s sister, Mary.)

The earliest objection to the newer usage, according to the M-W usage manual, is from Every-Day Words and Their Uses, a 1916 usage guide by Robert Palfrey Utter:

“To refute a statement, opinion, accusation, imputation, or charge, is not merely to call it in question, or deny it without proof, but to disprove it, overthrow it by argument, show it to be false.”

Henry Fowler doesn’t mention “refute” in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), which suggests that the new sense was uncommon at the time. But Sir Ernest Gowers, editor of the 1965 second edition of Fowler’s guide, says one refutes something “only by producing the evidence.” Without evidence, one “could only deny it.”

In the 1996 third edition, R. W. Burchfield writes, “I have an uneasy feeling that the new sense will begin to sound normal in the 21 c.—but not yet.”

And in the 2015 fourth edition, Jeremy Butterfield says that “it will sound normal to those who normally use it in this way, and aberrant to those who do not.” We assume it sounds aberrant to him. But the century is still young.

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The life of ‘lifestyle’

Q: The more student papers I read at my university, the more certain usages drive me crazy. For decades I have resisted “lifestyle.” As Alfonse, a professor, says in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, “Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom.” I believe he’s right on the latter point, but what about the former?

A: You may have to blame the Germans, not the Californians, for the all-too-common “lifestyle”—or at least for its earliest and rather isolated appearance in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, we have our own opinions about the origin of the contemporary term, which we’ll discuss later.

The word is “perhaps” modeled after the German Lebensstil, the OED says. The German word, which dates from 1849, is a compound of leben (“life”) and stil (“style”), Oxford explains.

The earliest known example in English appeared in 1915, when a British philosopher, reviewing a book written in German, translated Lebensstil as “life-style.” Here’s the passage, as cited in the OED:

“This spirit of expediency … excludes any possibility of peace or rest in unity with the universe. The author applies to it, as the ‘life-style’ of our age, the term Impressionism.” (From the January 1915 issue of the journal Mind, where Bernard Bosanquet reviews Emil Hammacher’s Hauptfragen der Modernen Kultur, which means “main questions of modern culture.”)

The German book, published a year earlier, has Lebensstil twice, in the phrases “der Lebensstil unseres Zeitalters” (“the lifestyle of our age”) and “den impressionistischen Lebensstil” (“the Impressionist lifestyle”).

The OED defines this use of “lifestyle” as “a style or way of living (associated with an individual person, a society, etc.); esp. the characteristic manner in which a person lives (or chooses to live) his or her life.”

It’s defined more briefly in Merriam Webster Unabridged—”the typical way of life of an individual, group, or culture”—and illustrated with the phrases “a healthy lifestyle” and “an alternative lifestyle.”

We haven’t found any earlier examples of the term, whether written as one word (“lifestyle”), two (“life style”), or hyphenated (“life-style”). And even after 1915, it didn’t catch on for several decades.

The term in this sense—a way of living—wasn’t sighted again until 1947 (the OED also has a 1946 example, but it’s for a different meaning, as we’ll explain later). Here’s the 1947 citation:

“While ostensibly setting about the freeing of the slaves, they became enslaved, and found in the wailing self-pity and crooning of the Negro the substitute for any life-style of their own” (from an article by Marshall McLuhan in the October 1947 issue of the Sewanee Review).

The term wasn’t recorded again, as far as we can tell, until the 1960s, when it became widely known.

The next OED citation is from the March 22, 1961, issue of the Guardian, London: “The mass-media … continually tell their audience what life-styles are ‘modern’ and ‘smart.’ ”

Today the word has become so common that many consider it trite. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (5th ed.) regards it as “shopworn.”

And, more to the point of your question, “lifestyle” has become associated with consumerism and conspicuous consumption. We might ponder the “lifestyle” of the Kardashians, but it would be jarring to write a college paper about the “lifestyle” of prisoners in the gulag.

Since the 1970s, the OED says, “lifestyle” has also been used as an adjective, describing something “designed to appeal to consumers by association with a lifestyle regarded as desirable, glamorous, or attractive.” Oxford uses examples like “lifestyle advertising,” “lifestyle brand,” and “lifestyle magazine.”

But we have some more thoughts on the origins of the noun that means a way of living.

Certainly the earliest “lifestyle” on record, that 1915 example, was modeled after the German Lebensstil; it was a direct translation.

However, we wonder whether the later use of the word in ordinary English wasn’t simply spontaneous. We say this for two reasons:

(1) That early appearance in a review of an obscure German book seems unlikely to have inspired either the isolated 1947 example or the surge in the use of “lifestyle” beginning in the 1960s.

(2) The concept itself—a way of living—dates from an earlier time, when it was commonly expressed as “style of living” or “style of life.” And it seems likely that those phrases inspired the shorter, catchier “lifestyle.”

We’ve found many examples of “style of living” from the late 18th century onward, and of “style of life” from the mid-19th-century. These phrases—meaning the same thing as the modern “lifestyle”—were and still are found on both sides of the Atlantic, though they’re not nearly as common as they once were.

For instance, here are some early uses of the older of the two phrases, “style of living”:

1784: “You can conceive nothing so charming as the Grecian women!—nothing so interesting as their style of living!” (From More Ways Than One, a comic play by Hannah Cowley.)

1785: “In a few years she resumed her equipage, and recommenced her usual style of living, with as much or rather more splendor than ever.” (A Philosophical, Historical, and Moral Essay on Old Maids, by William Hayley.)

1785: “This [Switzerland] is not a cheap country. … In some respects my style of living is enlarged by the increase of my relative importance, an obscure bachelor in England, the master of a considerable house at Lausanne.” (From a letter written on March 21 by Edward Gibbon to Lord Sheffield.)

1793: “His style of living is not equal to his fortune; and I have heard of several instances of his attention to petty economy.” (Evenings at Home, Vol. III, a collection of children’s pieces by Anna Laetitia Barbauld and John Aikin.)

1794: “ ‘Our notions are somewhat enlarged since those days,’ said M. Quesnel;—‘what was then thought a decent style of living would not now be endured.’ ” (The Mysteries of Udolpho, a novel by Ann Radcliffe.)

1797: “In food little luxury seems to have been known, till James I, who had resided nineteen years in England, set the example of a higher style of living.” (A History of Scotland, by John Pinkerton.)

By the mid-19th century, “style of living” was so familiar a phrase in British and American literature that some writers were overusing it (as they would later overuse “lifestyle”).

For instance, in Six Lectures Addressed to the Working Classes (1849), the Scottish minister William G. Blaikie writes: “It is very desirable that the working classes stood higher in the esteem of the community, and enjoyed a more comfortable style of living.”  Later he goes on to use phrase six times on a single page—”a very wretched style of living” … “a thirst for a higher style of living” … “the Irish style of living” … “the desire of improving his style of living,” and so on.

If those authors were writing today, our bet is that they’d use “lifestyle” instead.

A search of Google Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in millions of books, shows that “lifestyle” sprang to life in the mid-1960s and spiked sharply, just when “style of living” and “style of life” dropped away. You might almost say that “lifestyle” replaced them

So we suspect that the “lifestyle” that vaulted into use in the mid-20th century was a product of those earlier phrases, not of Lebensstil.

Before we go, we should mention a very different meaning of “lifestyle” that’s much less common and not known to the average reader.

In the psychology of Alfred Adler, the OED explains, it means “a pattern of reactions and behaviour that is established in childhood and remains characteristic of an individual.”

This technical meaning of “lifestyle” came into English in 1929 from Lebensstil, the OED says. The German word used as a psychological term, Oxford says, was first recorded in “1928 or earlier.”

The OED‘s earliest English example is from Adler’s Problems of Neurosis, which he wrote in English and published in 1929: “This fragment of memory records the two typical motives of the main life-style.”

The 1946 example we mentioned above, which the OED cites for the other sense of “lifestyle,” belongs in this category, in our opinion. The author, George Orwell, used the word in the Adlerian sense to mean a pattern of behavior:

“True to his life-style, Koestler was … promptly arrested and interned by the Daladier Government.” (From Critical Essays.)

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Did ‘beech’ give us ‘book’?

Q: In The Overstory, a novel by Richard Powers, one of the characters, an agricultural extension agent, tells his daughter that the word “book” comes from “beech,” since Sanskrit was once written on beech bark. Is that true?

A: “Book” may come from “beech,” but Sanskrit was probably written on birch bark in ancient times, not beech bark.

Many etymologists believe the ultimate source of “book” could be “beech,” though others think the two words evolved separately.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, for example, says versions of the word “book” are “widespread throughout the Germanic languages,” and “point to a prehistoric Germanic bōks, which was probably related to bōkā ‘beech.’ ”

The connection, Ayto explains, is “that the early Germanic peoples used beechwood tablets for writing runic inscriptions on.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, edited by Robert K. Barnhart, agrees that “book” and “beech” could be related “on the supposition that early inscriptions may have been made on tablets of beech wood.”

But as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “Objections to this etymology have been made on several grounds,” especially because of morphological, or structural, inconsistencies in different versions of “book” and “beech” in West Germanic languages, which include English.

“However, recent accounts have defended the hypothesis that book n. and beech n. are ultimately related,” the OED adds, and supporters of the “beech”/“book” relationship argue that the morphological discrepancies may have been used to make distinctions in semantics, or meaning.

As evidence that the name of something, such as a book, may be derived from the material it’s made of, etymologists cite a parallel case in which the Sanskrit term bhūrjá- means “birch tree” when it’s masculine and “birch bark used for writing” when it’s feminine.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, edited by Calvert Watkins, supports the view that “book” comes from “beech.” It says both words are ultimately derived from bhāgo-, a Proto Indo-European term for “beech tree.”

In addition to “beech” and “book,” American Heritage says, the reconstructed prehistoric root has also given English the word “buckwheat.”

The first OED example of “beech” (spelled boecae in Old English) is from the Epinal Glossary, believed written in the late 600s: “Fagus, boecae.” The Old English scholar Alan K. Brown has described the Latin-English glossary as “the earliest body of written English.”

The earliest OED example of “book” (boc in Old English) is from Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s ninth-century translation of a sixth-century work by Pope Gregory:

“Ond ic bebiode on Godes naman ðæt nan mon ðone æstel from ðære bec ne do, ne ða boc from ðæm mynstre” (“And I command in God’s name that no man take the bookmark from the book or the book from the monastery”). We’ve expanded the citation to add context.

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When ‘I have’ becomes ‘I’ve’

Q: I’m seeing the use of “I’ve” where “have” is not an auxiliary but the actual verb, as in “I’ve a red car.” That’s not legit, is it? Yuck.

A: We’ve searched the major scholarly works of grammar and haven’t found any grammatical objections to using “I’ve” as a contraction when “have” is the primary verb. However, the usage is more common in Britain and may sound unidiomatic to American ears.

In British or American English? A Handbook of Word and Grammar Patterns (2006), the linguist John Algeo writes that the use of “I’ve” with the contracted primary verb is over five times more frequent in the UK than in the US.

What you’re noticing, however, may be a shortening of the word “have” in speech or written dialogue, rather than an actual contraction. The “h” or “ha” sounds are often dropped in conversation, and the contraction itself is elided when an expression like “I’ve got to go” comes out as “I gotta go.”

As for the contraction, Sydney Greenbaum, writing in the Oxford English Grammar, describes “I’ve” as the contracted form of “I have” when “have” is either a primary verb or an auxiliary.

We couldn’t find any objections to the usage in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, or A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk et al.

However, both books question the usage in some negative constructions.

Quirk, for example, says it’s generally preferable to contract “not” rather than “have” in such constructions, recommending “I haven’t” instead of “I’ve not.” Huddleston and Pullum consider sentences like “I’ve no time today” and “I haven’t enough tea” to be grammatical only in certain dialects.

We checked a half-dozen standard dictionaries and all of them define “I’ve” as simply a contraction for “I have.” None of them say it can’t be used to contract the principal verb. In fact, two of the dictionaries include examples that do just that:

“I’ve one more appointment today” (from Merriam-Webster Unabridged) and “I’ve no other appointments” (from the online Collins Dictionary).

Finally, none of the usage manuals in our extensive language library comment on the use of “I’ve” as a contraction for “I have,” suggesting that the authors aren’t especially bothered by the way “I’ve” is being used today in either in the US or the UK.

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