The Grammarphobia Blog

The prepositional subject

Q: I’m studying English in Japan, and I’m confused by the use of prepositional phrases as subjects, as in this example: “Across the field is the nearest way to the lake.” Is this a common usage? Can prepositional phrases be objects too?

A: A prepositional phrase can be the subject, object, or complement of a verb. This is a common construction in English, and often the verb is a form of “be,” as in your example. Here are a few more illustrations.

As subject: “Over the mantle is a good place for the mirror” … “From five to seven would be the best time.”

As object: “He directed between 50 and 60 movies” … “The project will take over a week.”

As complement: “A good place for the mirror is over the mantle” … “The best time would be from five to seven.”

(With a linking verb like “be,” a subject complement occupies the position of the object.)

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language cites these examples, with “spent” as the verb: “Over a year was spent on this problem” (subject) … “I spent over a year here” (object).

Prepositional phrases can be modifiers, too. So they can act as adverbs (“Puffin lies on the bed” … “In the afternoon, Puffin naps”) or as adjectives (“The cat on the bed is Puffin” … “Naps in the afternoon are her favorite”).

In fact, a prepositional phrase “is by far the commonest type of postmodification in English,” according to A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk et al.

The authors give many examples of such modifiers following nouns, including “the car outside the station,” “the road to Lincoln,” “this book on grammar,” “passengers on board the ship,” “action in case of fire,” “the house beyond the church,” and “two years before the war.”

In addition, the authors explain, prepositional phrases can complement a verb (“We were looking at his awful paintings“) or an adjective (“I’m sorry for his parents“).

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‘Hogwash’ vs. ‘claptrap’

Q: I characterized a theory in an academic paper as “hogwash.” A well-read colleague thought “claptrap” might have been better. I can’t figure out a meaningful distinction. I suspect this would not be interesting to your readers, but just in case …

A: Yes, there isn’t much of a distinction between “hogwash” and “claptrap” these days, but we don’t think a discussion about their use in academia would be academic to our readers.

Although both “hogwash” and “claptrap” mean nonsense, “claptrap” may also suggest pretentiousness and insincerity to those aware of its etymology, while “hogwash” may still have a whiff of the barnyard for some.

When “hogwash,” the older of the two terms, showed up in the mid-1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “kitchen refuse and scraps (esp. in liquid form) used as food for pigs.”

The earliest OED example is from Jacob’s Well, an anonymous Middle English sermon cycle, written around 1450, in which the human soul is likened to a foul well in need of cleansing. Here a humble nun is humiliated by other nuns in her convent:

“Þey in þe kechyn, for iape, pouryd on here hefd hoggyswasch” (“For a joke, they had poured hogwash on her in the kitchen”).

In the early 1600s, Oxford says, “hogwash” took on the sense of a “liquid for drinking that is of very poor quality, as cheap beer, wine, etc.”

The dictionary cites A New Description of Ireland (1610), by the English writer and soldier Barnabe Rich: “The very remembrance of that Hogges wash which they vse to sell for ij.d. the Wine quart, is able to distemper any mans braines.”

In the late 1800s, the word took on the modern meaning of “nonsense; esp. worthless, ridiculous, or nonsensical ideas, discourse, or writing.” The first OED example is from an article by Mark Twain in the June 1870 issue of Galaxy Magazine, a short-lived American monthly:

“I will remark, in the way of general information, that in California, that land of felicitous nomenclature, the literary name of this sort of stuff is ‘hogwash.’ ” (The “stuff” here is “sham sentimentality” in literature.)

However, the term “hogwash” hasn’t entirely escaped its porcine origins, especially for punning headline writers, as you can see from these examples:

“Swine intervention: California animal lovers call pig rescue a load of hogwash” (The Guardian, June 16, 2017), and “No hogwash: Pigs shut down Ky. highway after semi overturns” (the Daily Nonpareil, Council Bluffs, IA, Aug. 9, 2017).

As for “claptrap,” it originated in the early 1700s as theatrical jargon for a “trick or device to catch applause; an expression designed to elicit applause,” the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from The Universal Etymological English Dictionary (Vol. 2, 1727), by Nathan Bailey:

“A CLAP Trap: A name given to the rant and rhimes that dramatick poets, to please the actors, let them go off with; as much as to say, a trap to catch a clap by way of applause from the spectators at a play.”

By the early 1800s, “claptrap” was being used to mean catchy language or cheap, showy sentiment, as in this OED citation, which we’ve also expanded, from Byron’s satirical poem Don Juan (Canto II, 1819): “I hate all mystery, and that air / Of clap-trap, which your recent poets prize.”

And by the late 1800s, the word had acquired its modern meaning of nonsense, as in this Oxford example from Benjamin Disraeli’s 1880 novel Endymion: “He disdained all cant and clap-trap.”

You’re right that most people would see no meaningful distinction between “hogwash” and “claptrap.” But a sensitive academic with the OED handy might be ticked off more by one than the other, though we can’t imagine which term would be more upsetting.

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When Dickens don’t use ‘doesn’t’

Q: While reading Dickens, I’ve noticed the use of “don’t” where we would now use “doesn’t.” In The Mystery of Edwin Drood, for example, the boastful auctioneer Thomas Sapsea says, “it don’t do to boast of what you are.”

A: What standard dictionaries say today about these contractions is fairly clear cut:

  • “Doesn’t” (for “does not”) should be used in the third person singular—with “he,” “she,” “it,” and singular nouns.
  • “Don’t” (for “do not”) is correct in all other uses—with “I,” “we,” “you,” “they,” and plural nouns. In the third person singular, “don’t” is considered nonstandard.

As you’ve noticed, however, it’s not unusual to find “don’t” used in place of “doesn’t” in 18th- and 19th-century fiction, like the example you found in that unfinished 1870 novel.

Was the usage ever “correct”? As is often the case with English, this is not a “yes or no” question.

In our opinion, this way of using “don’t” was always somewhat irregular (the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it was regional or nonstandard from the start).

And as we’ll explain later, we think that in your example Dickens used “it don’t” colloquially to show that Mr. Sapsea didn’t speak the very best English.

The history of these contractions begins two centuries before Dickens. Both were formed in the 17th century, at a time when all forms of “do” were unsettled, to say the least.

For one thing, “does” and “doth”—both spelled in a variety of ways—were competing for prominence, as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out.

For another, some writers used the bare (or uninflected) “do” as the third person singular, according to M-W. The usage guide cites Samuel Pepys, writing in 1664: “the Duke of York do give himself up to business,” and “it seems he [the king] do not.”

With the verb itself so unsettled, it’s not surprising that the state of the contractions was even more chaotic.

In fact, M-W suggests that the use of the uninflected “do” for “does,” as in the Pepys citations, may have influenced the use of “don’t” as a contracted “does not.”

It’s significant that “don’t” was on the scene first; for a long while it was the only present-tense contraction for “do.” It was used as short for “do not” and (rightly or wrongly) for “does not.”

The earliest known written uses of “don’t” are from plays of the 1630s, though spoken forms were surely around long before that. And in the earliest OED examples, it’s used in the standard way—as short for “do not.”

The dictionary’s first example is dated 1633: “False Eccho, don’t blaspheme that glorious sexe.” (From Jasper Fisher’s Fuimus Troes, a verse drama; though published in 1633, it was probably performed a decade or so earlier.)

The next example is from William Cartwright’s The Ordinary, believed written about 1635: “Don’t you see December in her face?”

The OED also has a citation (with “I don’t”) from a comedy first acted in 1635 and published in 1640, Richard Brome’s The Sparagus Garden. And we’ve found a couple of interrogative uses (“dont you” and “dont they”) in a 1639 comedy, Jasper Mayne’s The City Match.

But “doesn’t,” with various spellings, wasn’t recorded until decades later—spelled “dozn’t” in 1678 and “doesn’t” in 1694, according to OED citations.

Even after “doesn’t” came on the scene, it apparently wasn’t common until at least a century later. Most uses of “doesn’t” that we’ve found in historical databases are from the 1760s or later, and it didn’t start appearing regularly (at least in writing) until the 1800s.

Before then, most writers used the uncontracted form, “does not,” even in fictional dialogue. The use of “don’t” in the third person singular was apparently irregular. The OED cites “he don’t,” “she don’t,” and “it don’t” among examples of regional or nonstandard uses, dating from 1660.

But to be fair, it seems only natural that mid-17th century British writers seeking a contraction for “does not” would use “don’t” in colloquial dialogue if “doesn’t” was unknown to them.

And no one can argue the fact that the earliest contraction people used for “does not” was “don’t.” Many continued to do so long after “doesn’t” came into the language.

M-W says, for example, that from the 17th through 19th centuries, the third person singular “don’t seems to have had unimpeachable status.” It cites examples (mostly in letters) by Horace Walpole, Charles Lamb, George Bernard Shaw, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Only after the usage was condemned in the latter half of the 19th century, M-W says, was this sense of “don’t” considered nonstandard.

We don’t agree entirely with M-W here. We’ve found hints that this use of “don’t” was regarded as less than exemplary by novelists of the 18th century.

For example, there are no irregular uses of “don’t” in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), in his Moll Flanders (1722), or in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (completed in 1767).

All three novels freely use “don’t” in the standard way and “does not” in the third person singular.

In Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela (1740), we counted 14 examples of “don’t” in the third person singular—all but four used by servants—compared with 54 of “does not.”

We found no irregular uses of “don’t” in Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) and only two in his Tom Jones (1749)—spoken by a clerk and a servant.

Tobias Smollett’s Humphry Clinker (1771) has four uses of this irregular “don’t,” three by servants and one by an eccentric duke. Otherwise Smollett uses “does not” in the third person singular.

So apparently the principal novelists of the 18th century did not consider the third person singular “don’t” a normal usage, except sometimes among the rural or working classes. (None of them ever used “doesn’t” in writing, as far as we can tell.)

Even in 19th-century fiction, it’s mostly working-class characters who use “don’t” in a nonstandard way (though the occasional aristocrat uses it in a slangy, casual manner).

Let’s consider your quotation from Charles Dickens. When he wrote The Mystery of Edwin Drood, he deliberately put the nonstandard “it don’t” into the mouth Mr. Sapsea, a conceited fool who is convinced he’s brilliant and has pretensions to good breeding. The character is introduced with these words:

“Accepting the Jackass as the type of self-sufficient stupidity and conceit—a custom, perhaps, like some few other customs, more conventional than fair—then the purest Jackass in Cloisterham is Mr. Thomas Sapsea, Auctioneer.”

Sapsea isn’t the only character in the novel to use this irregular “don’t,” but the others are mostly laborers or servants. Those with higher education (teachers, clergy, etc.) use “does not.”

You don’t have to read 18th- or 19th-century fiction, however, to find nonstandard uses of “don’t.” They can be found in modern writing, too, mostly when the author intends to convey dialectal, regional, or uneducated English.

Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock (1938), for instance, has many examples in the speech of working-class characters: “That don’t signify” … “it don’t make any odds” … “it don’t seem quite fair.”

But modern British authors sometimes use this irregular “don’t” in portraying sophisticated, affluent characters who are deliberately (even affectedly) careless or casual in their speech.

Take, for example, Lord Peter Wimsey, the aristocratic, Oxford-educated detective in Dorothy L. Sayers’s novels of the ’20s and ’30s. He not only drops a “g” here and there (“an entertainin’ little problem”), but he often uses “don’t” in the third-person singular.

To cite just a handful of examples: “gets on your nerves, don’t it?” … “it don’t do to say so” … “when he don’t know what else to say, he’s rude” … “it don’t do to wear it [a monocle] permanently” … “it don’t do to build too much on doctors’ evidence” … “it don’t account for the facts in hand.”

Lord Peter isn’t an 18th-century character. He’s a 20th-century snob, and when he uses such English, he’s slumming linguistically.

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Birth of the conspiracy theory

Q: I read with interest your posts about “false flag” and “crisis actor.” But you used the term “conspiracy theory” without explaining its origin. I’ve read online that it was invented by the CIA after the assassination of JFK to discredit people who thought the shooter didn’t act alone.

A: The CIA did not invent the phrase “conspiracy theory.” It’s been in circulation since at least as far back as 1868, almost 100 years before President Kennedy was assassinated and nearly 80 years before the CIA existed.

Of course there have been conspiracy theories since ancient times—alternate views of history that interpret events as the products of secret conspiracies designed to conceal the truth.

One of the best known is the hypothesis that the Emperor Nero, for one reason or another, secretly orchestrated the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. (Modern scholars think the fire probably started by accident.)

But while conspiracies (both real and imagined) have always been a part of human history, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the phrase “conspiracy theory” was recorded in writing.

Before we get to the early examples of the expression, though, let’s look at its definition.

A “conspiracy theory,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the theory that an event or phenomenon occurs as a result of a conspiracy between interested parties.”

More specifically, the dictionary adds, it’s “a belief that some covert but influential agency (typically political in motivation and oppressive in intent) is responsible for an unexplained event.”

The definitions in standard dictionaries are similar though shorter, like this one: “A theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators” (Merriam-Webster Unabridged).

It’s interesting that the two earliest examples of “conspiracy theory” that we’ve found are from the same year but in different countries—the US and England.

The first is from a news story in the Boston Post on April 16, 1868:

“The testimony of Gen. Sherman has blown the conspiracy theory of Gen. Butler to the winds; and, of course, it was in a sure anticipation of such a result that he so steadily and brazenly objected to nearly every question put by the counsel for the defence which was calculated to bring it out.” (The testimony was given in the Senate’s impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.)

Later that same year, a British periodical printed the phrase in an article about a visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli to Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle in Scotland:

“She may seem to award to her present Premier a degree of favour which, considering how direct and plain her dealings have ever been, appears to denote her sympathy with his policy, but she surely comprehends that his conspiracy theory is a mere party battle-horse for which she need not find stable room.” (The London Review of Politics, Society, Literature, Art, and Science, December 1868.)

In the 1870s and afterward, examples of “conspiracy theory” become much more common.

In April 1870, for example, another British periodical, The Journal of Mental Science, used the term in replying to allegations that mental patients were being severely beaten by keepers in insane asylums. The journal advanced another hypothesis to account for the patients’ injuries, and called the allegations of beatings a “conspiracy theory.”

Many sightings of “conspiracy theory” in the 1870s, ’80s, and ’90s are from news stories about crimes and courtroom proceedings. In such articles, it usually meant a hypothesis that an act was committed by more than one person.

This quotation, for example, is from a San Francisco newspaper’s account of a murder trial in which charges against a family of four were dismissed:

“The conspiracy theory was too intricate. He [the judge] was certain Blanche was not in it and how she could be left out he could not understand.” (The Daily Alta California, Aug. 30, 1873.)

And in a report about a far more sensational case, Henry Ward Beecher’s trial for adultery, this headline appeared: “How Bessie Turner’s Testimony Upsets the Conspiracy Theory.” (The Nashville Union and American, June 25, 1875.)

The first use of “conspiracy theory” in reference to a presidential assassination was in connection with the shooting of James A. Garfield by Charles Guiteau on July 2, 1881. (Garfield died several weeks later.)

This small headline appeared within one news report: “President Garfield and all His Cabinet Reject Conspiracy Theory.” The fact that New York police detectives had been called to Washington, the newspaper said, “started the sensational report that there had been a conspiracy to murder the President.” (Indianapolis Evening Star, July 4, 1881.)

The hypothesis—soon disproved—that the assassin did not act alone was also labeled “The Conspiracy Theory” in a headline on a different story published that same day in the Indianapolis Star.

Predictably, the expression got a good workout 20 years later after another president was assassinated.

By Sept. 8, 1901, two days after President William McKinley was shot by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz, “conspiracy theory” began popping up in the news. The theory here—that the shooting was an anarchist plot—was never proven. But it had some credibility, since Czolgosz admitted that he had been inspired by the writings of other anarchists.

For example, the headline “Conspiracy Theory Confirmed” appeared above a report that “an Italian” had been standing in front of Czolgosz until just before he fired the shots. (From a bulletin wired from London Sept. 8 and published the next day in the Adelaide Register in Australia.)

Citations in the OED haven’t yet caught up to these earlier sightings of “conspiracy theory.” The dictionary’s first example is from 1909:

“The claim that Atchison was the originator of the repeal may be termed a recrudescence of the conspiracy theory first asserted by Colonel John A. Parker of Virginia in 1880.” (From a review of a book, The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise, in the American Historical Review, July 1909.)

Published appearances of “conspiracy theory” continued right through the 20th century—with a spurt of activity after the JFK assassination—and on into our own time.

Along the way, a parallel term developed, “conspiracy theorist,” a noun phase that’s included in the OED and in standard dictionaries. Most don’t define it, however. An exception is the Cambridge Dictionary online: “someone who believes in a conspiracy theory.”

We haven’t found any examples of “conspiracy theorist” that predate the first citation given in the OED. It’s from the May 1, 1964, issue of the New Statesman:

“Conspiracy theorists will be disappointed by the absence of a dogmatic introduction.” (The comment was about a literary magazine’s transition to a broader coverage of the arts.)

Over the years, these terms have taken on a darker meaning. Today the “conspiracy” goes beyond the notion of someone’s acting with accomplices instead of alone. It also implies the involvement of entire governments or vast interests, not mere individuals.

Many of the OED’s citations reflect this broader use of “conspiracy theory,” like this one from the early 1950s:

“I call it the ‘conspiracy theory of society.’ It is the view that an explanation of a social phenomenon consists in the discovery of the men or groups who are interested in the occurrence of this phenomenon.” (From Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, rev. 2nd ed., 1952.)

And we found this early example from the 1970s of the wider meaning of “conspiracy theorist”:

“An invisible ‘supergovernment’ consisting of ‘organized crime, intelligence fronts, and war industry’ controls America, conspiracy theorist Rusty Rhodes told an audience of 250 last night in Cubberley Auditorium.” (The Stanford Daily, May 16, 1974.)

Rhodes, according to the article, went on to say that this “supergovernment … committed such wildly diverse acts as the assassination of President John Kennedy and the kidnaping [sic] of Patty Hearst.”

In short, the CIA did not invent the phrase “conspiracy theory.” And we’ve found no evidence that the agency tried to popularize it to make critics of the Warren Commission report look foolish.

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The cultured life of kefir

Q: I have heard the word “kefir” pronounced a number of ways. I would prefer to use a pronunciation that gives honor to its etymological origin. My research shows Caucasian languages as the possible source for the name. Any data on this topic that you would like to pass along?

A: “Kefir” is the English name for the fermented, yogurt-like drink made from cow’s milk, and its usual pronunciation in standard English dictionaries is keh-FEER.

Although etymologists say the term originated in the Caucasus, English speakers wouldn’t understand if you used a Caucasian pronunciation for the drink.

For example, the Georgian word for the drink, კეფირი, is kʼepiri in Latin script, while the Mingrelian word, ქიფური, is kipuri, according to the multilingual dictionary Glosbe.

In fact, English adopted the word from Russian, where the term for the drink, кефир, sounds much like the standard English pronunciation of “kefir.” The Russian term may ultimately come from a Turkic language spoken in the Caucasus.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says the Russian term is derived “probably ultimately from Old Turkic köpür, (milk) froth, foam, from köpürmäk, to froth, foam.

Getting back to your question, we’d recommend using the standard English pronunciation, keh-FEER. If you were to walk into a grocery and ask for köpür, kʼepiri, or kipuri, the clerk wouldn’t know what you were talking about.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary, defines “kefir” as an “effervescent liquor resembling koumiss, prepared from milk which has been fermented.” Koumiss is a drink made from fermented mare’s milk.

The earliest example of the term in the OED is from the July 3, 1884, issue of Nature: “Kephir has only been generally known even in Russia for about two years.”

The next citation is from the Nov. 3, 1894, issue of the Lancet: “Koumiss and kefyr are examples of sour fermented milk containing an excess of carbonic acid gas.” (After checking the original, we corrected an OED typo—“are examples,” not “and examples.”)

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How to say you’re not quite sure

Q: What is the difference in meaning between “John didn’t come yesterday—he must have been ill” and “John didn’t come yesterday—he will have been ill”? I realize that “must” is more popular than “will” in such constructions, but does one express more certainty than the other?

A: The words “will” and “must” in your examples are epistemic modal verbs, auxiliary verbs that express probability.

As Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum explain in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, “epistemic modality qualifies the speaker’s commitment to the truth.”

“While It was a mistake represents an unqualified assertion,” Huddleston and Pullum write, “It must have been a mistake suggests that I am drawing a conclusion from evidence rather than asserting something of whose truth I have direct knowledge.”

In your first example (“John didn’t come yesterday—he must have been ill”), the auxiliary “must” indicates that the writer (or speaker) believes John was probably ill.

In our opinion, the expression “he will have been ill” indicates somewhat more probability than “he must have been ill” (though some might argue the point). And both of them indicate a much greater probability than “he may have been ill”—another example of epistemic modality.

Huddleston and Pullum note that epistemic modality is “commonly expressed by other means than modal auxiliaries.” For example, by adverbs (“he was probably ill”), verbs (“I believe he was ill”), adjectives (“he was likely to be ill”), and nouns (“in all likelihood, he was ill”).

There are two other principal kinds of modality: deontic, which expresses permission or obligation (“He may have one more chance, but he must come tomorrow”), and dynamic, which expresses willingness or ability (“I won’t come today, but I can come tomorrow”).

In A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, the authors, Randolph Quirk et al., say, “At its most general, modality may be defined as the manner in which the meaning of a clause is qualified so as to reflect the speaker’s judgment of the likelihood of the preposition it expresses being true.”

Quirk divides the modal verbs into two types:

“(a) Those such as ‘permission,’ ‘obligation,’ and ‘volition’ which involve some kind of intrinsic human control over events, and

“(b) Those such as ‘possibility,’ ‘necessity,’ and ‘prediction,’ which do not primarily involve human control of events, but do typically involve human judgment of what is or is not likely to happen.”

Quirk adds that the two categories “may be termed intrinsic and extrinsic modality respectively,” since “each one of them has both intrinsic and extrinsic uses: for example, may has the meaning of permission (intrinsic) and the meaning of possibility (extrinsic); will has the meaning of volition (intrinsic) and the meaning of prediction (extrinsic).”

“However, there are areas of overlap and neutrality between the intrinsic and extrinsic senses of a modal: the will in a sentence such as I’ll see you tomorrow then can be said to combine the meanings of volition and prediction.”

Another point to consider, Quirk writes, “is that the modals themselves tend to have overlapping meanings, such that in some circumstances (but not in others), they can be more or less interchangeable.”

In other words, there’s a lot of ambiguity here. Or, as Quirk puts it, “the use of modal verbs is one of the more problematic areas of English grammar.”

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Are your ears burning?

Q: I wonder if “Are your ears burning?” is an expression that you may want to parse.

A: The expression is derived from an old belief that one’s ears can somehow sense that one is being talked about, even if the talking is going on at a distance.

The ears supposedly respond to such gossip by burning or glowing or ringing or some other physical change.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms (3d ed., 2009), edited by John Ayto, says “someone’s ears are burning” means “someone is subconsciously aware of being talked about, especially in their absence.”

But The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997), written by Christine Ammer, defines “one’s ears are burning”  as being troubled by overhearing an actual conversation:

“Be disconcerted by what one hears, especially when one is being talked about.”

As far as we can tell, the belief that one’s ears can sense something said about one in absentia first showed up in the writings of the first-century Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder.

In Naturalis Historia (also known as Historia Naturalis), Pliny’s 37-volume encyclopedia of fact, myth, and speculation, he writes:

Quin et absentes tinnitu aurium præsentire sermones de se receptum est (“Those absent are warned by a ringing of the ears when they are being talked about,” from volume 28, chapter 5).

The first example of the usage we’ve seen in English is from Troilus and Criseyde, a Middle English poem written by Chaucer in the 1380s:

“And we shal speek of the somwhat, I trowe, / Whan thow art gon, to don thyn eris glowe” (“And when thou art gone, I trust, we shall speak of thee somewhat to make thine ears glow”).

The earliest example we’ve come across that specifically mentions burning is from Of the Burning of the Eares, a 16th-century poem by James Yates:

“That I doe credite give unto the saying old: / Which is, when as the eares doe burne, some thing on thee is told” (from The Castell of Courtesie, a 1582 collection of Yates’s poetry).

The first example we’ve seen for the version of the expression you cite (“Are your ears burning?”) is from the July 6, 1892, issue of Our Church Paper, a Lutheran weekly in New Market, VA.

The paper reprinted a letter from Japan to children in the states. The letter, apparently written by the father of the children, suggests that their ears may be burning because he’s been thinking of them:

“Well, children, are your ears burning today? Whether they are or not, I have been thinking about you a great deal. For I have read over again the letters that came from childish pens away across the sea, in order that I might answer some of the questions you have asked me.”

There have been many related superstitions, such as that the ringing of the right ear signifies you’re being praised, while the ringing of the left indicates you’re being criticized. Enough said. We’re up to our ears.

Let’s end with an example from Shakespeare of an actual conversation that’s overheard. In Much Ado About Nothing, believed written in the late 1590s, Beatrice’s ears burn when she overhears Hero and Ursula speaking of her:

What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemned for pride and scorn so much?
Contempt, farewell! and maiden pride, adieu!
No glory lives behind the back of such.

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