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

She’s gonna raise Cain

Q: I just came across an old joke (but new to me): “Adam and Eve were the world’s first troublemakers. They raised Cain.” Which makes me wonder about the origin of the expression “raise Cain.”

A: The verb “raise” in this expression originally meant to conjure up something like a spirit or demon, a usage that’s been around since the Middle Ages.

In the 19th century, this conjuring sense of “raise” inspired the use of the verb in various figurative phrases meaning to cause trouble.

One of them, to “raise Cain,” an American expression first recorded in the 1830s, would literally mean to summon the spirit of the biblical killer of Abel.

The literal use of “raise” in its conjuring sense first appeared in writing in the late 14th century.

In this sense, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it means “to cause (a spirit, demon, ghost, etc.) to appear, esp. by means of incantations; to conjure up.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from “The Yeoman’s Tale,” part of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1386):

“I haue yow told ynowe / To reyse a feend al looke he neuere so rowe” (“I have told you enough to raise a fiend, look he never so fierce”).

Spirits “raised” in 15th-century writings included “deuils” (devils), “the devull,” and a “nygramansour” (necromancer or sorcerer). And in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, they included ghosts, shades (apparitions), assorted dead notables, and “Grisly Spectres” (Milton, Paradise Regain’d, 1671).

In the 19th century, as we said, this sense of “raise” became figurative, which brings us around to Cain. To “raise the devil” or “raise Cain” came to mean, in the words of the OED, “to create a disturbance; to cause trouble, uproar, or confusion.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of “raise Cain” is coincidentally a version of that old joke about Adam and Eve:

“Why have we every reason to believe that Adam and Eve were both rowdies? Because … they both raised Cain.” (From a St. Louis newspaper, the Daily Pennant, May 2, 1840.)

However, we found a variation on the joke in a newspaper published two years earlier: “Why was Eve the first Sugar Planter? D’ye give it up? Because she raised Cain.” (From the Sangamo Journal/Illinois State Journal, April 7, 1838.)

If the phrase was familiar enough to be used in jokes and puns, “raise Cain” had obviously been around in common usage before those examples were published.

We’ll cite a handful of later 19th-century examples from the OED:

“They will feel that they have been raising Cain and breaking things” (from an 1841 collection of comic pieces, Short Patent Sermons, by “Dow, Junior,” the pen name of Elbridge Gerry Paige).

“Topsy would hold a perfect carnival of confusion … in short, as Miss Ophelia phrased it, ‘raising Cain’ generally” (from Harriet Beecher’s Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852).

“I expect Susy’s boys’ll be raising Cain round the house” (from Stowe’s novel Oldtown Folks, 1869).

“If I get the horrors, I’m a man that has lived rough, and I’ll raise Cain” (from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, 1883).

As for “raise the devil,” the OED’s earliest confirmed example is from 1841, but we found this slightly earlier usage in a Virginia newspaper:

“Wm. Colson came up, and says, ‘Don’t talk so loud, for there are a great many Albany people on board, and if they find out that I’m engaged in this business, they will raise the devil with me’ ” (from court testimony in a fraud case, published in the Richmond Enquirer, Nov. 3, 1840).

Other satanic specters were apt to be “raised” in the troublemaking sense. Some related expressions, and the earliest dates we’ve found, include “raise Ned” (1845, a euphemistic reference to the devil), “raise mischief” (1840, another euphemism for the devil), and “raise Hell” (1803).

On that last expression, the OED has this fascinating aside: “The slogan ‘Kansas should raise less corn and more hell’ is attributed to Mrs. Mary Ellen Lease (1853–1933) but proof is lacking.”

We’ll end with a musical rendition of “raise Cain.” It’s from Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of the 1932 song “I’ll Be Hard to Handle,” with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Bernard Dougall. Here are a couple of stanzas:

I’ll be hard to handle
I’m telling you plain
Just be a dear
And scram out of here
I’m gonna raise Cain.

I’ll be hard to handle
I’m no ball and chain
I’ll find some means
To call the Marines
I’m gonna raise Cain.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

A picayune question

Q: Why is something small and insignificant called “picayune”? And what is the word doing in the name of a New Orleans newspaper?

A: The word “picayune” comes from picaillon, a southern French regional term for a small coin of foreign origin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the French regionalism is derived from picalhon, an Occitan term for a 17th-century copper coin that was minted in the Savoy and Piedmont regions of southern Europe, and that inspired similar cheaply made coins elsewhere in Europe.

When “picayune,” an Anglicized version of picaillon, showed up in Louisiana in the early 1800s, it was a noun that referred to a Spanish medio real, or half real, a coin worth a little more than six cents, and later to a US nickel, according to the dictionary.

The first Oxford example for “picayune” is from a Nov. 4, 1805, entry in the journal of the Philadelphia antiquarian John Fanning Watson: One can’t buy anything [at New Orleans] for less than a six cent piece, called a picayune.”

We suspect that French speakers in Louisiana may have used picaillon earlier for the coin, but we haven’t found written evidence to support this. (The Louisiana region was variously ruled by France and Spain before becoming an American territory in 1803. Spanish coins were legal tender in the US from 1793 to 1857.)

In a few decades, the OED says, “picayune” was being used as an adjective meaning of “of little value; paltry, petty, trifling; unimportant, trivial; mean; contemptible.”

This example is from an 1837 congressional debate: “The hon. Senator from Kentucky … by way of ridicule, calls this a ‘picayune bill.’ ” (From the Congressional Globe, which recorded debates of the 23rd through 42nd Congresses, 1833-’73.)

A year later, the noun came to mean a small amount of something, as in this Oxford example from the February 1838 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a Philadelphia magazine: “I have nothing, not one sous—not a picayune to give her!”

And in the early 20th century, “picayune” took on the sense of a “worthless or contemptible person.” The first OED citation is from a 1903 issue of Scribner’s Magazine: “A pack of jealous picayunes, who bickered while the army starved.”

Why does the word “picayune” appear in the name of the Times-Picayune, the New Orleans newspaper? Because when it was founded in 1837, the Picayune (the paper’s name before it merged with the Times-Democrat in 1914) cost one picayune, or Spanish half real.

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

Going Berserk with a capital ‘B’

Q: I was reading an old Mary Roberts Rinehart mystery, The Circular Staircase, when my eyes fell upon this passage: “I had gone Berserk, I think. I leaned over the stair-rail and fired again.” Why is “Berserk” capitalized?

A: The word used to be capitalized in English because it was originally a proper noun. The “Berserks” were legendary Norse warriors who went into battle in a wild, murderous frenzy, according to Scandinavian mythology.

The novel you mention was published in 1908, over a century ago, and “berserk” was often capitalized in those days.

The word came into English as a noun in the early 19th century, but by the late 1800s, it had become an adjective, as it is in that quotation (“I had gone Berserk”).

English acquired “berserk” from Old Icelandic, where berserkr is a singular noun, berserker the plural, and berserk the accusative (the form used for a direct object), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Sir Walter Scott introduced the word into English in 1814 as “Berserkar,” the singular noun for the warrior, and “Berserkir,” the plural. (Later, Scott used “Berserkars” for the plural, and other 19th-century authors shortened these nouns to “Berserk” and “Berserks.”)

In an article summarizing the Eyrbyggja Saga, a 13th-century work in Old Icelandic, Scott describes the warriors this way:

“Berserkir, men who, by moral or physical excitation of some kind or other, were wont to work themselves into a state of frenzy, during which they achieved deeds passing human strength, and rushed, without sense of danger or feeling of pain, upon every species of danger that could be opposed to them.”

The article (published in the anthology Illustrations of Northern Antiquities, Vol. I) uses both the singular (“a haughty, fiery, and robust damsel, well qualified to captivate the heart of a Berserkar”) and the plural (“the two Berserkir”) several times.

The OED cites Gudbrand Vigfusson and Johan Fritzner, Old Norse and Old Icelandic scholars, as saying the original meaning of “berserk” was probably bear-shirt or bear-coat.

(In Old Icelandic and Old Norse, serkr means “coat” or “shirt”; it’s a cousin of an obsolete English word for a shirt, “sark.”)

Some etymologists have disagreed with this explanation, arguing that the ber– element in Icelandic was for “bare,” not “bear,” suggesting that the warriors went into battle without any armor, either bare-chested or wearing only their shirts.

Scott himself probably contributed to this belief. In his novel The Pirate (1822), he mentions “those ancient champions, those Berserkars,” and in a note to the 1831 edition explains that they were “so called from fighting without armour.”

We may never know which etymology is correct. What we do know is that the Berserks showed up in many of the medieval Icelandic and Norse narratives, from the 9th century onwards, that describe events in ancient Scandinavian mythology.

This line from a 9th-century Old Norse poem by Thornbjorn Hornklofi is one of the earliest known examples in writing: “Grenjuðu berserkir, guðr vas þeim á sinnum” (“Berserks bellowed; battle was under way for them”).

The OED defines the noun “berserk” as “a wild Norse warrior of great strength and ferocious courage, who fought on the battle-field with a frenzied fury known as the ‘berserker rage’; often a lawless bravo or freebooter.”

Today, Oxford adds, the word is used as an adjective meaning “frenzied, furiously or madly violent,” and it’s commonly found in the phrase “to go berserk.”

In addition to Scott, the OED cites a few other 19th-century authors who used long forms of the word: “Berserkers” (1837), “Berserkir-rage” (1839), and “bersarkar” (in the singular, 1861). Still later, the nouns “Berserk” and “Berserks” appeared.

The dictionary’s earliest use of the short form “berserk” is also its earliest use of the adjective. It’s from Charles Kingsley’s novel Yeast (1851): “Yelling, like Berserk fiends, among the frowning tombstones.”

Perhaps “berserk” was a household word with the Kingsleys. Charles’s younger brother, Henry Kingsley, used the adjective in his novel Silcote of Silcotes (1867): “With her kindly, uncontrollable vivacity, in the brisk winter air she became more ‘berserk’ as she went on.”

In many later appearances the adjective was still being capitalized, as in this OED example: “He … was filled with a Berserk rage and thirst for retribution.” (From James Hannington, First Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa, a biography written in 1886 by Edwin C. Dawson and published in 1887.)

In searches of historical newspaper databases, we found instances of “became Berserk” (1867) and “turn Berserk” (1877), but none with forms of the verb “go” until the 1890s.

The earliest example we’ve found (“going berserk”) is from the April 6, 1894, issue of the Aspen (CO) Daily Times:

“He never had the gold or diamond or colonial fever; instead of going berserk, he evidently preferred a frock coat and patent leathers.” (From an anonymous short story, “The Panic.” Though the story is credited to the London Illustrated News, we failed to find it there.)

The following year this example appeared in “The Child of Calamity,” a short story by Rudyard Kipling: “Then he went Berserk before our amazed eyes.”

(The story was published in March and April 1895 in several newspapers in Australia and the US. The Idler, a British magazine, published it under a different title, “My Sunday at Home,” in April 1895.)

We also found many uses of “go” plus “berserk” in newspapers published in the early 1900s. Note the differing capitalization styles:

“It would be dangerous to allow the smaller settlers to go berserk before the board, and meet the serried ranks of officialdom.” (The Sydney Morning Herald, Aug. 15, 1905.)

“We knew him as a dashing and fearless old campaigner, one who had gone Berserk many a time to rescue the gallant Lat Sahib he fought under.” (This passage appeared in another Australian newspaper, the Register, Adelaide, on Oct. 14, 1905. It’s from a serialized novel, Tales of Sahib Land, by the Anglo-Indian writer F. D’A. C. De L’Isle.)

We found many other pre-World War I examples illustrating the different capitalization styles, including “go Berserk” (1908), “went ‘berserk’ ” (1908), “went Berserk” (1909), and so on.

Even during WWI, some authors were still capitalizing the word, as in this OED example from Rudyard Kipling’s novel A Diversity of Creatures (1917):

“ ‘You went Berserk. I’ve read all about it in Hypatia.’ ” (Kipling is apparently referring to Charles Kingsley’s novel about Hypatia, a philosopher in Alexandria, Egypt, in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. We haven’t found “berserk” in the novel, though Kingsley uses it in at least two others.)

Before long, however, the adjective became established in its lowercase form. The OED cites this headline from the Nov. 10, 1940, issue of the Chicago Tribune: “America goes berserk.”

The article below the headline comments upon “The recent addition of the word ‘berserk,’ as a synonym for crackpot behaviour, to the slang of the young and untutored. … American stenographers … are telling one another not to be ‘berserk.’ ”

But “berserk” was not a slang or “untutored” usage, as we’ve seen. And for generations it has continued to be used—as an adjective, lowercased, and mostly with the verb “go”—as standard English.

It has even retained its sense of violent frenzy, though the violence is milder today that it was in the days of the Vikings.

In tribute to the old sagas, we’ll conclude with a passage from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Skeleton in Armor” (1842):

Many a wassail-bout
Wore the long Winter out;
Often our midnight shout
   Set the cocks crowing,
As we the Berserk’s tale
Measured in cups of ale,
Draining the oaken pail,
   Filled to o’erflowing.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Are you anxious or eager?

Q: In 2012, the two of you were divided over the use of “anxious” to mean “eager.” I’m eager to learn if you’re still at odds, and anxiously await an update.

A: Put your mind at rest. We both now agree that one can be “anxious” as well as “eager” to do something, though not all language mavens are ready to join us.

The naysayers reject a sentence like “We were anxious to see the new musical.” They believe “anxious” can be used only if there’s anxiety involved: “She’s anxious to see a cardiologist about the palpitations.”

As Bryan A. Garner writes in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “when no sense of uneasiness is attached to the situation, anxious isn’t the best word” and “it displaces a word that might traditionally have been considered its opposite—namely eager.”

However, the anxiety-free use of “anxious” to mean “eager” was well-established before American usage authorities began questioning the practice in the early 20th century.

English borrowed the adjective “anxious” from classical Latin, where anxius meant worried, disturbed, uneasy, and so on. But “anxious” began evolving soon after it showed up in English in the 16th century.

When it first appeared in writing, “anxious” referred to someone “experiencing worry or nervousness, typically about the future or something with an uncertain outcome,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example is from Nicholas Lesse’s 1548 translation of a Latin treatise by the French theologian François Lambert: “Wherfore do we then endeuour oure selues to do anie thinge, wherefore are we so anxiouse & careful?”

In a couple of decades, however, “anxious” was being used before an infinitive to express a strong desire or eagerness to do something, sometimes with anxiety and sometimes without.

The first Oxford example for the new sense is from Actes and Monuments of Matters Most Speciall and Memorable, Happenyng in the Church (2nd ed., 1570), an ecclesiastical history by John Foxe.

In the citation, Prince Frederick III, the Elector of Saxony, is described as “very anxious and inquisitiue to heare the iudgementes of other, which were both aged, & learned.”

As far as we can tell, there’s no anxiety here. Although Frederick faced an important decision, Foxe earlier describes him as an easygoing man who “loued best quietnes & cōmon trāquilitie” and was “trustyng to hys owne iudgemēt.”

(After consulting Erasmus, the Prince decided to protect Martin Luther despite the opposition of Pope Leo X and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor.)

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has many anxiety-less, infinitive examples in which respected writers use “anxious” to do something in the sense of “eager” to do it:

Lord Byron, in Canto XV of his poem Don Juan (1824), writes: “His manner was perhaps the more seductive, / Because he ne’er seem’d anxious to seduce.”

And in Omoo (1847), a semi-fictionalized South Seas memoir, Herman Melville writes that “the men looked hard at him, anxious to see what sort of looking ‘cove’ he was.”

Charles Darwin, in On the Origin of Species (1859), says, “I could give many facts, showing how anxious bees are to save time.”

And in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island (1883), Jim Hawkins, the narrator, says “anxious as I was to tell them my story, I durst not interrupt.”

Merriam-Webster’s conclusion? “Anyone who says that careful writers do not use anxious in its ‘eager’ sense has simply not examined the available evidence.”

As far as we can tell, writers used “anxious” in place of “eager” for hundreds of years before anyone raised an eyebrow at the usage.

“The discovery that anxious must not be used to mean ‘eager’ seems to have been made in the U.S. in the early 20th century,” M-W says

The first usage guide to criticize the practice was Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right (1909). But several years earlier, in July 1901, the language writer Alfred Ayres criticized it in “A Plea for Cultivating the English Language,” an article published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine.

Interestingly, British usage writers haven’t been troubled by the use of “anxious” for “eager.” Henry W. Fowler, in the first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), describes it as a “natural” development and “almost universally current.”

The latest version of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), by Jeremy Butterfield, describes the use of “anxious” for “eager” as “historically well attested” and “absolutely standard.”

In recent years, American critics of the anxiety-free use of “anxious” with an infinitive have been coming around.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language notes in its online edition: “In our 1999 survey of the Usage Panel, 47 percent approved of the sentence We are anxious to see the new show of British sculpture at the museum, whereas in 2014, this sentence was acceptable to 57 percent of panelists.”

“Although resistance to the use of anxious to mean eager is waning,” American Heritage cautions, “writers should be aware that there are still those who frown upon using the word in situations where no anxiety is present.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Is ‘film’ classier than ‘movie’?

Q: When did the medium “film” become the “film” we watch? Did English speakers think “film” was a classier word for the art form than “movie”? As a Sam Shepherd character says in True West, “In this business we make Movies, American Movies. Leave the Films to the French.”

A: English speakers didn’t begin using “film” for a motion picture because they wanted an artier, Frenchified word than “movie.” In fact, this use of “film” showed up in English before “movie.” And we didn’t get “film” from French—the French got it from us. Here’s the story.

When “film” appeared in Old English (spelled filmen, filmin, fylmen, etc.), it meant a “thin layer or sheet of tissue in an animal or plant, or in a product of an animal or plant,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example is from Bald’s Leechbook, a medical text believed written around 900: “Her sint tacn aheardodre lifre, ge on þam læppum & healocum & filmenum” (“Here are the symptoms of a liver hardened on the lobes and the recesses and the films”).

In the early 1600s, “film” took on the sense of a “very thin sheet of any substance,” according to the dictionary, and by the mid-1800s it came to mean “a thin layer of light-sensitive material, typically applied to photographic paper or plates and used to record a photographic image.”

The OED’s earliest example of “film” used in the photographic sense refers to the sheet of silver-plated copper used to make a daguerreotype image:

“We must separate carefully the chemical changes which iodide of silver undergoes in the sunbeam, from the mechanical changes which happen to the sensitive film” (from an 1840 issue of the London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science).

By the late 1800s, the word “film” was being used for “a thin flexible strip of celluloid, plastic, etc., coated with light-sensitive emulsion, used in photography and cinematography to record a series of images.”

The first written use in the OED is from an 1895 Montgomery Ward catalog: “Roll Film, for 25 exposures.”

In the early 1900s, according to Oxford, “film” took on the sense you’re asking about: “a representation of a story or event recorded on film” and “shown as moving images in a cinema or (latterly) on television, video, the Internet, etc.”

The dictionary’s first citation (which we’ve expanded) is from the Jan. 21, 1905, issue of the Westminster Gazette (London):

“The plaintiff is an eminent Parisian surgeon, the defendants a firm who took cinematograph films of his operations. This he allowed them to do, so that he might get scientific records, but the films once obtained have been sold and even exhibited at country fairs.”

The earliest Oxford example of “movie” used in this sense appeared more than five years later. “I finally decided to have a look-in on some of the programs of vaudeville and movies” (from the May 22, 1910, issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer).

But before either “film” or “movie” appeared on the scene as a cinematic work, the terms “moving picture” and “motion picture” were used similarly.

The dictionary’s first “moving picture” citation, which we’ve expanded, is from an Oct. 3, 1896, letter written by Queen Victoria from Balmoral Castle in Scotland:

“At twelve went down to below the terrace, near the ballroom, and we were all photographed by Downey by the new cinematograph process, which makes moving pictures by winding off a reel of films.” William Downey’s moving picture of the Queen is available online.

Oxford’s earliest citation for “motion picture” used this way is from the November 1900 issue of Catholic World:

“That evening, during a reproduction of the Passion Play in motion pictures, a magnificent tenor, interspersing the pictured scenes with arias appropriate to the theme, was received with enthusiasm.”

(The OED has an 1891 citation for “motion picture,” but the term is used to mean a movie camera, not a movie.)

By the way, the colloquial term “flick” first appeared in The Square Emerald, a 1926 mystery by the English writer Edgar Wallace: “We’ll occupy the afternoon with a ‘flick.’ I love the movies—especially the romantic ones.”

The word “flicker,” used the same way, showed up in print a year later. But we suspect that it was around earlier in speech, and that “flick” was a shortening of “flicker.” Both apparently refer to the flickering appearance of old movies.

Now for the latecomer, the French use of film to mean an oeuvre cinématographique.

The earliest example in Le Trésor de la Langue Française, an etymological and historical dictionary of the French language, is from Histoire de l’Art du Cinéma des Origines à Nos Jours, a 1949 book by the cinema writer Georges Sadoul:

“L’ému et tendre Silence est d’or a été le meilleur film qu’ait dirigé René Clair depuis son départ de Paris” (“The moving and tender Silence Est d’Or was the best film directed by René Clair after his departure from Paris”).

When the French originally borrowed the term film from English in the late 1800s, it referred to a bande de pellicule (“strip of celluloid”) used to make photographs or motion pictures.

The French dictionary describes the use of the medium “film” for a work made from it as an example of metonymy, a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is used as a substitute for something it’s closely associated with

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English English language Etymology Grammar Language Usage Writing

Are families people or things?

Q: My work at a university involves writing about families. When referring to them, should I use “who” or “that”? For example, “families who eat together” vs. “families that eat together.” In other words, are families people or things?

A: “That” is our oldest and most flexible relative pronoun. It’s been used since the Middle Ages for both people and things. If in doubt, you can’t go wrong with “that.”

The relative pronoun “who,” on the other hand, is used exclusively for people and animals personified with personal names.

Grammatically speaking, the noun “family” (like “class,” “committee,” “orchestra,” “faculty,” and so on) is a thing, even though it’s made up of people. So your example should read “families that eat together.”

But even if one argues that the noun “family” implies people, “that” is an appropriate relative pronoun, since it can be used for both people and things.

Despite what many people think, there’s no foundation for the widespread belief that “that” should refer only to things and “who” only to people.

As Pat writes in her grammar book Woe Is I, “that has been used for people as well as inanimate things for some eight hundred years, and it’s standard English. The girl that married dear old Dad was Mom.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has examples from Anglo-Saxon times for “that” (ðæt, ðet, and þhet in Old English) used as a relative pronoun for both people and things.

The dictionary’s earliest example of “that” in reference to a thing is from the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript written around 825: “In bebode ðæt ðu bibude” (“In the command that thou commanded”).

The OED’s earliest example of “that” referring to a person is from the Lambeth Homilies, written around 1175: “Þes Mon þhet alihte from ierusalem in to ierico” (“This man that descended from Jerusalem into Jericho”).

And “that” has been used in both ways ever since.

A post we wrote in 2007 includes an excerpt from A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, by Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans, about the history of the relative pronouns “that,” “who,” and “which.” It’s worth repeating:

That has been the standard relative pronoun for about eight hundred years and can be used in speaking of persons, animals, or things. Four hundred years ago, which became popular as a substitute for the relative that and was used for persons, animals, and things. Three hundred years ago, who also became popular as a relative. It was used in speaking of persons and animals but not of things. This left English with more relative pronouns than it has any use for. … Who may in time drive out that as a relative referring to persons, but it has not yet done so.”

As we said in 2007, you can undoubtedly find writers on grammar and usage who disagree with this conclusion, but we think it’s sound. We still do.

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English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

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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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

‘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’

[Note: An updated post on “don’t” and “doesn’t” appeared in June 2023.]

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

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

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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