English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Masterminds, evil and otherwise

Q: I was surprised to find “master mind” in Framley Parsonage, an 1860 novel by Anthony Trollope. I had thought of it as a more recent usage. What more can you tell me?

A: The term is even older than that. When “mastermind” showed up in English in the late 1600s, it referred to someone with an outstanding mind. (We’ll use the one-word spelling here, though at first the term was hyphenated or two separate words.)

The earliest written example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Cleomenes, a 1692 play by John Dryden about the warlike Spartan king of the late 6th and early 5th centuries BC:

“A Soul, not conscious to it self of Ill, / Undaunted Courage, and a Master-mind.”

As far as we can tell, Trollope’s use of the term in Framley Parsonage is the earliest written example of “mastermind” used for someone in charge of an elaborate scheme or undertaking, sometimes a questionable one.

In the novel, Mr. Supplehouse, a Machiavellian journalist among V.I.P.s visiting the Duke of Omnium, “felt that he was the master mind there at Gatherum Castle, and that those there were all puppets in his hand.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines “mastermind” in this sense as a “person who plans and directs a complex and ingenious enterprise, esp. a criminal operation.”

The earliest citation in the dictionary for that sense is from a later Trollope novel, The Eustace Diamonds (1872): “The police thought that I had been the master-mind among the thieves.”

You can find both senses of “mastermind” today in standard dictionaries. Oxford Dictionaries online, for example, defines it as a “person with an outstanding intellect” as well as one “who plans and directs an ingenious and complex scheme or enterprise.”

The dictionary gives this example for the first sense, “an eminent musical mastermind,” and this example for the second, “the mastermind behind the project.”

And here’s a felonious example in our library from Indiscretions of Archie, a 1921 novel by P. G. Wodehouse:

“The usual bond-robbery had taken place on the previous day, and the police were reported hot on the trail of the Master-Mind who was alleged to be at the back of these financial operations”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written several other posts about “master” on the blog, including one in 2017 about how “master” became “mister,” and one in 2015 about whether it’s legitimate to use the term “master” in education today given its historical ties to slavery.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Pronunciation Usage Word origin Writing

A puny subject

Q: I love Victorian novels and often read them on my Kindle. I just came across “puisne” in Vanity Fair. When I highlight the word, the dictionary tells me it’s a junior judge and pronounced like “puny.” Are these two terms related?

A: Not only are “puny” and “puisne” related, but they were essentially the same word when borrowed from puisné, Middle French for “younger.”

The Middle French term, a compound of puis (later) and né (born), is spelled puîné in modern French. The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the usage ultimately comes from the classical Latin post (after) and nātus (born).

When the word entered English in the 1500s as a noun and an adjective, it was spelled various ways: punie, punee, puine, puisne, and so on—all pronounced “puny,” an anglicized version of the French pronunciation.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the English term was originally a noun for a new or junior student. The earliest OED citation is from a 1548 book by the historian William Patten about a trip that Prince Edward, Duke of Somerset, made to Scotland:

“Like yplay in Robin Cooks skole, whear bicaus the punies may lerne thei strike fewe strokes, but by assent & appointement.” (The new students were learning their assigned strokes at Robin Cook’s fencing school.)

When the word first showed up in print as an adjective, it meant “younger” or “junior.” The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from The Apologie of Fridericus Staphylus, Thomas Stapleton’s 1565 translation of a 1558 Latin treatise by the German theologian Friedrich Staphylus:

“Neither may you M. Grindall be offended herewith, when you shall vnderstand it, as I wish you maye, iff a young scholer and puine student in diuinite aduenter to encounter with you.” (Staphylus, a Protestant convert to Roman Catholicism, is addressing Edmund Grindal, an English clergyman who would later become Archbishop of Canterbury.)

Later in the 1500s, the noun came to mean an inexperienced person, an inferior, a subordinate, someone of no importance, and a junior judge.

All those senses are now obsolete or rare except for the use of the term (now spelled “puisne”) in reference to a subordinate judge or justice, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example for the adjective used in this sense is from The Common Welth of England (1589), by Sir Thomas Smith:

“The officer before whom the Clarke is to take these essoines, is the puny Iustice in the common pleas.” (The “essoines” here are excuses for not appearing in court on time before the subordinate justice.)

As for the noun, the first Oxford citation for this sense is from Skialetheia, or The Shadowe of Truth, a 1598 collection of poetry by Edward Guilpin:

“Oh he’s a puisne [lesser judge] of the Innes of Court, / Come from th’ Vniuersity to make sport.”

Since the mid-1600s, the term (now always spelled “puisne” and pronounced “puny”) has been used in the UK and some former British dependencies to designate “any judge, justice, etc., other than the most senior in the higher courts of law,” according to the dictionary.

The first OED citation refers to a case argued before “Mallet the puisne Judge” (from a 1648 collection of legal cases, compiled by the English barrister John March).

In Vanity Fair, the Thackeray novel that prompted your question, the term is similarly used to describe a less than senior judge. The novel, which was serialized in Punch from 1847 to ’48, describes Lady Smith as the “wife of Sir Minos Smith the puisne judge.”

Finally, we have Shakespeare to thank for the use of “puny” as an adjective meaning small, weak, or insignificant, the usual sense of the word today.

The Chambers etymological dictionary cites Richard II, which it dates at 1593, for the earliest example of the usage. In this passage, a pale, gloomy Richard, facing the forces of Bolingbroke, tries to snap out of his despondency:

I had forgot myself; am I not king?
Awake, thou coward majesty! thou sleepest.
Is not the king’s name twenty thousand names?
Arm, arm, my name! a puny subject strikes
At thy great glory. Look not to the ground,
Ye favourites of a king: are we not high?

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Good monsters and bad

Q: How did “monster” come to mean something extraordinarily good (“a monster of the violin”) as well as something extraordinarily bad (“a bloodthirsty monster”)?

A: Let’s begin by going back to the Middle Ages, when the first lexical monsters stalked the English language.

English borrowed “monster” from the Anglo-Norman and Middle French word monstre, but it ultimately comes from mōnstrum, classical Latin for an omen, a monstrous creature, a wicked person, or an atrocity.

When “monster” showed up in Middle English in the late 1300s, it could mean something extraordinary, unnatural, or ominous, as well as a mythical creature like Cerberus, the many-headed dog that guards the gates of the Underworld.

Chaucer uses the term both of those ways in the two earliest written examples for “monster” in the Oxford English Dictionary.

In Boece (circa 1374), his translation of the Roman philosopher Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae, Chaucer uses “monster” to mean something extraordinarily worrisome:

“I vnderstonde þe felefolde colour and deceites of þilke merveylous monstre, Fortune” (“I understand the manifold wiles and deceits of this marvelous monster, Fortune”).

In “The Monk’s Tale” from the Canterbury Tales (circa 1386), Chaucer uses the term for such mythical creatures as the half-man, half-horse centaurs, and the half-woman, half-bird harpies:

“Was neuere wight sith that this world bigan / That slow so manye monstres as dide he” (“Was never such a man since this world began / That slew so many monsters as did he”). The reference is to Hercules, who killed centaurs and harpies and kidnapped Cerberus.

Over the years, the noun “monster” took on many related senses, including a sea monster or other huge creature (c. 1450); a cruel, wicked, or otherwise repulsive person (before 1505); and an ugly or deformed person or thing (1715).

However, the word lost much of its negative sense when used adjectivally in the 19th century to mean extraordinarily large. Early OED examples include “monster ballroom” (1837), “monster product” (1839), “Monster Meetings” (1843), and “monster organ” (1845).

We assume that this gigantic sense of the adjective inspired the use of “monster” in the 20th century as both a noun and an adjective for hugely successful people or things, and for people with a great amount of knowledge or talent.

In the early 20th century, writers began using “monster” colloquially to mean remarkably successful, profitable, or good. The first Oxford citation is from the Sept. 22, 1912, issue of the Sunday Times-Tribune (Waterloo, IA):

“New Plays, new specialties and new people will add to the big show’s drawing power and the prospects for a monster week are bright.” (The word “monster” here is a noun being used attributively—that is, as an adjective.)

In the mid-20th century, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, writers began using the noun positively to mean “a formidable aircraft or automobile.”

The first two examples in the slang dictionary are from Aviation Cadet (1955), a young-adult novel by Joseph Archibald: “We’re really throwing the iron monsters around now” … “We thought cockpit procedure on the monsters was confusing.”

In less than a decade, the noun took on the sense of a remarkable or successful person or thing. The earliest Random House example is from an April 6, 1968, interview in Rolling Stone:

“Of course, man, she’s a monster. She’s like the best of that type of singer.” In the interview, the guitarist Mike Bloomfield is describing Aretha Franklin.

In that same interview, Bloomfield uses “monster” adjectivally: “When I was around fifteen I was a monster rock guitar player.”

And in the mid-1980s, according to Random House, it came to mean “a person having formidable knowledge or skill,” as in this 1986 example from the ABC television sitcom Head of the Class: “Darlene—a speech and debate monster.”

Today, the word “monster” can refer to all of the above: a mythical creature, a threatening force, something unusually large, someone extraordinarily wicked, a great success, a remarkable talent, and so on. It all depends on how it’s used.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

When ‘should’ means ‘would’

Q: In re-watching Downton Abbey, I’ve noticed that “should” is used in many places where I’d use “would.” For example, “If I were you, I should keep my mouth shut.” It’s very confusing at first to figure out what is meant. How did this usage evolve, and is it still heard in England?

A: We didn’t see that specific example in a search of Downton Abbey transcripts, but here’s a similar use of “should” by Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, from season 4, episode 3, of the TV series:

“If I were to search for logic, I should not look for it among the English upper class.”

In that example, “should” is used as an auxiliary verb to introduce a hypothetical future action, a usage that’s now generally expressed with “would” on both sides of the Atlantic.

The use of “should” for “would” can be confusing because “should” is commonly used to mean “ought to,” and “would” to mean “might.”

Why did Maggie Smith, who played the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey, use “should” in that episode, which is set in the early 1920s?

To answer that, we’ll have to look at an old rule that drew a strict line between the use of “shall” and “will.” Here’s how we describe the rule in a 2011 post:

  • When expressing a future tense, use “shall” with the first person (“I” and “we”) and “will” with the second and third persons (“you,” “he,” “she,” “they,” etc.).
  • When expressing determination, permission, or obligation, use “will” with the first person and “shall” with the second and third persons.

As we note in that post, this so-called traditional rule has been observed more often in the UK than in the US, and the British haven’t been very observant.

John Wallis, an English clergyman and mathematician, introduced the rule in the 17th century in Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae, an English grammar book written (believe it or not) in Latin:

“In primis personis, shall simpliciter praedicentis est; will, quasi promittentis aut minantis / In secundis et tertiis personis, shall promittentis est aut minantis; will simpliciter praedicentis” (“In the first person, shall is simply for predicting, while will is for promising or threatening. / In the second and third persons, shall is for promising or threatening, while will is simply for predicting”).

Wallis applied the rule only to “shall” and “will,” but later usage writers broadened it to require “should” in the first person for future, conditional, and interrogative usages.

In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, published in 1926, not long after the events portrayed in that Downton Abbey episode, Henry W. Fowler writes:

“Plain future or conditional statements & questions in the first person should have shall, should; the roman-type wills and woulds in the following examples are wrong.” Fowler’s no-no’s include “we will teach” … “we will soon be” … “will, I fear” … “we won’t get” … “would be a knave” … “would not” … “we would always get.”

So a dowager countess might very well have used “should” instead of “would” in the early 1920s.

However, Wallis’s old rule for using “shall” and “will,” as well as its expansion to “should” and “would,” has never been widely observed in the US or the UK—except for the use of “shall” in the first person in questions and legal documents.

As Jeremy Butterfield, editor of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), says in the latest (2015) version of the usage guide, “It is unlikely that the rule ever had its foundation in real usage, although it may have applied to some people some of the time.”

“The supposed rule is a dead letter in speech, and in most kinds of writing,” Butterfield writes. “It is broadly true that shall and should have largely retreated in the standard language even as used in England. In other English-speaking areas shall and should have been almost totally replaced by will and would, or by the reduced forms I’ll/we’ll. There is not much doubt that will will win, and shall shall lose, in the end.”

[Note, July 23, 2018. A reader in Australia writes: “I have never forgotten our English teacher’s explanation of the difference (London, England, late 1940s). You are on the beach and hear a voice calling out. By paying careful attention to the grammar, you can decide whether or not to enter the surf and risk your own life! ‘I shall drown! And no-one will save me!’ is a plea to be rescued. ‘I will drown, and no-one shall save me!’ is an announcement of firm intent to commit suicide!”

We’ve often come across this old memory aid, which was widely published in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The earliest example we’ve found is more than 200 years old. It’s from a short “filler” item published in the Feb. 4, 1804, issue of the Boston Weekly Magazine: “Difference Between Shall and Will. A Frenchman tumbled overboard, and sang out: ‘I will drown, and nobody shall help me.’ The sailors told him ‘drown and be d—d.’  Had he said, ‘I shall drown, and nobody will help me,’ the sailors would have saved him.”]

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Spelling Usage Word origin

Is it ‘realtor’ or ‘Realtor’?

Q: Why is “realtor” often capitalized? It drives me crazy. It’s just a job description, like “chef” or “dog catcher.” What’s so special about realtors?

A: The term is often capitalized because it’s a registered trademark in the US for a member of the National Association of Realtors.

Most standard dictionaries capitalize the term, including the online Merriam-Webster and American Heritage dictionaries. One notable exception is Oxford Dictionaries online, which lowercases the term in its US version.

The Associated Press Stylebook capitalizes “Realtor,” but recommends using “real estate agent” instead unless “there is a reason to indicate that the individual is a member” of the association.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage capitalizes the term too, and says the “preferred generic terms are real estate agent and real estate broker.”

However, the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, lowercases “realtor.”

The OED says it’s a “proprietary name” for a member of the association, but adds, “Also in extended use,” which we take to mean that “realtor” is also used as a general term for anyone who sells real estate.

Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) has this to say: “Few people seem to know about the trademark, and consequently in AmE [American English] the term is used indiscriminately of real-estate agents generally.”

As for the etymology, Charles N. Chadbourn, a real estate agent in Minneapolis, coined the term in a March 15, 1916, article in the National Real Estate Journal, according to the OED.

Chadbourn, a member of the National Association of Real Estate Boards (predecessor of the National Association of Realtors), proposed  “that the National Association adopt and confer upon its members, dealers in realty, the title of realtor (accented on the first syllable).” And don’t misplace the “l”; it’s REAL-ter, not REE-luh-ter.

Interestingly, the term is lowercased there by Chadbourn, as well as in three of the other four examples for the usage in the OED. With language authorities divided over whether to capitalize it or not, the decision is up to you or the style manual you follow.

As for us, we normally use the term “real estate agent” when we refer to someone who sells real estate, whether a member of the association or not. The term “realtor” strikes us as too puffed up.

Sinclair Lewis, whose 1922 novel Babbitt is cited in the OED, apparently felt the same way. Lewis describes George F. Babbitt as “nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.”

In the OED citation, Babbitt is quoted as saying, “we ought to insist that folks call us ‘realtors’ and not ‘real-estate men.’ Sounds more like a reg’lar profession.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Pronunciation Usage Word origin Writing

Cycles and sickles

Q: Why does “bicycle” rhyme with “pickle,” and “motorcycle” with “Michael”?

A: Yes, “motorcycle” does usually rhyme with “Michael,” which has inspired various naughty playground rhymes (like “Michael, Michael, motorcycle, / Turn the key and watch him pee”).

However, “motorcycle” also rhymes with “pickle” in several regional dialects, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

DARE has examples from Appalachia and the Gulf region, including contributions from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania.

One example cites a lyric from “The Motor Cycle Song,” quoted in This Is the Arlo Guthrie Book (1969): “I don’t want a pick-le / Just want to ride on my mo-tor-sick-le.”

However, “motorcycle” (as well as “monocycle” and “unicycle”) normally rhymes with “Michael,” while “bicycle” (like “tricycle”) rhymes with “pickle.”

So why does the “y” in those four-syllable words sound like the long “i” of “sigh,” while the “y” in the three-syllable words sounds like the short “i” of “sick”?

This has to do with the way those syllables are stressed. A vowel is often pronounced one way in a stressed syllable and another way in an unstressed syllable.

The “y” of “bicycle,” for example, is unstressed and pronounced as a short, or reduced, vowel. But the word “cycle” itself has a “y” that’s stressed and pronounced as a long vowel. Similarly, the “y” of “motorcycle” has a secondary stress and a long pronunciation.

(By the way, “motorcycle”—like “monocycle” and “unicycle”—is made up of two trochees. A trochee is a metrical foot consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one.)

As for the etymology, “cycle” first appeared in the 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It originally meant a recurring period of time, such as a “lunar cycle” or a “solar cycle,” and it ultimately comes from the words for “circle” in classical Latin (cyclus) and Greek (κύκλος).

The noun took on the sense of a pedal-powered, wheeled vehicle in the 1870s, when it began to be used as a short form of the somewhat older words “bicycle,” “tricycle,” “monocycle,” and “unicycle.”

Earlier in the century, the term “velocipede” was used for a lightweight wheeled vehicle propelled by the rider. (As the OED comments, it was also called a “bone-shaker.”)

Oxford’s earliest example of “velocipede” is from a June 19, 1818, entry in the diary of William Sewall:

“Then I went to the circus and rode on the velocipede, which is a new machine.” (The diary begins in Maine, Sewall’s birthplace, and ends in Illinois.)

The dictionary’s earliest example for “bicycle” and “tricycle” is from the Sept. 7, 1868, issue of the Daily News (London): “Bysicles and trysicles which we saw in the Champs Elysées and Bois de Boulogne this summer.”

The words “monocycle” and “unicycle” showed up the following year in The Velocipede: Its History, Varieties, and Practice, an 1869 book by J. T. Goddard:

“A New York mechanic has devised a monocycle or single machine, which consists of a wheel eight feet in diameter, with a tire six inches wide” … “Hemming’s Unicycle or ‘Flying Yankee Velocipede.’ ” (We’ve expanded the first OED citation.)

The short use of “cycle” to mean a pedal-powered vehicle showed up the next year in “The Natural History of Bicycles,” an article in the February 1870 issue of Belgravia, a London magazine:

“Another idea for a monocycle (which, by the way, might be called a ‘cycle’ at once, for shortness) was to make a gigantic wheel, some twelve feet in diameter, with cranks on each side of the axle, and short stilts attached to these, to be worked by the rider’s feet.” (Again, we’ve expanded the OED citation.)

Later that same year, in August 1870, this passage appeared in the journal English Mechanic and Mirror of Science:

“I have never yet seen a bicycle, tricycle, or any other kind of cycle … which did not completely use up the whole muscular energy of the most muscular of muscular Christians.”

Finally, the first Oxford example for “motorcycle” is from the Atlanta Constitution, June 17, 1894:

“Some inventive genius with more activity in his brain than in his legs, has devised a cycle which appears to meet the utmost requirements of pure laziness. It is called the motor cycle and the propelling power is produced by coal oil.”

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

‘More’ or ‘-er’? ‘Most’ or ‘-est’?

Q: Is there a rule for when to use “more” and “most” to form comparatives and superlatives, and when to use “er” and “est”? Why do we have two ways to do this?

A: There’s no “rule” about using “more” and “most” versus “-er” and “-est” to express the comparative and superlative. But there are some common conventions.

With “most adjectives and adverbs of more than one syllable, and with all those of more than two syllables,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, “the normal mode” of forming the comparative and superlative is by using “more” and “most.”

A few one-syllable words (like “real,” “right,” “wrong,” and “just”) also normally form comparatives and superlatives with “more” and “most” instead of with “-er” and “-est” suffixes, according to the OED.

The dictionary adds that “more” is also sometimes used with words of one or two syllables that would normally have “-er” comparatives, like “busy,” “high,” “slow,” “true,” and so on. Why? Here’s how Oxford explains it:

“This form is often now used either for special emphasis or clearness, or to preserve a balance of phrase with other comparatives with ‘more,’ or to modify the whole predicate rather than the single adjective or adverb, especially when followed by than.”

So we might choose “much more humble” instead of “much humbler.” Or we might say “so-and-so’s voice was more quiet but no less threatening.” Or “that’s more true than false.” Or even “his feet are more big than ungainly.”

The OED offers additional details about the the use of the “-er” and “-est” suffixes with adjectives and adverbs.

In modern English, the dictionary says, “the comparatives in -er are almost restricted to adjectives of one or two syllables,” while longer adjectives as well as two-syllable adjectives not ending in “-ly” or “-y” form the comparative “by means of the adverb more.”

The same goes for the “-est” suffix, which is used similarly to form the superlative of adjectives (Oxford points to its “-er” comparative entry for the “present usage” of the “-est” superlative).

As for the use of “-er” and “-est” with adverbs, those that have the same form as corresponding adjectives (“hard,” “fast,” “close,” etc.) chiefly form the comparative and superlative with “-er” and “-est,” while adverbs that end in “-ly” form the comparative with “more” and the superlative with “most.”

There are quite a few exceptions, of course. For a more comprehensive guide to how the comparative and superlative are expressed in English today, check out Jeremy Butterfield’s entry for “-er and -est, more and most” in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.).

How did we end up with two ways to express the comparative and superlative in English? In a 2008 post, we discuss the etymology of “more” and “most” as well as the history of the suffixes “-er” and “-est.”

As we say in that post, the “-er” and “-est” suffixes have been used to make comparisons since the earliest days of English, and it’s a practice handed down from ancient Indo-European.

The Old English endings were originally spelled differently than they are today: -ra for the comparative, and -ost (sometimes -est) for the superlative.

Taking the word “old” as an example, the Old English forms were eald (“old”), yldra (“older”), yldest (“oldest”). And taking “hard” as another, the forms were heard (“hard”), heardra (“harder”), heardost (“hardest”).

Meanwhile, there was another set of Old English words: micel (meaning “great” or “big”), mara (“more”), and maest (“most”).

While “more” and “most” (or their ancestors) were around since the earliest days of English, it wasn’t until the early 1200s that we began using them as adverbs to modify adjectives and other adverbs in order to form comparatives and superlatives—that is, to do the job of the “-er” and “-est” suffixes.

For a few centuries, usage was all over the place. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for even one-syllable words to be used with “more” and “most,” according to The Origins and Development of the English Language, by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo. The authors cite the frequent use of phrases like “more near,” “more fast,” “most poor,” and “most foul.”

And multi-syllable words were once used with “-er” and “-est,” like “eminenter,” “impudentest,” and “beautifullest.”

Pyles and Algeo say there were even “a good many instances of double comparison, like more fittermore better, more fairer, most worst, most stillest, and (probably the best-known example) most unkindest.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Is that an “alum” on your bib?

Q: I am making some surprise bibs for a friend who is not sure of the baby’s sex. I want to put my friend’s college logo on the bib and write something along the lines of “Future (insert Logo here) Alumni.” I know “alumni” is plural and “alum” is slang, but I am not sure which word to use for a single person of unknown gender. My friend is a grammar geek and will not put her child in something with improper English.

A: If you don’t know whether the bib is for a future “alumnus” (boy) or “alumna” (girl), we’d recommend using “alum.”

Most standard dictionaries describe “alum” as “informal”—that is, suitable for relaxed or conversational usage. The term is increasingly being used, especially in American English, to describe a graduate of either sex.

It strikes us as just the right word for a baby’s bib, though we wouldn’t recommend it for a scholarly paper. If you think of “alum” as slangy, however, why not use “graduate” or the informal “grad”?

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary has a usage note entitled “Is it acceptable to use alum for alumnus or alumna?”

“Traditionally,” the dictionary says, “the word alumnus has been used to refer to a single male, whereas alumna has been used for a single woman. Initially the plural forms were alumni to refer to multiple men (or multiple men and women) and alumnae for multiple women.”

A little over a hundred years ago, according to M-W, “the shortened form of alum began to be used to describe a graduate or past attendee of either gender. Although many people feel that alum is informal, it is in increasing use, and we appear to be moving toward a greater acceptance of the word. The plural of alum is alums.”

As for the etymology, English borrowed “alumnus” and “alumna” from classical Latin, where an alumnus was a foster son, male child, protégé, ward, or pupil, and an alumna was its feminine counterpart.

When the two terms first appeared in English in the early 1600s, they referred to male and female students, not to graduates.

The earliest example for “alumnus” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1602 religious tract by the English writer Anthony Copley: “Neither was I an Alumnus of the Colledge, being the Popes pensioner.”

The dictionary’s first example for “alumna” is from The Treasure of Vowed Chastity in Secular Persons, John Wilson’s 1621 translation from the Italian of a work by two Jesuit theologians, Leonardus Lessius and Fulvius Androtius:

“Take none of the younger sort of widowes, &c. which is meant that they should not be admitted into the function or ministery of diaconisses, or into the number of the Alumnae or Pupills of the Church.” (The plural is used here and in several other Oxford citations).

The first OED example for “alumnus” as a graduate or former student is from the Nov. 20, 1800, issue of the Maryland Gazette: “At the same time Messrs. Charles Alexander, … John Shaw and Carlisle F. Whiling, alumni of St. John’s college, were admitted to the degree of master of arts.”

The dictionary’s first citation for “alumna” as a graduate or ex-student is from the October 1843 issue of the Knickerbocker, a New York monthly magazine: “So favorably are we impressed with these ‘exercises’ of the alumnæ of the Albany Female Academy.”

Interestingly, a short form of “alumnus” and “alumna” showed up in the late 1600s, meaning a foster child, ward, protégé, or charge, but that sense is now considered obsolete or rare.

The only OED example is from a June 21, 1683, letter by John Eliot, a Puritan missionary: “Your hungry alumns do still cry unto your honour for the milk of the word.”

The first OED citation for a short form used to mean a graduate is from an 1877 speech by the Scottish botanist John Hutton Balfour.

At a Swedish ceremony marking the 400th anniversary of the University of Uppsala, he expressed hope that “Sweden may continue to send forth many alumns who shall do credit to her great Educational Institutions.”

Finally, the earliest Oxford citation for “alum” with the usual contemporary spelling is from the Dec. 13, 1928, issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune: “The local Harvard ‘alums’ have a number of parties in the incipient stage of planning.”

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When ‘nor’ means ‘neither’

Q: Will you please address the use of “nor” in Shakespeare? Sometimes it differs from modern usage (“Of hot and cold, he was nor sad nor merry,” Antony & Cleopatra), and sometimes not (“He swore, had neither motion, guard, nor eye,” Hamlet).

A: You’ve spotted a construction that’s rare today—the poetic use of “nor” to mean “neither.”

This is sometimes seen in older poetry and drama, with “nor” replacing “neither” at the beginning of a series. So instead of writing “neither X nor Y,” a Shakespeare or a Dryden or a Pope might have written “nor X nor Y.”

As you noticed in Antony and Cleopatra (circa 1607) and Hamlet (c. 1600), Shakespeare might have used “nor” or “neither” at the beginning of a series—a choice undoubtedly determined by rhyme or reason.

The “nor” usage showed up in English writing around the beginning of the 16th century but is now rare, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s usually found in the construction “nor — nor —” and is chiefly poetic, the dictionary says.

The earliest Oxford example is from Scotland, and the use is official rather than poetic:

“Nor ȝitt [yet] at the Sowth Loch nor yitt [yet] the North Loch.” (The phrase “nor yet” here means “and also not.” This passage, dated 1499-1500, was published in 1869 in Extracts From the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh.)

All of the dictionary’s subsequent examples are from poetry or drama. Here’s a sampling, century by century.

1558: “Mischief close in keele doth growe, / Nor might of men can helpe, nor water floodes that on they throwe.” (From Thomas Phaer’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.)

1697: “Nor Bits nor Bridles can his Rage restrain.” (From John Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Georgics.)

1726: “Now let our compact made / Be nor by signal nor by word betray’d.” (From Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey.)

1800: “Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken.” (From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.)

1913: “Nor God nor Daemon can undo the done, / Unsight the seen.” (From Thomas Hardy’s poem “To Meet, or Otherwise.”)

The most recent OED example is from Untitled Subjects (1969), a collection of poems by Richard Howard: “your only troth was plighted to Lady Laudanum, / to whom nor gout nor Paris could make you untrue.”

In a 2017 post, we discussed the use of the adverbs “neither” and “either” to introduce a series of more than two items, as in these examples from Shakespeare:

“You know neither me, yourselves nor any thing” (Coriolanus, c. 1605-08) … “Thou hast neither heate, affection, limbe, nor beautie” (Measure for Measure, c. 1604) … “They say there is divinity in odd numbers, either in nativity, chance, or death” (The Merry Wives of Windsor, c. 1597).

As we remarked in 2017, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says that “neither” and “either” can be used “in multiple as well as the more common binary coordination.”

There’s a similar explanation in the OED. It says that “following a word, phrase, or clause which is negated with neither,” the conjunction “nor” is “used before the second or further of two or more alternatives, normally to negate each.”

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The El Niño problem

Q: Can you discuss the double-article problem that occurs when “the” is added to a phrase beginning with a definite article in another language? I am bothered to read or hear things like “The El Niño weather pattern is building.”

A: Technically, you’re right: “the” plus “El” does add up to “the the” when translated literally. But when a foreign phrase is established in English, the foreign article often isn’t translated literally—that is, interpreted as a separate instance of “the.”

In our opinion, “El Niño” has been assimilated and the Spanish term for the weather phenomenon can be used with an English definite article (as in “The El Niño weather pattern was blamed for the drought”). We’ll have more to say about this term later. First, a little background.

When a proper noun in a foreign language includes an article, the general practice is to use either the foreign article or “the,” but not both.

So in each set of examples below, you could use either version:

“They sang ‘La Marseillaise’ and marched to l’Arc de Triomphe” … “They sang the ‘Marseillaise’ and marched to the Arc de Triomphe.”

“La Costa Brava is our favorite region of Spain” … “The Costa Brava is our favorite region of Spain.”

“Don’t miss El Museo del Barrio” … “Don’t miss the Museo del Barrio.”

“We heard Die Meistersinger at Bayreuth” … “We heard the Meistersinger at Bayreuth.”

In cases like those, it would be redundant to use both the English and the foreign article (“the ‘La Marseillaise’ ” … “the Die Meistersinger,” and so on). This is because ordinarily the foreign article is interpreted as meaning “the,” even in an English context.

As The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.) says, “An initial the may be used if the definite article would appear in the original language.” Its examples include this one: “A history of the Comédie-Française has just appeared.”

There are exceptions, however, such as with the names of foreign newspapers. The Chicago Manual recommends that the foreign article should be retained if the newspaper’s name includes it.

The examples given include “El País” in Madrid, “Il Messagero” in Rome, “La Crónica de Hoy” in Mexico City, and “Al Akhbar” in Cairo. Each includes an article equivalent to “the.”

So, for instance, one would write, “He subscribes to Le Monde,” not “He subscribes to the Monde” (and definitely not “the Le Monde”).

And as we’ve said, a foreign article often isn’t treated as an actual article when a term of foreign origin becomes part of the English language. A few obvious examples are the Spanish names Los Angeles (literally, “the angels”) and Las Vegas (“the meadows”), and the French name for the game of lacrosse (“the stick”).

Despite their foreign derivations, and despite the literal meaning of los and las and la, these names have become thoroughly English and are used with English articles if an article is needed (“the Los Angeles Dodgers,” “the Las Vegas casino,” etc.).

We’re reminded of “the hoi polloi,” an expression that’s generally accepted by usage writers even though “hoi” represents “the.” The expression, whether two words or three, means “the masses” or “the common man” in English, and comes from οἱ πολλοί, classical Greek for “the many.”

As Bryan A. Garner writes in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “the three-word phrase has spread since about 1850, has become common, and ought to be accepted.”

Jeremy Butterfield, writing in the fourth edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, says “the hoi polloi” has “an impressive literary pedigree,” and leaving out the English article may be interpreted as “linguistic snobbery, misguided pedantry, or even unwholesome one-upmanship.”

Interestingly, the expression first showed up in English as “the οἱ πολλοὶ.” In a 1668 essay on dramatic poetry, John Dryden writes: “If by the people you understand the multitude, the οἱ πολλοὶ, it is no matter what they think; they are sometimes in the right, sometimes in the wrong: their judgment is a mere lottery.”

The first few examples for “hoi polloi” in the Oxford English Dictionary combine the English article with the original Greek phrase. The earliest OED citation for the Greek phrase written with the English alphabet also includes the English article.

In Gleanings in Europe by an American (1837), James Fenimore Cooper writes that a few great men lead every honorary institution “after which the oi polloi are enrolled as they can find interest.”

Getting back to the weather, we think “El Niño” has become so familiar in English that the foreign article has been absorbed into the name and has lost its separate sense of “the.”

We haven’t found much guidance on this issue, but judging from published examples, the “El” of “El Niño” is virtually never interpreted as a separate “the” in an English context. “El Niño” is treated as a phrasal noun for a weather phenomenon.

The New York Times’s stylebook is ambiguous on the subject, but it’s clear that Times editors don’t interpret “El” as “the.” We say this because Times articles have included phrases like “an El Niño,” “there was no El Niño,” “another El Niño,” “this new El Niño,” “a strong El Niño,” “the recent El Niño,” and “an El Niño year.”

If the Spanish article were being interpreted literally as “the,” those noun phrases would mean “a the Niño,” “there was no the Niño,” “another the Niño,” and so on. If there were any chance of such an interpretation, the editors would have omitted the foreign article (“a Niño,” “there was no Niño,” “another Niño”).

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has several examples in which the Spanish article clearly isn’t being interpreted as a separate “the.” These include “the El Niño,” “the El Nino effect” and “the last five El Niños.” The dictionary doesn’t describe the examples as nonstandard or unusual in any way.

Oxford Dictionaries online, a standard dictionary, also cites many examples of the three-word expression without reservation: “the El Niño weather pattern” … “the El Niño phenomenon” … “the El Niño climatic conditions,” and so on.

Popular science publications, too, are willing to use English articles with these climate terms.

We’ve found examples in Scientific American of “the El Niño,” “the El Niño cycle,” “an El Niño,” “an El Niño event,” “the most recent El Niño,” “the last El Niño,” and “one of the strongest El Niños.”

And in Science magazine, you’ll find “the El Niño,” “an El Niño,” “this El Niño,” “the current El Niño,” “a strong El Niño event,” “the 1997–1998 El Niño,” and so on.

There’s less of this in academic journals, which tend to use “the El Niño Southern Oscillation” on first reference and “ENSO” on subsequent references. The longer technical name reflects the fact that El Niño results from an oscillation of atmospheric pressure in the tropical Pacific Ocean basin.

In Spanish, el niño means “the child.” The weather phenomenon is named for the Christ child, since its warmest sea surface temperatures off the South American coast are often recorded around Christmas.

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An acid test—with real acid

Q: I see the phrase “acid test” often used during the World Cup competition in Russia to mean a crucial test for a team. Did it once refer to a test with real acid?

A: Not only did the phrase once mean a literal acid test—it still does, though the figurative sense is much more common.

When the term first showed up in writing in the mid-18th century, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it meant a “chemical test involving reaction with an acid.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which refers to boric acid, is from a 1759 essay by the English chemist Robert Dossie: “It has not the acid test of changing the colour of vegetable tinctures.”

However, the figurative use of the phrase to mean a crucial or conclusive test—such as the test facing a team at the World Cup—was inspired by the use of nitric acid to test gold for purity, according to the OED:

“The test for gold from which the figurative use developed typically involves making a mark on a touchstone with a piece of the metal in question and treating this mark with nitric acid, which dissolves other metals more readily than gold.”

As the dictionary explains, “The effect of the acid in dissolving the mark is compared with its effect on marks made by specimens of known gold content.”

Interestingly, the first Oxford example for “acid test” used to determine the purity of a precious metal refers to silver, not gold:

“The gentleman would then offer to bet $5 that the quarter was good, and would stand the acid test, which, as it was good silver [it] would of course do” (from the July 29, 1844, issue of a Philadelphia newspaper, the North American and Daily Advertiser).

The OED’s first gold example is from the Nov. 14, 1860, issue of a Wisconsin newspaper, the Monroe Sentinel: “The outside film of gold, though less than the two hundred thousandth part of an inch in thickness, is yet enough to cover up the base metal, and protect it from the usual acid test.”

However, we’ve found an earlier gold example in the Chemist, a London journal, in which the word “nitric” precedes “acid test.”

In an Aug. 15, 1850, letter, William Griffiths, a goldsmith in Dublin, reports an example of “the alloying of metals so that they should present the appearance of gold and be capable of being apportioned, so as not only to resist the nitric acid test but to deceive the most experienced as to color and weight.”

The first OED citation for the figurative sense is from the Nov. 18, 1854, Columbia Reporter, a Wisconsin paper: “Twenty-four years of service demonstrates his ability to stand the acid test, as Gibson’s Soap Polish has done for over thirty years.”

Here’s a more recent example from Spectacles, Lorgnettes, & Monocles, a 1989 book by D. C. Davidson: “Even an expert would hesitate to distinguish 9 carat from 12 and 14 carat gold without resorting to an acid test.”

As for today, the website of the Gemological Institute of America has a description of the touchstone acid test for gold. And you can find many acid-testing kits on

We’ll end with a July 2, 2018, headline from the Northern Echo, a regional daily in the English town of Darlington.

“World Cup 2018: England about to face their acid test.” (England passed the test, beating Colombia to reach the quarterfinals.)

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Why apposite isn’t opposite

Q: I have to stop and think every time I come to the word “apposite.” It looks something like “opposite,” but it means pretty much the opposite. I’ll bet there’s an interesting etymology here.

A: You betcha. “Apposite” and “opposite” look alike because they’re related. The two adjectives have a common ancestor, ponere, classical Latin meaning to put or place, according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

Adding the prefix ad- (toward) to ponere gave Latin apponere (to place near) and the past participle appositus (near or appropriate), which ultimately gave us “apposite.”

Adding the prefix ob- (against) to ponere gave Latin opponere (to place against) and the past participle oppositus (against or opposite), source of our word “opposite.”

In the late 1300s, the word “opposite” showed up in English as both a noun and an adjective.

As a noun, it meant the opposite side or region; as an adjective, it referred to being on the opposite or farther end of a line. Both senses reflected the meaning of the Latin past participle oppositus.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for the noun is from “The Knight’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1386):

“Estward ther stood a gate of marbul whit, / Westward right swich another in the opposit” (“Eastward there stood a gate of white marble, / Westward another just the same in the opposite”).

The dictionary’s first example of the adjective is from The Equatorie of the Planetis (circa 1392), an anonymous Middle English treatise describing the construction and use of an instrument for calculating the position of the planets:

“Procede in the same litel cercle to ward lettere E opposit to D.” (Some scholars believe the treatise may have been written by Chaucer, based on the handwriting, style, and dialect of the manuscript.)

When “apposite” appeared in English in the early 1600s, Oxford says, it meant “well put or applied; appropriate, suitable (to),” similar to the sense of the Latin past participle appositus.

The earliest OED example is from The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Robert Burton’s wide-ranging treatise on a malady widespread in Jacobean England:

“A most apposite remedy.” (The remedy here is moderate sexual activity, as opposed to “Immoderate Venus,” which is said to cause the blues.)

Today, “apposite” means pertinent, relevant, or appropriate—that is, apt. And “opposite” as a noun refers to someone or something totally different from someone or something else, while as an adjective it means facing, on the other side of, or of an entirely different kind.

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