English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

When there’s a ‘there’ there

Q: Some academic colleagues and I have lamented the tendency of other colleagues to write ponderous sentences that begin with “There is” and go on with something such as “a tendency for regulators to ignore the demands of the market.” Do you agree with our biases against “There is” constructions?

A: No, we don’t.

We do agree that a sentence like “There is a tendency for regulators to ignore the demands of the market” would be much stronger as “Regulators tend to ignore the demands of the market.”

And it’s true that many handbooks of writing lament the so-called “dummy,” “pleonastic,” or “expletive” construction, names given to sentences beginning with “It is,” “There is,” or “There are.” Granted, too much of this can make a person’s writing seem weak and tedious.

But the usage shouldn’t be condemned outright. The use of  “it” or “there” as an anticipatory or preparatory subject can be quite useful and in some cases necessary. In fact, great writers have used the construction memorably. Here are two examples from Shakespeare:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, / Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune” (from Julius Caesar, believed written in 1599).

“It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on” (from Othello, probably written in 1603).

Getting back to the mundane, how else would we talk about the weather? (“It’s sleeting” … “It looks like snow” … “There’s a chance of rain.”)

And in many other types of statements, “it” or “there” is the most reasonable way of beginning.

Constructions like “There’s no way of knowing” and “It’s likely they’ll lose” and “It’s been established that he’s guilty” are more natural and idiomatic than the alternatives (“No way of knowing exists” … “That they’ll lose is likely” … “That he’s guilty has been established”).

In fact, when a subordinate clause is the subject of a sentence (as in those last two examples), the clause routinely follows the verb and the dummy subject “it” precedes the verb.

As the Oxford English Dictionary says, “The subord. clause as subject is most commonly placed after the verb and introduced by a preceding it, e.g. ‘it is certain that he was there’ = ‘that he was there, is certain.’ ” The dictionary’s examples date as far back as the 700s.

In some cases, the use of “it” or “there” as a dummy subject, with the real one placed after the verb, is a handy way to emphasize an element.  “There’s a fly in my soup,” with the delayed stress on “fly,” is more effective than the deadpan “A fly is in my soup.”

The OED also discusses “there” as a “mere anticipative element occupying the place of the subject which comes later.” Its citations from English writing date back to the 800s.

This construction can be used, Oxford says, “for the sake of emphasis or preparing the hearer.” The dictionary illustrates with these examples: “there comes a time when [etc.]” and “there was heard a rumbling noise.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has this example of “it” in an extremely common English construction: “It upset me that she didn’t write.”

Here “it” is a “dummy pronoun filling the subject position,” write the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum. The meaning of the sentence, they say, is the same as “That she didn’t write upset me.”

But “it” can also fill the object position. The Cambridge Grammar uses this example, which would be difficult to express in any other way: “I find it strange that no one noticed the error.”

In that case, the authors write, the dummy pronoun “it” fills the object position, replacing a true object that has been “extraposed”—the “embedded content clause” beginning with “that.”

We’ve written several times about dummy constructions, including posts in 2015 (about the use of “it” in talking about the weather); in 2014 (about using “it” to clarify a murky subordinate clause); and in 2013 (when the logical subject is an infinitive, as in “It was futile to resist”).

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Let’s give ‘proper’ its props

Q: I’m visiting Britain and just heard the waiter refer to a “proper” latte. This use of the word to express authenticity strikes me as worth thinking about. Americans tend to use “proper” to mean formal, though Aretha sings “give me my propers when you get home.”

A: To most Americans, the adjective “proper” means correct or suitable or decorous, and it appears in phrases like “proper English,” “proper attire,” “proper behavior,” “proper diet,” “proper procedure,” “proper tool,” and so on.

These are the most common senses of the adjective found today in American dictionaries. Those senses are common in the UK too, but the word is also used much more broadly there, according to current British dictionaries.

British speakers commonly use the adjective to mean genuine, as in “a proper doctor,” or excellent of its kind, as in the “proper latte” that got your attention. (These senses of the word aren’t unknown in American English, but they’re less common here than in the UK.)

A couple of other uses are found only in British English, where most dictionaries label them “informal” or “dialectal.” Here “proper” is an adjective similar to “total” (“a proper mess”), an emphatic term used pejoratively (“a proper idiot”), or an adverb like “completely” (“he was proper furious”).

All in all, English speakers certainly have gotten a lot of use out of “proper.”

The word came into English with the Norman Conquest, when it was borrowed partly from French (proper) and partly from Latin (proprius), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In its earliest incarnations, some 800 years ago, “proper” meant largely what it means today.

The OED defines the earliest sense as “suitable for a specified or implicit purpose or requirement; appropriate to the circumstances or conditions; of the requisite standard or type; apt, fitting; correct, right.”

The dictionary says the word is “implied” in its first example, from an early document that actually uses the adverb propreliche (“properly”):

“Lokið hu propreliche þe lauedi in canticis … leareð ow bi hire saȝe hu ȝe schule seggen” (“Look how properly the lady in the canticles … taught you by her words how you shall speak”). The citation from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that probably dates from before 1200, is found in a passage about how to turn away a would-be seducer.

The dictionary’s first example of the word without the adverbial ending (the proper “proper,” one might say) appeared more than 100 years later. The citation is from a Middle English translation of a French religious treatise, and again the word means suitable or correct:

“amang alle þe heȝe names of oure lhorde, þis is þe uerste and þe mest propre” (“among all the high names of our lord, this is the first and the most proper”). The quotation is from Ayenbite of Inwyt (1340), a title that loosely means “the prickings of conscience.”

That same work was also the first to record “proper” in another sense—characteristic of a particular person, place, or thing. This is the quotation:

“Vor þis wordle is ase a fayre, huer byeþ manye fole chapmen, þet of alle þinges hi knaweþ þe propre uirtue and þet worþ” (“For this world is as a fair, where there are many wicked peddlers who know the proper value and worth of all things”).

The use of “proper” to describe a name or noun that gets a capital letter—what we now call a proper noun—showed up in the early 14th century, according to the OED.

The dictionary gives this example from the story of Mary Magdalene in the South English Legendary (circa 1300), a collection of lives, or stories, of saints and other church figures: “Heo was icleoped in propre name, þe Maudeleyne” (“She was called in proper name, the Maudeleyne”).

Some of the other meanings of “proper” we’ve mentioned are also many hundreds of years old, according to OED citations. It’s been used to mean admirable or excellent since the 1370s, and it’s meant genuine or real since the 1390s.

The British sense of the word as a derogatory intensifier (as in “a proper idiot”) has also been in use since the late 1300s. In The Legend of Good Women, a poem written by Chaucer around 1385, someone is described as a “propre fol” (“proper fool”).

And even the adverbial usage, in which “proper” means “totally” or “completely,” dates from the mid-15th century. It was recorded in a Scottish poem composed in 1458—“propir plesand of prent” (“proper pleasant of appearance”).

However, the “proper” that we associate with good manners and correct social behavior wasn’t recorded until the early 18th century. The OED defines this sense of the word as “conforming to recognized social standards or etiquette; decent, decorous, respectable, seemly.”

Here’s an example of the usage by Jonathan Swift: “That won’t be proper; you know, To-morrow’s Sunday.” (From A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, 1738. The reference is to spending a Sunday evening promenading “on the Mall.”)

This sense of “proper” wasn’t specifically used to describe people until the early 19th century. Here’s the OED’s earliest example:

“We dined at a tavern—La, what do I say? … a Restaurateur’s, dear; Where your properest ladies go dine every day.” (From Thomas Moore’s verse novel The Fudge Family in Paris, 1818.)

As we wrote in a 2017 post, the adjective “proper” (like “galore”) sometimes follows the noun it modifies. “Proper” precedes the noun when it means correct (“proper grammar”) or decorous (“proper behavior”), but follows when it refers to a specific place (“the city proper”).

We can’t leave “proper” without paying a little tribute to the late Aretha Franklin.

More than 50 years ago, “proper” took an interesting turn. In African-American usage, it morphed into the plural noun “propers,” a slang term defined in the OED as “due respect, acknowledgement, or esteem.” And Aretha made the term famous.

in her 1967 hit recording of the song “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” Aretha immortalized the word when she sang, “All I’m askin’ in return, honey, is to give me my propers when you get home.”

As William Safire wrote in The New York Times on July 28, 2002: “Her use of propers (which many heard as profits) in the lyric was her own, not in the words originally written and performed by Otis Redding in 1965.”

In Safire’s On Language column, Aretha confirmed her use of the word, as well as its meaning: “I do say propers. … I got it from the Detroit street. It was common street slang in the 1960s. The persons saying it has a sexual connotation couldn’t be further from the truth. ‘My propers’ means ‘mutual respect.’ ”

As of this writing, the OED hasn’t yet cited Aretha’s use of the term. The dictionary’s earliest citation for “propers” is from the Chicago Daily Defender (Jan. 7, 1971): “A level of existence which affords each black man his propers—dignity, pride … and the ability to govern his destiny.”

The dictionary’s next example appeared in the Dec. 4, 1981, New York Times: “The least they could have done was give me my propers.” The speaker quoted was Floyd (Jumbo) Cummings, who said he was “robbed” when his heavyweight boxing match with Joe Frazier was called a draw after 10 rounds.

This use of “propers” was later shortened to “props,” defined in the OED as “due respect; approval, compliments, esteem.” (We briefly mentioned “props” in a 2010 post we wrote about popular terms originating in Black English.)

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a profile of the rap singer Roxanne Shante: “I was one of the first female rappers, but I’ve always gotten my props” (Chicago Tribune, July 29, 1990).

In fact, some commentators have speculated that rap and hip-hop performers first shortened “propers” to “props” in street slang. That seems likely, though 30 years later, “props” has gone mainstream.

The word is found in all the standard American dictionaries (and most of the British ones), though it’s still labeled “slang” or “informal.”

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

Me, myself, and I

Q: In the 1960s, I began noticing the use of “myself” as a cover for the inability of the speaker/writer to know whether “I” or “me” is correct. Can you predate that?

A: English speakers have been using “myself” in place of the common pronouns “I” and “me” since the Middle Ages, and the usage wasn’t questioned until the late 1800s, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

Critical language mavens argued that “myself’ (and other “-self” words) should be used only for emphasis (“Let me do it myself”) or reflexively—that is, to refer back to the subject (“She saw herself in the mirror”).

Alfred Ayres was apparently the first language writer to question the broader usage. In The Verbalist, his 1881 usage manual, Ayres criticizes the routine use of “myself” for “I”:

“This form of the personal pronoun is properly used in the nominative case only where increased emphasis is aimed at.”

Some modern usage writers still insist that “-self” pronouns should be used only emphatically or reflexively, but others accept their broader use as subjects and objects.

In Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Bryan A. Garner objects to the wider usage, while in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Jeremy Butterfield accepts it.

We believe that “myself” and company should primarily be used for emphasis or to refer back to the subject. And we suspect that some people fall back on “myself” when they’re unsure whether “I” or “me” would be grammatically correct.

However, there’s nothing grammatically wrong with using “myself” and other reflexive pronouns more expansively for euphony, style, rhythm, and so on. Respected writers have done just that for centuries, both before and after the language gurus raised objections.

This example is from a letter written on March 2, 1782, by the lexicographer Samuel Johnson: “Williams, and Desmoulins, and myself are very sickly.”

And here are some of the many other examples that Merriam-Webster has collected from writers who were undoubtedly aware of the proper uses of “I” and “me”:

“the pot I placed with Miss Williams, to be eaten by myself” (Samuel Johnson, letter, Jan. 9, 1758);

“both myself & my Wife must” (William Blake, letter, July 6, 1803);

“no one would feel more gratified by the chance of obtaining his observations on a work than myself” (Lord Byron, letter, Aug. 23, 1811);

“Mr. Rushworth could hardly be more impatient for the marriage than herself” (Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814);

“it will require the combined efforts of Maggie, Providence, and myself” (Emily Dickinson, letter, April 1873);

“I will presume that Mr. Murray and myself can agree that for our purpose these counters are adequate” (T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 1932);

“with Dorothy Thompson and myself among the speakers” (Alexander Woollcott, letter, Nov. 11, 1940);

“which will reconcile Max Lerner with Felix Frankfurter and myself with God” (E. B. White, letter, Feb. 4, 1942);

“The Dewas party and myself got out at a desolate station” (E. M. Forster, The Hill of Devi, 1953);

“When writing an aria or an ensemble Chester Kallman and myself always find it helpful” (W. H. Auden, Times Literary Supplement, Nov. 2, 1967).

In those examples, “myself” is being used for “I” or “me” in three ways: (1) for “I” as the subject of a verb; (2) for “me” as the object of a verb; and (3) for “me” as the object of a preposition.

When “myself” is used as a subject, it’s usually accompanied by other pronouns or nouns, as in the Auden example above. However, the M-W usage guide notes that “myself” is sometimes used alone in poetry as the subject of a verb:

“Myself hath often heard them say” (Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, 1594);

“My selfe am so neare drowning?” (Ben Johnson, Ode, 1601);

“Myself when young did eagerly frequent” (Edward FitzGerald, translation, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, 1859);

“Somehow myself survived the night” (Emily Dickinson, poem, 1871).

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language describes “-self” pronouns used expansively as “override reflexives”—that is, “reflexives that occur in place of a more usual non-reflexive in a restricted range of contexts where there is not the close structural relation between reflexive and antecedent that we find with basic reflexives.”

The authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, say (as we do above) that the substitution of “myself” for “me” and “I” may sometimes be the result of uncertainty about the rules for using the two common pronouns.

“Much the most common override is 1st person myself,” Huddleston and Pullum write. “The reflexive avoids the choice between nominative and accusative me, and this may well favour its use in coordinate and comparative constructions, where there is divided usage and hence potential uncertainty for some speakers as to which is the ‘approved’ case.”

The use of override reflexives, especially “myself,” has been “the target of a good deal of prescriptive criticism,” the authors say, adding: “there can be no doubt, however, that it is well established.”

The M-W usage guide, which accepts the moderate use of “myself” for “I” and “me,” notes that the prescriptive criticism has often been contradictory, relying on such labels as “snobbish, unstylish, self-indulgent, self-conscious, old-fashioned, timorous, colloquial, informal, formal, nonstandard, incorrect, mistaken, literary, and unacceptable in formal written English.”

It’s hard to tell when people confused by “I” and “me” began using “myself” as a substitute. But it may have begun in the late 19th century, prompting those early complaints about the usage. Some of those adjectives used by critics (“nonstandard,” “incorrect,” “mistaken,” etc.) may have referred to the English of people with a shaky grasp of grammar.

As for the early etymology, all three of those first-person singular pronouns showed up in Anglo-Saxon times—“I” as the Old English ic, ih, or ich; “me” as mē or mec; “myself” as mē self. In the 12th century the ic spelling was shortened to and gradually began being capitalized in the 13th century, as we wrote in a 2011 post.

In Old English, spoken from roughly the 5th to the 12th centuries, “myself” was used  emphatically or reflexively. In Middle English, spoken from about the 12th to the 15th centuries, “myself” was also used as a subject of a verb, an object of a verb, and an object of a preposition.

Here’s an early example from the Oxford English Dictionary of “myself” used as the subject of a verb: “Sertes, my-selue schal him neuer telle” (“Certainly, myself shall never tell him”). It’s from The Romance of William of Palerne, a poem translated from French sometime between 1350 and 1375.

And this is an example of “myself” as the object of a verb: “Mine þralles i mire þeode me suluen þretiað” (“My servants and my people shall threaten myself”). From Layamon’s Brut, a poem written sometime before 1200.

Finally, here’s “myself” used as the object of a preposition: “Þe londes þat he has he holdes of mi-selue” (“The lands that he has he holds for myself”). Also from The Romance of William of Palerne.

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

All the feels

Q: Lately I’ve been seeing “all the feels” and similar phrases on social media, as in “This film gives me all the feels.” I’ve even seen it in movie reviews. Where does this come from?

A: Yes, the use of “feels” to mean deep feelings (as in “Casablanca gives me all the feels”) is definitely out there, and the usage is beginning to make it into standard dictionaries.

Oxford Dictionaries Online, in its US and UK editions, describes the usage as informal, as does, which is largely an updated, online version of the Random House Unabridged Dictionary.

Oxford Dictionaries defines “feels” in this sense as “feelings of heightened emotion,” and gives several examples: “fans will undoubtedly get the feels when they see how things haven’t changed” … “I cried a ton because I had too many feels” … “I cry at everything, even the types of movies you wouldn’t expect to give you all the feels.”

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary doesn’t have an entry yet for “feels,” but it says the usage is on its radar.

In its “Words We’re Watching” feature, M-W traces the usage “back to a meme created in 2010 by a user on a German image site. The image in question features two embracing men along with the caption, ‘I Know That Feel Bro.’ ” (The  image  was on Krautchen, a now-defunct website.)

“The meme came to be used as a shorthand for expressing empathy, particularly between strangers online,” Merriam-Webster says, adding that “Internet memes are noted for their playful use of disjunctive grammar … so it is possible that feel was used in place of feeling for that same reason.”

The M-W article notes that “feel” already had “plenty of use as a noun, from meanings such as ‘sensation’ (the feel of old leather) to ‘a particular quality or atmosphere’ (an inn that has all the feel of a castle) to ‘an intuitive knowledge or ability’ (has a feel for woodworking).”

We’d add that the noun “feel” has been used since the 1400s to mean “feeling,” and the plural “feels” since the 1700s to mean “feelings,” but that old sense is different from the usage we’re discussing now: deep feelings one has about something, or that something gives one.

The M-W article cites several examples for “feels” used to mean deep feelings, including this one from the May 27, 2017, issue of Teen Vogue:

“If that tear-jerker has you feeling all the feels, just wait for this one: The finale also includes Spencer quoting the Winnie the Pooh line, ‘How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard?’ Sob.”

Merriam-Webster says its “Words We’re Watching” feature “talks about words we are increasingly seeing in use but that have not yet met our criteria for entry.”

Will “the feels” finally make it?

“Only time will tell if the feels will last long enough to warrant a new entry in the dictionary,” M-W says. “But for now, to quote Spencer, how lucky are we to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard?”

Interestingly, M-W here quotes Spencer Hastings, a character in the TV series Pretty Little Liars, rather than Winnie-the-Pooh. Probably because it’s doubtful that Pooh was the source.

The quotation doesn’t appear in any of A. A. Milne’s stories or the movies based on them, according to a Dec. 30, 2014, post on Pooh Misquoted. The website says the quote is a mangled version of a line in The Other Side of the Mountain, a 1975 movie about Jill Kinmont, a skier paralyzed in a 1955 slalom accident. We also couldn’t find the quote in our Pooh searches.

The earliest written example we’ve seen for “feels” to mean strong feelings is from a Jan. 23, 2012, contribution to the collaborative Urban Dictionary: “feel: Shortened version of ‘feeling,’ generally a strong emotional response. ‘This story gave me so many feels’ … ‘I know that feel, bro.’ ”

And here’s one a few months later from the Sept. 18, 2012, issue of the Stanford Daily News: “And let’s not forget the feels. This album might have them all—the melancholy, the awkwardness, the nervous anticipation, the blissed-out nighttime drives with the qtpi [cutie pie] of your dreams and the memories of summer.” (The reference is to I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, a 1997 album by the indie rock band Yo La Tengo.)

The earliest example we’ve found for “all of the feels” is from the Sept. 12, 2013, issue of Miscellany News, Vassar’s student newspaper: “Everyone else arrives back on campus; Seniors report feeling ‘all of the feels’ and also ‘really sweaty and broke.’ ”

As you might expect, the word “feel” itself is quite old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times.

When the verb “feel” showed up in Old English (as fēlan or a prefixed form, gefēlan), it had several meanings, including to sense heat, cold, pain, and so on, as well as to experience something, especially something unpleasant, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s an early OED example, which we’ve expanded, from an Old English homily: “Þær næfre heaf ne geomorung ne gnornunge ne granunge bið gehyred, ðær ne bið næfre wite gesewen ne gefeled” (“there never be neither lamentation nor moaning nor groaning, there never be misery neither heard nor seen nor felt”). The final word, gefēled, is the past participle of gefēlan.

When the noun “feel” appeared in Middle English (spelled fele), it had several senses, but most of them are now obsolete. The early meaning that’s seen the most now is a feeling, impression, or sensation, as in “the feel of her hand” or “the feel of the business” or “the feel of a full stomach.”

The first OED citation is from The Buke of the Law of Armys (1456), the Scottish poet Gilbert Hay’s translation of Arbre des Batailles, a 14th-century book about war by the Benedictine prior Honoré Bonet:

“Ane evill carnale fele … the quhilk … dampnis thair saulis perpetualy” (“Any evil carnal feel … which … damns their souls perpetually”).

And this Oxford example for the plural “feels,” which we’ve expanded, is from an undated letter, believed written around 1746, by the English man of letters Horace Walpole:

“But here are no boys for me to send for—here I am, like Noah, just returned into the old world again, with all sorts of queer feels about me.” Walpole is describing his return as an adult to the Christopher Inn at Eton.

The dictionary’s entry for the noun “feel,” which was updated in September 2015, doesn’t include the use of “feels” to mean a deep emotion. But we imagine that the OED, like Merriam-Webster, has the new usage on its radar.

[Note, Sept. 2, 2018: A reader of the blog has pointed out the use of “feels” as a noun in Wild 90, an experimental movie that Norman Mailer directed, produced, and acted in. The movie, filmed in 1967 and released in 1968, has a character who says “You got no feels.” We think “feels” here is being used in the old sense of “feelings,” not the new of sense of “deep feelings” one has about something, or that something gives one.]

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English English language Expression Language Pronunciation Punctuation Religion Usage Writing

In Jesus’ name or Jesus’s name?

Q: I’m preparing handouts for my sister’s prayer group, but I’m unsure of whether to write “In Jesus’ Precious Name” or “In Jesus’s Precious Name.” I know you’re supposed to add an apostrophe plus “s” to make a name possessive. But isn’t that also how to make a contraction?

A: The form written with an apostrophe plus “s” (that is, “Jesus’s”) can represent either a contraction (short for “Jesus is” or “Jesus has”) or the possessive form of the name.

But in the expression you’re writing, it would clearly be the possessive. There’s no way a member of your sister’s prayer group would think otherwise.

The rule here is the same as it would be for any name—the apostrophe plus “s” at the end can signify either a contraction or a possessive.

For example, “James’s” can be a contraction of “James is” or “James has” (as in “James’s coming” or “James’s grown a beard”), or it can be the possessive form of the name (as in “She is James’s niece”).

But when the name is “Jesus,” there’s a twist with the possessive form. This is because there are two ways to form the possessive of an ancient classical or biblical name that ends in “s.”

The result is that your prayer could correctly be written with either “Jesus’ precious name” or “Jesus’s precious name.”

Why is this? The traditional custom has been to drop the final “s” when writing the possessives of ancient classical or biblical names that already end in “s.”

However, this old tradition is no longer universally followed. Today the final “s” is optional: “Euripides’ plays” or “Euripides’s plays,” “Moses’ staff” or “Moses’s staff,” “Jesus’ teachings” or “Jesus’s teachings.”

How do you decide? Let your pronunciation choose for you.

If you add an extra syllable when pronouncing one of these possessive names (MO‑zus‑uz), then add the final “s” (“Moses’s”). If you don’t pronounce that last “s” (and many people don’t, especially if the name ends in an EEZ sound, like Euripides), then don’t write it.

So our advice is that if you pronounce the possessive form of “Jesus” as JEE-zus, add the apostrophe alone; but if you pronounce it as JEE-zus-uz, then add ‘s.

This advice agrees with the recommendations of The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.), the guide widely used by both commercial and academic publishers.

And if you’d like to read more, we wrote a post in 2013 about how Jesus got his name.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

When ‘wood’ means ‘wooden’

Q: Are “wood” and “wooden” interchangeable?

A: The words “wood” and “wooden” can sometimes be used for each other, but we wouldn’t describe them as interchangeable.

When used adjectivally to describe something made out of the material from a tree, “wood” and “wooden” mean the same thing (as in “wood shutters” or “wooden shutters”).

But when used figuratively to describe something stiff, awkward, unnatural, or emotionless, only “wooden” will do (“wooden expression,” “wooden performance”).

Even when “wood” and “wooden” mean the same thing, we wouldn’t necessarily consider them interchangeable. The choice of one or the other often depends on rhythm, style, euphony, and so on.

If they were switched in these two passages, the iambic meter would be disrupted:

“Upon a wooden coffin we attend” (from Shakespeare’s King Henry VI, Part 1, believed written in 1591).

“the very sap of their wood-fewel burning on the fire” (from Milton’s Moscovia, an early work published posthumously in 1682).

Technically, “wooden” is an adjective while “wood” here is a noun used attributively—that is as an adjective. When a noun like “wood” is used adjectivally, it’s often referred to as an attributive noun, a noun adjunct, or a noun premodifier.

In general, adjectives are more flexible than attributive nouns. You can use an adjective as a simple premodifier (“blue scarf”), with an adverb like “too” or “very” (“a very blue scarf”), and as a comparative or superlative (“a bluer scarf”).

You can also use an attributive noun as a premodifier (“a wool pullover”), but it’s unidiomatic to use it with “too” or “very” (“a very wool pullover”) or as a comparative or superlative (“a more wool pullover”).

As for the attributive noun “wood,” it’s used only as a simple premodifier (“a wood floor”). It’s not used with “too” or “very,” or as a comparative or superlative.

However, the adjective “wooden” is quite flexible when used figuratively (“a wooden speech,” “a very wooden speech,” “a more wooden speech”).

Interestingly, the noun “wood” has been used since Anglo-Saxon times for the material that comes from trees, but it wasn’t used adjectivally (as either “wood” or “wooden”) until hundreds of years later.

So how did the Anglo-Saxons describe something composed of the substance that comes from the trunks, branches, and other parts of trees?

In Old English, the adjective describing a thing made of wood was tréowen, tríwen, or trýwen—from the noun tréow (“tree”) and the suffix -en (made of).

The Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary has this early example from Aelfric’s Grammar, an Old English introduction to Latin, written around 995: “ligneus, treowen.” (Ligneus is classical Latin for “wooden.”)

The Oxford English Dictionary has this example from Old English Leechdoms, a collection of medical texts written around 1000: “getrifula on treowenum mortere” (“grind in a wooden mortar”). Treowenum is the dative case of treowen. As the object of a preposition, treowenum mortere is dative.

Although this adjective is now obsolete in common usage, it survived until the late 19th century, spelled “treen” in Middle and Modern English, according to the OED. [See the update below.]

As for “wood,” it originally meant “tree” when it showed up in early Old English, spelled widu, wiodu, or wudu. The earliest Oxford example is from a Latin-Old English glossary dated around 725:

Pinus, furhwudu.” The Latin for “pine” is translated here by the Old English for “fir tree.”

The noun “wood” soon took on the sense of a “collection of trees growing more or less thickly together,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s first citation is an excerpt in Latin and Old English from Psalm 104:11 in the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript that the British Library dates to the second quarter of the 700s:

Omnes bestiae silvarum, alle wilddeor wuda.” In modern English, “All the beasts of the wood.” (The full passage in the King James Version of the Bible reads: “They give drink to every beast of the field; the wild asses quench their thirst.”)

A century and a half later, the noun took on the additional sense of the “substance of which the roots, trunks, and branches of trees or shrubs consist,” the OED says.

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

“Se se ðe unwærlice ðone wuda hiewð, & sua his freond ofsliehð” (“He who carelessly hews the wood, and so slays his friend”).

The use of the attributive noun “wood” and the adjective “wooden” to describe something made of wood both showed up around the same time in the early 1500s.

The first OED appearance for the attributive noun is in a 1538 will registered in the city of York: “All wodde implementes.” (From John William Clay’s Testamenta Eboracensia: A Selection of Wills From the Registry at York, Vol. 6, 1902.)

The earliest Oxford example for the adjective is from Sir Thomas Eliot’s 1538 Latin-English dictionary: “Durateus, wodden.” The usual Latin for “wooden” is ligneus; the less common durateus comes from the Homeric Greek term for the Trojan horse, δουράτεος ἵππος (dourateos hippos, or “wooden horse”).

[Update, Aug. 23, 2018: A reader of the blog comments that “treen” still exists as a term in the field of collectible antiques. It refers to small household objects made of wood—spoons, cups, snuffboxes, shoehorns, and the like.]

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

On dignity, with all due respect

Q: I keep seeing and hearing about people “treated with dignity.” Shouldn’t it be “respect”? While I can “respect” your “dignity,” I don’t “treat” you with it; it’s yours to have—not mine to confer.

A: Traditionally, “dignity” has meant the quality of being worthy, honorable, or esteemed, and traditionalists insist on using it that way.

As Bryan A. Garner writes in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “Dignity is a quality one possesses. It is not a synonym for respect, so it’s mangled in the phrase treat with dignity.”

However, Garner acknowledges that the “undignified phrase is spreading in American print sources.” We’d add that it’s seen in both the US and the UK, and that it isn’t particularly new.

We’ve found written examples for “treat with dignity” going back hundreds of years. Before we get to them, though, let’s look at how “dignity” is treated today.

Several standard dictionaries accept the use of “dignity” to mean a calm, serious, or formal manner, so to treat someone or something with dignity would mean to treat them calmly, seriously, or formally—that is, in a dignified manner.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, for example, says “dignity” can mean “formal reserve or seriousness of manner, appearance, or language” as well as “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.”

Merriam-Webster cites without comment (that is, as standard) several examples of the “undignified” usage criticized by Garner, including this one: “All people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”

Oxford Dictionaries Online, in its US and UK editions, defines “dignity” as a “composed or serious manner or style” as well as the “state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect” (“honor” is spelled “honour” in the British edition).

Oxford cites without comment six examples of “treat with dignity,” including this one, “We are committed to treating all persons under coalition control with dignity, respect and humanity.”

This sense of “dignity” isn’t quite the same as “respect,” which Oxford defines as “deep admiration for someone or something” or “regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others.”

In fact, “respect” often accompanies “dignity” in the usage you’re asking about, suggesting that writers feel each word contributes something to the expression.

How common is the usage today?

Here are the results of our searches in the News on the Web corpus, which tracks online newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters: “treated with respect,” 2,570 hits; “treated with dignity,” 1,299; “treated with dignity and respect,” 601; “treated with respect and dignity,” 321.

The usage seems to be especially common among health-care providers, as in these examples from the iWeb corpus, a database that follows nearly 95,000 English-language websites:

“Specialist healthcare professionals will make sure you are treated with dignity” … “Patients and their families have the right to be treated with dignity and respect” … “While in our care, patients are treated with dignity, respect and compassion” … “We work hard to ensure every patient receives proper treatment and is treated with dignity and respect” …  “It’s very important that the patient continues to be treated with dignity and they do not suffer.”

We suspect that “treat with dignity” is here to stay, and you’ll just have to get used to it. And as we’ve said, it’s been around for a long time. The two earliest examples we’ve found treat things, rather than people, with dignity.

The earliest is from an Aug. 13, 1736, letter in the Gentleman’s Magazine, commenting on a scholarly exchange of views in the London periodical about the Book of Job.

The author, who refers to himself as “Ignoto” (Latin for “Unknown”), says that in Job “a high philosophic Question is treated with Dignity, and the Decision given in great Majesty.”

(The lexicographer Samuel Johnson was a writer for the Gentleman’s Magazine. And some scholars believe Johnson’s 1755 dictionary may have influenced the author of our next citation.)

In an entry for the Roman historian Tacitus in Bibliotheca Classica (1788), a classical dictionary, the English classicist and lexicographer John Lemprière writes:

“Affairs of importance are treated with dignity, the secret causes of events and revolutions are investigated from their primeval source, and the historian every where shows his reader that he was a friend of public liberty.”

The next example appeared in the July 1792 issue of the Literary and Biographical Magazine and British Review (London). A dispatch from Paris during the French Revolution, dated June 22, 1792, reports on a letter written by the Marquis de Lafayette urging the French National Assembly to respect King Louis XVI:

“M. La Fayette concludes with exhorting the National Assembly to cause the King to be respected and treated with dignity.”

We found many written examples of the expression during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t mention the expression “treat with dignity,” but the OED entry for “dignity” hasn’t been fully updated since it was first published in 1896.

When the noun “dignity” appeared in English in the 13th century, Oxford says, it had three meanings: “The quality of being worthy or honourable” … “Honourable or high estate, position, or estimation” … “a high official or titular position.” The last sense, which has given us “dignitary,” is now archaic.

The earliest written example in the dictionary is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that probably dates from sometime before 1200:

“Nis naut edsene inhwich dignete ha is, hu hech is hire cunde” (“Nor is it easily seen of what dignity she [the soul] is, nor how noble is her nature”).

English borrowed the word from the Old French digneté, but the ultimate source is dignitātem, classical Latin for merit or worth, according to the OED.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Multiple choices

Q: I often hear newscasters refer to a crowd or a group as “multiple people,” which just sounds wrong. I would say “several” or “many,” depending on the estimated number. What do you think?

A: For hundreds of years, the adjective “multiple” has been used to mean “many,” referring either to many things or to one thing made up of many parts.

But as you’ve noticed, the word is widely used these days, especially in the news media, as a substitute for almost any term for an inexact number: “several,” “few,” “many,” “numerous,” and so on.

We’ve found a great many (if not multiple!) examples of this online. Here’s a small sampling from a single day’s news reports:

“multiple people,” “multiple tornadoes,” “multiple vehicle crashes,” “multiple houses,” “multiple crews battling fire,” “multiple crime scenes,” “multiple dive teams,” “multiple roads closed,” “multiple felony counts,” “multiple new construction projects,” and “multiple cybersecurity officials.”

Why do journalists often use “multiple” when there are less imprecise words to choose from, depending on the rough size of the unknown number? We can think of several reasons.

In some cases, the writer may have no idea how many people or things are involved, so a less inexact term like “few” or “numerous” wouldn’t be appropriate. “Multiple” is suitably fuzzy.

In other cases, reporters may want to exaggerate the significance of a story or make their reporting sound more authoritative. An accident with “multiple” victims may sound more important than one with “several.”

Besides, some inexact terms can be used to magnify or minimize a number.

For example, the manufacturer of a defective product might use the terms “few” or “a handful” to play down the number of consumer complaints. But those same terms, used to describe the number of deaths caused by the product, would seem insensitive.

We’ve written before about words for inexact numbers. For instance, we’ve suggested that people may prefer a longer, more educated-sounding word (like “multiple” or “numerous“) to a shorter, everyday adjective (like “many”).

With words for inexact numbers, their meanings can depend on how they’re interpreted. So one person’s “several” might be another person’s “few.” And we even have words for exaggerated, imaginary numbers, like “umpteen” and “oodles.”

Getting back to “multiple,” it can mean an inexact large number or a small one, depending on the context. But unlike the other inexact terms, “multiple” can modify a singular noun or noun phrase, as in “the multiple Oscar nominee” or “a multiple count indictment,” or “the test was multiple choice.”

Before we go any further into the uses of “multiple,” let’s take a look at its etymology.

As you may know, the “multi-” prefix ultimately comes from Latin and means “many” or “much.” English acquired its “multi-” words after the Norman Conquest, mostly by way of French, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says, “The majority of English words beginning with multi– before the late 16th cent. are related to or derived < [from] multiply and multitude.

The first, “multiply,” was adopted from Anglo-Norman and Old French sometime before 1275; “multitude,” which is partly from Anglo-Norman and Middle French and partly from Latin, dates back to around 1350.

As for “multiple,” it’s both a noun and an adjective adopted from Middle French, with the noun arriving first. Its more distant ancestor, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, is the Late Latin multiplus (manifold).

In the OED’s earliest citation for “multiple” as a noun, from a document written sometime before 1595, the word means “a multitude, a great number.” But Oxford has only one example, and says that sense of the word is rare or obsolete.

However, other noun usages have survived, mostly with technical or scientific meanings.

For instance, in mathematics, “multiple” has been used steadily as a noun since the 1670s, according to our searches of historical databases.

Oxford defines the mathematical term as a “quantity which contains another quantity some number of times without remainder” or “a quantity which is the product of a given quantity and some other,” and adds: “Thus 4 is a multiple of 2; 6 is a multiple of 2 and 3.”

Beginning in the 1940s, the noun was used in the fields of electricity, telephony, and railway engineering. In these industries, the phrase “in multiple” means something like “in parallel” or “coupled together,” the OED says.

And since the early 1980s, Oxford says, the noun “multiple” has been used in the stock market to mean “a stock price expressed as a multiple of current or projected earnings per share.”

But the word is more commonly an adjective, a usage that dates from the mid-1600s.

It was first used to modify singular nouns and meant “consisting of or characterized by many parts, elements, etc.,” or “having several or many causes, results, aspects, locations, etc.,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest example dates from 1647: “That Kings should bow down their necks under the double or rather multiple yoke of Pope and Archbishops.” (From Nathaniel Bacon’s An Historicall Discourse of the Uniformity of the Government of England.)

Here are some later OED examples: “the multiple development of malignant tumors” (1906); “the speed flash, also known as multiple or electronic flash” (1950); “a multiple fracture of the femur” (1984); “a multiple dovetail joint” (1990).

These days the adjective more often modifies plural nouns, a usage first recorded in the early 1660s. In this sense, the OED says, the adjective means “many” or “plural.”

The earliest sighting in the OED is from a treatise on taxes published by William Petty in 1662: “Why should not the solvent thieves and cheats be rather punished with multiple restitutions than death, pillory, whipping, &c.?”

And here are a few 19th- and 20th-century uses, again from the OED: “multiple ruffs of cloth” (1834); “multiple solutions” (1879); “multiple factors” (1915); “multiple bookings” (1949); “multiple injuries” (1980); “multiple taxes” (2000).

Standard dictionaries generally define the usage today as “more than one” or “many.”

Oxford Dictionaries online, a standard dictionary, defines it as “numerous.” However, the examples the dictionary cites use the term as broadly as journalists do—as an inexact number ranging from “several” to “many.”

Here’s a sampling: “multiple locations,” “multiple medals,” “multiple perspectives,” “multiple elements,” “multiple boards,” “multiple medications,” “multiple questions,” “multiple sites,” “multiple counts,” “multiple movies,” and “multiple sources.”

In conclusion, we agree with you that “multiple” sounds strange in some contexts (especially “multiple people”), but we’ll probably just have to get used to it.

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

How do you do?

Q: While enjoying old movies, I’ve noticed that one of the most common expressions is “How do you do?” Presumably, this was common in everyday speech as well. But no one, it seems, says that anymore—in film or out. Why the change?

A: It’s true that “How do you do?” has largely been replaced by newer “How” greetings: “How are you doing?” … “How are you?” … “How’s it going?” and so on.

These days, most of us don’t use “How do you do?” as the offhand, casual greeting it once was. We reserve it for formal introductions.

But all of these expressions are part of a long history of English pleasantries beginning with “how,” a tradition that got its start with “How do you?” in the Middle Ages.

Here the adverb “how” means “in what condition or state,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. And in this sense, “how” appears in “common phrases used in inquiring as to a person’s health.”

The original formula, dating at least as far back as the 1300s, was “how do” + pronoun (or name).

The OED‘s earliest example is from the Towneley Mystery Plays, dramatic depictions of biblical scenes that were probably first performed in the 1370s. (The only surviving manuscript is later, dating from sometime before 1460.)

This is the relevant line: “How do thay in Gessen, The Iues, can ye me say?” (“How do they in Goshen, the Jews, can you tell me?”)

In searches of early English databases, we’ve found many 15th, 16th, and 17th-century examples of this “how do” formula. Here’s a sampling (we’ll dispense with the question marks, since most aren’t complete sentences):

“how doth sir tristram” (1485); “how do ye mayster” (1499); “how doth my lady” (1560); “how doth my sonne” (1565); “how doest thou” (1548); “sir how do you” (1561); “how do ye to day” (1565);  “how dost thou” (1577); “How does all our friends in Lancashire” (1600); “how doeth my cousin” (1601); “how does thy mistrisse” (1608); “how do all our friends in Hampshire” (1693); “how does my lady” (1696).

In usages like that, “do” is the principal verb and its meaning is similar to “fare,” as in “How fare you?” But in the early 1600s another “do” crept into the formula, and “how do you” eventually became “how do you do,” with the first verb a mere auxiliary—as it would be in “How do you fare?”

The earliest example of “how do you do” that we’ve been able to find is from Thomas Middleton’s comic play No Wit/Help Like a Womans, which Middleton scholars say was written and first staged in 1611: “Gentlemen, Out-laws all, how do you do?” (OED examples are not as old, since the dictionary’s “how” entries are not yet fully updated.)

The next example we found appeared after a gap of 45 years. It’s from Richard Flecknoe’s The Diarium (1656), a diary in comic verse: “Visits I made me two or three, / With reverence not very comely, / And complements indeed as homely; / As for example; ‘How do you do?’ /’Well I thank ye, How do you?’ ”

(Note that the author regarded “how do you do” as a “homely” compliment, suggesting that it was already a familiar greeting even then.)

We’ve also found several examples from the 1690s of “how dost thou do,” a more formal version of “how do you do.” And by 1700, according to our searches, the “how do you do” form had begun to replace the older “how do you.”

As is often the case with well-entrenched salutations, both versions spawned many abbreviated forms.

The OED mentions “how-do-ye,” “how-d’ye,” and “how dee,” which eventually became—you guessed it—”howdy”! The spelling “how dee” (as in “How dee neighbour”) appeared around 1600, the OED says. The earliest “howdy” spelling we’ve found is from 1694.

(All this, by the way, sheds new light on Howdy Doody, the famous puppet whose name is a mashup of these greetings. In Elizabethan times, he might have been known as “How-d’ye Do-d’ye.”)

Besides “do,” the common “how” greetings” include forms of the verbs “be” and “go.”

The OED has these as its earliest examples: “how is it with you” (1480) and “how goes it” (1598). However, we found uses of “go” that are slightly earlier: “How goes it, Sirs?” (c. 1589) and “How goes the world with thee?” (1593).

But the specific expression “how are you” apparently didn’t become common, at least in writing, until the 1600s. The earliest definite use we’ve found is from an exchange in another Thomas Middleton play, Women, Beware Women (c. 1621): “How are you now, sir?” … “I feel a better ease, madam.”

We also found examples in a play called Matrimonial Trouble (1662), by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. For instance, Sir William Lovewell says to Lady Hypocondria: “How are you, dear Wife? How do you feel your self now? How are you?”

Finally, as you might suspect, the more casual “how’s things” and “how’s tricks” came along in the first half of the 20th century. And while they may sound like American slang, they were first recorded in books by authors from Australia and New Zealand.

These are the earliest findings reported in the OED: “How’s things?” (Australia, 1926); “How are things?” (New Zealand, 1930); “How’s tricks?” (Australia, 1941); and a sighting of both, “How’s things? … How’s tricks with you?” (New Zealand, 1949).

By this time, of course, “How do you do” was no longer a casual “hello” but had developed into something more formal. We’ll conclude with a passage, headed “What to Say When Introduced,” from Emily Post’s Etiquette (1922):

“Best Society has only one phrase in acknowledgment of an introduction: ‘How do you do?’ It literally accepts no other. When Mr. Bachelor says, ‘Mrs. Worldly, may I present Mr. Struthers?’ Mrs. Worldly says, ‘How do you do?’ Struthers bows, and says nothing.”

When a reply is in order, however, it should NOT be “Charmed,” “Pleased to meet you,” or the like, she says. It should be a remark that can lead to conversation.

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English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Speaking with a forked tongue

Q: What is the origin of “to speak with a forked tongue”? Does the expression come from the snake that tricked Eve into eating the forbidden fruit?

A: The expression was probably inspired by the forked tongue of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. One of the earliest examples of the phrase “forked tongue” in the deceptive sense alludes to the passage in Genesis.

The image of a forked tongue has been used figuratively in English for hundreds of years to mean an intent to deceive. The earliest recorded example we’ve seen is from Magnificence, a morality play written around 1516 by the English poet John Skelton:

“Paint to a purpose good countenance I can, / And craftily can I grope how every man is minded; / My purpose is to spy and point every man; / My tongue is with favel [cunning] forked and tyned. / By Cloaked Collusion thus many one is beguiled.”

The earliest example we’ve found for the exact phrase “forked tongue” used this way suggests a serpentine origin, though not necessarily from the serpent in Genesis that tempts Eve to eat fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Here’s the passage from Poetasters, a 1601 comedy by Ben Jonson about versifiers who ape true poets:

“Are there no players here? no poet apes, / That come with basilisk’s eyes, whose forked tongues / Are steeped in venom, as their hearts in gall?” (A basilisk is a mythical serpent that can kill with a single glance.)

When Lancelot Andrewes, an Anglican bishop, used the phrase a few years later, he was clearly alluding to the forked tongue of the deceptive serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Andrewes, who may be best known for overseeing the King James Version of the Bible, used “forked tongue” twice in a June 8, 1606, sermon in Greenwich before King James I. Here’s one that mentions “in the beginning,” an allusion to Genesis:

“And so, the Devill hath his tongues. And he hath the art of cleaving. He shewed it in the beginning, when he made the Serpent, lingnam bisulcam, a forked tongue, to speake that, which was contrary to his knowledge and meaning.”

The full expression “to speak with a forked tongue” showed up in American English in the 19th century, according to our searches of digital archives.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from a March 23, 1829, letter by President Andrew Jackson addressed “To the Creek Indians”:

“You know I love my white and red children, and always speak straight, and not with a forked tongue; that I have always told you the truth.”

The letter, which urged the Creeks to move West, was part of  a plan by Jackson to move all Native Americans living east of the Mississippi to Oklahoma. Defiant Creeks were driven out of Alabama and Georgia in the Creek War of 1836.

Several language references suggest that “to speak with a forked tongue” is derived from expressions in American Indian languages.

However, we haven’t seen any written evidence from the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries that Native Americans were using the full expression, either in English or in a native language.

Indians did apparently use the phrase “forked tongue” to mean deception as far back as the 1700s, but they could have picked up the term from English speakers, perhaps traders or missionaries relating the passage about Eve and the serpent in Genesis.

James Adair, an English trader and writer who lived among Native Americans in the Southeast in the mid-1700s, quotes a Chickasaw chief as using the phrase.

In this passage from The History of the American Indians, Adair’s 1775 account of Indian life, the Chickasaw tells a Muskogee emissary that without the help of the English, the French would set the Muskogee against one another, as they did with the Choctaw.

“Only for their brotherly help, the artful and covetous French, by the weight of presents and the skill of their forked tongues, would before now, have set you to war against each other, in the very same manner they have done by the Choktah.”

As for the Native American use of the full expression, the earliest example we’ve seen is fictional.

In “God and the Pagan,” a short story by W. A. Fraser in the July 1898 issue of McClure’s Magazine, a Blackfoot medicine man warns his people about a “paleface prophet who speaks with the forked tongue”—a priest seeking the release of a woman carried off in a raid.

When an actual American Indian is described in writing as using the expression in a native tongue, the translation is often questionable.

In Black Elk Speaks (1932), for example, John G. Neihardt puts these words into the mouth of Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux medicine man:

“But could we believe anything the Wasichus ever said to us? They spoke with forked tongues.” (Wašícu is a word in Lakota and Dakota Sioux for people of European descent.)

However, we question the authenticity of a book by an American poet who didn’t speak Sioux about a Sioux who didn’t speak English. (Although Neihardt was helped by Black Elk’s son, scholars say he took many liberties with the translation.)

In “Black Elk Speaks With Forked Tongue,” a 1989 study, G. Thomas Couser writes: “we see Black Elk not face to face, but through the gloss of a white man—a translation whose surface obscures Black Elk by reflecting the culture of his collaborator.”

(The study appeared as a chapter in Couser’s 1989 book Altered Egos: Authority in American Biography. An earlier version appeared in Studies in Autobiography, a 1988 collection edited by James Olney.)

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Pronunciation Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

Is the ‘d’ silent in ‘adjective’?

Q: Why is “d” silent before “j” in words like “adjective,” “adjust,” and “adjunct”? Is this an issue of phonology, or is it related to the etymology of these words and their Latin prefix?

A: The “d” isn’t silent in these words. It’s built into the letter “j” as pronounced in modern English. This “j” sound is rendered in phonetic symbols as /dʒ/.

In modern French, you may have noticed, the letter “j” is sounded by /ʒ/ alone—as in je and jeune—a sound similar to the one we hear in the middle of our word “vision.”

But in English, “j” is much stronger—as in “jury” and “banjo”—incorporating a touch of “d” at the beginning. This is why the English consonant is represented by the more complex symbol /dʒ/, reflecting both sounds.

We can’t say for sure why those words you mention kept the “d” in their spellings. Certainly they would be pronounced just the same without it. But your suggestion may be correct, and perhaps the “d” was retained for etymological reasons.

The “d” got there in the first place because all English words beginning with “adj-” are ultimately derived from Latin words prefixed with ad-. Such words include “adjacent,” “adjective,” “adjoin,” “adjourn,” “adjudicate,” “adjunct,” “adjure,” “adjust,” and “adjutant.”

The Latin prefix can denote motion “to,” “toward,” “near,” or “at,” and it can indicate “change into, addition, adherence, increase, or intensification,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Taking “adjective” as an example, it can be traced to the Latin ad– plus iacere (to lay, to throw). When it first came into English in the 14th century, it was spelled “adiectif” because English had not yet adopted the letter “j.”

Similarly, other “adj-” words that date from the Middle English period originally had no “j.” For instance, “adjacent” was spelled “adiacent”; “adjoin” was sometimes “adioyne” (among many other spellings); “adjourn” was “adiurne”; “adjunct” was “adiuncte”; and “adjure” was “adiure.”

Even later words like “adjutant” and “adjust,” which came along in the early 1600s, originally had two spellings, sometimes with “j” and sometimes with “i” (“adiutant,” “adiust”).

But even when spelled with “i,” such words were pronounced as if the letter were a modern “j.”

As the OED explains within its entry for the letter “j,” French spellings brought into English with the Norman Conquest introduced the Old French use of “i” as a consonant pronounced /dʒ/. This, the dictionary says, is the “sound which English has ever since retained in words derived from that source, although in French itself the sound was subsequently, by loss of its first element, simplified to /ʒ/.”

For a time, the double identity of “i” resulted in some confusion, because, as Oxford says, the letter “represented at once the vowel sound of i, and a consonant sound /dʒ/, far removed from the vowel.”

It wasn’t until the 17th century that “i” was consistently used for the vowel and “j” for the consonant.

In case you’re interested, we’ve mentioned the development of “j” in other posts, including one in 2013 about the name “Jesus.”

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English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

Doctor’s or doctor appointment?

Q: Why do I use a possessive when I say, “I have a doctor’s appointment on Thursday”? I never hear anyone say, “I have a doctor appointment.”

A: Of the two phrases, “doctor’s appointment” is much more common in digitized books, news, and other media, but “doctor appointment” is not unknown.

Searches of the News on the Web corpus, for example, indicate that “doctor’s appointment” has appeared 1,354 times since 2010 in the online newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters tracked, compared to 78 appearances for “doctor appointment.”

Although the wording with ’s is more common for an appointment with a “doctor,” the plain construction is used more often for an appointment with a “dentist” as well as with a “cardiologist,” “dermatologist,” and some other medical specialists, according to our searches.

Strictly speaking, “doctor’s appointment” is a genitive construction, not a possessive. As we’ve noted several times on our blog, the term “genitive” is broader than “possessive.”

In addition to possession (“the lawyer’s office”), the genitive can indicate the source of something (“the girl’s story”), the date (“yesterday’s storm”), the type (“a women’s college”), a part (“the book’s cover”), an amount (“two cups’ worth”), duration (“five years’ experience”), and so on.

In the phrase “doctor’s appointment,” the noun “doctor” is being used genitively to describe the type of appointment, while in “doctor appointment,” the noun is being used attributively (that is, adjectivally) to do the same thing.

The term “doctor’s” in the first example is often called a “descriptive genitive,” and “doctor” in the second an “attributive noun,” a “noun adjunct,” or a “noun premodifier.”

There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules for whether to use a noun genitively or attributively as a modifier before another noun. However, some usages are more idiomatic (that is, natural to a native speaker) than others.

In A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, the authors Randolph Quirk et al. say that genitives tend to premodify nouns referring to human beings, while attributive nouns are often closely related to the nouns they premodify.

So we might use genitives for “women’s college,” “cashier’s check,” or “learner’s permit,” and attributive nouns for “computer software,” “movie highlights,” or “pizza topping.”

However, there are many exceptions. For instance, one might use the genitive in that last example to be more specific (“the pizza’s topping was cold”).

It’s especially hard to pin down the use of the descriptive genitive. Another authoritative source, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, uses the term but describes it as “a somewhat unproductive category.”

As the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, note, “while it is possible to have a summer’s day and a winter’s day, corresponding forms for the other seasons are quite marginal.”

Similarly, they write, “we have a ship’s doctor but not a school’s doctor—instead a plain-case nominative is used, a school doctor.”

And that takes us back to where we began: Why is “doctor’s appointment” more common than “doctor appointment,” while “dentist appointment” is more common than “dentist’s appointment”?

We haven’t found an explanation in the linguistic scholarship for why English speakers prefer the genitive to describe an appointment with a “doctor.”

However, we suspect an attributive noun is preferred for “dentist” or similar terms ending in “-ist”  because people are put off by the two sibilants at the end of “dentist’s,” “dermatologist’s, “cardiologist’s,” and so on.

Finally, here are search results from the NOW corpus for a few other noun-noun constructions, with the more popular version of each pair listed first:

“driver’s license,” 8,966 hits, “driver license,” 306; “attorney fees,” 884, “attorney’s fees,” 681; “survivor benefits,” 291, “survivor’s benefits,” 38; “learner’s permit,” 237, “learner permit,” 171; “cashier’s check,” 161, “cashier check,” 6.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

A question of beige

Q: A story in the NY Times Magazine about an outspoken academic who studies wolves says he stands out because scientists “can be a maddeningly careful, even beige species.” I googled the phrase “beige species” and found nothing. Puzzling, huh?

A: The word “beige” is sometimes used metaphorically to mean bland, similar to “vanilla.”

One of the definitions for “beige” in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary is “lacking distinction.” The dictionary adds that it has the same sense as “vanilla” when used to mean “plain, ordinary, conventional.”

So in noting that scientists “can be a maddeningly careful, even beige species,” the Times writer is saying that scientists can be overly careful and conventional.

Merriam-Webster is the only standard dictionary in which we’ve found this figurative sense of the word, and it’s not in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

However, the usage appears in several slang references in our library. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, for example, says the adjective means “bland; uninteresting; unimaginative; boring.”

The earliest Random House example is from a Sept. 14, 1982, article in the New York Times about the spread of Valley Girl speak beyond California: “BEIGE: Boring, for sure.”

The citation is from a brief glossary at the end of the article. Earlier, the writer says it “would be, you know, a really beige thing to admit” being unaware of the upsurge in uptalk.

This later example is from Tricks of the Trade, a 1988 movie about a woman whose husband is killed in the apartment of a prostitute: “Maybe that’s what was wrong with your marriage—too beige.”

And we’ve expanded this Random House citation from Slang U., a 1991 dictionary of college slang by the UCLA linguist Pamela Munro: “beige boring: My date talked about his stamp collection the whole night. What a beige personality!”

Finally, here’s another example that we’ve found in Munro’s book, which includes contributions from students in her slang seminar: “my life was as beige as June Cleaver’s meatloaf.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

A touching story

Q: I see the word “touchstone” in your recent post about “acid test.” I always pictured something like the Blarney Stone—touch it for good luck. I guess I was wrong about that.

A: Yes, the figurative sense of “touchstone”—a criterion for judging excellence—comes from its literal use in the testing of gold and other precious metals, as in an “acid test.”

However, “touchstone” is hundreds of years older than “acid test.” Long before acids were used in the assaying process, jewelers and others used their own eyes to examine the marks made by precious metals on touchstones.

Because of its ancient connection with gold, the rock known as a “touchstone” had a fascinating history even before it got its English name.

The word is thought to come from a 14th-century Middle French term, pierre de touche (literally “touch stone”), which the Oxford English Dictionary says was first recorded sometime before 1389.

A pierre de touche was (and still is) a piece of stone, typically black jasper or basalt, used in testing the purity of gold and other valuable metals. Similar Middle French terms of the 1400s included touchepiarre and pierre à toucher.

The French began using pierre de touche figuratively in 1579, Oxford says, and around that same time the term also appeared in Spanish as piedra de toque (“touch stone”) in both “concrete and figurative senses.”

However, the practice of testing gold on such a stone preceded those French and Spanish terms by many centuries.

The first-century Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder, in his encyclopedic Naturalis Historia, referred to this stone as coticula (Latin for both “touchstone” and “whetstone”). In Book 33, devoted to metals, he writes:

“Auri argentique mentionem comitatur lapis, quem coticulam appellant. … His coticulis periti cum e vena ut lima rapuerunt experimento ramentum, protinus dicunt quantum auri sit in ea, quantum argenti vel aeris.”

(“A description of gold and silver is necessarily accompanied by that of the stone known as the touchstone. … Persons of experience in these matters, when they have scraped a particle off the ore with this stone, as with a file, can tell in a moment the proportion of gold there is in it, how much silver, or how much copper.”)

The use of similar stones was also known in ancient India, Egypt, and Greece, according to historians and metallurgists.

But let’s get back to English and the word “touchstone.”

In early uses, it was also spelled “twichstone,” “touche stone,” “towtchstone,” “tuitchstone,” and “tweichstaine.”

Here’s the OED’s earliest example of the literal usage: “Touche stone to proue golde with.” (From John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse, a 1530 French grammar book written in English.)

Oxford defines “touchstone” as “Fine-grained black stone (typically a type of chert) upon which objects made of gold or silver can be rubbed to determine their purity; a piece of this.” (The cherts are silica stones like flint, jasper, agate, onyx and others.)

As the OED explains the process, “the touchstone was originally used in conjunction with a set of touch needles of known purity, allowing visual comparison of the mark left on the stone by the object being assayed with those of the touch needles.”

The word must have been known before it was recorded in writing in 1530, since the figurative use appeared in the same year. Here’s the earliest example we’ve found:

“Ye scripture is y twichstone yt tryeth all doctrynes” (“The scripture is the touchstone that tests all doctines”). From William Tyndale’s 1530 translation of the Pentateuch.

The earliest figurative example given in the OED is from John Frith’s A Disputacio[n] of Purgatorye (1531). Here Frith invites critics to test his arguments by consulting scripture: “Laye them to the touchstone and trye them with goddes worde.”

(In the treatise, Frith uses “touchstone” figuratively four times altogether. In another passage he says that the “worde of god” is the “perfeyte touchstone that iudgeth and examineth all things.”)

The OED defines the figurative sense of “touchstone” as “Anything which serves to test the genuineness or value of anything; a test, a trial; a criterion or reference point by which something is assessed, judged, or recognized.”

We should mention here that “touchstone” at one time had another meaning, one probably derived from the gold-testing term. It meant a “fine-grained dark stone used for building and monumental work; esp. a type of black marble,” the OED says.

In a chronological oddity, this use was found in writing in the 1480s, decades before the parent term. As Oxford explains, “in spite of the chronology of the examples, it is likely” that the use of “touchstone” to mean black marble developed from an earlier metallurgical sense—the black stone used to test gold.

As more old manuscripts are digitized and made available to scholars, earlier uses of “touchstone” may come to light.

Today, English speakers still use “touchstone”—and French speakers still use pierre de touche—in both literal and figurative ways.

The French-English online dictionary Linguee gives this figurative example: “Le livre était considéré comme la pierre de touche du genre fantastique” (“The book was considered the touchstone of the fantasy genre”).

And the OED has modern English examples for the gold-testing term as well as the figure of speech. Here’s a sampling:

“In a metals shop the most common method for determining the karat of gold is with the use of a touchstone.” (From The Complete Book of Jewelry Making, 2006, by Carles Codina, translated from Spanish by Laura C. Jones.)

“Fashion, literature and music are the cultural touchstones by which we navigate our recent history.” (From the online London newspaper City A.M., June 4, 2015.)

Finally, this one from the March 2012 issue of Vanity Fair uses the figurative word adjectivally. It’s from an article about the 1982 comedy Diner:

“For a certain 40-plus demographic … the movie became … a touchstone experience, its lines serving as passwords, signifiers of like-mindedness.”

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