The Grammarphobia Blog

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 medical text 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, it survived until the late 19th century, spelled treen in Middle and Modern English, according to the OED.

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”).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

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.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

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 “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.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

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.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

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.)

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

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.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

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.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

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.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

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.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.