The Grammarphobia Blog

What the rooster useter do

Q:I run a class for language-obsessed retirees in Australia, where “useter” is commonly used for “used to,” as in “I useter drive a Volvo” or “Didn’t you useter drive a Volvo?” May I ask you to write about this usage?

A: The word spelled “useter” represents the way some people pronounce “used to”—same meaning, different spelling. And it’s found in the US and Britain as well as in Australia.

So a sentence spoken as “I useter drive a Volvo” would be written more formally as “I used to drive a Volvo.” And the question “Didn’t you useter drive a Volvo?” would be written as “Didn’t you use to drive a Volvo?”

The spelling “useter” arose as a variant “representing a colloquial pronunciation of used to,” the Oxford English Dictionary explains. When “useter” appears in the dictionary’s written examples, it’s always an attempt to imitate the spoken usage.

The OED cites published examples of “useter” in both American and British English dating from the mid-19th century. In its earliest appearance, the word is spelled “use ter”:

“You don’t know no more ’bout goin’ to sea than I knows about them ’Gyptian lookin’ books that you use ter study when you went to College.” (From an 1846 novel, The Prince and the Queen, by the American writer and editor Justin Jones, who wrote fiction under the pseudonym Harry Hazel.)

The dictionary’s most recent example is from a British newspaper, the Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough), dated June 14, 2003: “They useter ’ave a big Rockweiler … but it got nicked.”

Among the OED’s examples is one spelled “useta,” representing what’s probably the more common American pronunciation:

“I useta beg her to keep some of that stuff in a safe-deposit box.” From The Burglar in the Closet (1980), by the American mystery writer Lawrence Block.

As we said in a recent post, this sense of “use” in the phrase “used to” refers to an action in the past that was once habitual but has been discontinued.

We won’t say any more about the etymology of “use,” since we covered it in that post. But we’ll expand a bit on the sense of “use” as a verb that roughly means “customarily do.”

This sense of “use” has died out in the present tense. A 17th-century speaker might have said, “John uses to drink ale,” but today the present-tense version would be “John usually [or customarily or habitually] drinks ale.”

In modern English, this sense of “use” is found only in the past tense: “used” or “did use.” We now say, for example, “Normally he drives a Ford, but he used [or did use] to drive a Volvo.”

Since the “d” in “used to” is not pronounced, the phrase sounds like “use to,” and people sometimes write it that way in error.

As the OED explains, the “d” and the “t” sounds in “used to” became “assimilated” in both British and American English, and “attempts to represent these pronunciations in writing gave rise to use to as a spelling for used to.” The “use to” spelling “occurs from at least the late 17th cent. onwards,” the dictionary says.

Another irregularity is that people commonly—but redundantly—use “did” and “used” together, as in “Did he used to drive a Volvo?” But with “did,” the normal form is “use” (“Did he use to drive a Volvo?”).

As Pat explains in her book Woe Is I, “did use” is another way of saying “used,” just as “did like” is another way of saying “liked.” And just as we don’t write “did liked,” we shouldn’t write “did used.” She gives this usage advice:

  • If there’s no “did,” choose “used to” (as in “Isaac used to play golf”).
  • If there’s a “did,” choose “use to” (as in “Isaac did use to play golf” … “Did Isaac use to play squash?” … “No, he didn’t use to play squash”).

As you’ve noticed, questions and negative statements like those last two are sometimes constructed differently.

Americans, and many speakers of British English, typically say, “Did he use to drive a Volvo?” … “No, he didn’t use to drive a Volvo.”

But sometimes, sentences like these get a different treatment in British English: “Used he to drive a Volvo?” …”Usedn’t he to drive a Volvo?” … “No, he used not [or usedn’t] to drive a Volvo.”

What’s happening in those negative examples? The OED says that “not” sometimes directly modifies “use,” resulting in “the full form used not… although usedn’t occasionally occurs as well as usen’t.”

In closing, we’ll share a few lines from Irving Berlin’s 1914 song “I Want to Go Back to Michigan (Down on the Farm)”:

I miss the rooster,
The one that useter
Wake me up at four A.M.

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Are you feeling cantankerous?

Q: Many of the recent articles about John McCain have described the late senator as “cantankerous,” which leads me to ask you where this odd-looking word comes from.

A: When the word first appeared in writing in the early 1700s, it was described as a term in the Kentish dialect spoken in southeast England. In the late 1700s, it was said to be a term in the Wiltshire dialect in southwest England.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the dialectal usage may have evolved from the Middle English contak or conteke (quarreling) and contekour or conteckour (a quarrelsome person)—perhaps influenced by a word like “rancorous.”

The OED defines “cantankerous” as “showing an ill-natured disposition; ill-conditioned and quarrelsome, perverse, cross-grained.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from An Alphabet of Kenticisms (1736), by the antiquarian Samuel Pegge: “Contancrous, peevish, perverse, prone to quarrelling.”

The next Oxford example is from She Stoops to Conquer, a 1773 comedy by Oliver Goldsmith: “There’s not a more bitter cantanckerous toad in all Christendom.”

This citation, which we’ve expanded, is from The Rivals, a 1775 comedy by Richard Brinsley Sheridan:

“But I hope, Mr. Faulkland, as there are three of us come on purpose for the game—you won’t be so cantanckerous as to spoil the party by sitting out.”

And in this entry from A Provincial Glossary: With a Collection of Local Proverbs, and Popular Superstitions (2nd ed., 1790), the lexicographer Francis Grose tracks the usage to Wiltshire: “Contankerous. Quarrelsome. Wilts.”

The first OED example with the modern spelling cites a March 24, 1842 letter by the English author Mary Russell Mitford addressed “To Miss Barrett, Wimpole Street”:

“I rather have a fancy for Mr. Roebuck, who is as cantankerous and humorous (in the old Shakesperian sense) as Cassius himself.” (From an 1870 collection of Mitford’s letters, edited by Alfred Guy Kingan L’Estrange.) John Arthur Roebuck was a British politician.

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Aurelians or lepidopterists?

Q: I’m writing an article about a European lepidopterist, and I’ve discovered that a butterfly collector in Europe is sometimes called an aurelian. I’ve found several tangential connections to a Roman emperor, but nothing solid. Can you help me explain the usage to my readers?

A:Yes, “aurelian” is a rare old term for “lepidopterist.” It’s still alive, though barely. We’ve checked six standard dictionaries and only one includes the usage. Merriam-Webster Unabridged defines it as “a collector and breeder of moths and butterflies.”

The noun isn’t related to Aurelian, the third-century Roman emperor whose Latin name was Lucius Domitius Aurelianus Augustus. It’s derived from “aurelia,” the chrysalis or pupa of an insect. The chrysalis, as you know, is the hardened outer covering of the pupa, an insect in the immature, non-feeding stage between larva and adult.

The words “aurelia” and “chrysalis” are ultimately derived from the Latin and Greek terms for gold, aurum and χρῡσός (chrisos).

The Latin chrȳsallis comes from the Greek χρυσαλλίς (chrysalis), meaning “the gold-coloured sheath of butterflies,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Although some butterfly chrysalises are gold in color, others are black, brown, green, pink, purple, and so on.

The first of these terms to show up in English was “aurelia,” which the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines as “the chrysalis or pupa of an insect, esp. of a butterfly. (Now scarcely in use, chrysalis being the ordinary term.)”

The earliest example in the dictionary for “aurelia” (as the plural “aureliaes”) is from a 1608 treatise on zoology by the English clergyman and writer Edward Topsell: “All Catterpillers are not conuerted into Aureliaes.”

The term “chrysalis” (in the plural “chrysallides”) appeared in 1658 in an expanded version of Topsell’s treatise that was revised posthumously: “Transmutations … of Catterpillers … into Chrysallides (that shine as if leaves of gold were laid upon them).”

As for the people who study butterflies, moths, and other insects, the terms “entomologist” and “aurelian” appeared in writing in the late 18th century and “lepidopterist” in the 19th century.

The first OED citation for “entomologist” is from an April 18, 1771, report in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London: “The entomologists have ranked the bivalve insects under the genus of the monoculi.” (The italics here are in the original, though not in the Oxford citation.)

The earliest example we’ve seen for the noun “aurelian” is in the title and text of a 1766 book by the English entomologist Moses Harris: The Aurelian: or, Natural History of English Insects; Namely, Moths and Butterflies. The subtitle says the book uses the “standard names, as given and established by the worthy and ingenious Society of Aurelians.” (The OED cites a 1778 edition of the book.)

In his preface, Harris notes that the Society of Aurelians used to meet in the 1740s at the Swan Tavern in London, but disbanded after March 27, 1748, when a fire destroyed the tavern along with the society’s specimens, illustrations, and library. Harris formed a new Aurelian Society in 1762, one of several short-lived societies with that name. We haven’t found any earlier written mention of the first society.

”Lepidopterist,” the latecomer entomologically as well as etymologically, appeared in the early 19th century. The OED’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from An Introduction to Entomology; or, Elements of the Natural History of Insects (1826), by William Kirby and William Spence:

“If a Lepidopterist goes into the wood to capture moths in the day-time, he finds them often perched on the lichens that cover the north side of the trunk of a tree, with their wings and antennae folded.”

Oxford says the term comes from Lepidoptera, modern Latin for a “large order of insects, characterized by having four membranous wings covered with scales; it comprises the butterflies and moths.”

Interestingly, this modern Latin term is derived from the old Greek words λεπίς (lepis, scale) and πτερόν (pteron, wing). A modern Latin word made of two old Greek terms? Well, as Oscar Wilde put it, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

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A technical question

Q: The NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA, recently emailed employees to announce the creation of a new position: Associate Director for Technical. If you are not as disconcerted as I am by this use of “technical” without a noun, please help me to accept it and move on.

A: It takes a lot to disconcert us, but we do feel the need for a noun here. Associate director for technical what? Because “technical” is principally an adjective, we expect it to be followed by the noun it modifies.

In this case, the adjective could be short for “technical support,” “technical services,” “technical management,” “technical operations,” and so on.

In fact, such terms appear in many titles at other NASA centers: “associate director for technical management,” “associate director for technical issues,” “associate director for technical activities,” “associate director for technical efforts,” and “associate director for technical affairs.”

However, the NASA website also has many noun-free titles, including “associate director technical,” “associate director/technical,” “associate director, technical,” and “associate director (technical).”

To be fair, a title like “associate director for technical efforts” may be more idiomatic than “associate director for technical,” but it doesn’t tell us much more about what the job entails. That may explain why NASA apparently doesn’t have a consistent style for using the word “technical” in job titles.

We’ve emailed NASA to ask what “associate director for technical” means in the announcement that disconcerts you. But we’ve gotten no response.

The word “technical” is occasionally used as a noun in itself, but not in any way that would clarify that job description.

We sifted through the definitions in major American and British dictionaries and came up with four principal uses of “technical” as a noun. Here they are, along with the earliest dates recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary, where available:

  1. In sports lingo, the noun “technical” (1917) means what it’s short for, a “technical foul” (1878).
  2. In stock-market terminology, “technicals” are indicators of how markets typically behave. The OED has no entry for this noun, but it has one for “technical analysis” (1902), which tries to forecast market activity based on past trends.
  3. In business-speak, a “technical” (or a “tech”) can mean a technology company. This use isn’t recorded in the OED, but it’s found in Longman’s Business Dictionary, which says it originated in journalism.
  4. In military language, and usually in the plural, “technicals” (1992) are small, light trucks fitted with machine guns or other weapons, generally used by guerrillas or irregular troops. The fighters who ride in such vehicles are also called “technicals” (1992).

As for the etymology of “technical,” Oxford says it was borrowed either from post-classical Latin (technicus) or from ancient Greek (τεχνικός). The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the Greek word (tekhnikós in our alphabet) is the most likely source.

Chambers makes a good case. The Greek adjective tekhnikós means having to do with art, and is derived from tékhnē, a noun for art, skill, craft, or trade. But the Latin technicus, Chambers says,” was known only as a noun in the sense of a teacher or skilled artisan.”

When the adjective “technical” entered English in the early 1600s, the OED says, it was used to describe a person with knowledge, expertise, or skill “in a particular art, science, or other subject.”

The first known use in writing is from a 1617 sermon by the English clergyman and scholar John Hales, who had taught Greek at Eton and Oxford. In the sermon, Hales warns against abuse in the interpretation of obscure and difficult Bible passages:

“Nor to think themselues sufficiently provided vpon their acquaintance with some Notitia, or systeme of some technicall divine.” (Here “divine” is a noun for a theologian.)

Later, as the OED says, the adjective was used to characterize someone “expert in or concerned with applied and industrial sciences.” The dictionary’s most recent example is from the July 19, 1998, issue of the New York Times:

“Microsoft’s technical people think it’s completely obvious that an operating system in 1998 should include Web-browsing services.”

Of course the adjective “technical” is also used more broadly, and these senses are also several hundred years old.

For example, since the 1630s “technical” has referred to “the specialized use or meaning of language in a particular field,” the OED says. The dictionary has citations for “technical sense” (1635), “technical terms” (1666), “technical language” (1808), and “technical classification” (1835).

And since the late 18th century, the dictionary says, a writer or a book that uses specialized terms or requires “specialist knowledge to be understood” has been called “technical.”

Oxford’s earliest citation is from a 1779 issue of the Mirror, a short-lived periodical published in Edinburgh: “I have since been endeavouring to make it a little less technical, in order to fit it more for general perusal.”

Another familiar sense of the adjective means “so called” or “strictly so considered.” The earliest example in the OED is a 1779 reference to “a technical, artificial title,” but this 2008 citation from the Styles section of the New York Times is a better illustration:

“Several weeks later Mr. Byrd and Ms. Kalos went on what she described as ‘our technical first date.’ … Two days later they went out alone on what she considers their first real date.”

We won’t go into the many other senses of the adjective “technical,” as applied to products, equipment, processes, activities, and so on. Needless to say, they shed no light on NASA’s use of the word in that job title.

It’s worth mentioning that many other words are related to the ancient Greek noun tékhnē (art, skill, craft, trade). Some of them—along with the first dates given in the OED—are “text” (circa 1369), “context” (perhaps before 1425), “pretext” (before 1535), “architect” (1563), “technology” (1612), “textile,” (1626), “tectonic” (1656), “technicality” (1764), “technique” (1817), “technician” (1833), “technoculture” (1946), and, inevitably, “technobabble” (1981).

Their ultimate ancestor is a prehistoric Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as teks-, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. It has been variously translated as meaning to weave, make, build, or fabricate.

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How factual is a factoid?

Q: My dictionary says a “factoid” can be a questionable “fact” as well as an actual fact that’s trivial. To me these definitions are almost opposites. Has “factoid” always had two meanings?

A: Like many newish words, “factoid” is a work in progress. When it first showed up in English in the early 1970s, it referred to a dubious assumption presented as fact by the news media.

The first published reference to the word in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Norman Mailer’s 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe.

In the book, Mailer describes factoids as “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority.”

The OED defines this early usage more broadly as “something that becomes accepted as a fact, although it is not (or may not be) true; spec. an assumption or speculation reported and repeated so often that it is popularly considered true; a simulated or imagined fact.”

It says the word was formed by adding the “-oid” suffix to the noun “fact.” The suffix is derived in part from the Latin -oīdēs and in part from the Greek -οειδής. In classical times, according to the dictionary, it meant “having the form or likeness of, like.”

Oxford says a new sense of “factoid,” used chiefly by journalists, appeared in the early 1980s: “A brief or trivial piece of information, esp. any of a list of such items presented together.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from the Book World section in the May 16, 1982, issue of the Washington Post: “A great lump of a book that never stirs from its obsessive accumulation of factoids.”

The OED is an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. We’ve also checked a half-dozen standard dictionaries, and all but one include both senses.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, for example, has the original meaning (“an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print”) as well as the newer one (“a briefly stated and usually trivial fact”).

Oxford Dictionaries Online (a standard dictionary) lists both meanings, but in reverse order: “A brief or trivial item of news or information” and “An assumption or speculation that is reported and repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact.”

The new meaning seems to be gaining in popularity over the old one. It’s now accepted by some 64 percent of the usage panel at The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), compared to 59 percent who accept the old meaning. In the dictionary’s fourth edition, only 43 percent accepted the new sense, and the new sense wasn’t even included in the third edition.

In fact, one of the references we’ve consulted, the online Cambridge Dictionary, includes only the new meaning (“an interesting piece of information”) and doesn’t describe the information as trivial.

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Today’s topic: new words and how they make it into the dictionary.

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Double whammy

Q: This is from a recent hurricane headline in the News & Record, my local paper in Greensboro, NC: “Guilford County could see a double whammy from Florence.” So where does “double whammy” come from?

A: When “whammy” showed up in the late 1930s, it meant an evil spell or bad luck in sports slang. The term “double whammy,” a more powerful spell or misfortune, appeared in the early 1940s, followed by even more powerful whammies that were tripled and quadrupled.

The earliest example we’ve seen, cited in The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3rd ed.), is from the February 1937 issue of the American Legion Monthly: “Nearly every player in the game engages in some little practice which he believes will bring him good luck or put the whammy on the other fellow.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example, which is expanded here, cites The Kid From Tomkinsville (1940), the first book in John R. Tunis’s eight-novel series about the Brooklyn Dodgers:

“Interest round the field now centered in the Kid’s chances for a no-hit game, and already a low murmur rose as the stands saw inning after inning go past without a hit from the visiting club. On the bench everyone realized it too, but everyone kept discreetly quiet on account of the Whammy. Mustn’t put the Whammy on him!”

(Tunis’s book influenced several American writers, including Philip Roth, who mentions The Kid From Tomkinsville and its rookie pitcher Roy Tucker in his 1997 novel American Pastoral.)

By the way, here’s a description, cited in Paul Dickson’s baseball dictionary, of how a Cardinals trainer, Harrison J. Weaver, tried to put the whammy on a Yankee base runner.

“With right hand above the left, each fist clenched except for the pointing, hornlike index and little fingers, Weaver cast his whammy spell on Joe Gordon, the Yankee runner on second base.” (From The Gashouse Gang, 1945, by J. Roy Stockton.)

Al Capp’s use of “whammy” in his Li’l Abner comic strip helped popularize the usage. In 1951, he used both “whammy” and “double whammy” in the speech (or, rather, the speech balloons) of the zoot-suited hillbilly Evil-Eye Fleegle:

Evil-Eye Fleegle is th’ name, an’ th’ ‘whammy’ is my game. Mudder Nature endowed me wit’ eyes which can putrefy citizens t’ th’ spot! … There is th’ ‘single whammy’! That, friend, is th’ full, pure power o’ one o’ my evil eyes! It’s dynamite, friend, an’ I do not t’row it around lightly! … And, lastly—th’ ‘double whammy’—namely, th’ full power o’ both eyes—which I hopes I never hafta use.”

A couple of years after “whammy” first appeared in baseball as an evil spell, the term took on the more general sense of a problem or a misfortune. The earliest example in Green’s Dictionary of Slang is from Walter Winchell’s Dec. 4, 1939, On Broadway column: “Six hundred Westchester women put the whammy on those radio romances, calling them ‘insulting.’ ”

Standard dictionaries now define “whammy” as an evil spell, a serious setback, or a calamity, though it’s usually modified when used to mean a setback or a calamity, as in this example from Oxford Dictionaries Online: “Our economy suffered a triple whammy this year—we were hit by Sars, the Iraq war, and then the world economic downturn.”

As for “double whammy,” the most common of the modified phrases, the earliest example we’ve seen is from the Aug. 13, 1941, issue of the Oakland Tribune. Here’s an excerpt from an over-the-top interview with the boxing manager Wirt Ross, who is described by the paper’s sports editor as “the most lovable con man ever to come out of the hills”:

“ ‘I’ve been taking a course in hypnotism from the famous Professor Hoffmeister of Pennsylvania. … When I gave my big police dog the evil eye … he liked to collapse, went out and nearly got himself killed by the neighbor’s pet poodle pooch. Professor Hoffmeister says I don’t get the double whammy to put on human beings until Lesson 9.”

In the early 1950s, “double whammy” took on the modern meaning of a twofold blow or setback. The earliest example we’ve seen is from the Oct. 25, 1952, issue of the Indianapolis Recorder.

An article datelined Chicago describes how the manager and co-manager of the lightweight boxing titleholder Lauro Salas “had a double whammy on them. First, their fighter lost the lightweight championship of the world. Second, they lost nearly $800 to an unidentified gunman.”

And here’s an example from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary: “With the cold weather and the high cost of heating fuel, homeowners were hit with a double whammy this winter.”

Where does “whammy” ultimately come from? As Merriam-Webster explains, “The origin of whammy is not entirely certain, but it is assumed to have been created by combining wham (a solid blow) with the whimsical -y ending.”

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On markets and marts

Q: I’m curious about why the short form of “market” is “mart” and not “mark.” Was the usage influenced by Kmart?

A: No, “mart” appeared in the Middle Ages, hundreds of years before the S.S. Kresge Company opened its first Kmart store in 1962. And it wasn’t a shortening of “market” either, at least not in English. The two terms came into English separately from different sources, though they’re  etymologically related.

“Mart,” which showed up in the early 1400s, comes from Middle Dutch, where marct and its colloquial form mart were derived from the Old Dutch markat. The Dutch words ultimately come from mercātus, classical Latin for market or fair

“Market,” which first appeared in the early 900s, was borrowed from either medieval Latin, Germanic, or French, but it too ultimately comes from mercātus.

When “market” arrived in Old English, it meant a “meeting or gathering together of people for the purchase and sale of provisions or livestock, publicly displayed, at a fixed time and place,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example is from a document, dated 963, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of Old English writing from the 800s to the 1100s: “Ic wille þæt markete beo in þe selue tun” (“I will be at that market in the same town”).

In, the 1200s, “market” came to mean an “open space or covered building in which vendors gather to display provisions (esp. from stalls or booths), livestock, etc., for sale,” Oxford says.

The dictionary’s first example is from a sermon written around 1275 in the Kentish dialect: “So ha kam into þe Marcatte so he fond werkmen þet were idel” (“So he came into the market and found workmen that were idle”).

Over the years, “market” has taken on many other senses, including a geographical area for commerce, 1615 (as in “the French market for silk”); the state of commercial activity, 1776 (“the market for wool is weak”); short for “stock market,” 1814; in the compound “supermarket,” 1931; and the operation of supply and demand, 1970 (“the market has many virtues”). Dates are from the first Oxford citations; examples are ours.

When “mart” showed up in Middle English, it referred to a “regular gathering of people for the purpose of buying and selling,” according to the OED. The dictionary’s first example is from “The Libelle of Englyshe Polycye,” an anonymous political poem written around 1436:

“And wee to martis of Braban charged bene Wyth Englyssh clothe” (“And we carried a load of good English cloth to the marts of Braban [in the Low Countries]”). From Political Poems and Songs Relating to English History (1861), edited by Thomas Wright.

In the late 16th century, the OED says, “mart” came to mean “any public place for buying and selling, as a marketplace, market hall, etc.” The dictionary’s earliest example, expanded here, is from Churchyards Challenge (1593), a collection of prose and prose by the English author and soldier Thomas Churchyard:

“As nothing could, escape the reach of arts / Schollers in scholes, and merchantes in their marts / Can ply their thrift, so they that maketh gold, / By giftes of grace, haue cunning treble fold.”

Today, “mart” usually refers to “a shop or stall carrying on trade of a specified kind (as shoe mart, etc.),” the OED says, adding, “This latter use is particularly prevalent in the names of retail businesses, esp. in N. Amer.

It’s hard to tell from the dictionary’s citations when “mart” first referred to a single retail store rather than a place housing various vendors. The first clear example, which we’ve expanded, is from the Dec. 17, 1831, issue of a London weekly, the Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction:

“It’s good-bye to Wellingtons and Cossacks, Ladies’ double channels, Gentlemen’s stout calf, and ditto ditto. They’ve all been sold off under prime cost, and the old Shoe Mart is disposed of, goodwill and fixtures, for ever and ever.” (From a fictional account of the sale of a family’s shoe store in London.)

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Why tired writing is hackneyed

Q: You’ve used “hackneyed” several times on your blog to describe tired writing, but you haven’t discussed the origins of the word. Just curious.

A: The usage comes from “hackney,” an old term for a hired horse, one that was often overworked and worn out. The ultimate source, however, was probably a village that supplied horses in medieval England.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “Probably < the name of Hackney, formerly a village in Middlesex (now a borough in London; 1198 as Hakeneia, 1236 as Hakeneye), probably with reference to supply of horses from the surrounding meadows.”

When the term first appeared in its equine sense, spelled hakeney in Middle English, it referred to a horse used for general-purpose riding, as distinct from hunting, racing, cavalry, and so on.

The OED’s first example, written mostly in Latin, is a 1299 entry in Household Accounts From Medieval England (1992), edited by the historian Christopher M. Woolgar:

“In expensis Lakoc cum uno hakeney conducto de Lond’ usque Canterbire pro tapetis cariandis” (“Expenses of Lakoc [an abbey in Wiltshire] for carrying tapestry by hackney from London to Canterbury”).

The first Oxford example for “hackney” as a horse for hire is from Piers Plowman (circa 1378), the allegorical poem by William Langland: “Ac hakeneyes hadde þei none bote hakeneyes to hyre” (“As for hackneys, they had none but hackneys for hire”).

In the late 16th century, the word “hackney” started being used adjectivally to describe an expression or a phrase made “stale or tired through indiscriminate use; overused; banal,” according to the OED.

The first OED example is from A Theological Discourse of the Lamb of God and His Enemies (1590), by the Anglican clergyman Richard Harvey, who refers to “a monstrous and a craftie antichristian practisser” relying on “hackney sillogismes.”

Meanwhile, writers began using “hackney” as a verb meaning to ride a horse. The earliest Oxford citation is from A New Tragicall Comedie of Apius & Virginia (1575), by R. B. (perhaps Richard Bower).

Here a befuddled character named Haphazard, though apparently speaking nonsense, uses the verb figuratively to foretell his execution:

“Hap was hyred to hackney in hempstrid, / In hazard he was of riding on beamestrid” (“Hap was hired to ride a hangman’s rope, / In hazard he was of riding astride a beam”).

The verb was soon being used, often in the passive, to mean to overuse or make too familiar. The OED cites Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 (1598): “So common hackneid in the eyes of men / So stale and cheape to vulgar companie.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

In the 1600s, the dictionary says, “hackney coach” came to mean a “four-wheeled coach for hire.” Later, “hackney cab” and “hackney carriage” referred to horse-drawn and then motor-driven vehicles to carry passengers for a fee.

In the mid-1700s, people began using the term we use today—“hackneyed”—as an adjective to describe a phrase or subject “made trite, uninteresting, or commonplace through familiarity or overuse; stale, tired; banal,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s first example is from a comment by the critic William Warburton in a 1747 Shakespearean anthology he edited: “For the much-used hacknied metaphors being now very imperfectly known, great care is required not to act in this case temerariously.”

The most recent Oxford example is from Mortal Rituals (2013), Matt J. Rossano’s book about the survivors of a 1972 Uruguayan Air Force crash: “The hackneyed phrase there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’ does have some truth to it.”

As for the short form “hack,” it evolved similarly. Here are the earliest OED dates for some of its senses: horse for hire (1571), driver of a hackney carriage (1661), hireling (1699), trite writing (1710), trite or dull (1759), journalistic drudge (1798), ride a horse (1800), writer of unoriginal work (1927).

Finally, we should mention that the modern “hackney horse” isn’t a worn-out horse for hire. It’s a high-stepping carriage horse popular in harness events. The Hackney Horse Society’s stud book has records for the breed dating back to 1755.

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Lion of the season

Q: I am writing about an 1850 visit of the Premier of Nepal to London. Contemporaneous news accounts referred to him as the “lion of the season.” Perhaps you can enlighten me on the source of the phrase, so I can explain the meaning to readers.

A: When “lion” first showed up in Old English in the early 800s (spelled léa after the Latin leo), it referred to the large carnivorous quadruped with a tufted tail. But by the early 1700s the word was also being used to mean a celebrity.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this figurative sense as a “person of note or celebrity who is much sought after.”

The earliest Oxford citation, which we’ve expanded here, is from “St. James’s Coffee-House,” a 1715 poem by Lady Mary Wortley Montague. In the passage, she refers to celebrity-watchers at the opera:

“The opera queens had finished half their faces / And city dames already taken their places; / Fops of all kinds, to see the Lion, run; / The beauties stay till the first act’s begun / And beaux step home to put fresh linen on.”

The next OED example is from a 1774 entry in the journals of the novelist Fanny Burney: “The present Lyon of the Times, according to the Author of the Placid man’s term, is Omy, the Native of Otaheite.”

(The celebrity here is Mai, a Pacific Islander who visited Britain, where he was known as Omai; Otaheite is an obsolete spelling of Tahiti; The Placid Man, a 1770 novel by Charles Jenner, uses “lion” literally and figuratively.)

The third Oxford citation is from an Aug. 1, 1815, letter by Harriet, Countess Granville, about the celebrities she met at a ball in Paris: “The King of Prussia is the only Royal lion.”

The dictionary doesn’t have any examples for “lion of the season.” The earliest we’ve seen is from an article, headlined “The Chinese Ambassador,” that appeared in the Times, the Sun, and several other British newspapers in December 1842.

The article in the Dec. 10, 1842, issue of the Sun, which cites the Times, begins “His Celestial Majesty proposes, we are told, sending an Ambassador to London,” and includes this sentence: “That he will be the lion of the season, the known hospitality and curiosity of our countrymen forbid us to doubt.”

The figurative use of “lion” to mean a celebrity is apparently derived from an earlier figurative sense of the plural “lions” as celebrated sights, a usage that first appeared in the late 16th century.

Oxford defines the early sense of “lions” as “things of note, celebrity, or curiosity (in a town, etc.); sights worth seeing.”

The earliest OED example is from Neuer Too Late, a 1590 collection of poetry and prose by Robert Greene: “Francesco was no other but a meere nouice, & that so newly, that to vse the old prouerb, he had scarce seene the lions.”

Interestingly, the dictionary says the figurative sense of “lions” as must-see sights comes from the practice of taking tourists to see literal lions.

“This use of the word is derived from the practice of taking visitors to see the lions which used to be kept in the Tower of London,” the dictionary says. The Tower housed a menagerie of wild animals from the 1200s to the 1800s.

In support of a connection between these figurative and literal senses of “lions,” the OED cites three examples that bridge the two usages, including this citation from The Lottery, a 1732 play by Henry Fielding:

“I must see all the Curiosities; the Tower, and the Lions, and Bedlam, and the Court, and the Opera.”

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A fork in the road

Q: Your recent discussion of “forked tongue” prompts this question. The far eastern end of Long Island splits into the North Fork and South Fork, but shouldn’t that really be North Tine and South Tine?

A: It may seem a bit odd, but when a road or an island or a river splits in two—that is, when it “forks”—each direction is generally called a “fork,” not a “tine.”

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines the geographical sense of “fork” as “the place where something divides into branches” as well as “one of the branches into which something forks.”

This all began back in Anglo-Saxon times, when forca, the Old English spelling of the noun “fork,” was borrowed from furca, Latin for a two-pronged tool like a hay-fork or yoke.

The English word originally meant “an implement, chiefly agricultural, consisting of a long straight handle, furnished at the end with two or more prongs or tines, and used for carrying, digging, lifting, or throwing,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example is from the Homilies of the Benedictine abbot Ælfric of Eynsham (circa 1000):

“Ða cwelleras … wið-ufan mid heora forcum hine ðydon.” (“The executioners … pierced him from above with their forks”). The passage, using the plural forcum, describes the death of St. Lawrence.

The original “pitchfork” (pic-forcken in early Middle English) appeared in Layamon’s Brut, a poem written sometime before 1200, according to the Middle English Dictionary, published by the University of Michigan.

Later, the OED says, “fork” was used for an object “having two (or more) branches,” such as a “stake, staff, or stick with a forked end.” These forks were for propping up a vine or tree (a use first recorded in 1389), or for resting a musket (1591) or a fishing rod (1726).

Interestingly, “fork” didn’t come to the table until four and a half centuries after its first appearance in English.

In this sense, the OED says, the word means “an instrument with two, three, or four prongs, used for holding the food while it is being cut, for conveying it to the mouth, and for other purposes at table or in cooking.”

The OED’s earliest mention is from a will recorded in 1463: “I beqwethe to Davn John Kertelynge my silvir forke for grene gyngour” (“I bequeath to Davin John Kerteling my silver fork for green ginger”). The document was first published in 1850 in Wills and Inventories From the Registers of the Commissary of Bury St. Edmunds, edited by Samuel Tymms.

Early table forks, according to historians, generally had two prongs, as with this 17th-century English fork from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Even into the 19th century, illustrations of table scenes showed people eating with two-pronged forks, as in this 1830s print from the British Museum.

So it’s not surprising that a “fork” in its geographical sense meant something that split into two parts.

The OED doesn’t discuss the use of “fork” in reference to land bodies that divide (like Long Island, which splits into two peninsulas at Riverhead, NY).

This kind of “fork” originally meant the point where a river divides in two or where two rivers join, a sense first recorded in the late 17th century.

The earliest citation in the OED, dated 1692, refers to a location “in the forks of Gunpowder River,” a tidal inlet on Chesapeake Bay. (The quotation was printed in a 1906 issue of the Maryland Historical Magazine.)

In subsequent OED citations, “fork” is used both for the division and for each branch of a waterway: “the forke of the brooke” (circa 1700); “the big fork of said river” (1753); “the fork of the Nebraska” (now the Platte River, 1837); “the north and south forks” (1839); “the east fork of the Salmon River” (1877).

By the mid-19th century, these same usages were being applied to roads—the place where a roadway splits as well as each route taken.

Washington Irving, the OED says, was the first to use the phrase “a fork in the road,” in his Chronicles of Wolfert’s Roost (1855).

And a British travel writer and avid cyclist, Charles Howard, was the first known to use “fork” for a single branch of a road that “forks”:

“Here take the right hand fork” (from The Roads of England and Wales, 1883; the phrases “left hand fork” and “right hand fork” appear a dozen or more times in the book).

Although “fork” is now the usual term for each branch when a road, a waterway, or an island splits, the word “tine” does occasionally show up.

The OED has one example, from Two Trips to Gorilla Land and the Cataracts of the Congo, an 1876 book by the explorer Richard Francis Burton: “We reached a shallow fork, one tine of which … comes from the Congo Grande.”

More to the point, Wikipedia’s “North Fork (Long Island)” entry says: “At Riverhead proper, Long Island splits into two tines, hence the designations of The South Fork and The North Fork.” However, Wikipedia’s “South Fork” entry is “tine”-less. And none of the six standard dictionaries we’ve checked include this sense of “tine.”

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Getting used to it

Q: How did the word “used” come to mean utilized, accustomed, and pre-owned? And why does the second one jangle my sensibilities?

A: Let’s begin with the word “use,” which showed up in English as a verb and a noun in the Middle Ages. The noun ultimately come from the Latin ūsus (a use, custom, skill, habit, or experience), and the verb comes from ūtī (to use) and the past-participle ūsus (used).

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that those Latin ancestors have given English such words as “utensil,” “utility,” “utilize,” “usage,” “usual,” “usury,” “abuse” (etymologically, “misuse”), and “peruse” (“use thoroughly”).

The English verb meant “to utilize or employ for a purpose” when it first appeared in Layamon’s Brut, a Middle English poem written sometime before 1200, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Chambers doesn’t give a citation, but here’s an example from the poem: “Hii vsede þat craft to lokie in þan lufte; þe craft his ihote astronomie” (“They used that craft to look in the sky; the craft they named astronomy”).

When the noun “use” showed up around the same time in Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that’s believed to date from sometime before 1200, it meant the “act of utilizing or employing a thing.”

Again, Chambers doesn’t give a citation, but here’s an example from the monastic guide: “Þis word habbeð muchel on us” (“You have much use of this word”).

We won’t get into all the various senses of the noun and verb “use” here. Instead, we’ll stick to the three meanings of “used” that you’re asking about: (1) utilized, (2) accustomed, and (3) secondhand.

We’ve already discussed #1, the original meaning of the verb in Middle English. This is still the primary sense of the verb.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, lists this sense first: “To put into service or employ for a purpose: I used a whisk to beat the eggs. The song uses only three chords.”

The “accustomed” meaning of the verb first appeared in the Middle Ages, reflecting the “custom,” “habit,” or “experience” sense of the Latin ūsus. The verb was originally accompanied by a preposition, usually “in” or “to,” but occasionally “of” or “till.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has this early “in” example from the South English Legendary (circa 1300), a collection of lives, or stories, of saints and other church figures:

“In penance he was so wel yused” (“He was so well used to penance”). The passage is from the “Life of St. Edmund of Abingdon.”

And here’s an early “to” citation from the same story: “So longe hi hem vsede þerto” (“So long she used them thereto”). The “to” here is part of þerto. The citation refers to Edmund’s mother, who accustomed her children to a life of Christian devotion and austerity.

In the late 1300s, the OED says, writers began using the “used to” construction to describe a past action that “was formerly habitual but has been discontinued.”

The first example given is from John Trevisa’s translation, dated sometime before 1387, of Polychronicon, a history written in Latin in the mid-1300s by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden: “Englische men used for to goo into abbayes of Fraunce.”

The latest Oxford citation is from the Nov. 18, 2012, issue of the Daily Telegraph (London): “I used to go to yoga, Pilates and circuit training and have given all those up.”

The “did use to” construction showed up in the early 17th century to describe such a habitual past action.

The dictionary’s first example is from a 1624 religious tract by James Ussher, a Church of Ireland archbishop and later primate: “In whose language … the Church also did use to speake.”

In the late 19th century, writers began using “used to” passively to describe being familiar or comfortable with something—that is, accustomed to it.

The earliest OED example is from an essay by Edward Gibbon, published posthumously in 1796, referring to those “who are used to the laboured happiness of all Horace’s expressions.”

This more recent citation is from “If You See Her, Say Hello,” a 1975 song by Bob Dylan: “And I’ve never gotten used to it, I’ve just learned to turn it off.”

Why, you ask, does this usage jangle your sensibilities? We don’t know. It doesn’t jangle ours. But perhaps, like Dylan, you haven’t gotten used to it.

As for the adjective “used” (technically, a participial adjective), it took on its “secondhand” sense in the late 19th century. The first Oxford example is from an ad in the Sept. 30, 1874, issue of the Chicago Tribune: “New and used furniture.”

And as geezers ourselves, we enjoyed this citation from Pompey, a 1993 novel by Jonathan Meades: “You tell me the name of the geezer who’ll buy a used pacemaker with fifteen thou on the clock.”

If you’d like to read more, we ran a post in 2013 about “used” and “pre-owned.”

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