English English language Etymology Expression Language Pronunciation Usage Word origin Writing

Hallowe’en be thy name

[Note: This post originally appeared on the blog on Halloween of 2014.]

Q: My husband grew up in New York and says “HOLLOW-een.” I grew up in Chicago and pronounce it “HALLOW-een.” Which is right?

A: We answered a similar question five years ago, but this is a good day to revisit it!

As we wrote in 2009, dictionaries accept both pronunciations, but your preference (“HALLOW-een”) is more historically accurate. We’ll expand on our earlier post to explain why.

Back in the seventh century, the early Christians had more saints than they had days in the year. To commemorate the leftover saints who didn’t have a day all to themselves, the church set aside a day devoted to all of them, and in the next century the date was standardized as Nov. 1.

The Christian holiday became known as the Day of All Saints, or All Hallows Day. “Hallow,” an old word for a holy person or a saint, evolved from the Old English word halig, meaning “holy.”

Meanwhile, the pagan Celts of northwestern Europe and the British Isles were already celebrating Oct. 31, the final day of the year in the Celtic calendar. It was both a celebration of the harvest and a Day of the Dead, a holiday on which the Celtic people believed it was possible to communicate with the dead.

As Christianity spread, these celebrations neatly dovetailed. The pagan Day of the Dead was transformed by Christianity into the Eve of All Saints, or All Hallows Eve. This later became All Hallow Even, then was shortened to Hallowe’en and finally Halloween.

Pat spoke about this recently on Iowa Public Radio, and mentioned some of the whimsical names for the night before Halloween. Like the pronunciation of “Halloween,” these regional names vary across the country: Devil’s Night … Cabbage Night … Goosey Night … Clothesline Night … Mischief Night … Hell Night, and so on. (Sometimes, these occasions are excuses for vandalism and general bad behavior.)

Several Iowa listeners called and tweeted to say that in the small rural towns where they grew up, kids went “corning” on the night before Halloween, throwing handfuls of corn at neighbors’ windows and doors. Well, perhaps that’s better than throwing eggs or strewing trees with toilet paper!

Pat also discussed the etymologies of some of the more familiar Halloween words:

● “Ghost” came from the Old English gast (spirit, soul). It has roots in ancient Germanic words, and you can hear it today in the modern German geist (mind, spirit, ghost). The word “poltergeist” is from German, in which poltern means to rumble or make noise.

People didn’t begin to spell “ghost” with an “h” until the 1400s, probably influenced by the Dutch word, which began with “gh-.”

● “Ghastly,” from the old verb gast (frighten), didn’t always have an “h” either. It was written as “gastliche” or “gastly” in the 1300s. The “gh-” spelling 200 years later was influenced by “ghost,” but otherwise they’re unrelated.

● “Haunt” is derived from an Old French verb meaning “to frequent,” and in the English of the 1200s it meant to do something habitually or frequently. Later, in the 1500s, a figurative use emerged in reference to supernatural beings who would “haunt” (that is, frequently visit) those of us on earth.

● “Goblin” has a spooky history dating back to the fourth or fifth century in France. Legend has it that an extremely ugly and very nasty demon was driven out of the town of Évreux by an early Christian bishop. When the story was recorded later in a medieval Latin manuscript, the demon was called Gobelinus.Thus the word gobelin passed into Old French to mean an evil demon, and in the early 1300s “goblin” came into English.

● “Ghoul,” a relative latecomer, came into English in the late 18th century from Arabic, in which ghul means an evil spirit that robs graves and feeds on corpses. The Arabic word comes from a verb that means to seize.

● “Mummy” also has an Arabic ancestry. It can be traced to the Arabic mumiya (embalmed body), derived from mum, a Persian word for wax. The word passed into Egyptian and other languages, then into 14th-century English, where “mummy” first meant a medicinal ointment prepared from mummified flesh. By the 17th century, it had come to mean a body embalmed according to Egyptian practices.

● “Witch” has its roots in an Old English verb, wiccian, meaning to practice sorcery. There were both masculine and feminine nouns for the sorcerers themselves: a man was a wicca and a woman was a wicce. The “cc” in these words was pronounced like “ch,” so they sounded like witchen, witcha, and witchee. (Wicca, the pagan religion of witchcraft that appeared in the 20th century, is spelled like the Old English masculine wicca though its followers pronounce it as wikka.)

Eventually the nouns for male and female sorcerers (wicca and wicce) merged, the endings fell away, and the word became the unisex “witch” in the 13th century. Later in its history, “witch” came to be more associated with women, which explains a change in this next word.

● “Wizard” literally meant “wise man” when it entered English in the 1400s. But in the following century it took on a new job. It became the male counterpart of “witch” and meant a man who practices magic or sorcery.

● “Vampire” may have its roots in ubyr, a word for “witch” in the Kazan Tatar language spoken in an area of what is now Russia, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins. The OED suggests an origin in Magyar (vampir), the language of modern Hungary. However it originated, the word is now very widely spread and has similar-sounding counterparts in Russian, Polish, Czech, Serbian, Bulgarian, Ruthenian, German, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and even modern Latin (vampyrus). When it came into English from French in the 1740s, it was spelled “vampyre,” which for some reason looks scarier in writing (perhaps it seems more gothic).

● “Werewolf” has come down from Old English more or less intact as a word for someone who can change (or is changed) from a man into a wolf. It was first recorded as werewulf around the year 1000. In those days, wer or were was a word for “man,” so “werewolf” literally means “wolf man.”

● “Zombie” has its roots in West Africa and is similar to words in the Kongo language, nzambi (god) and zumbi (fetish), as the OED notes. Transferred to the Caribbean and the American South in the 19th century, “zombie” was part of the language of the voodoo cult. It first meant a snake god, and later a soulless corpse reanimated by witchcraft.

● “Hocus-pocus” can be traced to the 1600s, when it meant a juggler, trickster, or conjuror. It may even have been the name of a particular entertainer who performed during the reign of King James I (1601-1625), according to a citation in the OED.

This man, the citation says, called himself Hocus Pocus because “at the playing of every Trick, he used to say, Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo, a dark composure of words, to blinde the eyes of the beholders, to make his Trick pass the more currantly without discovery.” (From A Candle in the Dark, a 1655 religious and political tract by Thomas Ady.)

It has also been suggested that “hocus-pocus” was a spoof on the Latin words used in the Eucharist, hoc est corpus meum (“this is my body”), but there’s no evidence for that. At any rate, the phrase “hocus-pocus” eventually became a famous incantation. “Hocus” by itself also became a verb and a noun for this kind of hoodwinking, and the word “hoax” may be a contracted form of “hocus.”

● “Weird” once had a very different meaning. In Old English, the noun wyrd meant fate or destiny, and from around 1400 the term “weird sister” referred to a woman with supernatural powers who could control someone’s destiny. This is how Shakespeare meant “weird” when he called the three witches in Macbeth “the weyard sisters.” It wasn’t until the 19th century that “weird” was used to mean strange or uncanny or even eerie.

● “Eerie,” another much-changed word, is one we owe to the Scots. When it was recorded in writing in the early 1300s, “eerie” meant fearful or timid. Not until the late 18th century did “eerie” come to mean inspiring fear—as in spooky.

● “Jack-o’-lantern,” a phrase first recorded in the 17th century, originally meant “man with a lantern” or “night watchman.” It became associated with Halloween and carved pumpkins in the 19th century. And incidentally, the British originally hollowed out large turnips, carving scary eyes and mouths and putting candles inside. Americans made their jack-o’-lanterns out of pumpkins.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Linguistics Pronunciation Spelling Usage Writing

Syllables gone missing

Q: I just heard a BBC interviewer pronounce “medicine” as MED-sin. I’m pretty sure that Doc Martin attended MED-i-cal school, so why do the British drop the vowel “i” when speaking of pharmaceuticals?

A: The pronunciation of “medicine” as MED-sin is standard in British speech. It’s part of a larger phenomenon that we wrote about in 2012, the tendency of British speakers to drop syllables in certain words.

What’s dropped is a weak or unstressed next-to-last syllable in a word of three syllables or more. So in standard British English, “medicine” is pronounced as MED-sin, “necessary” as NESS-a-sree, “territory” as TARE-eh-tree, and so on.

The dropped syllable or vowel sound is either unstressed (like the first “i” in “medicine”) or has only a weak, secondary stress (like the “a” in “necessary”).

This syllable dropping apparently began in 18th- and 19th-century British speech, and today these pronunciations are standard in Britain. You can hear this by listening to the pronunciations of “medicine,” “secretary,” “oratory,” and “cemetery” in the online Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (click the red icon for British, blue for American).

We know roughly when such syllable-dropping began because, as we wrote in our book Origins of the Specious, lexicographers of the time commented on it.

It wasn’t until the late 18th century that dictionaries—like those by William Kenrick (1773), Thomas Sheridan (1780), and John Walker (1791)—began marking secondary stresses within words, and providing pronunciations for each syllable.

Sheridan in particular made a point of this, lamenting what he saw as a general “negligence” with regard to the pronunciation of weakly stressed syllables.

“This fault is so general,” Sheridan wrote, “that I would recommend it to all who are affected by it, to pronounce the unaccented syllables more fully than is necessary, till they are cured of it.” (A Complete Dictionary of the English Language, 1780.)

Despite such advice, syllable dropping continued, and these abbreviated pronunciations became more widely accepted throughout the 1800s. By 1917, the British phonetician Daniel Jones had recognized some of these pronunciations as standard.

In An English Pronouncing Dictionary, Jones omitted the next-to-last syllable in some words (“medicine,” “secretary,” “cemetery”) while marking it as optional in others (“military,” “necessary,” “oratory”). As the century progressed, later and much-revised editions of Jones’s dictionary omitted more of those syllables.

As Jones originally wrote, his aim was to describe what was heard in the great English boarding schools, the accent he called “PSP” (for “Public School Pronunciation”). In the third edition of his dictionary (1926), he revived the older, 19th-century term “Received Pronunciation” and abbreviated it to “RP” (here “received” meant “socially accepted”).

Americans, meanwhile, continued to pronounce those syllables.

In The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed., 1993), Thomas Pyles and John Algeo write that while British speech lost the subordinate stress in words ending in “-ary,” “-ery,” and “-ory,” this stress “is regularly retained in American English.”

As examples of American pronunciation, the authors cite “mónastèry, sécretàry, térritòry, and the like,” using an acute accent (´) for the primary stress and a grave accent (`) for the secondary stress.

Similarly, The Handbook of English Pronunciation (2015), edited by Marnie Reed and John M. Levis, says that in words “such as secretary, military, preparatory, or mandatory,” the next-to-last vowel sound “is usually deleted or reduced in Britain but preserved in North America.”

The book adds that North American speech also retains unstressed vowels in the word “medicine,” in the names of berries (“blackberry,” “raspberry,” “strawberry,” etc.), in place names like “Birmingham” and “Manchester,” and in names beginning with “Saint.”

However, not every unstressed next-to-last syllable is dropped in standard British pronunciation. The one in “medicine” is dropped, but the British TV character Doc Martin would pronounce the syllable in “medical,” as you point out.

And the word “library” can go either way. As Pyles and Algeo write, “library” is “sometimes reduced” to two syllables in British speech (LYE-bree), though in “other such words” the secondary stress can be heard. Why is this?

In The Handbook of English Pronunciation, Reed and Levis write that some variations in speech are simply “idiosyncratic.” They discuss “secretary,” “medicine,” “raspberry,” and the others in a section on “words whose pronunciation varies in phonologically irregular ways.”

However you view it—“idiosyncratic” or “phonologically irregular”—this syllable-dropping trend is not irreversible. As Pyles and Algeo note, “Some well-educated younger-generation British speakers have it [the secondary stress] in sécretàry and extraórdinàry.”

There’s some evidence for this. A 1998 survey of British speakers found that those under 26 showed “a sudden surge in preference for a strong vowel” in the “-ary” ending of “necessary,” “ordinary,” and “February.” (“British English Pronunciation Preferences: A Changing Scene,” by J. C. Wells, published in the Journal of the International Phonetic Association, June 1999.)

So has American pronunciation influenced younger British speakers? Not likely, in the opinion of Pyles and Algeo: “A restoration of the secondary stress in British English, at least in some words, is more likely due to spelling consciousness than to any transatlantic influence.”

And Wells seems to agree: “English spelling being what it is,” he writes, “one constant pressure on pronunciation is the influence of the orthography. A pronunciation that is perceived as not corresponding to the spelling is liable to be replaced by one that does.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

Whereabouts: singular or plural?

Q: I just read this in the New York Times: “His whereabouts is unknown.” Is “whereabouts” singular? That sentence sounds like a mistake. I realize that not all nouns ending in “s” are plural. Is “whereabouts” one of them?

A: The noun “whereabouts” can be either singular or plural, though the plural is more common now, despite the recommendation in The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (“Construe it as a singular”).

We’ve just checked several standard dictionaries, and they all say that it can be singular or plural, but that the plural is more common.

Etymologically, the final “s” originated as an adverbial suffix (like the one at the end of “always” and “besides”), not as a plural ending.

In fact, the noun was “s”-less and apparently singular when it showed up in English in the early 1600s. And the earlier adverb was also “s”-less when it appeared in the early 1300s; it didn’t get the suffix until more than a century later. Here’s the story.

When “whereabout” first showed up in English, it was a two-word interrogative adverbial phrase that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “About where? in or near what place, part, situation, or position? Now rare: replaced by whereabouts.”

The first OED example is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem composed before 1325 and possibly as early as 1300: “Quar abute a-bide yee nu?” (“Where about do you abide now?”).

The spelling is clearer in the dictionary’s next example, from William Caxton’s 1484 translation of Aesop’s Fables: “My broder and my frend where aboute is thy sore?”

When “whereabouts” first appeared in the 15th century, it was also a two-word interrogative adverbial phrase that meant the same as the “s”-less version. Oxford says it was formed by adding the adverbial suffix “s” to the older phrase.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Mirk’s Festial, a collection of homilies written around 1450 by Johannus Mirkus, a canon at an Augustinian abbey in Shropshire, England: “Sonne, whereaboutes art þow [thou]?”

The OED’s earliest noun citation, which we’ve expanded, is from Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, believed to have been first performed in 1606: “Heare not my steps, which they may walke, for feare / Thy very stones prate of my where-about.”

The dictionary’s next example, from a Nov. 17, 1786, letter by the English poet William Cowper, uses it without the hyphen: “I shall derive considerable advantage … from the alteration made in my Whereabout.”

Oxford defines the noun “whereabout” as “the place in or near which a person or thing is; (approximate) position or situation. Now replaced by whereabouts.”

The earliest citation for the noun with an “s” ending dates from the late 18th century, though “s”-less examples continued into the second half of the 19th century. The OED describes the “s” ending here as an adverbial suffix similar to the ones in “hereabouts” and “thereabouts.”

The first Oxford citation for an “s” noun is from a Feb. 15, 1795, letter by Thomas Twining, an Anglican cleric and classical scholar: “By way of giving you the whereabouts of my present political opinions.” (Twining was the grandson of the Thomas Twining who founded the English tea dynasty.)

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary describes the noun “whereabouts” as “plural in form but singular or plural in construction.” Merriam-Webster goes on to explain that it’s usually treated as plural despite some objections by usage writers (like the authors of the Times style guide):

“Because the final -s is an adverbial suffix, not a plural ending (similar to the one at the end of besides), certain usage commentators have insisted on treating whereabouts as a singular noun. In spite of this, you should feel comfortable pairing it with a plural verb; while some have employed singular verbs with this word, the plural (‘her whereabouts were’) has become the regular choice.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

How incidental is an incident?

Q: The word “incident” is used all the time now for life-changing events. I thought “incident” and “incidentals” had to do with small things, inconsequential ones. My dog snapped at yours: an incident. Your spouse was killed by a mass-murderer: not an incident. Perhaps I am understanding its meaning too narrowly?

A: When the noun “incident” first appeared in English in the early 15th century, it did indeed refer to an incidental occurrence, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED, an etymological dictionary that focuses on the history of words, defines this early sense as “something that occurs casually in the course of, or in connection with, something else, of which it constitutes no essential part; an event of accessory or subordinate character.”

Oxford says the English noun ultimately comes from the classical Latin verb incidĕre (to fall into, fall to, fall upon, or happen to).

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “an incident is literally that which ‘befalls.’ ”

“The use of a word that literally means ‘fall’ to denote the concept of ‘happening’ is quite a common phenomenon,” Ayto says, adding that “it operates in other languages than English: Welsh digwydd ‘happen,’ for instance, is derived from cwyddo ‘fall.’ ”

Getting back to English, the earliest example for “incident” in the OED is from John Lydgate’s Troy Book, a Middle English poem written in the early 1400s and first printed in 1513:

“But incydentes that beare no substaunce, / Whiche were but vayne to put in remēbrance.” (We’ve edited and expanded the citation.)

In the early 20th century, according to Oxford, the term took on a more serious sense: “An occurrence or event, sometimes comparatively trivial in itself, which precipitates or could precipitate political unrest, open warfare, etc. Also, a particular episode (air-raid, skirmish, etc.) in war; an unpleasant or violent argument, a fracas.”

The dictionary’s first example for the new sense is from The Annual Register for 1912 (published in 1913):

“He had invariably done everything France wanted him to do, and, especially at the time of the Agadir incident, had rejected German … advances.”

This example, from a 1920 entry in the diaries of the English poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, emphasizes the sense of importance: “Bramley … had reported the incident in a serious light, and Cromer had taken it up seriously, seeing in it … a danger to the British occupation.”

We suspect that this political/military sense led to the more general use of “incident” for any consequential event, as in this Oct. 9, 2018, headline in the Washington Post: “Man pulls gun on three others in road rage incident in Virginia.”

Most standard dictionaries, which focus on the modern meaning of words, say “incident” can now mean either a major or a minor occurrence.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, for example, includes the earlier senses, but adds that “incident” can also mean “an occurrence of an action or situation that is a separate unit of experience” and gives “happening” as a synonym.

The primary definition in Oxford Dictionaries Online, another standard dictionary, is simply “an event or occurrence,” while the first sense in Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.) is “something that happens; happening; occurrence.”

When used today, the context usually makes clear the importance or unimportance of an incident: “the spilled wine was an embarrassing incident” …  “an international incident that led to war.”

As for “incidental,” the word has referred to something minor, subordinate, or accidental since it showed up as an adjective in the 17th century.

The first OED example is from “Of Education” (1644), a brief treatise by John Milton: “Those incidentall discourses which we have wander’d into.”

The dictionary’s first example for the noun “incidental” is from a 1707 entry in the diary of Samuel Sewall, a Massachusetts judge:

“The accidental occasions of hiring Transport Ships, together with the other Incidentals that must necessarily accrue.”

Sewall is better known as one of the nine judges at the 1692-93 Salem witch trials—the only one to apologize publicly for his role.

On Jan. 14, 1697, he stood in Boston’s South Church while the minister, Samuel Willard, read a statement in which Sewall said he “Desires to take the Blame and Shame of it, Asking pardon of Men, And especially desiring prayers that God, who has an Unlimited Authority, would pardon that sin and all other his sins.”

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

Stewardess and other -ess words

Q: How did English, a fundamentally nongendered language, get the word “stewardess,” a gendered term that’s now being replaced in our gender-sensitive era by the unisex “flight attendant”? What’s wrong with using “steward” for both sexes?

A: We’ll have more to say later about the old practice of adding “-ess” to nouns to feminize them. As we’ve written before on the blog, the current trend is in the other direction.

Modern English tends to favor the original, gender-free nouns for occupations—words like “mayor,” “author,” “sculptor,” and “poet” in place of “mayoress,” “authoress,” “sculptress,” “poetess,” and so on.

But first let’s look at “stewardess,” which is probably a much older word than you think.

It first appeared in writing in 1631 to mean a female steward (that is, a caretaker of some kind), and it was used for hundreds of years in caretaking, managerial, or administrative senses.

Only in later use did “stewardess” come to mean a female attendant on a ship (a sense first recorded in 1834), a train (1855), or a plane (1930).

“Stewardess” was of course derived from the gender-free noun “steward,” which is very old.

The Oxford English Dictionary dates written evidence of “steward” (stigweard in Old English) back to 955 or earlier, and notes that it was created within English, not derived from other sources.

“The first element is most probably Old English stig,” which means “a house or some part of a house,” Oxford says, noting that the Old English stigwita meant “house-dweller.”

In its earliest uses, the word meant someone who manages the domestic affairs of a household, and it later took on more official and administrative meanings in business, government, and the church.

The femininized “stewardess,” defined in the OED as “a female who performs the duties of a steward,” was first recorded in The Spanish Bawd, James Mabbe’s 1631 translation of a “tragicke-comedy” by Fernando de Rojas:

“O variable fortune … thou Ministresse and high Stewardesse of all temporal happinesse.”

We might be tempted to attribute that example to rhyme alone. But we found two more appearances of “stewardesse” in a religious work that was probably written in 1631 or earlier and was published in 1632.

These come from Henry Hawkins’s biography of a saint, The History of S. Elizabeth Daughter of the King of Hungary. Because Elizabeth gave her fortune to the poor, the author refers to her as God’s “trusty Stewardesse &; faithfull Dispensatress of his goods” and “this incomparable Stewardesse of Christ.”

Until the early 19th century, “stewardess” continued to be used in the various ways “steward” was used for a man. For example, the OED cites an 1827 usage by Thomas Carlyle in German Romance: “She was his … Castle-Stewardess.” (The book is an anthology of German romances, and the example is from an explanatory footnote by Carlyle.)

But as the old uses of “stewardess” died away, a new one developed. People began using “stewardess” in the 1830s to mean (like “steward” before it) a woman working aboard a ship.

The OED defines this use of “stewardess” as “a female attendant on a ship whose duty it is to wait on the women passengers.”

The earliest example we’ve found is from an 1834 news article about a shipwreck that left only six people alive, a passenger named Goulding and five crew members:

“Mr. Goulding and the stewardess floated ashore upon the quarter deck.” (From the Oct. 16, 1834, issue of a New York newspaper, the Mercury.)

The OED’s earliest citation is a bit later: “Mrs. F. and I were the only ladies on board; and there was no stewardess” (from Harriet Martineau’s book Society in America, 1837).

The use of the word in rail travel came along a couple of decades later. We found this example in a news account of a train wreck:

“A train hand, named Miller, had his leg broken above the ankle, and seemed much injured. Margaret, the stewardess of the train, was likewise bruised.” (From the Daily Express of Petersburg, Va., Oct. 30, 1855.)

Soon afterward, on July 29, 1858, a travel article in the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer in West Virginia noted that on the Petersburg & Weldon Railway, a “stewardess travels with each train to wait on the lady passengers—serve ice water to them—hold their babies and other baggage occasionally.” (Note the reference to “babies and other baggage”!)

The earliest example we’ve found of “stewardess” meaning an aircraft attendant appeared in the New York Times on July 20, 1930. The reporter describes firsthand his experience aboard a flight from San Francisco to Chicago:

“And then there is Miss Inez Keller, stewardess or rather traveling hostess. The Boeing system has solved the problem of looking after the passengers by putting girls on all the liners.”

Later that year, an Australian newspaper ran this item: “A successful trial flight was made with the finest and largest passenger air liners in the world, each having luxurious accommodation for 38 passengers, with smoking saloon two pilots, steward and stewardess.” (From the Western Herald, Nov. 18, 1930.)

The OED’s first example appeared the following year in a photo caption published in United Airlines News (Aug. 5, 1931): “Uniformed stewardesses employed on the Chicago-San Diego divisions of United. The picture shows the original group of stewardesses employed.”

Oxford defines the newest sense of “stewardess” this way: “A female attendant on a passenger aircraft who attends to the needs and comfort of the passengers.” It adds that the word also means “a similar attendant on other kinds of passenger transport.”

This brings us to the larger subject—the use of the suffix “-ess” to form what the OED calls “nouns denoting female persons or animals.”

The ancestral source of “-ess,” according to etymologists, is the Greek -ισσα (-issa in our alphabet), which passed into Late Latin (-issa), then on into the Romance languages, including French (-esse).

In the Middle Ages, according to OED citations, English adopted many French words with their feminine endings already attached, including “countess” (perhaps before 1160), “hostess” (circa 1290), “abbess” (c. 1300), “lioness” (1300s), “mistress” (c. 1330), “arbitress” (1340), “enchantress” (c. 1374), “devouress” (1382), “sorceress” (c. 1384), “duchess” (c. 1385), “princess” (c. 1385), “conqueress” (before 1400), and “paintress” (c. 1450).

Some other English words, though not borrowed wholly from French, were modeled after the French pattern, like “adulteress” (before 1382) and “authoress” (1478).

And in imitation of such words, “-ess” endings were added to a few native words of Germanic origin, forming “murderess” (c. 1200); “goddess” (some time before 1387), and obsolete formations like “dwelleress” and “sleeresse” (“slayer” + “-ess”), both formed before 1382.

As the OED explains, writers of the 1500s and later centuries “very freely” invented words ending in “-ess,” but “many of these are now obsolete or little used, the tendency of modern usage being to treat the agent-nouns [ending] in –er, and the nouns indicating profession or occupation, as of common gender, unless there be some special reason to the contrary.”

Some of the dusty antiques include “martyress” (possibly 1473), “doctress” (1549), “buildress” (1569), “widowess” (1596), “creditress” (1608), “gardeneress” (before 1645), “tailoress” (1654), “farmeress” (1672), “vinteress” (1681), “auditress” (1667), “philosophess” (1668), “professoress” (1744), “chiefess” (1778), “editress” (1799), and “writeress” (1822).

Still seen, though rapidly going out of fashion, are “hostess” (c. 1290), “authoress” (1478), “poetess” (1531), “heiress” (1656), and “sculptress” (1662).

Of the few such occupational words that are still widely used, perhaps the most common are “actress” (1586) and “waitress” (c. 1595). These “-tress” endings, the OED says, “have in most cases been suggested by, and may be regarded as virtual adaptations of, the corresponding French words [ending] in -trice.

In conclusion, “stewardess” was created at a time—in the 1600s—when English writers created all sorts of what the OED calls “feminine derivatives expressing sex.” It was also a time when educated English speakers regarded their native tongue as inferior to French and Latin, the gendered languages that were the lingua franca of nobles, clergy, and scholars.

Now “stewardess,” like so many of those feminized nouns, is rapidly becoming obsolete. But unlike the others, it hasn’t been replaced by a unisex “steward.”

Why? We don’t know the answer. But for whatever reason, as “stewardess” has fallen out of favor it’s taken “steward” down with it—at least in reference to air travel.

The usual replacement, “flight attendant,” showed up in the late 1940s, and passed “stewardess” in popularity in the late 1990s, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer.

The earliest example we’ve found for “flight attendant” is from the Jan. 26, 1947, issue of the Santa Cruz, Calif., Sentinel about a Hong Kong plane crash in which all four people were killed:

“The company listed those aboard as Capt. O. T. Weymouth, an American pilot, and a crew of three Filipinos, including Miss Lourdes Chuidian, flight attendant.”

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

Have a good one

Q: I’m a reporter at a local public radio station who answers questions from listeners. I wonder if you can help me reply to a man who asks if “have a good one” is specific to the Northwest. I’m pretty sure the answer to that is no. But when and where was the expression first used?

A: You’re right. The expression “have a good one” is not specific to the Northwest. Our searches of digitized newspapers trace it back to the early 1970s. The first examples we’ve found are from papers in New York, Colorado, and California. Now, it’s heard across the US.

Although “have a good one” is relatively new, similar expressions are much older. In fact, “have a good one” ultimately comes from the medieval version of “have a good day.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of “have a good day,” which we’ve expanded here, is from Layamon’s Brut, an early Middle English poem written sometime before 1200:

“And habbeð alle godne dæie, to niht ich wulle faren awæi” (“And have all a good day, for tonight I will go away”). In the citation, Vortiger, the treacherous steward for King Constance, bids goodbye to his knights, who are drinking at an inn.

The dictionary’s next citation is from Sir Degare, a medieval romance dated around 1330: “Haue god dai; i mot gon henne” (“Have a good day; I must go hence”).

And this later example is from John Dryden’s Fables, Ancient and Modern (1700), translations of classical and medieval poetry: “But fare well, and haue good daie.” The quote is from Dryden’s version of “The Knight’s Tale” in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (circa 1386).

The OED defines the usage this way: “In imperative, used to wish someone a good, pleasant, etc., time or experience. Chiefly in phrases expressing good wishes on parting.” Until the 19th century, the dictionary says, the expression seems to have appeared only without the indefinite article “a.”

In the early 1800s, writers began using variations of the expression with the indefinite article, as in this example from Story of Jack Halyard, the Sailor Boy, an 1824 children’s book by the American writer William S. Cardell: “Go, Peter, by all means, and have a lively time with your mates.”

And here’s a variant from The Virginians, an 1859 historical novel by William Makepeace Thackeray: “ ‘Have a good time, Harry!’ and down goes George’s head on the pillow again.”

The first OED example for the original expression used with the indefinite article is from “Echo Hunt,” a hunting story by David Gray in the November 1902 issue of Century Magazine: “ ‘Good sport, Echo Hunt!’ she called. ‘Have a good day!’ ”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the common variant “have a nice day” is from Loneliness, a 1915 novel by Robert Hugh Benson, an Anglican priest later ordained as a Roman Catholic:

“Ah! well. It can’t be helped. Have a nice day, my boy.” Benson died in 1914, a year before the novel was published as Loneliness in the UK and Loneliness? in the US.

In the mid-20th century, Oxford says, these expressions began showing up in US “commercial dealings, esp. in serving customers, as an expression of good wishes and general politeness.”

The dictionary specifically cites the business use of the variants “have a nice day” and later “have a good one,” and adds that the usage is ”sometimes perceived as insincere or shallow.”

The first commercial example in the OED is from the May 19, 1958, issue of Broadcasting magazine: “ ‘Have a happy day’ became his morning greeting to the staff. Now it greets telephone callers to the agency.” The reference is to the president of a Los Angeles ad agency.

The next example is from an ad in the June 3, 1965, New York Times: “Good morning. Today is the day you can start saving money on 914 toner. …. Have a nice day.” (The toner was apparently for the Xerox 914 photocopier.)

As for “have a good one,” the earliest written example we’ve found in our searches is from a personal ad in the Oct. 30, 1972, issue of the Columbia Daily Spectator, the student newspaper at Columbia University: “PRINCESS, Have a good one. With love, The Frog.”

The next is from the Nov. 6, 1975, issue of the Steamboat Pilot in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Here a columnist bids farewell to readers before leaving on a Mexican vacation: “I won’t say goodbye, only ‘Hasta luego’ have a good one!”

The earliest commercial example we’ve seen for “have a good one” is from a Dec. 25, 1976, ad in the San Bernardino Sun in California: “All May Co stores closed today, Christmas. Have a good one.”

And this one appeared the following year in a holiday message by the Public Service Company of Colorado to the utility’s customers:

“Using energy efficiently will help you get the most for your energy dollar … and leave you more for the holidays! Have a good one!” (From the Nov. 17, 1977, Louisville Times in Boulder County, Colorado.)

A letter in the Feb. 28, 1985, issue of the Daily Kent Stater, the student paper at Kent State University in Ohio, uses the expressing in commenting about the campus bus service:

“At 7 every morning, I am greeted with a sleepy ‘Good morning,’ and every night it was either ‘Goodbye’ or ‘Have a good one.’ ”

Finally, as of now the OED’s only example for “have a good one” is from Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (1991), by Marjorie Perloff:

“After we land, the smiling flight attendants will surely tell us, yet again, to ‘Enjoy.’ Or, in a slightly more ambiguous version now in vogue, to ‘Have a good one.’ ”

[NOTE: On Oct. 20, 2018, a reader commented, “George Carlin hated the expression ‘Have a good one’ and would answer, ‘I already have a good one. Now I’m looking for a longer one.’ ”]

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Are you feeling pressurized?

Q: To “pressurize” is, to my mind, quite different from to “pressure.” The former means to inflate something and the latter to put pressure on someone. So why does our inflationary language permit “pressurize” to have both meanings?

A: Well, “pressurize” isn’t a word we’d use in place of “put pressure on” or simply “pressure.” It’s one of those words that seem unnecessary, like “orientate” in place of “orient,” or “preventative” in place of “preventive.”

But to “pressurize” in the nonphysical sense—to put pressure on—is a legitimate usage, one recognized in some standard dictionaries though perhaps not fully accepted in formal American English.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for instance, labels the verb “informal” when it means “to subject to psychological, political, or other nonphysical pressure,” as in “pressurized the government to enact reforms.”

And the verb is listed as a British usage (often spelled “pressurise”) in three standard dictionaries from the UK: Oxford Dictionaries Online and the online Collins and Macmillan dictionaries.

The verb “pressurize” came along in the 20th century with a purely physical meaning, to manipulate atmospheric pressure in a closed space. And before long, it was being used in the sense you’re talking about, to manipulate a person—that is, to “put pressure on” or “pressure” someone.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the physical sense as “to produce or maintain pressure artificially in (a container, closed space, etc.); spec. to maintain a close-to-normal atmospheric pressure in (an aircraft cabin) at high altitudes.”

The earliest use we’ve found is from the late 1930s: “Without pressurized cabins, planes now fly as high as 14,000 feet; with them, passengers will feel no discomfort at DC-4’s service ceiling, 22,900 feet.” (From Time magazine, May 23, 1938. Here the verb is in the form of a participial adjective.)

The OED’s first citation also uses the verb “pressurize” adjectivally: “The pressurizing mechanism maintains ideal weather within this passenger chamber.” (From an Illinois newspaper, the Freeport Journal-Standard, March 19, 1940.)

The dictionary’s next citation is from a 1944 issue of the journal Aeronautics: “The fuselage will be pressurized so that at all altitudes cabin conditions will be equivalent to a height of 8,000 ft.”

Soon “pressurize” was being used in a more personal sense. The OED defines this as “to subject to moral, psychological, or other non-physical pressure; to put pressure on; to coerce, influence, or urge.”

This is the dictionary’s earliest citation: “Thus, selective service continues to ‘pressurize’ recalcitrant military unfits into war plants.” (From an Ohio newspaper, the Lima News, Jan. 17, 1945.)

And this is the most recent: “Zia was also pressurized by the United States to roll back the nuclear weapons programme.” (From a 2002 book, The Nuclearization of South Asia, by Kamal Matinuddin.)

However, we’ve found an outlier, a rare example from the 1880s: “If they can wheedle or pressurise the rackrenters into doing what the Lansdownes and Lismores have found it necessary to do, they shall have our hearty good will in the operation.” (From an article about Irish politics, published in the Freeman’s Journal in Sydney, Australia, Jan. 15, 1887.)

We’ll disregard that flash in the pan, and say that for all practical purposes this nonphysical use of “pressurize” was born in the mid-20th century.

As far as we can tell, it’s not a common US usage. In news items, it mostly appears in articles from other English-speaking countries. Most Americans apparently use “pressure” or “put pressure on” when they mean to press, urge, or exert influence on.

The OED discusses the phrase “put pressure on” within its entry for the noun “pressure” as used in the sense of coercion, influence, or psychological force.

As Oxford says, “to put (also bring, exert) pressure on” means “to urge or press strongly or coercively,” or “to apply influence or psychological force.” And a similar phrase, “to bring pressure to bear,” means “to exert influence to a specific end, esp. on a person or thing.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for these phrases is from a 19th-century American newspaper: “The fleet going to the waters of an allied power, not for the purpose of injuring it, or putting any pressure on it, but on the contrary, to be ready to assist that power should it desire.” (The New-York Daily Times, Aug. 4, 1853.)

The earliest example of the “bring pressure to bear” version is from the other side of the Atlantic: “Some pressure had evidently been brought to bear.” (From a letter written by Sir William Hardman on April 21, 1864.)

The dictionary also has examples of variant phrases that mean the same thing, “bring pressure on” (1875) and “exert pressure on” (1961).

To clarify this use of “pressure,” perhaps we should begin with the word that started it all—the noun “press,” meaning a device for compressing, crushing, and so on.

This noun entered late Old English before the Norman Conquest as presse, an early borrowing from French. And in its earliest appearance, in a document that scholars have dated from the late 10th to early 11th century, the word meant a device for stretching and smoothing cloth.

Here’s the OED citation, from a partial list of the tools and machinery used in making textiles: “flexlinan, spinle, reol, gearnwindan, stodlan, lorgas, presse, pihten.” The list is from an Old English manuscript known as the Gerefa, outlining the duties of a gerefa, or reeve, a word that here refers to the steward or manager of an estate.

Those terms can be translated and explained as “flax lines” (for hanging spun flax), “spindle,” “reel” (or bobbin), “yarn winders,” “uprights” (for a vertical loom), “heddle rods” (allowing the weaver to insert the weft threads), “press” (for stretching and smoothing finished cloth), “comb-beater” (for compacting the weft threads).

Our explanation of those Old English terms comes from R. G. Poole’s article “The Textile Inventory in the Old English Gerefa,” published in the Review of English Studies, November 1989.

In later use, the noun “press” had many other meanings related to the exertion of a steady force or a heavy weight.

Instruments called “presses,” according to OED citations, were used in squeezing grapes and olives (circa 1390); in printing and engraving (1535); in torturing prisoners (1742); and in preserving plant specimens (1776).

Other nouns developed in turn, as in the use of “press” to mean a publisher (1579) and print journalism in general (1649).

The verb “press” came after the noun. It first appeared in Middle English around 1330 and had “multiple origins,” the OED says.

The verb was partly derived from the earlier English noun, the dictionary says, but it was also borrowed partly from the French verb presser (to torment, torture, squeeze, harass, crowd) and from the Latin verb pressāre (to exert pressure on, weigh down, press together, squeeze, suppress).

Since the Middle Ages, the English verb has had both literal and figurative meanings—to physically or mentally push, squeeze, crowd, compress, and so on.

For example, “press” in the sense of to bear down (1300s) gave us the adjective “hard-pressed.” Originally it had only the literal sense, firmly compacted (“harde pressed matter,” 1562). But the 18th century brought the figurative meaning: strained or in difficulty (“hard-press’d Virtue,” 1702; “hard pressed to defend themselves,” 1747).

This brings us to the noun “pressure,” which came into English in the late 1300s and originally meant physical pain or discomfort.

In the OED’s earliest example, from the Wycliffe Bible of 1384, “pressure” refers to the pains of childbirth: “Whanne sche hath borun a sone, now sche thenkith not on the pressure or charge for ioye” (“When she has borne a son, she no longer thinks of the pain and inconvenience because of the joy”).

Very soon, “pressure” came to mean “mental oppression or affliction; the burden of grief, troubles, etc.,” the dictionary says.

The earliest Oxford example is from The Imitation of Christ, an English translation in the late 1400s of the Latin devotional by Thomas à Kempis: “Þy grace … is … liȝt of þe herte, þe solace of pressure” (“Thy grace … is … light of the heart, the comfort for affliction”).

Then later, in the mid-1600s, “pressure” came to mean a state of difficulty (as in “financial pressure”). This, the OED says, led to the current meaning of “an external force or difficulty causing a person stress or tension,” and hence “a strain, a stress.” Here are a pair of the dictionary’s early and late examples:

“Now is the Time to relieve the poor Farmers, that they may recover their past Losses, and be free from the like Pressures for the future.” (From a British journal, the Landlord’s Companion, 1742.)

“Not that they do not want freedom; but it brings pressures and choices with which they find it hard to cope.” (The Times, London, March 30, 1976.)

The “pressure” that’s meant in the phrase “put pressure on” is the kind that comes from people and not from circumstances. The OED defines it this way: “Psychological or moral influence, esp. of a constraining or oppressive kind,” as in “coercion, persuasion, or dissuasion.”

The earliest recorded use of this sense of “pressure” is from an essay by Francis Bacon (1625), which mentions “pressure of Consciences.”

And the word still has that meaning. This is the OED’s most recent example: “An esthetic judgment can be changed, or confirmed, only under renewed contact with the work of art in question, not through reflection or under the pressure of argument.” (From the posthumously published Homemade Esthetics, 1999, by the art critic Clement Greenberg, who died in 1994.)

The latecomer here is the verb “pressure,” which appeared in the early 20th century and means “to apply pressure to, esp. to coerce or persuade by applying psychological or moral pressure,” the OED says.

Oxford’s earliest example is from Debates of the House of Commons of Canada (1911): “Extreme protection brought the formation of gigantic trusts, which pressured the consumers, who are now in open revolt against that regime.”

In addition, “to pressure” can mean “to press or agitate” for something (first used this way in 1922), or “to gain through the application of pressure” (1944), as in to “pressure” a settlement.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin

Can a company be a ‘who’?

Q: I listen to NPR a lot and hear people say things like “a company who is hiring more workers” or “a school who is putting on a festival.” Did I miss the memo that said “who” had replaced “that” and “which”? What is your take on it?

A: We hadn’t noticed this use of “who” for things rather than people until you brought it to our attention. We’re now seeing it a bit, though not all that often in the mainstream media.

In fact, we’ve found only one example in a search of NPR transcripts. Here it is, along with some other “company who” sightings from news sites online:

“It isn’t the best look for a company who is trying to maintain investor confidence” (NPR, Sept. 25, 2018).

“As a company who is just beginning to take its technology out of the lab and into the market, focus is everything” (Forbes, Sept 10, 2018).

“We need to see some units designated as workforce housing and managed by a company who is (already) doing it” (Chicago Tribune, Sept. 10, 2018).

“A company who is making more money by cutting back rather than by growing is not an attractive investment and the stock will drop” (Nasdaq, April 13, 2018).

In all those examples, speakers of standard English would normally use “that” or “which” in place of “who.” We should note that some of the examples are from people being interviewed on the news sites, not by journalists at those sites.

Typically, “who” is used only for people and animals with names. Inanimate things and nameless animals are referred to as “that” or “which.”

However, some sentences that at first glance look like those examples above are indeed standard English, as in this definition of “executive secretary” from Macmillan Dictionary online:

“someone with a senior position in a company who is responsible for helping people in senior positions with organization and management.” (The “who” here refers to “someone,” not “company.”)

In the uses we’re discussing, “who,” “that,” and “which” are relative pronouns, words that introduce dependent (or subordinate) clauses, as in these examples: “He’s the guy who stole my car” … “This is the car that [or which] he stole.”

By the way, many people erroneously believe “that” can refer only to a thing, not to a person. However, “that” has been used for both people and things for about 800 years, and the usage is standard English (as in “He’s the guy that found my car”).

On a related issue, a dependent clause that’s not essential (one that can be removed without losing the main point of the sentence) customarily begins with “which” and is set apart with commas: “Mac and cheese, which is our favorite dish, is on the menu twice a week.”

A dependent clause that’s essential can begin with either “that” or “which,” and has no commas: “We prefer the mac and cheese that [or which] comes with wieners.” As we wrote in 2013, “that” is more common in the US and “which” in the UK, though there’s no rule requiring either one in essential clauses.

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The ivied origins of ‘Ivy League’

Q: The Morrises say “Ivy League” comes from the 19th century, when a football league comprising four schools was  designated the “IV League.” This sounds too good to be true. As arbiters of usage, what say you?

A: The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (2d ed., 1988), written by William and Mary Morris, presents two theories about the origin of the phrase “Ivy League”—one that it describes as “the more widely accepted” and that we accept too, and one that it calls “fairly plausible” and that we consider an etymological myth.

Let’s look at the facts first. (We’ll discuss the myth briefly later on.)

The term “Ivy League” showed up in writing in the 1930s as a noun phrase for a group of eight long-established colleges and universities in the eastern US: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Brown, and the University of Pennsylvania. In early examples, the phrase was used figuratively for an unofficial sports league representing the colleges.

Most of the dictionaries we’ve consulted trace the usage to the ivy growing on older college buildings. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, explains it this way: “So called because of the ivy-covered older college buildings.”

In fact, the adjective “ivied” and the noun “ivy” were used much earlier to describe the walls of colleges and universities.

Here’s an “ivied” example from “A Reasonable Doubt,” a poem in the January 1888, issue of the Haverfordian, a literary magazine at Haverford College:

“When, from the ivied College Hall / The lights begin to glimmer, / And forth they stroll at even-fall / To watch the starlight shimmer.”

And this “ivy” example, from Red and Black, a 1919 novel by the American writer Grace S. Richmond, describes a country doctor as he prepares to leave for a college reunion:

“He had his ticket and a sleeper reservation—it was fifteen hours’ journey back to the old ivy-covered halls which had grown dearer in his memory with each succeeding year of his absence.”

The earliest known use of the phrase “ivy college,” according to The Yale Book of Quotations, is from an Oct. 14, 1933, football article by Stanley Woodward in the New York Tribune:

“A proportion of our eastern ivy colleges are meeting little fellows another Saturday before plunging into the strife and the turmoil.”

The first written example we’ve seen for “Ivy League” used in reference to the eight colleges is in the headline and text of a Feb. 7, 1935, Associated Press sports article that appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.

Headline: “Brown Seems To / Have Been Taken / Into ‘Ivy League.’ ” First paragraph: “The so-called ‘Ivy League’ which is in the process of formation among a group of the older eastern universities now seems to have welcomed Brown into the fold and automatically assumed the proportions of a ‘big eight.’ ”

All the examples for “Ivy League” in the Oxford English Dictionary from the 1930s and ’40s use the term in the sense of a sports league. But by the early 1950s, the citations show, the phrase was being used to identify the colleges collectively and to describe the characteristics of the group or the characteristics of its students and graduates.

Here are two OED examples for the new senses from J. D. Salinger’s novel Catcher in the Rye (1951): “My father wants me to go to Yale, or maybe Princeton, but I swear, I wouldn’t go to one of those Ivy League colleges” … “The jerk had one of those very phoney, Ivy League voices, one of those very tired, snobby voices.”

Although the eight colleges had competed against each other in various sports since the 19th century (some since the mid-1800s), it wasn’t until 1945 that their presidents signed the first Ivy Group Agreement, setting  academic, financial, and athletic standards for football teams. In 1954, the presidents voted to extend the agreement to all intercollegiate sports.

As for the myth you asked about, the Morrises cite a single Columbia College graduate as the source of the erroneous belief that the phrase “Ivy League” is derived from the use of a Roman numeral in the phrase “IV League” in reference to a 19th-century sports league that included four teams: Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Princeton.

We haven’t found a single written example of “IV League” in newspapers and books from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Representatives of the four schools did meet on Nov. 23, 1876, in Springfield, MA, and agreed on rules for football, according to Football, the American Game (1917), by the football historian Parke Hill Davis. Three of the schools formed The Intercollegiate Football Association, but Yale didn’t join.

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When a bomb goes boom

Q: I’ve come across a cartoon online that raises a good question: If “tomb” is pronounced TOOM and “womb” is pronounced WOOM,” why isn’t “bomb” pronounced BOOM?

A: In the past, “bomb” was sometimes spelled “boom” and probably pronounced that way too. In fact, a “bomb” was originally a “boom,” etymologically speaking.

The two words have the same ancestor, the Latin bombus (a booming, buzzing, or humming sound). The Romans got the word from the Greek βόμβος (bómbos, a deep hollow sound), which was “probably imitative in origin,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The Latin noun produced the words for “bomb” in Italian and Spanish (bomba), French (bombe), and finally English, where it first appeared in the late 1500s as “bome,” without the final “b.”

The “bome” spelling was a translation of the Spanish term. It was first recorded in Robert Parke’s 1588 English version of a history of China written by Juan González de Mendoza. Here’s the OED citation:

“They vse … in their wars … many bomes of fire, full of olde iron, and arrowes made with powder & fire worke, with the which they do much harme and destroy their enimies.”

After that, however, the word disappeared for almost a century, reappearing as a borrowing of the French bombe, complete with the “b” and “e” at the end.

The earliest English example we’ve found is from A Treatise of the Arms and Engines of War, a 1678 English translation of a French book on war by Louis de Gaya. A section entitled “Of Bombes” begins:

“Bombes are of a late Invention. … They are made all of Iron, and are hollow … they are filled with Fire-works and Powder, and then are stopped with a Bung or Stopple well closed; in the middle of which is left a hole to apply the Fuse to.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest “bombe” example appeared a few years later: “They shoot their Bombes near two Miles, and they weigh 250 English Pounds a piece” (from the London Gazette, 1684).

The first appearances we’ve found of the modern spelling “bomb,” without the “e” on the end, are from a 1680 edition of The Turkish History, by Richard Knolles. The word “bomb” appears more than a dozen times, as both noun and verb.

Here’s a noun example: “twenty of them were killed that day by one Bomb.” And here’s one with the verb: “the Captain General form’d all the Trenches and Traverses for an Attack, and Bomb’d the Town with twenty Mortar-pieces.”

By the mid-1690s the “bomb” spelling had become established enough to appear in an English-to-French dictionary, Abel Boyer’s A Complete French Mastery for Ladies and Gentlemen (1694): “a bomb, une bombe.” That final silent “b” remained in the word, probably for etymological reasons, forever after.

The pronunciation of “bomb” has varied over the centuries, and it still does. Today three pronunciations are considered standard, according to the OED.

The dictionary, using the International Phonetic Alphabet, gives them as /bɒm/, /bʌm/, and /bɑm/, which we might transcribe as BOM, BUM, and BAHM (the first two are British, the third American).

The three vowels sound, respectively, like the “o” in “lot,” the “u” in “cup,” and the “a” in “father.” Furthermore, the British pronunciations are short and clipped in comparison with the American, which is more open and drawn out.

The second British pronunciation, BUM, was “formerly usual” in the British Army, Oxford says. And it apparently was widespread in the 18th century, since it’s the only pronunciation given in several dictionaries of the time, including the most popular one, John Walker’s A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791).

As for the BOOM pronunciation, “bomb” was sometimes spelled “boom” or “boomb,” suggesting that it was pronounced that way too. The OED cites both spellings in an anonymous 1692 diary of the siege and surrender of Limerick: “600 Booms” … “800 Carts of Ball and Boombs.”

And the dictionary points readers to rhymes in poetry, where “bomb” is sometimes rhymed with “tomb” and “womb,” which were pronounced TOOM and WOOM at the time.

Here’s an Oxford citation from “The British Sailor’s Exultation,” a poem Edward Young wrote sometime before his death in 1765: “A thousand deaths the bursting bomb / Hurls from her disembowel’d womb.”

We’ve found a couple of additional examples in poetry of the 1690s.

In a 1692 poem written in rhyming couplets and based on Virgil’s Dido and Aeneas, John Crown rhymes “bomb’d” with “entomb’d.” Here are the lines: “The wealthy Cities insolently bomb’d, / The Towns in their own ashes deep entomb’d.”

And Benjamin Hawkshaw’s poem “The Incurable,” written in rhyming triplets, rhymes “womb,” “tomb,” and “bomb.” These are the lines: “It works like lingring Poyson in the Womb, / And each Day brings me nearer to my Tomb, / My Magazin’s consum’d by this unlucky Bomb.” (From Poems Upon Several Occasions, 1693.)

What’s more, the word “boom” (for a loud hollow noise) was sometimes spelled “bomb” or “bombe,” which suggests that the pronunciations occasionally coincided.

This example, cited in the OED, is from Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum, a natural history, or study of the natural world, published in 1627, a year after his death:

“I remember in Trinity Colledge in Cambridge, there was an Vpper Chamber, which being thought weake in the Roofe of it, was supported by a Pillar of Iron … Which if you had strucke, it would make a little flat Noise in the Roome where it was strucke; But it would make a great Bombe in the Chamber beneath.” (We’ve expanded the citation to give more context.)

And we found this example in a work that discusses sound production, Walter Charleton’s A Fabrick of Science Natural (1654): “As in all Arches, and Concamerated or vaulted rooms: in which for the most part, the sound or voyce loseth its Distinctness, and degenerates into a kind of long confused Bombe.”

In short, it’s safe to say that that “bomb” was probably pronounced BOOM by some educated speakers in the 17th century.

As we’ve noted, the word didn’t appear until 1588, during the modern English period. As far as we know, the final “b” was never pronounced. But the other words you mention, “womb” and “tomb,” are much older, and the “b” in their spellings was originally pronounced.

In the case of “womb,” a Germanic word that dates back to early Old English, it originally had a different vowel sound, too. But beginning in the Middle English period (roughly 1150 to 1500), the “oo” vowel sound developed and the “b” became silent.

As for “tomb,” a Latin-derived word that English borrowed from the French toumbe around 1300, it came with the “oo” vowel sound, and the “b” became silent in later Middle English. The “b” remained in the spelling, though in the 16th and 17th centuries the word occasionally appeared as “toom” or “toome,” according to OED citations.

Several other words ending in “b” (“lamb,” “dumb,” “comb,” “climb,” “plumb”) originally had an audible “b,” but it became silent during the Middle English period. Linguists refer to this shift in pronunciation from “mb” to “m” as an example of “consonant cluster reduction.”

We wrote a post in 2009 about other kinds of spelling puzzles—why “laughter” and “daughter” don’t rhyme, and why silent letters appear in words like “sword” and “knife.” And in 2017 we discussed “-ough” spellings (“enough,” “ought,” “though,” “through,” etc.), which are pronounced in many different ways.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

A verb to be suspicioned?

Q: I recently saw this pitch online for a silk throw: “Comes complete with the Hyena label to show you really are as cool as your friends had suspicioned!” I can’t believe that use of “suspicion” as a verb is ever correct. Or am I just behind the times? (I’m almost 65.)

A: You can find the verb “suspicion” in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, as well as in several standard dictionaries.

However, the usage is variously described as informal, dialectal, colloquial, or substandard. We’d add unidiomatic—that is, not natural for a native speaker of standard English.

The use of “suspicion” as a verb meaning “to suspect” appeared in English in the early 1600s, according to the OED, but this early sighting “appears to be a fortuitous occurrence unrelated to later uses.”

Here’s the early outlier: “Suspicioning of himselfe, that if he should grow negligent, he might come to loose his magnanimity” (from the English scholar Nicholas Ferrar’s translation, sometime before his death in 1637, of a treatise by the Spanish religious writer Juan de Valdés).

The usage, described as “dialect and colloq.” in the OED, reappeared in the early 1800s on the other side of the Atlantic, and it’s been found since then in both American and British English.

The earliest US example we’ve seen, cited by the Dictionary of American Regional English, is from an 1818 letter by Henry Cogswell Knight, a New Englander, about his travels in the South and West:

“Some words are used, even by genteel people, from their imperfect educations, in a new sense … as … to suspicion one.” (Knight, who later became an Episcopal clergyman, published a collection of his letters in 1824 under the pseudonym “Arthur Singleton, Esq.”)

The OED’s first 19th-century British example (from Frederick Marryat’s Diary in America, 1839) quotes an American: “I suspicion as much.”

The next one is from Stanton Grange: or, At a Private Tutor’s (1864), by John Christopher Atkinson: “They suspicioned all wasn’t reet” (“right” was pronounced “reet” in some British dialects).

DARE describes the usage as “old-fash.” and says it’s especially found in the  South and South Midland regions of the US.

The regional dictionary has more than two dozen US examples. The latest four, dated 1986, are from Tennessee (“They suspicion he did it”), Georgia (“Where you might be suspicioned”), Arizona (“It was suspicioned”), and Florida (“They sort of suspicioned”). DARE cites the Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States: Concordance, edited by Lee Pedersen, for these four examples.

The OED citations indicate that the verb “suspicion” is usually transitive (with an object), as in Mark Twain’s 1876 novel Tom Sawyer: “Anybody would suspicion us that saw us.”

But the verb is occasionally intransitive, as in “An Habitation Enforced,” a short story by Rudyard Kipling in the August 1905 issue of Century Magazine: “An’ d’you mean to tell me you never suspicioned?”

We’ve found four standard dictionaries that include the use of “suspicion” as a verb meaning “to suspect.” It’s labeled “informal” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), “chiefly dialectal” in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, “Informal or Dial.” in Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.), and “chiefly substandard” in Merriam-Webster Unabridged.

As for the etymology, the noun and verb “suspicion” as well as the noun, adjective, and verb “suspect” ultimately come from suspicĕre, classical Latin for “look up to,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

As Ayto explains, suspicĕre “evolved metaphorically along two lines: ‘look up to, admire,’ which has since died out, and ‘look at secretly,’ hence ‘look at distrustfully,’ which has passed into English.”

The English word “suspect” comes from suspect-, the past participial stem of suspicĕre, while the English word “suspicion” comes from suspectio, a medieval Latin derivative of suspicĕre.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

When writing is ‘boilerplate’

Q: Why are standard clauses in contracts and stock phrases in speeches called “boilerplate”? I can’t see what this usage has to do with boilers or plates.

A: When “boilerplate” first appeared in mid-19th-century English, it referred literally to the rolled iron plates used to make steam boilers.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from an 1860 history of coal mining and iron making by William Fordyce:

“The Staffordshire iron-masters enjoyed almost exclusively the advantages conferred by the rolling-mill in the production of various descriptions of Iron, such as nail-rods, boiler-plates, hoop and sheet iron, wire &c.”

And this example is from Ure’s Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines (1875), by Robert Hunt and Frederick William Rudler:

“Boiler Plate: ‘Sheets of iron used for making boilers, and now largely employed for constructing railway bridges, ships, tanks, &c.’ ” The OED uses a different example from Ure’s Dictionary.

In the late 19th century, according to Oxford citations, the term “boilerplate” also took on the sense of “syndicated matter issued to the newspaper press.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from an Aug. 18, 1893, item in the Congressional Record about the use of political handouts as news: The country weeklies have been sent tons of ‘boiler plates’ accompanied by … letters asking the editors to use the matter as news.”

But we’ve found several earlier examples. In the two earliest, an Arizona newspaper, the Daily Tombstone, calls a competing paper “the ‘boiler plate’ ” because of its reliance on syndicated material.

In its April 10, 1885, issue, the Tombstone says, “The vandal who edits the ‘boiler plate’ around the corner … uses the columns … to vent his spleen upon the Irish, and continues to do so in every issue.”

And in its April 23, 1885, issue, the Tombstone says, “The ‘boiler plate’ this morning uses language … which is unfit for publication, let alone to go into families where there are young children.”

We also found this example from the July 19, 1888, issue of the Stark County Democrat in Canton, OH: “It is conceded that our esteemed evening contemporary is printed largely from boiler plate matter, and not from type set up by home labor in the home office.”

So why was syndicated news copy referred to as “boilerplate”?

As the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary explains, “The syndicates delivered that copy on metal plates with the type already in place so the local papers wouldn’t have to set it. Printers apparently dubbed those syndicated plates boiler plates because of their resemblance to the plating used in making steam boilers.”

“Soon boilerplate came to refer to the printed material on the plates as well as to the plates themselves,” M-W adds. “Because boilerplate stories were more often filler than hard news, the word acquired negative connotations and gained another sense widely used today: ‘hackneyed or unoriginal writing.’ ”

In our research, we came across an interesting description of boilerplate editing in the 19th century:

“In these days of ‘boiler plate’ most of the editing … is done with an axe and a saw. The ‘plate’ matter is cut so as to fill whatever space is allotted to it, and after that is done the paper is ready for the press.” (From the Oct. 20, 1894, issue of Our Paper, the newspaper at a reformatory in Concord Junction, MA.)

It’s hard to tell exactly when the term “boilerplate” came to mean formulaic writing. Many of the examples we’ve seen in searches of digitized books and newspapers could be using the term for either syndicated material or formulaic writing.

The earliest definite example that we’ve found is from Influencing Human Behavior, a 1925 book by the American writer and lecturer Harry Allen Overstreet: “The inveterate cliché-ist is apt to be the inveterate platitudinarian. He is animated boiler plate.”

Finally, the use of “boilerplate” for standard legal clauses apparently showed up in the second half of the 20th century. We haven’t seen an earlier legal example than this expanded OED citation from Doll, a 1965 novel in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series of police procedurals:

“The rest of the will was boilerplate. Meyer scanned it quickly, and then turned to the last page where Tinka had signed her name.”

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

‘Whatever’ or ‘what ever’?

Q: Is the one-word or two-word form correct here? Or are both correct? If not, which is preferred? And why? (1) Whatever happened to so-and-so? (2) What ever happened to so-and-so?

A: The compound words formed with the adverb “ever” were originally two separate words, though today they’re nearly always written as one: “whoever,” “however,” “wherever,” and so on.

But in the case of “what” + “ever,” you have a choice when asking a question. “Whatever” is more common, but “what ever” is also used to underscore the emphatic nature of “ever” (as in “What ever do you mean?” or “What ever could have happened?”).

Most standard dictionaries don’t include a separate entry for “what ever.” The few that do say “what ever” is more emphatic than “whatever.”

Oxford Dictionaries Online, for example, says “what ever” is “used for emphasis in questions, typically expressing surprise or confusion,” and it gives this example: “What ever did I do to deserve him?”

The online Macmillan Dictionary says the two-word version is “used for emphasizing a question, especially when you are surprised or upset,” and gives this example: “What ever gave you that idea?”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has no separate entry for “what ever,” but mentions it in a usage note in its entry for “whatever”:

“Both whatever and what ever may be used in sentences such as Whatever (or What ever) made her say that? … In adjectival uses, however, only the one-word form is used: Take whatever (not what ever) books you need.”

We mention “whatever” (also “whatsoever”) in a 2011 post we wrote about similar two- and three-word compounds. Among the other words we discuss are “albeit,” “heretofore,” “inasmuch,” “nevertheless,” “nonetheless,” and “notwithstanding.”

Most of the “ever” combinations came along during the Middle English period—roughly from the late 11th to the late 15th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

Although they started out as phrases, they’re now “usually” or “always” written as single words, depending on where you look in the OED.

As the dictionary explains, “ever” is used “following interrogative adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, and conjunctions (e.g. how, what, when, where, who, why), to intimate that the speaker has no idea of what the answer will be.”

So the “ever” in “whatever” lends emphasis to a question that could very well be asked with “what” alone. (In fact, “whatever” is sometimes called an emphatic interrogative pronoun.)

And the two-word “what ever,” which isolates and underscores the “ever” part of the compound, further accentuates the note of surprise, bewilderment, or disbelief.

The earliest “ever” compound, and the only one known to have existed in Old English, was the pronoun “whoever” (written hwa æfre), according to Oxford citations.

The others, along with the dates they first appeared, include the pronoun and adjective “whatever” (written “what euer,” early 1300s); the adverb “however” (“hou-euer,” c. 1380); the adverb and conjunction “whenever” (“whanne evere,” c. 1380), the adverb and conjunction “wherever” (“ware euere,” c. 1275); and the adverb “why ever” (1660), the only one still generally written as two words.

The OED’s earliest citation for “whatever” is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem composed before 1325 and possibly as early as 1300: “But what euer he had in þouȝt” (“But whatever he had in thought”). Here the word is a pronoun introducing a clause.

Soon the compound was also being written as one word, as in this OED example: “Son, what may al this noys be … Whateuer sal it sygnyfy?” (From a manuscript of The Seuyn Sages that probably dates from around 1330.) Here the pronoun is interrogative.

The OED has many examples of both “whatever” and “what ever” over the centuries. And the two-word version is still around, as in this citation from Vanity Fair in November 2013: “What ever happened to style?”

“Whatever” is also used following a noun to mean something like “at all,” in which case it behaves like an adverb. The examples range from 1623 (“more withered and dry than … any other Tree whateuer”) to 1884 (“had no chance whatever”). In this usage, it’s always one word.

And as we all know, “whatever” is also used as an interjection in a sometimes dismissive way, as in “Yeah, whatever.”

Here’s how the OED defines this sense of the word: “Usually as a response, suggesting the speaker’s reluctance to engage or argue, and hence often implying passive acceptance or tacit acquiescence; also used more pointedly to express indifference, indecision, impatience, scepticism, etc.”

Oxford labels the usage colloquial and says it originated in the US. The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1965 episode of the TV series Bewitched.

As fans of the sitcom will recall, Samantha’s mother, Endora, persisted in mispronouncing her son-in-law’s name. Here’s the exchange cited in the OED:

Endora. “Good morning, Derwood.”
Samantha. “Darrin.”
Endora. “Whatever.”

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