The Grammarphobia Blog

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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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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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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‘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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