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

Hair of the dog

Q: I have a question that you might want to run on New Year’s Eve. (I won’t be in any condition to read your answer on New Year’s Day.) Why does the expression “hair of the dog” refer to treating a hangover with more of the same?

A: The expression for an alcoholic drink taken to cure a hangover is a shortening of “a hair of the dog that bit you,” according to the Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins (2nd ed.), by Julia Cresswell.

Cresswell writes that the expression is derived “from an old belief that someone bitten by a rabid dog could be cured of rabies by taking a potion containing some of the dog’s hair.”

When the expression is used to mean a hangover cure, she explains, it “suggests that, although alcohol may be to blame for the hangover (as the dog is for the attack), a smaller portion of the same will, paradoxically, act as a cure.”

“There is, it should be added, no scientific evidence that the cure for either a hangover or rabies actually works,” she writes.

As far as we can tell, the idea that a potion made from a rabid dog’s hair could cure rabies originated in classical antiquity. The earliest example we’ve found is in the writings of the first-century Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder.

In Naturalis Historia, he writes: “When a person has been bitten by a mad dog, he may be preserved from hydrophobia by applying the ashes of a dog’s head to the wound.” Pliny adds that one could also “insert in the wound ashes of hairs from the tail of the dog that inflicted the bite.”

(From book 29, chapter 32, “Remedies for the Bite of the Mad Dog,” in an 1855 translation by John Bostock and H. T. Riley in the Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University.)

Although the belief that a rabid dog’s hair could cure rabies originated in classical times, the English expression “a hair of the dog that bit one” didn’t show up in writing until the 16th century. And from the beginning it was used figuratively to mean a hangover remedy.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue (1546), by John Heywood:

“I praie the leat me and my felowe haue / A heare of the dog that bote vs last nyght” (“I pray thee let me and my fellow have / A hair of the dog that bit us last night”).

The only OED citation for the expression used literally for a rabies treatment appeared in the 18th century: “The hair of the dog that gave the wound is advised as an application to the part injured.” (From A Treatise on Canine Madness, 1760, by Robert James.)

The dictionary’s first example for the short version of the expression is from a caption in the Jan. 5, 1935, issue of the New Yorker: “Your hair of the dog, sir.”

However, we’ve found many earlier examples, including this one from the Oct. 5, 1853, issue of the Wabash Express (Terre Haute, Ind.), about a man with “talent and genius of a high order” who “has thrown them all away to gratify his inordinate thirst for strong drink”:

“Prof. K., mistaking the character of the house we kept, called at our sanctum on Monday and asked for ‘a little bitters.’ We told him we did not keep the article, and as he was very full, advised him against taking any more. He said he had been sick, and that ‘the hair of the dog would not do him any further harm.’ ”

We’ll end with a nonalcoholic hangover concoction found in “Jeeves Takes Charge,” a P. G. Wodehouse story published in the Saturday Evening Post, Nov. 18, 1916. Here’s a description of the brainy valet’s first encounter with Bertie Wooster, who’s feeling the aftereffects of “a rather cheery little supper with a few of the lads”:

“I was sent by the agency, sir,” he said. “I was given to understand that you required a valet.”

I’d have preferred an undertaker; but I told him to stagger in, and he floated noiselessly through the doorway like a healing zephyr. … He had a grave, sympathetic face as if he, too, knew what it was to sup with the lads; and there was a look in his eyes, as we stood there giving each other the mutual north-to-south, that seemed to say: “Courage, Cuthbert! Chump though you be, have no fear; for I will look after you!”

“Excuse me, sir,” he said gently.

Then he seemed to flicker and wasn’t there any longer. I heard him moving about in the kitchen, and presently he came back with a glass in his hand.

“If you would drink this, sir,” he said with a kind of bedside manner, rather like the royal doctor shooting the bracer into the sick prince. “It is a little preparation of my own invention. It is the dark meat-sauce that gives it its color. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper gives it its bite. Gentlemen have told me they have found it extremely invigorating after a late evening.”

I would have clutched at anything that looked like a life line that morning. I swallowed the stuff. For a moment I felt as if somebody had touched off a bomb inside the old bean and was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch, and then everything seemed suddenly to get all right. The sun shone in through the window; birds twittered in the tree tops; and, generally speaking, hope dawned once more.

“You’re engaged!” I said as soon as I could say anything.

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

A biting commentary

Q: My daughter recently texted “bite me” after I texted a suggestion she didn’t care for. While I understand the emotion she intended to convey, I find the phrase not only counterintuitive but just plain weird. Any idea of its source?

A: Your daughter was telling you, more or less, to leave her alone, but you knew that already. What you may not have known is that “bite me” is generally a variation on “bite my ass.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang says that “bite me!” (many dictionaries print it with an exclamation point) means the same as “bite me in the ass.” The dictionary says it originated on American college campuses in the 1980s, and labels it an exclamation of a generally derogatory or dismissive nature.

Another source, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, lists “bite me” among expressions equivalent to “go to hell” or “fuck you” and that are “usu. considered vulgar.”  Included in the list are “bite my butt” (which Random House dates from 1958) and “bite me in the ass” (1963).

Some slang dictionaries interpret “bite me” as an invitation to fellatio. But unless there’s some reason to think otherwise, it’s likely that what’s supposed to be “bitten” is the butt.

The oldest examples in Green’s date from the late 1980s and early ’90s:

“The insult category consisted of … gaywad, bite me, doofy, dork, mutt” (from With the Boys, a 1987 study by the sociologist Gary A. Fine).

“Ah, bite me!” (from the 1991 screenplay of Wayne’s World, written by Mike Myers et al.).

The earliest example in Random House is from a 1992 episode of the sitcom Married With Children. Here’s the exchange: “Drop dead.” “Bite me!”

The linguist Pamela Munro’s Slang U. (1991), a book about campus colloquialisms, likens “bite me!” to “bite my ass.” She illustrates it with this example: “After Joe told Michele that he wanted to see other girls, all she said was, ‘Bite me!’ ”

Munro, a professor at UCLA, gives the expression a broad variety of meanings: “Shut up! You make me sick! Get out of here! Kiss my ass! Fuck you!” And she characterizes it as a usage that “may be offensive” and “should be used only with discretion.”

Publishers of standard American dictionaries don’t include “bite me” (with or without exclamation mark). Some British publishers have entries for it, but they give no literal definition, saying only how the phrase is used. And they label it “offensive” or merely “informal” rather than “vulgar” (as Random House does).

Cambridge Dictionaries online describes “bite me!” (including exclamation mark) as an American idiom that’s “offensive” and is “used to say to someone that they have made you feel angry or embarrassed.”

Another British dictionary, Longman’s, says “bite me!” is a “spoken informal” expression of American origin, “used to show that you are offended by something someone has just said about you.”

Oxford Dictionaries Online also labels “bite me” as “informal.” It’s used, the dictionary says, “to express defiance against or contempt for someone,” and this illustration is given: “it’s just my opinion; if you don’t like it, bite me!”

We agree that “bite me” has lost much of its old vulgarity. It’s rude and therefore offensive, but not dirty. In fact, it’s used quite often as a book title with no offense intended. Google it and you’ll find the phrase emblazoned unabashedly on the covers of books about cooking, dieting, and vampires.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, hasn’t yet taken note of “bite me,” but it includes a couple of other “bite” idioms.

Used alone, the OED says, the verb “bite” means the same thing as “suck” in North American slang: “to be contemptible, awful, or unpleasant.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from the September 1975 issue of the National Lampoon: “The activities on campus really bite.”

And in North American slang, Oxford adds, to “bite the big one” has two meanings that date from the 1970s: (1) “to be contemptible, awful, or unpleasant,” and (2) “to die.” Here are the OED‘s earliest examples (their meanings will be obvious from the context):

“I’m a big fan of society … but this bites the big one” (from David Mamet’s play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, 1974).

“Larry’s not with us any more, he went on y’know. … He bit the big one” (the drummer Terry Bozzio, speaking during “What Ever Happened to All the Fun in the World,” a brief cut on Frank Zappa’s 1979 album Sheik Yerbouti).

As for its more distant etymology, “bite” came into early Old English (bítan) from Common Germanic, the OED says. And its original meaning is still the principal sense today: “To cut into, pierce, or nip (anything) with the teeth.”

The dictionary’s earliest known use of the verb is from the epic poem Beowulf, which may have been written as early as 725.

In the passage cited, the man-eating monster Grendel emerges from the misty moors by night and attacks a company of warriors quartered in a castle: “He gefeng hraðe … slǽpendne rinc … bát bánlocan” (“He quickly seized … a sleeping warrior … bit into his body”).

Grendel obviously would have interpreted “bite me” literally.

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

King Arthur … or King Artur?

Q: A few years ago, the host at a bed and breakfast in Ireland introduced my wife and me to his new puppy, “Artur.” It took me a bit to realize that the dog’s name was “Arthur.” I assume that pronouncing “th” as “t” is historical, though I still hear it from the Irish and Scots. What’s the history?

A: You’re right in suggesting that the pronunciation of “th” as “t” in some English dialects may be an obsolete usage that was once common.

In fact, “th” used to be simply “t,” and pronounced that way, in older spellings of “authentic,” “orthography,” “theater,” “theme,” “theology,” and “throne,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And the “t” was once “th” in “treacle” and “treasure.”

In the Middle Ages, the name “Arthur” could be spelled with “th” or only “t,” suggesting that it may have been pronounced both ways. In early versions of the Arthurian legends, for example, King Arthur’s name is spelled with “t” or “th” or runic letters representing the “th” sound.

Even today, it’s standard in the US and the UK to pronounce the “th” as “t” in “Theresa,” “Thomas,” “Thompson,” and “thyme.” And the “th” of “Thames” is pronounced with a “t” in England and Canada, though the river in Connecticut is generally pronounced with a “th.”

The “th” we’re talking about is called a digraph, by the way, a combination of two letters that represent one sound (like the “ch” in “child” or the “sh” in “shoe”).

However, not all “th” combinations are digraphs. The two letters also appear together in some compounds that include words ending in “t” and beginning with “h,” such as “foothill,” “outhouse,” and “knighthood.” In such compounds, the “t” and “h” are pronounced as separate letters. A group of adjacent consonants like that is sometimes called a consonant cluster or consonant compound.

The digraph “th” is generally seen today in words originating in Old English and Greek. It’s used to represent what were the letters thorn (þ) and eth (ð) in Old English (spoken from roughly from 450 to 1150), and the Greek theta (θ), which was originally pronounced as an aspirated “t”—a “t” sound accompanied by a burst of breath.

The thorn and the eth, both of which represent the voiceless “th” sound in “bath” as well as the voiced sound in “bathe,” were gradually replaced by the digraph “th” in Middle English (spoken from about 1150 to 1450).

Here are a few Old English words and their modern English versions: cláðas (“clothes”), broþor (“brother”), þæt (“that”), þyncan or ðyncan (“think”), and þicce (“thick”).

In Layamon’s Brut, an early Middle English poem written sometime before 1200, King Arthur’s name is spelled with an eth: “Arður; aðelest kingen” (“Arthur, most admired of kings”).

In later Middle English poetry, the king’s name is spelled with either “th” or “t” alone. In the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales (circa 1386), Geoffrey Chaucer refers to “kyng Artur,” while in the alliterative Morte Arthure (circa 1400), it’s “kyng Arthur.”

As for words originating in Greek, the Romans used “th” to represent the theta in Greek loanwords. Then English borrowed many of these Greek terms from Latin or the Romance languages. As far as we can tell, the Latinized Greek “th” terms first appeared in Middle English.

Here are a few Middle English examples: “theatre,” from the Latin theātrum and the Greek θέᾱτρον (theātron); “theologie,” from Latin theologia and Greek θεολογία (theologίā); and “throne,” from Latin thronus and Greek θρόνος (thrónos). A few early “throne” examples are spelled with “t” instead of “th.”

As we’ve mentioned, the spellings and pronunciations of English words originating in Greek have varied quite a bit over the years. The theta has sometimes been represented by a “th” and sometimes by a “t.” And the “th” has sometimes been pronounced as a “t.”

We suspect that the confusion can be traced to medieval Latin, when the “th” sound in Greek loanwords began being pronounced as “t.” French then adopted this “th” spelling and “t” pronunciation, while the other major Romance languages (Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian) used “t” for both the spelling and the pronunciation.

French, the major source of loanwords in English, has had a big influence on our spelling and pronunciation. In fact, the OED attributes the pronunciation of “th” as “t” in some English words to the influence of French. But English speakers usually pronounce the “th” digraph today much as the Anglo-Saxons pronounced the thorn and the eth in Old English.

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Christmas, 1971, Vietnam

[Note: We’d like to share a brief article that Stewart wrote for United Press International 47 years ago when he spent Christmas with American troops in Vietnam.]

Christmas in Vietnam,
and Dreams of Home


XOM ONG, Vietnam (UPI) Dec. 24, 1971—It’s a time for dreaming. Thoughts of home. Logs crackling in the fireplace. The big tree, the gaily wrapped gifts. The tinsel and glittering stars and colored lights.

Then, back to reality. A tank caked with mud. A can of C ration boned turkey. The sun and the jungle. The danger once in a while and the boredom the rest of the time.

“It’s not Christmas at all when you’re over here,” Spec. 4 Larry Morse, 19, of Salina, Okla., said. “It’s just another day. Like any other. That’s why it’s so bad. You just sit around and do nothing, like always.”

Morse sat on top of a Sheridan tank, his boots splattered with yellow mud and his brown hair blowing in the morning wind. He and the other GI’s in F troop of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment were setting up camp in chest-high elephant grass 25 miles northeast of Saigon.

It’s no fun on Christmas for the 159,000 American soldiers in Vietnam. It’s especially tough for an estimated 15,000 grunts still out in the field in combat.

U.S. commanders arranged hot turkey dinners Saturday for GI’s in Vietnam, but some troops out in the boondocks expected to get their Christmas meals a couple of days late.

Morse, a tank gunner, said he had only one Christmas wish and he didn’t expect Santa Claus to grant it —“I’d like to get out of here, right now, right this minute.”

“I’m sick and tired of this place,” he said, his shirt open and a copper cross dangling from a black bootlace around his neck. “What I’d like is some snow. Christmas doesn’t mean anything to me without snow.”

Spec. 4 William Harper, 20, of Cookeville, Tenn., stood on top of an APC and decorated a wilting Christmas tree the chaplain had sent to F troop. His unbuttoned fatigue shirt flapped in the breeze outside his trousers.

“I guess we just got to be here,” he said. “But it won’t be nothing like home. That’s where I’d like to be now. Back home. There it is.”

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

A throne for the king of the band

Q: Your drumstick post sparked this thought: How did the stool used with a drum set become known as a “throne”? As a drummer, I’ve assumed it’s because, you know, I’m king of the band.

A: Any percussionist can tell you a drummer sits on a “throne.” The term has been used in the music business for more than 80 years, according to our searches, yet the usage doesn’t appear in any standard English dictionaries.

However, the collaborative reference Wiktionary, whose definitions are contributed by readers, does recognize this usage. Among its definitions of “throne,” Wiktionary includes “a type of stool used by drummers.”

We can’t tell you who came up with the usage or why—though we’ll bet a drummer was responsible. The image makes a lot of sense. A band drummer occupies a kingly position, often on a raised platform overlooking the other performers.

What a drummer means by “throne” is an armless stool, usually foldable and adjustable in height, with three to five legs and a revolving seat. It may or may not have a small backrest attached. The word “throne” has been used to describe such a stool since the big-band era.

The earliest uses we’ve found in writing are from late-1930s catalogs of the Chicago drum manufacturer Ludwig.

In its 1937 catalog, the company included a foldable, adjustable “Drummer’s Throne” with three metal legs (“Available with or without back rest”), somewhat resembling a photographer’s tripod with a seat. Ludwig has used the term “throne” ever since.

In 1942, the firm began including in its drum sets an instruction book called Swing Drumming (1942), by William F. Ludwig Jr., in which the term “throne” appeared three times.

Ludwig may have been ahead of the curve in using “throne” this way. Another big American drum maker, Gretsch, sold similar stools in its 1941 catalog but called them “Drummers’ Chairs.” (Later in the ’40s, Gretsch switched to “Drummers’ Thrones.”)

A third major manufacturer, Slingerland, began carrying a rigid canister-style seat in 1941 that it called a “throne.” But the company continued to call its tripod-type metal stool a “Drummer’s Chair” until the late 1950s, when it switched to “Drummer’s Throne.”

By the 1960s, other manufacturers had adopted the word.

In a column devoted to new products, the November-December 1963 issue of the Music Educators Journal noted, “A NEW ‘DRUMMER’S THRONE’ is being introduced by Rogers Drums.”

And the February-March 1964 issue included a notice about a manufacturer of orchestra furniture: “The company [Wenger] is also offering its new #45 Drummer’s Throne. Cushion swivel seat accommodates tympani, bass drum, cymbal, and glockenspiel players. Throne adjusts for sitting and semi-standing positions.”

Today, the term is common among manufacturers and is almost universally used in magazines aimed at musicians.

The company Roc-N-Soc, which describes itself as a maker of “drum thrones and guitar stools,” boasts that “Roc-N-Soc thrones are designed and constructed with the musician in mind. We guarantee our thrones will give you the best comfort and flexibility.”

Modern Drummer magazine consistently uses “throne” to describe a drummer’s stool, and earlier this year the magazine Music Critic featured “The 10 Best Drum Thrones.”

For concert percussionists, there are timpani thrones. These brags are from a couple of manufacturers’ websites:

“Pearl’s Timpani Throne provides a new standard of stability and adjustability.”  …  “The Steve Weiss Liberty One 1000T timpani throne features a comfortable round seat-top and four legs for extra stability.”

Oddly, we haven’t found many early swing- or jazz-era examples of “throne” used by drummers themselves, though it’s the usual term today.

The drummer Mel Lewis, who died in 1990, wrote in an unfinished memoir, “A jazz drummer generally sits at the rear of the bandstand or stage on a high stool called a throne.” (Quoted in a 2014 biography, The View from the Back of the Band, by Chris Smith.)

As for the etymology of “throne,” the word entered Middle English around 1200 from Anglo-Norman or Old French. Its ultimate sources, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, are the classical Latin thronus (chair of state) and the ancient Greek θρόνος (thrónos, seat, chair, chair of state).

Originally, “throne” in English meant the heavenly seat of God, though it soon came to mean an ornate ceremonial seat occupied by a high official (like a monarch or pope) and by analogy the office itself.

The OED has no mention of the “throne” a drummer occupies. It does include the outdated 19th-century use of “throne” for the chair where a portrait painter placed his sitter or model.

The only colloquial meaning in the OED is one found in all slang dictionaries—the jocular use of “throne” for a toilet, a usage dating from the 1920s.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Pronunciation Usage Word origin Writing

PAINS-taking or PAIN-staking?

Q: I often hear “painstaking” pronounced PAIN-staking, but prefer PAINS-taking. Any thoughts?

A: Both PAINS-taking and PAIN-staking are standard pronunciations in the US, while PAINS-taking is the standard pronunciation in the UK, according to the American and British dictionaries we’ve checked.

Etymologically, the PAINS-taking pronunciation makes more sense. The word “painstaking” originally meant (and still means) taking pains—that is, care and effort—to do something.

When the noun “pain” appeared in the 13th century, it had two meanings: “trouble taken in accomplishing or attempting something” and “physical or bodily suffering,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED citations for both senses are from Of Arthour and of Merlin, a Middle English romance that scholars date to the late 1200s.

Here’s the example for taking trouble: “Harans biseged and dede his peine, Þe cite to winne of Dorkeine” (“Harans besieged Dorkeine and took pains to capture the city”).

(Harans is a Saxon king in Arthurian legend. We haven’t been able to identify Dorkeine, though it may refer to what is now Dorking in Surrey, which was occupied by Saxons in the 5th and 6th centuries.)

And here’s the example for physical pain:”What for sorwe & eke for paine” (“What for sorrow as well as pain”).

“Painstaking” showed up in English as a noun in the 16th century and as an adjective in the 17th. The OED defines the noun, a combination of the plural “pains” plus the verbal noun “taking,” as the “taking of pains; the application of careful and attentive effort towards the accomplishment of something.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the noun is from a 1545 will that authorizes the executor to collect the funds when “a payre of indentures” come due: “And that fynysshed and doon … he shal have for his paynes taking.” (Abstracts From the Wills of English Printers and Stationers, 1903, by Henry Robert Plomer.)

The first Oxford citation for the adjective is from a collection of poems and criticism by Wentworth Dillon, 4th Earl of Roscommon, written sometime before his death in 1685:

“He opposes the pains-taking Women of the first Times, to the fine, lazy, voluptuous Dames of his own Age.” The quotation is from a note about an English translation of an ode by the Roman poet Horace.

Finally, here’s a recent example from the Nov. 29, 2018, issue of Time magazine: “Peter Jackson on His New WWI Documentary, a Painstaking Labor of Love.” (The headline on an interview with the New Zealand director about his film They Shall Not Grow Old.)

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

Look ahead … or look forward?

Q: The words “forward” and “ahead” mean similar things, but “looking forward” to something seems to be more enthusiastic than “looking ahead” to it. Can you explain?

A: You’re right. You wouldn’t say, “I look ahead to our date tomorrow night.” To “look ahead” is neutral, but to “look forward” implies eagerness.

With verbs that indicate position or motion, the adverbs “forward” and “ahead” are used more or less interchangeably: “face forward”/“face ahead,” “walk forward”/“walk ahead,” “go forward”/“go ahead,” “move forward”/“move ahead,” and so on.

But with the verb “look,” when it means to anticipate something in the future, “forward” and “ahead” aren’t normally interchangeable.

To “look ahead” is “to think of and decide about the future,” according to Cambridge Dictionaries online, but to “look forward (to something)” is to “to feel pleasure because an event or activity is going to happen.”

This wasn’t always the case. In the anticipating sense, the phrasal verb “look forward” once meant simply to await or consider future events. But much later, “look forward” developed a more particular meaning—to anticipate eagerly. An element of pleasurable expectation entered the picture.

Here’s how and when all this happened.

The phrasal verb “look forward” was first recorded, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in a 16th-century religious commentary referring to omens that are expected to come true:

“When Abel slewe his sacrifices … he looked forward too the thing yt was signified.” (From A Postill, or Exposition of the Gospels, Arthur Golding’s 1569 translation of a Latin work by the Danish Lutheran theologian Neils Hemmingsen.)

Similarly, this Shakespearian citation in the OED from the early 17th century uses “look forward” to mean merely “expect”: “Looke forward on the iournie you shall go.” (From Measure for Measure, first performed in 1604).

And this example is from the following century: “One, who can look forwarder than the Nine Days of Wonder.” (From Samuel Richardson’s 1741 novel Pamela; a “nine days’ wonder” means a short-lived sensation.)

The dictionary defines those uses of “look forward” as “to anticipate, expect, consider (an event in) the future.”

But an additional sense, “to await eagerly,” appeared in the late 18th century, as in these OED examples:

“Banish your fears, and let us look forward, my love.” (From Samuel Foote’s stage comedy The Devil Upon Two Sticks, written sometime before 1777.)

“They looked forward to the time when firmness and perseverance would force their enemies to grant honourable terms.” (From William Lothian’s The History of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, 1780.)

In the decades to come, the sense of eagerness in “looking forward” became more firmly established, as you can see from these 19th-century OED examples:

“His visit to the hall was looked forward to with interest.” (Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Venetia, 1837.)

“They … looked forward to the speedy expulsion of the intruders.” (The History of British India, 1848, edited by Horace Hayman Wilson.)

“The way in which we looked forward for letters from our bride and bridegroom.” (William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel The Adventures of Philip, 1862.)

“We were looking forward to a merry time.” (The London magazine Temple Bar, November 1892.)

Perhaps it’s no surprise that in the early 19th century, as “look forward” became increasingly optimistic, the more neutral “look ahead” came into use. English speakers began using the two phrasal verbs—“look forward” and “look ahead”—for different purposes.

The OED’s earliest use of “look ahead” in the sense “to anticipate, consider, or plan for the future” was recorded in a British newspaper:

“That ambition must be short-sighted, indeed, which did not look ahead beyond two, or even six, years.” (The Daily National Intelligencer, May 25, 1820.)

And when used with “to,” the dictionary says, “look ahead” means “to await, consider or plan for a particular future event.” This example is from a 19th-century American novel:

“You’ve got to look ahead to the time when she regrets the lack of husband and children.” (Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly, by Hamlin Garland, 1895.) The expression is used here to anticipate a lost opportunity and an empty life.

Jumping ahead to our own time, the OED gives this example: “Schuster and Finkelstein … seem to be looking ahead to what is essentially a post-tenure academic world dominated by the contingent academic workforce.” (The New York Review of Books, Jan. 13, 2011.)

Certainly, “looking forward” would give the wrong impression in that sentence, since the authors are predicting a decline in teaching standards. Generally, “looking ahead” tends to be used in a neutral or negative way, while “looking forward” is positive.

However, we should mention that in the corporate world, “looking forward” is used neutrally. In business and management usage, Oxford says, “looking forward” merely means “in or for the future” or “looking ahead” or “starting from now.”

Here’s one OED example: “Looking forward, earnings before interest depreciation and amortisation are growing at 25pc a year and are expected to hit £7.2 billion by 2002.” (The Daily Telegraph, March 8, 2001.)

In corporate language, “looking forward” is often used in much the same sense as “going forward” and “moving forward.”

But getting back to normal usage, most people imply eagerness when they say they’re “looking forward” to something. We can’t resist citing this OED example, from Owen John’s 1970 novel The Diamond Dress, because it mentions one of our favorite dishes:

“I’d been looking forward to some delicious spaghetti alla carbonara and a bottle of Frascati.”

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From ‘anti-vac’ to ‘anti-vaxxer’

Q: Who makes up terms such as “anti-vaxxer”?

A: We’re all responsible. English is a flexible language, and English speakers like to flex their lexical muscles by coining new terms. For more than two centuries, we’ve been coining various terms for someone opposed to vaccinations.

The first one, “anti-vaccinator,” appeared in the early 19th century and referred to critics of smallpox vaccinations. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a book review in an 1806 issue of the Philosophical Magazine, a British scientific journal:

“This popular work is a very fair exposure of the unprincipled means to which the anti-vaccinators have resorted to turn the prejudices of the ignorant into a source of dishonest emolument to themselves.”

The term “anti-vaccinationist” emerged later in the 19th century. The oldest example we’ve found is from an 1876 issue of the Lancet, the British medical journal:

“This gentleman confessed himself an anti-vaccinationist, but as the law required vaccination, he submitted to the law in his own family, and would have others also submit to it.”

In the late 19th century, people began using the short versions “anti-vac” and ”anti-vacc” as adjectives or nouns for opponents of vaccination.

Here’s an “anti-vac” example from a July 4, 1877, letter in the journal of the National Anti-Compulsory-Vaccination League, founded in London in 1867:

“In so far as the Anti-vaccination movement has yet become national, our League is entitled to be considered national, all known Anti-vac’s having been invited to the Conference which formed it, and the conference having been attended by delegates from all parts of the country.”

And this “anti-vacc” example is from a book review in A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literature (1895), by the British publisher, editor, and bibliographer William Swan Sonnenschein: “Divested of its anti-vacc. bias, the book is full of valuable material.”

As far as we can tell, the informal shortenings “anti-vaccer,” “anti-vax,” and “anti-vaxxer” emerged only in the last 10 years in reference to opponents of influenza, MMR (measles-mumps-rubella), and other vaccines.

Here’s an “anti-vaxxer” example from a headline on a letter to the editor in the March 9, 2009, issue of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “ ‘ANTI-VAXXERS’ ARE PUTTING MANY AT RISK.”

The letter describes Andrew Wakefield, a discredited British medical researcher, as “the ‘father’ of the anti-vaxxer movement.” Wakefield was found to have falsified a 1998 paper linking the MMR vaccine to autism.

And here’s an “anti-vaccer” example from an April 24, 2009, comment on the Discover Magazine blog: “I find it horrible to think that it will take a major epidemic & children dying of easily preventable diseases to make people wake up and take notice what these anti-vaccer/pro-disease people are doing.”

In an Oct. 29, 2009, broadcast, the CNN journalist Randi Kaye used both “anti-vax” and “anti-vaxxer” in describing comments by bloggers opposed to influenza vaccinations:

“Some anti-vaxxers, as they’re called, linked the swine flu vaccine today to the 1976 swine flu vaccine which left some paralyzed. Now anti-vax bloggers suggest the vaccine isn’t safe for children and pregnant women because of a preservative in the vaccine called thimerosal.”

Kaye noted that the Centers for Disease Control says thimerosal “is safe and all that preservative does actually has caused a little redness and maybe some swelling at the injection spot.”

Of the various shortenings, the only ones that have made it into standard dictionaries are “anti-vaxxer” and “anti-vax,” the two most popular spellings in our searches of digital databases.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary includes only the noun “anti-vaxxer,” which it defines as “a person who opposes vaccination or laws that mandate vaccination.” It lists the term without comment—that is, as standard English.

Oxford Dictionaries Online includes the noun “anti-vaxxer” as well as the adjective “anti-vax,” and labels the two terms “informal.”

It defines the noun as “a person who is opposed to vaccination, typically a parent who does not wish to vaccinate their child,” and gives this example: “experts say several diseases that are avoidable are making a comeback due to anti-vaxxers who refuse to vaccinate their kids.”

And it defines the adjective as meaning “opposed to vaccination,” giving this example: “One doctor isn’t afraid to point a finger right at the anti-vax movement.”

Why are the spellings “anti-vaxxer” and “anti-vax” more popular than “anti-vaccer” and “anti-vac”? Our guess is that English speakers prefer “xx” and “x” because it’s natural to pronounce them like the “cc” of “vaccine,” while “cc” and “c” could be pronounced like the “c” of “vacuum.”

Finally, the usual term now for someone who vaccinates is “vaccinator,” as in this Oxford example: Each round requires vaccinators to get the polio drops into the mouths of 50 million children.”

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

Don’t quote me

Q: I hear the expression “don’t quote me” in the news almost every day. It seems so much a part of contemporary politics. Imagine my surprise to see it in The Semi-Attached Couple, an 1860 novel by the English writer Emily Eden.

A: Yes, the usage showed up in writing in the 19th century, and one of its earliest appearances was in The Semi-Attached Couple, which features a middle-aged husband and wife who have been compared to the Bennets in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Indeed, it’s possible (though this is speculation) that the expression may even have appeared in an early, unpublished version of Emily Eden’s novel. Here’s the story.

Eden wrote an early draft of The Semi-Attached Couple in the 1830s, but the final, revised version wasn’t published until a year after the successful publication in 1859 of her novel The Semi-Detached House.

In an 1863 letter to her great niece Violet Dickinson, Eden says, “The ‘Semi-Attached Couple’ was written in that little cottage at Ham Common”—a rental cottage she stayed in for a few months in 1834. And in a preface to the published novel, she suggests that she changed it very little.

However, we don’t know whether the original draft included the relevant passage: “Lord Teviot is one of the worst specimens of the class dandy I ever saw; and I am much mistaken if his temper will not be a sad trial to poor Helen. However, don’t quote me.”

The earliest confirmed example we’ve seen for “don’t quote me” is from Christmas Festivities, an 1845 collection of stories and sketches by the English playwright John Poole:

“I’ll give you my opinion of that horse, but remember you don’t quote me afterwards—I’d rather not be thought critical about horses.”

The first example for “don’t quote me” in the Oxford English Dictionary (from a letter Ernest Hemingway wrote on Oct. 1, 1927) uses the uncontracted “do not” in the expression:

“Clara was looking much better than when she came over and Virginia was looking very badly. But please do not quote me on this.”

The OED’s first contracted example is from A Pocket Full of Rye (1953), a Miss Marple mystery by Agatha Christie:

“You’ve no idea, Neele, how tired one gets of the inevitable weed-killer. Taxine is a real treat. Of course, I may be wrong—don’t quote me, for Heaven’s sake.” (We expanded the comment by Professor Bernsdorff, a pathologist, to Inspector Neel about the poison taxine.)

In that example, Bernsdorff uses “don’t quote me” to indicate he’s not yet sure whether taxine (a substance from the leaves, shoots, or seeds of the English yew) is the poison that killed the businessman Rex Fortescue.

The expression is now used in that hesitant sense as well as just to indicate literally that the speaker doesn’t want to be quoted.

When the verb “quote” showed up in English in the 14th century, according to the OED, it meant “to mark (a book) with numbers (as of chapters, biblical verses, etc.)” or to make marginal “references to other passages or texts,” but those senses are now obsolete.

English borrowed the verb in part from the medieval Latin quotare and in part from the Middle French quoter, but the ultimate source is the classical Latin quot (“how many”), which explains the early numerical sense.

In the mid-16th century, Oxford says, the verb took on its modern meaning: “to reproduce or repeat a passage from (a book, author, etc.); to repeat a statement by (a person); to give (a specified person, body, etc.) as the source of a statement.”

The first OED example is from an English translation, overseen by Nicholas Udall, of Erasmus’s paraphrase, or retelling, of the New Testament in Latin: “The text [of the Bible] is throughout coted in the margin [of this book].”

(The OED cites the 1548 edition, but we haven’t been able to find it there. The passage was added in the 1552 edition, according to the historian John Craig in his 2002 paper “Forming a Protestant Consciousness? Erasmus’ Paraphrases in English Parishes, 1547-1666.”)

We’ll end with a more recent example from Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita:

“Wow! Looks swank,” remarked my vulgar darling squinting at the stucco as she crept out into the audible drizzle and with a childish hand tweaked loose the frock-fold that had stuck in the peach-cleft—to quote Robert Browning.

Nabokov isn’t literally quoting Browning here. He may be alluding to Browning’s various uses of “peach” in Pippa Passes, as in: “From a cleft rose-peach the whole Dryad sprang.” Nabokov may also be making a sly allusion to Browning’s mistaken use of the word “twat” in the same poem, an innocent blunder that we discussed in 2011.

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Playing the bass

Q: Why is the fishy “bass” spelled the same as the musical “bass” but pronounced differently? Are there other such words?

A: Words that are spelled alike but have different meanings and pronunciations are called heteronyms, a 19th-century term derived from the Greek heteros (different) and onoma (name).

Seen alone in print, a heteronym is ambiguous; we can’t tell which meaning is intended unless the word is pronounced or used in context.

Most heteronyms are etymologically related, like the words pronounced CON-vict (noun) and con-VICT (verb), REC-ord (noun) and re-CORD (verb), IN-va-lid (noun) and in-VAL-id (adjective).

Related heteronyms that are derived from the same etymological source are not rare. As we wrote on the blog in 2016, there are scores of them.

The rarer and more interesting heteronyms are like the two words spelled “bass,” which are linguistic accidents. They developed independently, one (the fish) from Germanic and one (the deep sound) from Latin. Their similar spellings in modern English are merely coincidental.

The fishy “bass” (rhymes with “grass”) arrived much earlier than the musical “bass” (rhymes with “grace”), so we’ll discuss the fish first.

The word for the fish was first recorded in Old English (then spelled bærs) around the year 1000, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was a corrupted form of barse, which the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology dates back to “about 700,” and which still survives in some dialects.

The OED defines this “bass” as “the Common Perch (Perca fluviatilis), or an allied freshwater species.” The fish probably got its name (first barse, then bærs, and eventually “bass”) because of its spiny, bristly fins.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots traces the Old English bærs to a prehistoric root that’s been reconstructed as bhars– and means a projection, point, or bristle. The same root, the dictionary says, is the ancestor of “bristle” and “bur” in English and similar words in other Germanic languages.

So how did bærs become “bass”? As Donka Minkova writes in A Historical Phonology of English (2013), the “r” sound in bærs was no longer pronounced by the early 1300s. And the dropping of the “r” changed the sound of the vowel.

The loss of an “r” sound after a vowel and before a sibilant (like “s”) was not a widespread development, but did occur with some words, according to linguists.

In their book The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed., 1992), Thomas Pyles and John Algeo write that the “older barse ‘fish’ by such loss became bass.” The same “r” loss is heard in some colloquial usages. By this process, the authors write, “arse became ass.”

After the “r” in bærs fell away in the 1300s, spellings of the word evolved sporadically from “bace” (1400s), to “bas” and “base” (1500s), then “basse” and “bass” (1600s and onward).

The OED’s earliest citation for the modern spelling is from the early 19th century, but we found an example in a 17th-century ship’s log. This entry was written on Oct. 16, 1663:

“Several Indian came on Board, and brought us great store of Fresh-fish, large Mullets, young Bass, Shads, and several other sorts of very good well-tasted Fish.” (From A Relation of a Discovery Lately Made on the Coast of Florida, an account of a voyage aboard the ship Adventure, which sailed from Barbados in August 1663. The account, by Cmdr. William Hilton, Capt. Anthony Long, and Peter Fabian, was published in London in 1664.)

We’ve found several more uses of “bass” from the 17th and 18th centuries. In an English clergyman’s account of a visit to four colonial settlements, for example, the fish is mentioned eight times. Here’s one instance:

“The Bass is one of the best Fishes, being a Delicate and fat Fish.” (From Samuel Clarke’s A True and Faithful Account of the Four Chiefest Plantations of the English in America, published in 1670.)

Now we’ll leave the fish and turn to the “bass” that rhymes with “grace” and refers to a deep note or a musical instrument.

This “bass” appeared in English in the 15th century as both a noun and an adjective, according to OED citations.

The musical word “bass” is “simply a modified spelling” of the adjective “base” (meaning low), John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins.

In other words, the “base” that means low—borrowed in the late 1300s from the Anglo-Norman baas, bace, or bas—later came to be spelled “bass” in the sense of deep-sounding or a low note.

What influenced the spelling change to “bass” from “base,” Ayto says, was the Italian musical term basso. But though the spelling changed, the OED notes, the word was “still pronounced as base.”

The adjective “bass,” defined in the OED as “deep-sounding” or “low in the musical scale,” was first recorded in an anonymous musical treatise written sometime before 1450: “This same rwle [rule] may ye kepe be-twene Dsolre, Dlasolre, & al oþer [other] base keyys.”

(Explanation: For medieval singers, pitch was flexible, not fixed. In a notational system developed in Italy in the early 11th century and designed for chant, notes had names like “dsolre” (or “D3,” for D + sol + re) and “dlasolre” (or “D4,” for D + la + sol + re), representing the values a singer might place on the note.)

The noun “bass” in the musical sense has several meanings. It can mean “the lowest part in harmonized musical composition,” the OED says, or “the deepest male voice, or lowest tones of a musical instrument, which sing or sound this part.”

The word “bass” can also refer to an instrument that principally plays bass notes. The noun “bass” can be short for a double-bass or a bass guitar, and the word appears adjectivally in noun phrases like “bass saxophone,” “bass clarinet,” “bass trombone,” “bass drum,” and so on.

The dictionary’s earliest example for the noun (used in the sense of a low tone) is in an English carol from sometime before 1500: “Whan … bulles of the see syng a good bace.”

Here are some instruments whose names include “bass,” along with the earliest dates given in the OED:

“bass viol” (possibly 1594; called “bass” for short in 1702); it was also known as a “bass violin” (1602) and is now the modern “violoncello” (1724) or “cello” (1848);

“bass trumpet” (1724);

“double-bass” (1728; also known as a “string bass” or “bass” for short, both dating from 1927;

“bass drum” (1789);

“bass clarinet” (1831);

“bass guitar” (1855; “bass” for short in 1937);

“bass trombone” (1856);

“bass flute” (1880).

The musical noun, the OED notes, is “erroneously” assumed by some to be derived from the noun “base” that means a foundation or bottom, but there is “etymologically no connection.”

The “base” that means a foundation is from the classical Latin basis; the “base” that means low, as well as the musical “bass,” can be traced to the post-classical Latin bassus.

So much for the two very different (and different sounding) words spelled “bass.”

We wrote a post a couple of years ago about another pair of unrelated heteronyms, the two nouns spelled “sewer.” They’re as different as sewing and sewage.

Other heteronyms that are etymological strangers to one another include these:

  • the noun “dove” (a bird) and the verb “dove” (a past tense of “dive”);
  • the noun “lead” (a metal) and the verb “lead” (to conduct);
  • the noun “number” (a sum) and the comparative adjective “number” (more numb);
  • the noun “row” (for a disturbance) and the verb “row” (to propel a boat);
  • the noun “sow” (a mama pig) and the verb “sow” (to plant seed);
  • the two different nouns spelled “tear” (a rip; a droplet from the eye), along with their respective verbs;
  • the “wind” (air current) and the verb “wind” (to twist).

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

Can ‘clear’ mean ‘clearly’?

Q: Is “clear” an adverb as well as an adjective? Can one say “I speak clear” or is it always “I speak clearly”?

A: The word “clear” can be an adverb as well as an adjective, but it’s not used adverbially in quite the same way as “clearly” in modern English.

A sentence like “I speak clearly” is more idiomatic (that is, natural to a native speaker) than “I speak clear.” However, “I speak loud and clear” is just as idiomatic as “I speak loudly and clearly.” And “I speak clear” would have been unremarkable hundreds of years ago. Here’s the story.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, “Both clear and clearly are adverbs, but in recent use they do not overlap. Clear is more often used in the sense of ‘all the way.’ ”

The usage guide gives several “all the way” examples, including one from a Jan. 18, 1940, letter by E. B. White (“there is a good chance that the bay will freeze clear across”) and another from Renata Adler in the April 24, 1971, issue of the New Yorker (“a model son who had just gone clear out of his mind”).

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that “clear” is also used adverbially to mean distinctly or clearly, as in “loud and clear” and “high and clear.” The OED adds that “in such phrases as to get or keep (oneself) clear, to steer clear, go clear, stand clear, the adjective passes at length into an adverb.”

We’d add the use of “see (one’s way) clear” in the sense of agreeing to do something, as in “Can you see your way clear to lending me the money?”

In Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Jeremy Butterfield writes that “it would be absurd to substitute clearly for clear in such phrases as go clear, keep clear, stand clear, stay clear, steer clear, loud and clear, or in sentences like the thieves got clear away.”

However, Butterfield adds, “Clearly is overwhelmingly the more usual adverbial form of the two.”

So how is the adverb “clearly” used in modern English?

It can mean “in a clear manner,” as in this M-W example from At Swim-Two-Birds, a 1939 novel by the Irish writer Flann O’Brien, pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan: “His skull shone clearly in the gaslight.” And this M-W citation from the November 1982 issue of Smithsonian: “looked clearly at their country and set it down freshly.”

The “-ly” adverb can also mean “without a doubt,” as in this M-W citation from the Oct. 2, 1970, Times Literary Supplement: “He clearly knows his way about the complex and abstruse issues.” And this one from James Jones in Harper’s (February 1971): “walked toward them calmly and sanely, clearly not armed with bottles or stones.”

In addition, the M-W usage guide says, “clearly” can be a sentence adverb meaning “without a doubt,” as in this passage by Sir Richard Livingstone in the March 1953 Atlantic: “Clearly it is a good thing to have material conveniences.” And this citation from Barry Commoner in the Spring 1968 Columbia Forum: “Clearly our aqueous environment is being subjected to an accelerating stress.”

In an adverbial phrase that combines different adverbs, the form of the adverbs is usually consistent: either flat (“loud and clear”) or with a tail (“loudly and clearly”). We’ll cite recent pairs of each that we’ve found in the news.

This “-ly” example is from an opinion piece in the Nov. 5, 2018, Boston Globe: “As concerned citizens committed to our democratic values, we must be willing to stand up and say loudly and clearly that we will not stand for that kind of governance.”

And this tailless example is from a Nov. 11, 2018, report in the Washington Post about President Trump’s recent trip to Paris: “Trump was not making a sound, but his presence could still be heard loud and clear.”

When English borrowed “clear” from Old French in the late 13th century, it was an adjective “expressing the vividness or intensity of light,” according to the OED. It ultimately comes from the Latin clārum (bright, clear, plain, brilliant, and so on).

The dictionary’s earliest example for the adjective is from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, an account of early Britain written around 1300, perhaps as early as 1297: “a leme swythe cler & bryȝte” (“a light very clear and bright”).

The adverbs “clear” and “clearly” both showed up in writing around the same time in the early 1300s. The adverbial “clear” initially described visual clarity, while “clearly” referred to brightness.

The earliest OED example for “clear” used as an adverb is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem composed before 1325 and possibly as early as 1300: “Þe sune … schines clere” (“The sun … shines clear”).

The dictionary’s first citation for “clearly” (clerliche in Middle English) is from the Life of St. Brandan (circa 1300): “Hi seȝe in the see as clerliche as hi scholde alonde” (“He sees on the sea as clearly as he should on land”). The medieval Irish saint, usually called St. Brendan, is known for a legendary sea journey from Ireland to the Isle of the Blessed.

Why do some adverbs have tails while others don’t? Here’s a brief history.

In Anglo-Saxon days, adverbs were usually formed by adding –lice or –e at the end of adjectives. Over the years, the –lice adverbs evolved into the modern “-ly” ones and the adverbs with a final –e lost their endings, becoming tailless flat adverbs that looked like adjectives.

Sounds simple, but things got complicated in the 17th and 18th centuries, when Latin scholars insisted that adjectives and adverbs should have different endings in English, as they do in Latin. As a result, people began sticking “-ly” onto perfectly good flat adverbs and preferring the “-ly” versions where both existed.

Although the adjective “clear” comes from Old French, not Old English, the flat adverb “clear” may have been influenced by the loss of the adverbial –e in native Anglo-Saxon words, first in pronunciation and later in spelling.

As the OED explains, the adverbial use of “clear” arose “partly out of the predicative use of the adjective” and “partly out of the analogy of native English adverbs,” which by loss of the final –e had become identical in form with their adjectives.

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Launderers and laundresses

Q: Enjoyed your post about “stewardess” and other feminized words ending in “-ess.” But you didn’t discuss “laundress.” Is there a nongendered version?

A: Yes, there is a nongendered version of “laundress.” In fact, there are two of them, though they’re now obsolete or rare in the sense you’re asking about.

Before “laundress” came along in the 16th century, someone who washes clothes, male or female, was called a “launder” or a “launderer.”

The noun “launder,” first recorded in the 13th or 14th century but now obsolete, meant “a person (of either sex) who washes linen,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from the story of St. Brice in The Early South-English Legendary, a chronicle of the lives of church figures:

“A woman þat his lander was” (“A woman that was his launder”). The Legendary was compiled sometime between the late 1200s and 1350.

A century or so later, the unisex noun appeared in Promptorium Parvulorum (circa 1440), an English-to-Latin dictionary: “Lawndere, lotor, lotrix.” (The Latin lotor and lotrix are masculine and feminine nouns for “washer.”)

A little later in the 15th century, “launderer” appeared, meaning “one who launders (linen),” according to the OED. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Catholicon Anglicum, an English-Latin wordbook written around 1475: “Lawnderer, candidaria, lotrix.”

The term is rarely used in that sense today. Commercial laundries sometimes refer to themselves as “launderers,” but the word is usually used now for a person who launders money, not clothes.

As for someone who works in a laundry, he or she would likely be called a “laundry worker,” rather than a “launderer” or a “laundress.”

Interestingly, the gender-free noun “launder” originated as a contraction of “lavender,” which the OED defines as “a washerwoman, laundress.” Only rarely, the dictionary says, did “lavender” mean “a man who washes clothes, a washerman.”

As the dictionary says, this sense of “lavender,” which first appeared in writing about 1325, came from the Old French nouns for people who do washing—lavandier (masculine) and lavandiere (feminine)—though the ultimate source is the Latin verb lavāre (to wash).

We know what you’re thinking. But no, the obsolete “lavender” that means a washerwoman is probably not related to the other “lavender,” the plant that produces the fragrant pale-purple flowers.

The botanical word “lavender” (later also used for the scent and the color) came into English before 1300 from Anglo-Norman and Old French (lavandre), the OED says.

The original source was a medieval Latin word for the plant, first spelled livendula (or perhaps lividula), and later lavendula. As the OED explains, some etymologists think the ultimate source may be the classical Latin adjective lividus (bluish, livid).

If so, the two “lavenders” aren’t etymologically connected, though they later became associated because of the use of lavender perfumes, oils, and dried flowers in caring for linens.

Meanwhile, the “lavender” that meant a washerwoman existed alongside the neutral “launder” and “launderer” (anyone who does washing) until well into the 16th century, when “laundress”  arrived on the scene.

The OED defines “laundress” as “a woman whose occupation it is to wash and ‘get up’ linen,” and says it was derived from the neuter noun “launder” plus the “-ess” suffix.

The two earliest written uses of “laundress” were recorded in the same year, 1555. It was a time, as we wrote in our post about those other “-ess” words, when English writers were “very freely” inventing words ending in the feminine suffix.

Here are the two 1555 uses, cited in the OED:

“As the dier, blecher or the landres washeth … the foule, vnclenly and defyled clothes.” (From A Spyrytuall and Moost Precyouse Pearle, Miles Coverdale’s translation of a work by Otto Werdmueller.)

“He sent to lande certeyne of his men with the landresses of the shyppes.” (From The Decades of the Newe Worlde or West India, Richard Eden’s translation of a work by Peter Martyr of Angleria.)

Shakespeare used the term in a comic scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor, believed to have been written in 1597 or earlier: “Carry them to the Landresse in Datchet mead.” (The reference is to a load of dirty clothes, beneath which Falstaff is concealed in a very large wash basket.)

After “laundress” became established, the similar use of “lavender” disappeared, perhaps because of the popularity of the botanical term. And the gender-neutral “launder” also vanished, probably because washing was almost always done by women or girls. Both words died out in the late 1500s.

It’s notable that the verb “launder” didn’t appear until after the nouns for the workers were established.

The OED defines the verb as “to wash and ‘get up’ (linen),” and says it was derived from the earlier noun “launder,” for a person who does washing.

The OED’s first citation is a figurative usage in Shakespeare’s narrative poem A Louers Complaint (published in 1609 and probably not written earlier than 1590): “Laundring the silken figures in the brine, / That seasoned woe had pelleted in teares.”

This was not long after the noun “laundry” appeared, for the place where the washing is done. Here’s the OED’s earliest example:

“Hyther [hither] also runnes the water from the Laundry to moist it the better.” (From Foure Bookes of Husbandry, Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation of a Latin treatise on farming by Conrad Heresbach.)

But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that “laundry” was used as a collective term for the washables themselves. The OED’s first citation is from 1916, but we’ve found earlier examples in 1890s newspaper ads. We’ll cite a few:

“Who Does Your Laundry? We Should Like To,” from the Cambridge (Mass.) Chronicle, Jan. 7, 1893 … “Try the work and you will never again send laundry out of the city,” from the Daily Greencastle (Ind.) Banner and Times, Jan. 1, 1894 … “Bring Us Your Laundry,” from the Quill (La Harpe, Ill.), Jan. 4, 1895.

In the early 20th century, this sense of “laundry” became more common. And new words followed—“laundromat” (we’ve found examples from 1941), and “launderette” (1945).

As the OED explains, laundromat” originated as a proprietary name for a Westinghouse washing machine and later came to mean a coin-operated laundry.

We could go on, but we’re feeling a bit washed out.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Is ‘hithertofore’ legit?

Q: Is “hithertofore” a traditional English word, a neologism, or what? I need to know because I have used it in my new book and the editor has queried it.

A: As far as we can tell, “hithertofore” has never been recognized as a standard English word, though we’ve found a few hundred written examples (dating back to the early 1700s) in searches of digitized books, newspapers, and magazines.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t have an entry for “hithertofore,” and neither do standard dictionaries, which focus on the modern meanings of words. We’ve checked Merriam-Webster Unabridged and eight other standard dictionaries.

The earliest written example we’ve found for “hithertofore” is from “An Act Concerning Patents and Grants,” a statute approved by the legislature of the Province of Pennsylvania on Oct. 15, 1711, in Philadelphia.

The colonial statute says no property title “shall be adjudged, or taken to be defective … for want of being hithertofore sealed with the Great Seal.”

And here’s a more recent example from an article about the troubled Apollo 13 space mission in the April 24, 1970, issue of the Catholic Transcript:

“The first post-flight comments by NASA officials and the photographs of the damaged service module have already brought home several hithertofore unsuspected perils of the space saga.”

We wouldn’t describe “hithertofore” as a neologism (a newly coined word or expression). We suspect that the writers who’ve used it were simply conflating two long-established terms, “hitherto” and “heretofore,” which both mean “up to this time.”

The earliest example for “hitherto” in the OED is from a medieval manuscript, dated sometime before 1225, about the life of St. Katherine of Alexandria: “Hwucche men þu hauest ihaued hiderto to meistres” (“Which men you have had hitherto as masters”).

The dictionary’s first example for “heretofore” is from William of Palerne, an English translation done sometime before 1375 of a French poem, Guillaume de Palerme (circa 1200):

“For here-to-fore of hardnesse hadestow neuer” (“She had never been used to such hardness heretofore”).

Finally, we wrote a post in 2012 about “heretofore” and other compounds made from two or three smaller words.

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