The Grammarphobia Blog

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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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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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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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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