The Grammarphobia Blog

Who, me?

Q: In Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, she uses this sentence to describe the sacrifices her parents made in raising her and her brother Craig: “We were their investment, me and Craig.” Surely that should be “Craig and I.”

A: Not necessarily. We would have written “Craig and I.” But the sentence as written is not incorrect. It’s informal, but not ungrammatical.

Here the compound (“me and Craig”) has no clear grammatical role. And as we wrote in 2016, a personal pronoun without a clear grammatical role—one that isn’t the subject or object of a sentence—is generally in the objective case.

In our previous post, we quoted the linguist Arnold Zwicky—the basic rule is “nominative for subjects of finite clauses, accusative otherwise.” In other words, when the pronoun has no distinctly defined role, the default choice is “me,” not “I.”

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary has this usage note: “I is now chiefly used as the subject of an immediately following verb. Me occurs in every other position.” The examples given include “Me too” … “You’re as big as me” … “It’s me” … “Who, me?”

“Almost all usage books recognize the legitimacy of me in these positions,” M-W says.

As we said, we think the compound “me and Craig” has no clear grammatical role. But digging deeper, we could interpret it as placed in apposition to (that is, as the equivalent of) the subject of the sentence: “we.” And technically, appositives should be in the same case, so the pronoun in apposition to “we” should be a subject pronoun: “I [not “me”] and Craig.”

That’s a legitimate argument, and if the author were aiming at a more formal style, she no doubt would have taken that route.

On the other hand, the same argument could be made against “Who, me?” Those two pronouns could be interpreted as appositives, but forcing them to match (“Whom, me?” or “Who, I?”) would be unnatural.

In short, the choice here is between formal and informal English (not “correct” versus “incorrect”), and the author chose the informal style.

By the way, as we wrote in 2012, the order in which the pronoun appears in a compound (as in “me and Craig” versus “Craig and me”) is irrelevant. There’s no grammatical rule that a first-person singular pronoun has to go last. Some people see a politeness issue here, but there’s no grammatical foundation for it.

That said, when the pronoun is “I,” it does seem to fall more naturally into the No. 2 slot. “Tom and I are going” seems to be a more natural word order than “I and Tom are going.” This is probably what’s responsible for the common (and erroneous) use of “I” when it’s clearly an object—as in “Want to come with Tom and I?”

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Latinx, Latino/a, Latin@

Q: I’ve just seen the phrase “African-American and Latinx voters” in a New Yorker article about Evangelicals. In the article, male speakers are identified as “Latino” and female speakers as “Latina,” while the collective adjective is “Latinx.” First I’ve seen it. Have you?

A: You can find the term “Latinx” (pronounced la-TEEN-ex) in several standard dictionaries, though its use as a gender-neutral or nonbinary term for someone of Latin American origin is controversial.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary says “Latinx” is an adjective describing people “of, relating to, or marked by Latin American heritage—used as a gender-neutral alternative to Latino or Latina.” The dictionary’s examples include “the oldest of three girls in a tightknit Latinx family” and “the district’s primarily Latinx community.”

The online American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has a similar adjectival definition and suggests that the “x” in “Latinx” is derived “from the use of x as a variable or an unspecified factor, as in mathematics.”

Oxford Dictionaries Online says “Latinx” can be a noun as well as an adjective. The dictionary’s noun examples include both “Latinx” and “Latinxs” as plurals: “a career network for Latinx who are looking for jobs” … “the books share stories of the civil rights struggle for African Americans, Latinxs, and LGBTQ people.”

Oxford Dictionaries adds that the use of “Latinx” as “a gender-neutral or nonbinary alternative to Latino or Latina” was “perhaps influenced by Mx,” a nongendered alternative to “Mr.” and “Ms.” The term “nonbinary” refers to people who identify as neither male nor female.

“Latinx” is one of several similar terms that have been coined in recent years by people who object to the traditional male and female sexual identities. Others include “Latino/a,” “Latine,” and “Latin@” (with the @ symbol interpreted as a combination of the feminine “a” and masculine “o” endings).

(The older, more established noun and adjective “Hispanic” is gender neutral, but some people of Latin origin object to it, associating the term with the Spanish conquest of the Americas.)

“Latinx” is the only one of the recent coinages to make it into standard dictionaries. As far as we can tell, “Latinx” began appearing in print in 2015, though the term was being googled as far back as September 2004, according to Google Trends, which tracks search queries.

The earliest written example we’ve seen for “Latinx” is from a July 17, 2015, Targeted News Service report about plans for a Green Party rally a week later across from police headquarters in Ferguson, Mo. One of the scheduled speakers is identified as “Andrea Merida, co-chair of the Green Party of the United States and member of the party’s Latinx Caucus.”

As we’ve said, the use of “Latinx” is controversial, especially among people familiar with Spanish, a gendered language in which nouns have masculine and feminine endings, and the masculine plural is used when genders are mixed. Some Spanish speakers have complained that the “x” ending is grating, linguistically illegitimate, or elitist.

However, we’re discussing the use of “Latinx” in English here, not Spanish. English is a nongendered language in which “x” endings are unusual but not unknown—for example, “jinx,” “lynx,” “minx,” and “sphinx,” not to mention “fix,” “nix,” “lox,” and “box.”

We wonder, though, whether standard dictionaries may have moved too quickly to accept a term that showed up in print only a few years ago and that is still unknown to most English speakers.

The courtesy title “Mx.” (usually pronounced MUX, MIX, MEX, or EM-EX) has been seen in writing since the late 1970s, though it’s better known in the UK than the US.

The honorific, which appears in several American and British standard dictionaries, is widely accepted in the UK by government offices, universities, and businesses. It can be used on British passports, drivers’ licenses, bank documents, mail, and so on. As is the general rule with honorifics, “Mx.” has a period in American dictionaries but not in British.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, explains that “Mx was originally offered as an alternative to Mr, Mrs, Miss, and Ms, as a means to avoid having to specify a person’s gender.”

But in later years, the dictionary adds, the honorific “has frequently been adopted as a title by those who prefer not to identify themselves as male or female (e.g. transgender or intersex people).”

The earliest gender-neutral example for the honorific in the OED is from a short story by Pat Kite in the April 1977 issue of The Single Parent magazine: “Maybe both sexes should be called Mx. That would solve the gender problem entirely.”

The OED’s first nonbinary example is from an Oct. 19, 1998, post to a Usenet diet newsgroup in the UK: “Occasionally I have used the title ‘Mx’ before my name, with the idea that it leaves in question whether I [am] a woman or a man or somethinng [sic] in between.” (The bracketed interpolations are part of the Oxford citation.)

As for “Hispanic,” the OED describes it as a noun or an adjective for a “Spanish-speaking person, esp. one of Latin-American descent, living in the U.S.” The dictionary’s earliest example for the noun is from the Sept. 24, 1972, issue of the New York Times Magazine:

“The fictional melting pot has become a pousse-café in which every layer is jealous of, or hostile to, every other layer; in a fever of ethnicism, Italians, Jews, Orientals, Blacks, Hispanics and others have withdrawn into themselves.” (A pousse-café is an after-dinner drink of various liqueurs poured in layers of different colors.)

The dictionary’s first example for the adjective is from a 1974 Congressional report: “For statistical or policy purposes Hispanic Americans do not presently exist in most agencies of the government.” (From “Economic and Social Statistics for Spanish-Speaking Americans,” a report on hearings before the House Subcommittee on Census and Statistics of the Committee on Post Office and Civil Service.)

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Most important … or importantly

Q: It seems to me that a majority of radio and television pundits use “most important” where I would use “most importantly.” Would you please clear up for me which phrase would be correct at the beginning of a sentence or clause.

A: Either “most important” or “most importantly” (as well as “more important” or “more importantly”) can be used to introduce a sentence or a clause.

In cases like this, “important” and “importantly” are interchangeable, and one is no more “correct” than the other.

As the Oxford English Dictionary says, both “important” and “importantly,” when “preceded by an adverb of degree, as more, most, etc.,” can be “used to modify a clause or sentence.”

The OED describes “importantly” here as a “sentence adverb” that’s “used to emphasize a significant point or matter.” And it describes “important” as part of “a supplementive adjective clause used to modify a clause or sentence.”

We discussed this in a post more than 10 years ago, but it never hurts to take a new look at an old topic.

Examples of both usages date from the 19th century. Here’s the OED’s earliest example using “importantly” in this sense:

“She had been brought up partly by religious parents, but more importantly as it affected her ideas and manners, in the house of a very worthy gentlewoman.” (From an Edinburgh periodical, the Scottish Christian Herald, Oct. 2, 1841.)

And here’s the dictionary’s earliest corresponding use of “important”:

“The loss … of efficiency in the transformers, and, even more important, the great cost of that part of the equipment, would both be avoided.” (Popular Science Monthly, September 1894.)

In constructions like these, the adjective “important” can be compared to “significant” or “remarkable” or “surprising.” And the adverb “importantly” can be compared to “significantly” or “remarkably” or “surprisingly.” All are used with “more” and “most” to modify entire sentences or clauses.

We’ve written before about sentence adverbs, but we haven’t discussed what might be called sentence adjectives.

A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985), by Randolph Quirk et al., uses these examples in discussing adjectives that can modify an entire sentence: “Most important, his report offered prospects of a great profit” and “More remarkable still, he is in charge of the project.”

These adjective constructions, according to Quirk, behave “like comment clauses introduced by what.” (That is, they can be regarded as elliptical for “What is most important” and “What is more remarkable still.”)

Furthermore, the book says, with a few such adjectives, the “corresponding adverb can be substituted for the adjective with little or no difference in meaning.”

Nevertheless, Quirk adds, “Objections have been voiced against both most important … and most importantly. Some usage books recommend the one construction, some the other.”

Today that’s no longer the case. While many English speakers may be divided on their preferences, writers of usage guides now accept both.

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed., edited by Jeremy Butterfield) has this to say about “important” and “importantly”:

“Preceded by more or most, both words comment on the sentence or clause containing them.” Both, Butterfield notes, “work perfectly well” and are standard. “Choose whichever you prefer, and whichever reads better in your specific context.”

Another guide, Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), notes that “more important as a sentence-starter has historically been considered an elliptical form of ‘What is more important …’ and hence the -ly form is sometimes thought to be less desirable.”

However, Garner’s says, “criticism of more importantly and most importantly” has dwindled and can now be “easily dismissed as picayunish pedantry.”

A final note about terminology.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, would categorize each version, “more important” or “more importantly,” as an “evaluative adjunct,” an element that precedes a statement and “expresses the speaker’s evaluation of it.” The first version would be an “evaluative adjective,” the second an “evaluative adverb.”

The authors themselves use both “more important” and “more importantly,” in case you have any lingering doubts.

In a section about punctuation, Huddleston and Pullum write, “More important, there is some significant regional variation, most notably with respect to the interaction between quotation marks and other punctuation marks.”

And in a discussion of “many,” “few,” “much,” and “little,” they write: “More importantly, all four are gradable, and have inflectional comparative and superlative forms.”

When linguistic superstars use both versions, so can you.

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Is it self-titled or eponymous?

Q: Is “self-titled” becoming an accepted synonym for “eponymous”? As an editor, I used to blue-pencil it from music reviews back in the ’80s. But “self-titled” is used all over now—I’m seeing it in the Chicago Tribune, DownBeat, Rolling Stone, Billboard, even the New Yorker.

A: The short answer is that “self-titled” is already an accepted synonym for “eponymous”—at least in music journalism, where it’s used to describe an album named after the artist.

The only standard dictionary that includes this usage is Oxford Dictionaries Online, which defines the adjective “self-titled” this way: “(of an album, CD, etc.) having a title that is the same as the performer’s name.”

It’s also included in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. The OED definition is similar: “of an album, CD, etc.: having a title that is the same as the performer’s or group’s name.”

We find the term “self-titled” a little odd, since it seems to imply that the album gave itself a title. But odd or not, music journalists since the 1970s have used both “self-titled” and “eponymous” to refer to albums named after the artists.

For a while, the terms were equally common in music writing, but “self-titled” surged in popularity in the mid-1980s and is now the more popular term.

The OED’s earliest example of “self-titled” used in this way is from a review of an album by Loudon Wainwright III in a California newspaper: “His first two records on Atlantic Records, the self-titled one and Album II, were purely acoustic” (Arcadia Tribune, Nov. 16, 1972).

The OED has no examples for “eponymous” used musically, though we’ve found many dating back to 1977. For instance, the Library Journal’s review of The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock (1977), compiled by Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden, commented: “Minor irritant: overuse of adjectives ‘eponymous’ and ‘seminal.’ ”

A search with Google’s Ngram viewer shows that the phrases “self-titled album,” “self-titled debut,” and “self-titled record” have handily outscored the versions with “eponymous” since the mid-1980s.

The Ngram viewer tracks terms published through 2008 in digitized books, which include compilations from periodicals. A cursory search of more recent usage suggests that the trend has continued in music journalism.

Outside of music writing, however, the picture is reversed. In ordinary usage, “eponymous,” a word we wrote about in 2010, is far and away more common than “self-titled,” as Ngram and more recent searches show.

At least in part, this is probably because in the wider world, “eponymous” has two meanings. It can refer to something named after a person (“the eponymous state of Pennsylvania”) or to the person after whom it’s named (“William Penn, its eponymous founder”).

Since we’ve written about “eponymous” before, most recently in 2010, we’ll touch on its history only briefly here. The adjective “eponymous” and the corresponding noun “eponym” both came into English in the mid-19th century, adopted from the Greek ἐπώνυμος (eponymos, formed of epi for “upon” and onoma for “name”).

Originally, both noun and adjective referred to the source of the name—that is, an “eponym” was a name-giver, and “eponymous” described the name-giver. But these words have dual meanings now.

As the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary explains, “we can speak of ‘the eponymous Ed Sullivan Show’ as well as ‘the eponymous Ed Sullivan.’ ”

Before “eponymous” started appearing in music writing of the ’70s, it was often used in other kinds of arts reporting—like book, drama, and film reviews. It was commonly (and often unnecessarily) used in the phrases “eponymous hero” and “eponymous heroine,” meaning the character for whom a book or play or film is named.

But before “self-titled” started showing up in music journalism, it didn’t mean “eponymous.” Since the late 18th century, “self-titled” had referred to people who gave titles to themselves, and it was almost always used critically to suggest that the titles were undeserved.

The earliest example in the OED is from a London journal, The World, July 22, 1788: “The bad Whigs of Old England, about the bad-bottom’d Whigs, A self-titled set, a vile prostitute clan.” (This play on words contrasts the establishment Whigs with a more inclusive party faction calling itself “the Broad Bottom.”)

“Self-titled” in its original sense, a meaning that’s still alive today, is defined in the OED as “having assumed or adopted a given title or status for oneself.” And as we mentioned, it’s generally been used in a derogatory way. Here are some other early examples we’ve found:

“the self-titled Queen of Madagascar” (1845, about a despotic ruler who fraudulently seized the throne); “John Bull, the self-titled ‘lord of the seas’ ” (1857, with “John Bull” referring to England); “self-titled aristocrats” (1861); “self-titled ‘friend of the people’ ” (1865); and “the bluff, money-minded, woman-fancying ‘scoundrel’ Major (self-titled) Parkington” (1945).

So why did record reviewers start using “self-titled” in place of “eponymous,” which would be more precise in the sense of an album named for the performer? (After all, an album doesn’t name itself.)

Some journalists apparently regarded “eponymous” as too highbrow in writing about popular culture.

In an interview published in 2000, Tim Bannon, who was the Chicago Tribune’s entertainment editor at the time, said that “eponymous” was heavily used by music reviewers because “so many albums are named after the bands.”

But he added: “I’ve always disliked that word. It seems somehow pretentious or inappropriate for pop music stories. I’ve changed it to ‘self-titled,’ which is clunky, too.” (From “Hip Eponymous,” by E. J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post, May 14, 2000.)

In the same article, Jack Kroll, then a senior editor and drama critic at Newsweek, took the opposing view and defended “eponymous”:

“Obviously, it’s a word you won’t find hip-hoppers using or the teen culture using. It’s used by a certain class of people. But the work that it does is done by no other word in the English language. … It’s a useful word the way synonymous or anonymous are useful.”

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Is Shakespeare relatable?

Q: Let me throw this one out to you. The highest compliment my college students can offer regarding a play is that it’s relatable. It speaks to them by addressing lives like their own. A TV sitcom is relatable, but not Hamlet.

A: The adjective “relatable” has had several related senses since it first appeared in English nearly 400 years ago. The latest, the one favored by your students, showed up half a century ago. Here’s the story.

The adjective originally meant capable of being told or suitable for telling, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The earliest OED example, which uses the term negatively to mean inexpressible, is from the first English prose romance written by a woman, The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania (1621), by Lady Mary Wroth:

“Ah sweet Philistella, had you seene the vn-relatable exquisitenesse of his youth, none could haue blam’d me, but euen chid me, for not instantly yeelding my passions wholly to his will; but proud ambition, and gay flatterie made me differ and loue your brother.” We’ve expanded the citation to give our readers a better feeling for Urania. A prose romance, as you know, is an early form of the novel, sometimes referred to as a proto-novel.

In the 19th century, the adjective came to mean capable of being related to something or brought into relation with it. The first OED example is from The Science of Knowledge, Adolph Ernst Kroeger’s translation of the work of the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte: “It is also an act of the Ego, and, hence, relatable to the Ego.”

The sense of “relatable” you’re asking about (approachable because of similarities to one’s own life) showed up in the mid-20th century. The earliest OED example refers to teachers that students can identify with:

“The research indicated that boys saw teachers as more directive, while girls saw them as more ‘relatable.’ ” (From a 1965 issue of the journal Theory Into Practice.)

The next citation refers to shopping-mall reenactments of a television show, The Newlywed Game: “It’s relatable humor, the kind that takes place in every home.” (The Washington Post, Oct. 19, 1981.)

The latest Oxford example is from the New York Times Magazine, March 4, 2007: “This is what’s going on in sex and in college right now, and these are real people, and you’re more relatable if you’re a real person.” (The reference is to the models in Boink, a defunct college sex magazine.)

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Gaslighting: The ‘in’ word?

Q: It seems to me that the “in” word right now may be “gaslighting.” People are in an awful hurry to use it. Your take?

A: Well, “gaslighting” is definitely an “in” word now, but we wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s the “in” word.

The verbal noun “gaslighting” was a runner-up for the Oxford Dictionaries 2018 word of the year (“toxic” was the winner).

And the verb “gaslight” won the Most Useful/Likely to Succeed category in the American Dialect Society’s 2016 word-of-the-year competition (“dumpster fire” was the overall winner).

As it turns out, “gaslight” and “gaslighting” aren’t especially new. The two terms have been used for dozens of years to describe the psychological manipulation of people into questioning their sanity.

The ultimate source of the usage is Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light, which inspired the 1940 British film Gaslight and the better-known American version of 1944.

In the American Gaslight, directed by George Cukor, a husband (Charles Boyer) tries to drive his wife (Ingrid Bergman) crazy by insisting that the flickering gaslights in their house don’t really flicker. A detective (Joseph Cotten) comes to the rescue.

However, the words “gaslight” and “gaslighting” aren’t actually used in the play or the films, as contributors to the ADS mailing list pointed out in an early 2017 discussion initiated by the language commentator Ben Yagoda.

The linguist Ben Zimmer, for example, noted the use of “gaslight” as an adjective in “Gracie Buying Boat for George,” an Oct. 30, 1952, episode of The Burns and Allen Show.

“At 16:20 in the YouTube video,” Zimmer wrote, “Harry (Fred Clark) says to Gracie, ‘Give him the gaslight treatment!’ and then explains what that means. A bit later you hear George say, ‘So they sold Gracie on the gaslight bit.’ ”

(Josh Chetwynd, author of Totally Scripted: Idioms, Words, and Quotes From Hollywood to Broadway That Have Changed the English Language, 2017, cites the adjectival usage in Burns and Allen as well as in the ’50s sitcom Make Room for Daddy and the ’60s series Car 54, Where Are You?)

Zimmer also pointed out the use of “gaslight” as a verb (in “The Grudge Match,” a Nov. 12, 1965, episode of the sitcom Gomer Pyle: USMC):

Duke: You know, you guys, I’m wondering. Maybe if we can’t get through to the Sarge we can get through to the Chief.

Frankie: How do you mean?

Duke: I mean psychological warfare.

Gomer: Huh?

Duke: The old war on nerves. We’ll gaslight him.

Stephen Goranson, a library assistant at Duke University, noted the use of the verb “gaslight” as a psychological term in Culture and Personality, a 1961 book by Anthony F. C. Wallace:

“It is also popularly believed to be possible to ‘gaslight’ a perfectly healthy person into psychosis by interpreting his own behavior to him as symptomatic of serious mental illness.”

Goranson also cited the use of the verbal noun “gaslighting” in Culture and Personality: “While ‘gaslighting’ itself may be a mythical crime, there is no question that any social attitude which interprets a given behavior or experience as symptomatic of a generalized incompetence is a powerful creator of shame.”

So if “gaslight” and “gaslighting” are dozens of years old, why have they showed up in recent word-of-the year competitions?

Yagoda, the language writer who initiated the ADS discussion, suggests that the recent prominence of the terms may have been inspired by President Trump’s behavior.

In a Jan. 12, 2017, post on Lingua Franca, the language blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education, he writes:

“The new prominence came from Donald Trump’s habitual tendency to say X and then, at some later date, indignantly declare, ‘I did not say X. In fact, I would never dream of saying X.’ ”

Yagoda cites several headlines tracked down by Zimmer, including these two—the first published shortly before the President was elected and the second a month after:

“Donald Trump self-sabotage gambit: He’s used ‘gaslighting’ in place of apologies for his actions” (Salon, Oct. 16, 2016), and “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America” (Teen Vogue, Dec. 10, 2016).

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Is a smirk but a smile?

Q: I keep finding “smirk” used as a simple synonym for “smile.” How do you distinguish between these two words?

A: One can smile in a pleasant or an unpleasant way. A smirk is an unpleasant smile—irritatingly smug or affected, often with the lips crooked and closed.

Although a smirk is indeed a smile, we wouldn’t use the word “smirk” as a synonym for either the noun or the verb “smile.”

When “smile” is used without qualification, it suggests a pleasant smile, as in these examples from Oxford Dictionaries Online: “she greeted us all with a smile” … “he smiled at Shelley.”

The dictionary says the noun and verb refer to a “pleased, kind, or amused facial expression, typically with the corners of the mouth turned up and the front teeth exposed.”

The word “smirk,” according to the dictionary, refers to “a smug, conceited, or silly smile.” It gives these examples for the noun and verb: “Gloria pursed her mouth in a self-satisfied smirk” … “he smirked in triumph.”

We’ve consulted half a dozen other standard dictionaries and all have similar definitions for “smirk.” But as you’ve noticed, “smirk” is sometimes used as a synonym for “smile.”

For example, the collaborative Urban Dictionary, with definitions written by readers, has a dubious April 12, 2014, contribution that defines “smirk” as “a smile that finds something funny, not necessarily in a scornful way.”

Interestingly, the verb “smirk” did indeed merely mean to smile when it showed up in Old English (as smearcian). The verb “smile” appeared several hundred years later in Middle English (smīlen).

The two words are ultimately derived from the same prehistoric root, reconstructed as smei- (to laugh or smile), according to The American Heritage Dictionary Indo-European Roots.

The earliest example for the verb “smirk” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from King Alfred’s ninth-century translation of the Roman philosopher Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiæ: “Ða ongon he smearcian & cwæð to me” (“At this she began to smile and speak unto me”).

The verb “smirk” continued to mean “smile” in Old English (spoken from about 450 to 1150) and Middle English (roughly 1150 to 1450). It wasn’t until the late 15th century (the early days of modern English) that “smirk” took on its negative sense.

The first negative OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from “The Thewis off Gud Women” (“The Virtues of Good Women”), an anonymous treatise written sometime before 1500:

“And our all thinge kep her in kirk / To kek abak, to lauch, or smyrke” (“And over all things let not herself in church / Peek backward, laugh, or smirk”). The treatise was published in an 1870 collection, Ratis Raving, and Other Moral and Religious Pieces, in Prose and Verse, edited by J. Rawson Lumby.

When the noun “smirk” showed up in the 16th century, the OED says, it meant (as it does now) an “affected or simpering smile; a silly, conceited, smiling look.” The dictionary’s first citation is from The Disobedient Child (1560), by the English dramatist Thomas Ingelend: “Howe many smyrkes, and dulsome kysses?”

The latecomer “smile” showed up in the early 14th century as a verb meaning “to give to the features or face a look expressive of pleasure or amusement, or of amused disdain, scorn, etc.” The first OED example is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem that may have been composed as early as 1300.

“ ‘Thar þe noght in hethyng smylle.’ Sco said, ‘for soth smild i noght.’ ” (“ ‘Thee need naught smile in scorn.’ She said, ‘forsooth I smiled naught.’ ”) The citation describes the biblical episode in which the aged Sarah is chided for doubting the Lord’s promise that she’ll bear a son, and her lie about not smiling.

Finally, the noun “smile” appeared in the mid-16th century. The earliest OED citation is from A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue (1546), by John Heywood: “Better is the last smile, than the first laughter.”

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