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

‘Enthralled to’ or ‘in thrall to’?

Q: An article in the Daily Mirror quotes Lady Colin Campbell as telling Channel 5 in the UK that Prince Harry “is completely beguiled by Meghan and completely enthralled to her.” Shouldn’t it be “enthralled with” + person?

A: We suspect that the reporter who wrote that Daily Mirror article or the transcriber who took down Lady Colin Campbell’s remarks may have misconstrued the phrase “in thrall to” as “enthralled to.” What she probably said was “Harry is completely beguiled by Meghan and completely in thrall to her.”

The verb “enthrall” usually means to captivate, fascinate, or beguile in contemporary English, while the phrase “in thrall” means enslaved, controlled, or influenced. If Lady C, as the British press calls her, did indeed mean that Prince Harry was under the spell and influence of the Duchess, it was proper to say he was “beguiled by her” and “in thrall to her.”

You’re right that “enthralled to her” is unusual in contemporary English. The usual preposition would be “by” or “with,” as in these examples from Oxford Dictionaries Online: “Any reader would be enthralled by the story and find themselves rapidly taking it in” … “He can enthrall you with a story from his past.”

However, “enthralled” is often followed by the infinitive marker “to,” as in this example in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Pat was not enthralled to find she was carrying the extra weight of things like carpets, headrests, and other bits and pieces.” (From Harnessing Horsepower, a 2011 book by Stuart Turner about the rally driver Pat Moss Carlsson.)

The verb “enthrall” now usually means to captivate, as we mentioned above, but it meant to enslave or subjugate when it showed up in Middle English in the 15th century—and it’s still sometimes used that way.

The earliest OED citation for the verb, dated 1447-48, is from the letters and papers of John Shillingford, mayor of Exeter: “The sute [about tax assessments] made by the saide Mayer and Comminalte for to have oppressed and enthralled the saide Bisshop, Dean and Chapitre.” The letters and papers, edited by Stuart Archibald Moore, were published in 1871.

The dictionary’s most recent example is from Vikings, a 2012 BBC documentary written and presented by Neil Oliver: “Historians differ in their opinions of just how many individuals might have been enthralled, taken and traded by Vikings.”

Oxford Online, a standard dictionary that focuses on contemporary usage, labels this sense of “enthrall” as archaic. The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t go that far, but says “to captivate, fascinate, hold spellbound” is “now the usual sense.”

In addition, the OED has an entry for the adjective “enthralled” used to mean enslaved or subjugated, and notes: “In predicative use frequently with to.” The dictionary’s latest example is from a March 24, 2012, article in the Financial Times about a scheduled performance of The Firebird, Igor Stravinsky’s 1910 ballet:

“In Fokine’s version the 13 maidens enthralled to the wicked wizard Kaschei are mild and virginal, playing catch with apples.” We’ve expanded the citation, which refers to Michel Fokine’s original choreography for the ballet.

The ultimate source of the verb “enthrall” and the adjective “enthralled” is þrǽl, the Old English noun for “one who is in bondage to a lord or master,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Mark 10:44 in the Lindisfarne Gospels (circa 950): “And sua huæ seðe wælle in iuh forðmest wosa bie allra ðræl” (“And whoever will be the first among you shall be the slave of all”).

Getting back to your question, when “enthralled” (past tense, past participle, or adjective) is followed by a preposition and an object, the preposition is usually “by” or “with.” But “to” does show up once in a while in mainstream publications, especially when “enthralled to” is used in the sense of “in thrall to.”

This usage does have a history, but “by” and “with” are now overwhelmingly more popular than “to” as prepositions for “enthralled.”

Here are the results of our recent searches in the News on the Web corpus, which tracks newspaper and magazine websites: “enthralled by,” 2,390 results; “enthralled with,” 913; “enthralled to,” 147. (Some of the “enthralled to” results include infinitive markers.)

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

The upper crust

Q: Why is the highest social class referred to as the “upper crust”? Is it because the top crust on a loaf of bread is often better than the bottom, which may be burnt?

A: The adjective “upper” has been used literally since the 14th century to describe ground that is elevated, and figuratively since the 15th to describe people who are elevated in rank.

That early figurative sense may have inspired the use of “upper crust” as a metaphor for social and other elites. There’s no evidence that a loaf of bread had anything to do with it.

The earliest literal example for “upper” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Kyng Alisaunder, an anonymous Middle English romance, believed written in the late 1300s, about the life of Alexander the Great:

“Þe kyng þennes went forþ … in to ynde in þe norþ, Þat is ycleped … þe vpper ynde” (“The king then went forth … into the district in the north, that is called … the upper district”).

The first figurative example is from a 1477 entry in the Council Register of the Burgh of Aberdeen, Scotland: “That Alexander … be continevit vpper and principale maister of wark” (“That Alexander … be continued as the upper and principal master of work”).

When the noun “crust” appeared in the early 14th century, it referred to the “outer part of bread rendered hard and dry in baking,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example is from Otuel a Kniȝt, a Middle English romance about the conversion of a Saracen knight to Christianity: “Anawe of Nubie he smot, / That neuere eft crouste he ne bot” (“Anawe of Nubia he slew / That a crust would nevermore renew”). Oxford dates the romance at some time before 1330.

Over the years, the word “crust” took on many figurative meanings, including a scab on the body (1398), the outer portion of the earth (1555), and a hard coating or deposit on the surface of something (1619).

When the phrase “upper crust” appeared in writing in the 15th century, it referred literally to the top crust on a loaf of bread. The first OED citation is from The Boke of Nurture (1460), by John Russell, a manual on manners, food, and dress: “Kutt þe vpper crust [of the loaf] for youre souerayne.”

Russell, a senior servant to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, is describing how a domestic should wait on his master, or sovereign. There’s no reason to believe this little-known comment inspired the use of “upper crust” to mean the elite—a usage that showed up more than three and a half centuries later.

The earliest example we’ve seen for “upper crust” used figuratively to mean the aristocracy is from an 1823 dictionary of sports slang by Jon Bee, a pseudonym of the English sports writer John Badcock: “Upper-crust—one who lords it over others, is Mister Upper-crust.”

The first OED citation is from The Clockmaker (1837), an account of the fictional adventures of Sam Slick, by the Nova Scotian writer Thomas C. Haliburton: “It was none o’ your skim-milk parties, but superfine uppercrust real jam.”

The dictionary’s next citation, which we’ve expanded, is from another Haliburton book, The Attaché (1843), a collection of Sam Slick adventures in England: “I want you to see Peel, Graham, Shiel, Russell, Macaulay, old Joe, and so on. These men are all upper crust here.”

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English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

A pretty little girl

Q: Your post about the use of “pretty” to mean “rather” got me wondering about a sentence like this: “She is a pretty little girl.” Not knowing her, how am I to tell if she’s rather little or pretty and little? Would a comma after “pretty” indicate that it’s an adjective, not an adverb?

A: As we mentioned in that post, “pretty” has been used as an adjective in the sense of “attractive” since the 1400s and as an adverb meaning “rather” since the 1500s.

Because it has these dual uses, “pretty” can be ambiguous. A phrase like “a pretty little girl” most likely means a girl who’s both pretty and little. But in a discussion of children’s growth rates, it could mean a girl who’s pretty little.

In other words, how are we to know whether “pretty” is an adjective (helping to modify “girl”) or an adverb (modifying “little”)? The answer is that without additional context, there’s no way to know for sure.

And a comma won’t help. This is because a comma would not normally be inserted between “pretty” and “little” to show that both were meant as adjectives. Here’s why.

Certain classes of adjectives always occur in a certain order when they’re used together in a series, and with no commas separating them. And “pretty little girl” is a good example.

We wrote in 2010 about the order of adjectives in a series, and again in 2017 about strings of adjectives that need no commas.

Our advice about commas: if it’s not idiomatic to use “and” to separate adjectives in a series (as in “a pretty brick house”), don’t use commas either.

But if it’s reasonable to use “and” between adjectives, then a comma is appropriate: Examples: “a pretty, well-mannered girl,” “a pretty, graceful girl,” “a pretty, intelligent girl.”

Often, idiomatic usage (or your ear) can tell you how “pretty” is being used.

In the case of “a pretty little girl,” we believe that most people would interpret both modifiers as adjectives, unless there was some reason to think otherwise. When “pretty” and “little” occur together before a noun, this is usually the case.

But when “pretty” appears with “big,” “good,” and some other modifiers, it’s most often an adverb: “a pretty big house,” “in pretty good company,” “a pretty long journey,” “a pretty bad location,” “a pretty loud noise.” Nobody misunderstands combinations like those.

The upshot? If there’s a chance of misunderstanding, a writer should avoid using “pretty” as an adverb before an already modified noun. A less ambiguous word—“rather,” “quite,” “very,” “somewhat,” “awfully”—would work better.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Why slap + stick = slapstick

Q: The word “slapstick” appears a couple of times in the New Yorker’s review of Stan & Ollie, the new film about Laurel and Hardy. Where does “slapstick” come from?

A: The word “slapstick” comes from a paddle that made a loud, slapping noise when whacking someone in the rowdy comedies of the past. And not quite the past. Punch still carries a slapstick in Punch and Judy puppet shows. And percussionists use slapsticks for sound effects.

As the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary explains, the “object from which the word slapstick derives” originated in 16th-century Italy, when Harlequin, a stock character in Renaissance comedy, “was given to wielding a paddle which was designed to make a terrible noise when he hit someone.”

“This paddle was eventually known in English as a ‘slapstick,’ and it became a symbol of that type of highly physical comedy,” the dictionary adds. “The word slapstick then came to refer to the comedy itself.”

The original slapstick carried by Arlecchino, who wore a diamond-patterned costume in Commedia dell’arte, was called a batacchio, the Italian word for a knocker on a door

The Oxford English Dictionary describes a slapstick as “two flat pieces of wood joined together at one end, used to produce a loud slapping noise; spec. such a device used in pantomime and low comedy to make a great noise with the pretence of dealing a heavy blow.”

The earliest OED example for “slapstick” uses the word in its paddle sense: “What a relief, truly, from the slap-sticks, rough-and-tumble comedy couples abounding in the variety ranks.” (From the July 4, 1896, issue of the New York Dramatic News.)

The sense of “slapstick” in that citation seems obscure to us. The next cite is clearer: “The special officer in the gallery, armed with a ‘slap-stick,’ the customary weapon in American theatre galleries, made himself very officious amongst the small boys.” (From the Weekly Budget, Oct. 19, 1907.)

The dictionary’s first citation for the term used adjectivally is from the Oct. 10, 1906, issue of the New York Evening Post: “It required all the untiring efforts of an industrious ‘slap-stick’ coterie … to keep the enthusiasm up to a respectable degree.”

The earliest OED example for “slapstick” as a noun meaning “knockabout comedy or humor, farce, horseplay” is from a 1926 issue of the journal American Speech: “Slap-stick, low comedy in its simplest form. Named from the double paddles formerly used by circus clowns to beat each other.”

Although people aren’t being whacked with slapsticks in comedy routines these days, percussionists use them to imitate the sound of slaps, whip cracks, gunshots, and so on.

If you’d like to see one in action, we came across a video online that demonstrates the use of a slapstick to make sound effects.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

How tolerant is tolerance

(Note: We’re repeating this post for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It originally appeared on the blog on Sept. 9, 2016.)

Q: The word “tolerance” seems to suggest something at least one step short of acceptance. To me, it carries the connotation of a superior agreeing not to actively work against someone clearly not regarded as an equal. Has the meaning changed or am I simply a curmudgeonly stickler or could both be true?

A: Most standard dictionaries define “tolerance” as accepting beliefs or behavior that one may not agree with or approve of. In other words, putting up with them.

This is, as you say, at least a step short of acceptance in the usual sense. It also reflects the Latin origin of the word. English borrowed “tolerance” in the 15th century from French, but the ultimate source is the Latin tolerāre (to bear with or endure).

Is “tolerance,” you ask, evolving in English? Perhaps.

We were recently driving behind a car with a bumper sticker displaying “tolerance” spelled out with a cross, a peace symbol, a star of David, a star and crescent, and other images.

The driver of that car apparently sees “tolerance” as something like respect or consideration for the views of others.

In fact, we’ve seen many examples of the word used that way, including this one from a speech by Trudy E. Hall, the former head of school at the Emma Willard School in Troy, NY:

“What is tolerance? Tolerance is the acceptance and celebration of the full range of emotions, learning preferences, political opinions, and lifestyles of those in community.”

However, we could find only one standard dictionary with such a definition. The entry for “tolerance” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has this as its primary sense: “The capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others.”

When “tolerance” showed up in English writing in the early 15th century, it meant “the action or practice of enduring or sustaining pain or hardship; the power or capacity of enduring; endurance,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED describes that sense as obsolete, but similar senses survive today, such as in “tolerance” to a toxin or an allergen or the side effects of a drug.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “tolerance” is from Troy Boke (1412–20), John Lydgate’s Middle English poem about the rise and fall of Troy:

“For as to a fole it is pertynent / To schewe his foly, riȝt so convenient / Is to þe wyse, softly, with suffraunce, / In al his port to haue tolleraunce” (“For as a fool plainly shows his folly, the wise man, for his part, shows gentle sufferance and tolerance”). We’ve expanded the OED citation to add context.

Similarly, “tolerate” meant to endure or sustain pain or hardship, and “toleration” meant the enduring of evil or suffering, when the two words showed up in the same book in the early 16th century.

Here are the two relevant Oxford citations from the The Boke Named the Gouernour, a 1531 treatise on how to train statesmen, by the English diplomat Thomas Elyot:

“To tollerate those thinges whiche do seme bytter or greuous (wherof there be many in the lyfe of man).”

“There is also moderation in tolleration of fortune of euerye sorte: whiche of Tulli is called equabilite.” (“Tulli” refers to the Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero.)

In the 16th century, the verb “tolerate” and the noun “toleration” took on the sense of putting up with something that’s not actually approved, as in these OED citations.

“He can … be none other rekened but a playne heretyque … whome to tolerate so longe doth sometyme lytle good.” (From Debellation of Salem and Bizance, 1533, a theological polemic by Thomas More.)

“The remission of former sinnes in the toleration of God.” (From the Rheims New Testament of 1582.)

When the adjective “tolerant” appeared in the 18th century, it referred to bearing with something. The OED’s earliest example is from a 1784 sermon at the University of Oxford by Joseph White, an Anglican minister and scholar of Middle Eastern languages:

“His [Gibbon’s] eagerness to throw a veil over the deformities of the Heathen theology, to decorate with all the splendor of panegyric the tolerant spirit of its votaries.”

Over the years, “tolerance” and company have taken on various other meanings, such as referring to variation from a standard (“The part was made to a tolerance of one thousandth of an inch”) or the decrease in a drug’s effectiveness after prolonged use (“The body builds up a tolerance to allergy medications”).

What does the sense of “tolerance” you’re asking about mean today?

The online Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “willingness to accept beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them.” The dictionary gives this example: “This period in history is not noted for its religious tolerance.”

Cambridge has similar definitions for “tolerate,” “toleration,” and “tolerant.”

However, some scholars argue that “tolerance” is a less judgmental term than “toleration.”

In “Tolerance or Toleration? How to Deal with Religious Conflicts in Europe,” an Aug. 12, 2010, paper on the Social Science Research Network, Lorenzo Zucca says that “non-moralizing tolerance should be distinguished from moralizing toleration and should be understood as the human disposition to cope with diversity in a changing environment.”

And Andrew R. Murphy, in “Tolerance, Toleration, and the Liberal Tradition,” a 1997 article in the journal Polity, sees “tolerance” as a more personal term than “toleration.”

“We can improve our understanding by defining ‘toleration’ as a set of social and political practices and ‘tolerance’ as a set of attitudes,” he writes.

In a June 2, 2008, post on his blog, the linguist David Crystal says “tolerance” is a more positive term than “toleration.”

Tolerance has more positive connotations (a desire to accept) than toleration, which can mean ‘we have to put up with this,’ ” he writes. “Compare the phrase religious tolerance with religious toleration. The country which practises the former is more likely to be enthusiastically supporting religious diversity than the latter.”

Of the two terms, “tolerance” is far more popular today, but “toleration” was more common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, according to a search with Google’s Ngram viewer.

So language changes! And we wouldn’t be surprised if other standard dictionaries eventually follow American Heritage’s lead and define “tolerance” less judgmentally than “toleration.”

Note: The reader who asked this question later reminded us of Tom Lehrer’s satirical 1965 song about tolerance, “National Brotherhood Week.” It seems an appropriate accompaniment to this political season.

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

Why ‘speedometer’ has an ‘o’

Q: Why is it a “speedometer,” not a “speedmeter”? That thing on the side of my house is a “gas meter,” not a “gasometer,” and the electrician has an “ohm meter,” not an “ohmometer.”

A: The letter “o” appears frequently as a connective or linking element in English compounds where at least one of the parts is of Greek origin.

The English construction can be traced back to the use of the omicron (o) at the end of the first part of a compound in classical Greek. For example, δημο-κρατία (demo-cratia, rule of the people), ϕιλο-σοϕία (philo-sophia, love of knowledge), and νεκρo-πολις (necro-polis, city of the dead).

In ancient Greek, nouns that ended with an omicron and a sigma (-ος, or os in the Latin alphabet) formed compounds by dropping the sigma and keeping the omicron as a connective. Classical Latin used the letter o similarly in compounds borrowed from Greek as well as some that originated in Latin. Later, French and the other romance languages inherited these compounds from classical or medieval Latin. English, in turn, adopted many of them from French or Latin.

Although the omicron in classical Greek was often the final letter in the first part of a compound, it’s frequently treated in modern English as the first letter in the last part of a compound, especially if the first part is a native English word that ends in a consonant.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the connective “-o-” in some compounds “tends to be treated as if it were part of the termination, particularly where the latter is combined with an English first element which ends in a consonant.”

The term “speedometer” is a good example of this. It’s a compound made up of the noun “speed,” which dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, the connective “-o-,” and the combining form “-meter,” which comes from the Greek -μέτρον (-metron, or measure).

However, there are a lot of exceptions, as you’ve noticed. Many standard dictionaries, for example, have entries for both “gas meter” and “gasometer,” though the two terms have different meanings. A “gas meter” is a device for measuring the amount of gas used at a property, while a “gasometer” is a tank for storing and measuring gas.

The measuring devices named after the German physicist Georg Ohm and the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta have been written several different ways over the years—as two words, hyphenated, and as one word, sometimes with the connective “-o-” and sometimes without it. Most standard dictionaries now list the device for measuring electrical resistance as an “ohmmeter” and the device for measuring electrical potential as  a “voltmeter.”

Interestingly, we’ve seen the two-word term “speed meter” used once in a while in writing to refer to the radar and laser devices used by police to catch speeders, though the usage hasn’t made its way into standard dictionaries.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has separate entries for the combining forms “-meter” and “-ometer” as well as for the “-o-” connective. The connective entry treats “-ometer” as a two-part term made up of “-o-” and “-meter.”

The “-ometer” version was the first to show up in English. As the OED explains, “Words containing this terminal element are first attested in English in the 17th cent., the earliest significant example being thermometer n., modelled on the earlier French thermomètre; the next is barometer n., an English formation (French baromètre is recorded almost contemporaneously).”

“In the early formations the ending is always appended to Greek noun stems or combining forms [ending] in -o,” the dictionary says, but during the 18th century “formations begin to appear in which the initial element could be of Latin or other origin.”

The earliest example with an English initial element, according to the OED, “is the humorous word passionometer n. (mid 18th cent.); this is succeeded in the 19th cent. by a small number of similar rarely-used humorous words, e.g. foolometer n., obscenometer n.”

“Speedometer,” the word you asked about, appeared in the early 20th century. The first OED citation is from the Aug. 4, 1904, issue of the Times (London): “His ‘speedometer’ … showed he was going at only ten miles an hour.”

Getting back to your question, there’s no definite reason why the instrument that measures the speed of a vehicle is a “speedometer” while the device that measures the use of gas in a house is a “gas meter.”

As we’ve said in other posts, the development of English has not been tidy. We’re reminded of that nearly every day as we translate Old English and Middle English into Modern English.

Take the noun “speed” for example. In Old English (spoken from around 450 to 1150), the noun was spelled spoed or sped. In Middle English (roughly 1150-1500), it was spede, speede, spied, speid, spyd, spyde, speed, and so on. Not until the 17th century did “speed” emerge from the pack and become the dominant spelling—a process that wasn’t too speedy.

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English English language Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Style Usage Writing

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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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

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

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

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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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

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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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Gaslighting: The ‘in’ word?

[Note: This post has been updated, most recently on  Jan. 2, 2022.]

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, a thriller set in Victorian London about a diabolical husband who tries to drive his wife insane. (Across the pond, the play opened on Broadway in December 1941 under the title Angel Street, with Vincent Price as the villain.)

Hamilton’s play is better known as having inspired movie treatments—the 1940 British film Gaslight and the more famous 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.

In senses related to psychological manipulation, “gaslight” apparently was first an adjective. In a 2021 posting to the mailing list, Yagoda reported this 1948 sighting of “gaslight” used as an adjective in a short newspaper item:

GASLIGHT—Divorce petitions filed in Dade circuit court in recent weeks reveal an influence traceable to the current run of movies dealing with psychiatric plots, especially those in which the husband tries to convince the wife she is crazy. Several complainants have charged husbands with actions designed to produce fear of mental unbalance, and one suit, filed the other day, claimed the husband ‘gave her the Gaslight treatment’ ” (The Miami News, Sept. 16, 1948).

Similar adjectival uses of “gaslight” showed up in the 1950s. The linguist Ben Zimmer, for example, noted the usage 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 says, “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?

As for the verb “gaslight,” it seems to date from the mid-’60s. Zimmer has reported its use 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.

And Stephen Goranson, a library assistant at Duke University, has noted the use of the verb as a psychological term in the book Culture and Personality (1961), 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 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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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

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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