The Grammarphobia Blog

The first wordsmith in chief

Q: I’ve read that Thomas Jefferson, our third president, liked to coin new words. He thought neologisms kept a language fresh. For Presidents’ Day, please write about some POTUS contributions to the English language.

A: Yes, Thomas Jefferson coined scores of new words, including “neologize.” He commented on the practice in an Aug. 15, 1820, letter to John Adams: “I am a friend to neology. It is the only way to give to a language copiousness and euphony.”

And Jefferson wasn’t the only wordsmith in chief. We can thank US presidents for coining or popularizing many of our most common words and phrases. George Washington was particularly inventive, so let’s focus today on his many neologisms.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites dozens of the first US president’s lexical firsts. Here are some of them:

  • “average” (verb): “A fat wether—it being imagind … would average the above weight” (from a note in Washington’s diary about a 103-pound castrated ram, February 1769).
  • “baking” (adjective): “The ground, by the heavy rains … and baking Winds since, had got immensely hard” (from a diary entry, May 9, 1786).
  • “commitment”: “If Mr Gouv’r Morris was employed in this business, it would be a commitment for his employment as Minister” (diary, Oct. 8, 1789).
  • “district court”: “The District Court is held in it [Salisbury, N.C.]” (diary, May 30, 1791).
  • “facilitated” (adjective): “It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions” (from a speech, Sept. 17, 1796).
  • “fox hunt” (verb): “Rid up to Toulston in order to fox hunt it” (diary, Jan. 24, 1768).
  • “heat” (sexual excitement in dogs): “Musick was also in heat & servd promiscuously by all the Dogs” (diary, June 22, 1768).
  • “indoors”: “There are many sorts of in-doors work, which can be executed in Hail, Rain, or Snow, as well as in sunshine” (from a letter to James Anderson, manager of the farms at Mount Vernon, Dec. 10, 1799).
  • “logged” (adjective): “A Logged dwelling house with a punchion Roof” (dairy, Sept. 20, 1784).
  • “out-of-the-way”: “They have built three forts here, and one of them … erected in my opinion in a very out-of-the-way place” (from a letter to Robert Dinwiddie, Governor of Virginia, Oct. 10, 1756).
  • “paroled” (adjective): “I cannot consent to send them to New York, as with an old Balance and those who have gone in with paroled officers, the enemy already owe us 900 Men” (from a letter to Maj. Gen. Henry Knox, Oct. 13, 1782).
  • “off-duty”: “The General earnestly expects every Officer and Soldier of this Army will shew the utmost alertness, as well upon duty, as off duty” (from orders issued on March 9, 1776, during the final days of the British siege of Boston).
  • “rehire” (noun): “Nor ought there to be any transfer of the lease, or re-hire of the Negros without your consent first had & obtained in writing” (from a letter written June 10, 1793, to his niece Frances Bassett Washington, offering advice on renting out an estate of hers).
  • “rent” (verb): “The Plantation on which Mr. Simpson lives rented well—viz. for 500 Bushels of Wheat” (diary, Sept. 15, 1784).
  • “riverside” (adjective): “Has 2 Pecks of sd. Earth and 1 of Riverside Sand” (diary, April 14, 1760).
  • “tow path”: “A tow path on the Maryland side” (diary, June 2, 1788).

Happy birthday, George.

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When verb forms are the object

Q: In my ESL class, I wrote the following sentence: “I was sick yesterday, so all I did was resting at home.” My teacher said I should have written “rest,” not “resting,” but he couldn’t give a grammatical explanation. He said his native ear informed him. Was he correct?

A: Your teacher was right. That construction calls for an infinitive, “rest,” as a direct object, not a gerund.

He was also right in saying that there’s no good explanation why some verbs take a gerund as a direct object, some take an infinitive, and some take both, as we wrote on our blog in 2010 and 2014. The only way to know which take what is through experience.

As you already know, an infinitive is the bare form of a verb (like “rest”), while a gerund is the infinitive plus “-ing” (“resting”).

Because infinitives and gerunds can act as nouns, they can be the direct objects of verbs. Some verbs (“learn,” “like,” and “prefer,” among others) can have both infinitives and gerunds as direct objects.

For instance, one can say either “I learned to knit” (infinitive) or “I learned knitting” (gerund) … “I like to read” or “I like reading” …  “I prefer to rest at home” or “I prefer resting at home.”

But other verbs—“decide” and “finish” are examples—take either one or the other: “She decided to go” (not “She decided going”) … “He finished dressing” (not “He finished to dress”).

When the verb is a form of “to be,” the story varies. Sometimes the direct object is an infinitive, sometimes a gerund, and sometimes they’re interchangeable.

For example, we say, “What he did was walk” (bare infinitive), not “What he did was walking.” But we also say, “His hobby is skiing,” not “His hobby is to ski.” And we can say either “Her passion is vacationing in Tahiti” or “Her passion is to vacation in Tahiti.”

So the verb “to be” is unpredictable, which is why that sentence was mysterious to you and why even linguists have never cracked the code (if there is one).

In case you’re interested, we wrote posts in 2017 that discussed the use of infinitives versus gerunds after “interested” and after “intend.” You can find other relevant posts by putting the words “infinitive” and “gerund” in the search box of our blog and clicking the magnifying glass.

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Jenny Kiss’d Me

[Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and to mark the occasion we’re republishing a post from July 20, 2012, about a point of grammar in Leigh Hunt’s poem “Jenny Kiss’d Me.”]

Q: I was browsing through a collection of “best loved poems” the other day and came across the charming rondeau “Jenny Kiss’d Me,” a favorite of mine. Once upon a time I even had occasion to memorize it (wrongly as it turns out). Two of its lines are: “Time, you thief, who love to get / Sweets into your list, put that in!” I remembered it as “who loves to get,” which sounds better to me. I’m certainly not the one to correct Leigh Hunt, but I would be interested in any comment you might have.

A: You can find published versions of Leigh Hunt’s poem (originally published in the November 1838 issue of the Monthly Chronicle) with either “love” or “loves.” But most of them use the second-person singular “love,” which is appropriate, as we’ll explain.

The earliest version of “Jenny Kiss’d Me” that we could find online was from an 1847 collection of Hunt’s prose writings. In one of the essays, he mentions that a rondeau written by Pope inspired him to write this one of his own:

Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief! who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in.
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss’d me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kiss’d me.

(We’ve used the punctuation from Hunt’s essay.)

Why does Hunt uses “love,” not “loves,” in his poem? Because the line is addressed to “Time, you thief!” so the second-person verb—the form used with “you”—is correct.

Similar second-person constructions (as in “you who love,” “you who say,” “you who are,” and so on) can be found throughout English literature, whenever the writer addresses a subject referred to subsequently as “who.”

Here’s an example from a sermon by John Wesley: “And as to you who believe yourselves the elect of God, what is your happiness?”

And here’s another, found in a letter written from Italy by Lord Byron in 1819: “All this will appear strange to you, who do not understand the meridian morality, nor our way of life in such respects.”

By analogy, Hunt might have written, “Time! You who love to get / Sweets into your list, put that in.”

Hunt’s poem, commonly known as “Jenny Kiss’d Me,” is actually entitled “Rondeau,” though it’s technically not a rondeau. It has only one stanza and it doesn’t have the typical rhyme scheme of a rondeau. But it does, like a rondeau, begin and end the same way.

Who, you may ask, was Jenny and why did she kiss him? Here’s Hunt’s explanation:

“We must add, lest our egotism should be thought still greater on the occasion than it is, that the lady was a great lover of books and impulsive writers: and that it was our sincerity as one of them which obtained for us this delightful compliment from a young enthusiast to an old one.”

The Carlyle Encyclopedia, edited by Mark Cumming, identifies Jenny as Jane Welsh Carlyle, wife of the historian Thomas Carlyle. Her nickname was “Jenny,” according to the encyclopedia, and she kissed Hunt on learning that he’d recovered from one of his many illnesses.

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Can an outcome be foregone?

Q: Is it proper to use “foregone” like this: “the outcomes are foregone”? I know the phrase “foregone conclusion” is common, but that doesn’t seem quite the same.

A: Our answer: “Why not?”

As we’ll explain below, people today don’t routinely use “foregone” to modify nouns other than “conclusion.” But nobody would misinterpret the phrase “foregone outcome,” so we see no reason to avoid it.

We’ve written posts about “forego” (to precede or go before) and “forgo” (to do without) on our blog, most recently in 2014. And as we said, the past participles of those verbs—“foregone” and “forgone”—aren’t used much today.

However, the participial adjective “foregone” is still familiar, and we have Shakespeare to thank for it.

He’s credited with coining not only “foregone” but the expression “foregone conclusion,” which means an inevitable result or an opinion already formed. Today, “foregone” in the sense of predictable or predetermined is seldom used apart from this phrase.

Shakespeare was also the first to record “foregone” in a much lesser-known sense: previous or in the past.

The first appearances of “foregone” in each of its two senses are difficult to pin down, since most of Shakespeare’s works were composed several years before they were published.

But it’s likely that he first used “foregone” in referring to times gone by. The Oxford English Dictionary says this sense of the adjective means “that has gone before or gone by; (of time) past.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for this sense is from Sonnet 30, the familiar poem that begins “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past.”

The poem, probably written sometime between 1595 and 1600, includes the line “Then can I greeue at greeuances fore-gon”—that is, “grieve at grievances foregone,” or past sorrows.

In subsequent OED examples, the adjective appears in phrases like “foregone ills” (past sufferings, 1656), “foregone authority of law” (legal precedent, 1794), “the foregone meal” (a reference to leftovers, 1824), and “lives foregone” (the dead, 1870).

Though standard dictionaries still include this meaning of “foregone,” at least one, Oxford Dictionaries Online, labels it archaic.

The other sense of “foregone”—preconceived or predictable—is also seldom used, except with “conclusion.”  The OED’s first example of “foregone conclusion” is from Othello, believed to have been written around 1603.

Shakespeare uses the expression at a dramatic moment in the play. The scheming Iago tells Othello that he’s heard Cassio, a trusted lieutenant, talking in his sleep about Desdemona, Othello’s wife: “In sleep I heard him say, ‘Sweet Desdemona, / Let us be wary, let us hide our loves! … Cursèd fate that gave thee to the Moor!’ ”

When the credulous Othello cries, “O monstrous! Monstrous!” Iago sees that he has achieved his end, and he demurs: “Nay, this was but his dream.” Othello replies, “But this denoted a fore-gone conclusion.”

As the OED says, Shakespeare’s use of “foregone conclusion” has been “variously interpreted by commentators.” The noun “conclusion” has had a variety of meanings over time: a result, experiment, arrangement, or agreement. So Othello may have meant that Cassio’s dream referred to an already accomplished adultery.

The original use is still being debated, but the OED says that today “foregone conclusion” is used for (1) “a decision or opinion already formed before the case is argued or the full evidence known” and (2) “a result or upshot that might have been foreseen as inevitable.”

“Foregone” is occasionally seen modifying words other than “conclusion,” as in this example from the Daily Beast, March 14, 2014: “In his home state, Brian Sandoval is a foregone lock to be reelected governor.” We’ve also found examples of “foregone result” and “foregone outcome.”

Sometimes the word is even used alone, to mean the same thing but in an elliptical manner. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language offers this usage note:

“The word foregone is occasionally used by itself as a truncation of the phrase a foregone conclusion, as in It is by no means foregone that the team will relocate to Baltimore next season. But the usage has not gained broad acceptance.”

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A new ‘Woe Is I’ for our times

[This week Penguin Random House published a new, fourth edition of Patricia T. O’Conner’s bestselling grammar and usage classic Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. To mark the occasion, we’re sharing the Preface to the new edition.]

Some books can’t sit still. They get fidgety and restless, mumbling to themselves and elbowing their authors in the ribs. “It’s that time again,” they say. “I need some attention here.”

Books about English grammar and usage are especially prone to this kind of behavior. They’re never content with the status quo. That’s because English is not a stay-put language. It’s always changing—expanding here, shrinking there, trying on new things, casting off old ones. People no longer say things like “Forsooth, methinks that grog hath given me the flux!” No, time doesn’t stand still and neither does language.

So books about English need to change along with the language and those who use it. Welcome to the fourth edition of Woe Is I.

What’s new? Most of the changes are about individual words and how they’re used. New spellings, pronunciations, and meanings develop over time, and while many of these don’t stick around, some become standard English. This is why your mom’s dictionary, no matter how fat and impressive-looking, is not an adequate guide to standard English today. And this is why I periodically take a fresh look at what “better English” is and isn’t.

The book has been updated from cover to cover, but don’t expect a lot of earthshaking changes in grammar, the foundation of our language. We don’t ditch the fundamentals of grammar and start over every day, or even every generation. The things that make English seem so changeable have more to do with vocabulary and how it’s used than with the underlying grammar.

However, there are occasional shifts in what’s considered grammatically correct, and those are reflected here too. One example is the use of they, them, and their for an unknown somebody-or-other, as in “Somebody forgot their umbrella”—once shunned but now acceptable. Another has to do with which versus that. Then there’s the use of “taller than me” in simple comparisons, instead of the ramrod-stiff “taller than I.” (See Chapters 1, 3, and 11.)

Despite the renovations, the philosophy of Woe Is I remains unchanged. English is a glorious invention, one that gives us endless possibilities for expressing ourselves. It’s practical, too. Grammar is there to help, to clear up ambiguities and prevent misunderstandings. Any “rule” of grammar that seems unnatural, or doesn’t make sense, or creates problems instead of solving them, probably isn’t a legitimate rule at all. (Check out Chapter 11.)

And, as the book’s whimsical title hints, it’s possible to be too “correct”— that is, so hung up about correctness that we go too far. While “Woe is I” may appear technically correct (and even that’s a matter of opinion), the lament “Woe is me” has been good English for generations. Only a pompous twit—or an author trying to make a point—would use “I” instead of “me” here. As you can see, English is nothing if not reasonable.

(To buy Woe Is I, visit your local bookstore or Amazon.com.)

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the new, fourth edition of her bestselling grammar book Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.

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The raison d’être of raison d’être

Q: My dictionary defines “raison d’être” as “reason for being,” but I frequently see it used as a substitute for “reason.” Is this ever correct?

A: We don’t know of any standard dictionary or usage manual that considers “raison d’être” a synonym for “reason.”

But as you’ve noticed some people do treat it that way, a usage that Henry W. Fowler criticized as far back as 1926 in the first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. To show “how not to use” the expression, he cites an example in which it means merely a reason: “the raison d’être is obvious.”

Oxford Dictionaries Online, one of the nine standard dictionaries we’ve consulted, typically defines “raison d’être” as the “most important reason or purpose for someone or something’s existence,” and gives this example: “seeking to shock is the catwalk’s raison d’être.”

Some writers italicize “raison d’être,” but we (along with The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed.) see no reason to use italics for a term in standard English dictionaries. However, all the dictionaries we’ve seen spell it with a circumflex.

As for the pronunciation, listen to the pronouncer on the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says English borrowed “raison d’être” from French in the mid-19th century. The expression ultimately comes from the Latin ratiō (reason) and esse (to be).

The earliest citation in the OED is from a March 18, 1864, letter by the British philosopher John Stuart Mill: “Modes of speech which have a real raison d’être.” The latest example is from the October 1995 issue of the British soccer magazine FourFourTwo: “Players, managers and supporters—the people for whom football is their raison d’etre.”

Jeremy Butterfield, editor of the 2015 fourth edition of Fowler’s usage manual, notes that since “raison d’être” means a reason for being, not just a reason, “it does not make a great deal of sense to modify it with words such as main, primary, etc.,” as in this example: “The main raison d’être for the ‘new police’ was crime prevention by regular patrol.”

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Why early religions are ‘pagan’

Q: I love reading and watching documentaries about archeology, but not when they belittle the religions of previous civilizations as “pagan.” This gives us airs that we are more civilized than earlier cultures.

A: It’s true that “pagan” is a negative term in that it has always defined people as what they are not, rather than what they are. So it carries a connotation of “not like us.”

The word (both noun and adjective) has been part of English since the 1400s, and historically it’s been used to dismiss or even condemn people.

But today “pagan” has four principal meanings, not all of them derogatory. Here’s what it means in modern English, according to standard dictionaries.

In speaking of past civilizations, “pagan” refers to the polytheistic people and religions of ancient times, before the Judeo-Christian era. This is how archeologists and historians use the term. And in our opinion, this isn’t a demeaning usage—or at least it isn’t labeled as such in standard dictionaries.

In speaking of the present, “pagan” is used for believers and beliefs that fall outside the mainstream religions, as in contemporary Druidism, nature worship, and such (more on this later). That use isn’t considered demeaning either.

However, many dictionaries say that “pagan” is “disparaging,” “derogatory,” or “offensive” when used in reference to contemporaries who are neither Christian, Jewish, nor Muslim—that is, “heathen” in the missionary’s sense of the word. This use of “pagan,” however, is labeled “dated” or “historical” in some dictionaries.

And “pagan” is derogatory when it refers to someone who behaves in an irreligious, unorthodox, or uncultivated way. As some dictionaries note, this usage can be meant humorously.

Ultimately, of course, any word can be taken amiss, since offense is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. And certainly “pagan” has been used disparagingly in past centuries—especially in Christian religious tracts.

Interestingly, the ancestral roots of “pagan” have nothing to do with religion. The ultimate source of “pagan” is the classical Latin pāgus, meaning a rural district (it’s also the source of “peasant”).

From pāgus were derived the classical Latin noun and adjective pāgānus, which had two meanings to the Romans, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It originally referred to country dwellers (that is, rustics as opposed to city dwellers), but in later classical Latin it more commonly referred to civilians (as opposed to soldiers).

Religion entered the picture in early Christian times, when pāgānus acquired a new meaning. In post-classical Latin, probably in the fourth century, the OED says it came to mean “heathen, as opposed to Christian or Jewish.”

So how did a word for a rustic or a civilian come to mean a heathen in the later Latin of the early Christian era? The development isn’t clear, but there are competing theories, according to the OED. We’ll condense them here:

(1) The earlier “country dweller” meaning may be responsible, because the towns and cities of the Roman Empire accepted Christianity before the rural villages and hamlets. Or it may be that the “country dweller” meaning was interpreted as “not of the city,” and thus came to mean an outsider.

(2) The later “civilian” meaning may be the key, since “Christians called themselves mīlitēs ‘enrolled soldiers’ of Christ, members of his militant church,” Oxford says. So non-Christians were those “not enrolled in the army.”

The OED doesn’t take sides here, and neither does the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. But John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, comes down on the side of #2. The post-classical sense of pāgānus as a heathen, he says, arose from its “civilian” meaning, “based on the early Christian notion that all members of the church were ‘soldiers’ of Christ.”

Regardless of how its “heathen” sense developed, pāgānus was adopted into English in the early 1400s as “pagan.” This is the OED’s earliest known use of the noun:

“I sall … euer pursue the payganys þat my pople distroyede” (“I shall ever pursue the pagans that destroyed my people”). From a manuscript, dated circa 1440, of Morte Arthure, a medieval poem that was probably composed some time before 1400.

And this is Oxford’s earliest use of the adjective:

“More deppyr in the turmentis of helle shall bene … the crystyn Prynces than the Pagan Pryncis, yf they do not ryght to al men” (“More deeper in the torments of hell shall be … the Christian princes than the pagan princes, if they do not do right by all men”). From a manuscript, dated sometime before 1500, of James Yonge’s 1422 translation of the Secreta Secretorum (“The Secret of Secrets”).

In its entries for “pagan,” the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t differentiate between two of the uses given in standard dictionaries—the neutral, pre-Christian sense used in reference to antiquity, versus the outdated, pejorative use of the term for religions other than one’s own.

This is the OED definition of the noun (the one for the adjective is similar): “A person not subscribing to any major or recognized religion, esp. the dominant religion of a particular society; spec. a heathen, a non-Christian, esp. considered as savage, uncivilized, etc.”

The dictionary says this use of “pagan” is now chiefly historical, meaning that it refers to people and cultures of the past, not the present. Here, for example, is a modern citation:

“Religion helped structure the networks of power that shaped or informed the relationships between pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greek East” (from Douglas R. Edwards’s book Religion and Power, 1996).

However, the OED does have entries for the other two definitions found in standard dictionaries—referring (sometimes humorously) to the uncultivated, and to modern religions that are outside the mainstream.

This is how Oxford defines the “uncultivated” sense of the noun “pagan” (the adjective closely corresponds): “A person of unorthodox, uncultivated or backward beliefs, tastes, etc.; a person who has not been converted to the current dominant views of a society, group, etc.; an uncivilized or unsocialized person, esp. a child.”

Some of the dictionary’s examples, which date from the mid-16th century, are almost affectionate, like these:

“Said t’was a pagan plant, a prophane weede / And a most sinful smoke” (a reference to tobacco, from George Chapman’s 1606 play Monsieur D’Olive).

“That bloodless old Pagan, her father” (from Macleod of Dare, an 1879 novel by William Black).

“So much like wild beasts are baby boys, little fighting, biting, climbing pagans” (from The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, John Muir’s 1913 memoir).

Finally, the dictionary’s definition for the modern religious use is “a follower of a pantheistic or nature-worshipping religion; esp. a neopagan,” and the adjective’s definition is similar. Here’s the latest OED example for the noun:

“Paganism … is a belief in which nature is revered and its views on ecology are very attractive to teenagers. Pagans and witches recycle, are against GM foods and are likely to be vegetarian” (from the Express on Sunday, London, Feb. 4, 2001).

A final word about modern paganism (or neopaganism), which is more widespread than you might think and which some standard dictionaries define more specifically than the OED.

For example, Oxford Dictionaries Online defines today’s “pagan” as “a member of a modern religious movement which seeks to incorporate beliefs or practices from outside the main world religions, especially nature worship.”

The phrase “outside the main world religions” would mean principally a faith that is not among the Abrahamic (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Bahá’í), the Dharmic (Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Jain), or the East Asian families of religions (Taoist, Confucian, Shinto, and others).

These newer pagan religions are very diverse (ranging from Wicca and Neo-Druidism to Goddess worship and varieties of religious naturalism), and they often defy definitions. But scholars of religion generally categorize them under the umbrella of Contemporary Pagan or Neopagan.

And adherents generally do not feel belittled by such labels. For instance, the current president of Latvia, the Green Party member Raimonds Vējonis, identifies himself as a Baltic Neopagan.

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The ‘H’ in ‘Jesus H. Christ’

Q: What does the “H” stand for in “Jesus H. Christ”? It’s obviously not a middle initial, so why is it there?

A: We’ve seen a lot of theories about the source of the “H” in “Jesus H. Christ,” one of many expletives or exclamations that use a name for God. The most likely suggestion is that it comes from a monogram made of the first three letters of the Greek name for Jesus.

In Greek, “Jesus” is ΙΗΣΟΥΣ in uppercase letters and Ἰησοῦς in lower. The first three letters (iota, eta, and sigma) form a monogram, or graphic symbol, written as either IHS or IHC in Latin letters.

Why does the monogram end with an “S” in one version and a “C” in another? The sigma has an “S” sound, but it looks something like a “C” in its lunate (or crescent-shaped) form at the end of a lowercase word.

For example, the sigma in Ἰησοῦς is σ in the middle and ς at the end. In classical Latin, Jesus is iesus.

The IHS version is more common than IHC, which The Catholic Encyclopedia refers to as a rare “learned abbreviation.”

The symbol, which is also called a Christogram, can be seen in Roman Catholic, Anglican, and other churches. It’s also the emblem of the Society of Jesus, the religious order of the Jesuits.

As far as we can tell, “Jesus H. Christ” first appeared in writing in the late 19th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is from the February 1885 issue of Wilford’s Microcosm, a New York journal about science and religion.

The publication cites an apparently humorous use of the expression in an unnamed Texas newspaper: “At Laredo the other day Jesus H. Christ was registered at one of the hotels.”

The next example we’ve found is from The Creation, a satirical verse play in the June 13, 1885, issue of the Secular Review, an agnostic journal in London. Here’s an exchange between the Adam and Eve characters in a scene set in the Garden of Eden:

Wife. O Lord! How them apples is pecked!
And fruit that is pecked by the birds
Is always so nice, I am told.

Man. If Jesus H. Christ hears your words,
He’ll tell, and his Father will scold.

The expression was undoubtedly used in speech earlier. Mark Twain recalled hearing it when he was a printer’s apprentice in Missouri in the mid-1800s.

“In that day, the common swearers of the region had a way of their own of emphasizing the Saviour’s name when they were using it profanely,” he says in a section of his autobiography dictated on March 29, 1906.

Twain recounts an incident in which a fellow apprentice shortened “Jesus Christ” to “J.C.” in a religious pamphlet, and when chided for using an abbreviation, “He enlarged the offending J.C. into Jesus H. Christ.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says the phrase “Jesus H. Christ” is used as “an oath or as a strong exclamation of surprise, disbelief, dismay, or the like.” The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a 1924 issue of the journal Dialect Notes: Jesus Christ, Jesus H. Christ, holy jumping Jesus Christ.”

The OED doesn’t comment on the origin of the expression, but the Dictionary of American Regional English and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang say it’s probably derived from the monogram IHS or IHC.

DARE’s first example is from that 1906 entry in Mark Twain’s Autobiography, which was published in 1924, 14 years after the author’s death, with an introduction by Albert Bigelow Paine.

The earliest Random House example is from a folk song dated 1892, “Men at Work,” collected by Alan Lomax in Folk Songs of North America (1960). To give the expression its proper context, we’ll expand the citation:

About five in the morning the cook would sing out,
“Come, bullies, come, bullies, come, bullies, turn out.”
Oh, some would not mind him and back they would lay.
Then it’s “Jesus H. Christ, will you lay there all day?”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve discussed many other expressions that refer or allude to God, including posts in 2015, 2012, 2011, and 2008.

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