English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

In the lap of the gods

Q: In preparing for a trip to Greece, I’ve done a lot of reading about the Greek gods. That got me thinking about the expression “It’s in the lap of the gods.” Why “lap,” not “laps”? Wouldn’t the plural be correct, grammatically speaking?

A: The expression originated in ancient Greek. Homer uses various versions of it in the Odyssey and the Iliad.

In Homeric Greek, “θεῶν ἐν γούνασι” literally means “in the knees of the gods.” The reference to “knees” has been translated over the years as “in the knees,” “on the knees,” “in the lap,” and “on the lap.”

For example, A. T. Murray, in his 1919 translation of the Odyssey, renders “θεῶν ἐν γούνασι” in Book 1 as “on the knees of the gods,” while T. E. Lawrence, in his 1932 version, translates it as “on the lap of the Gods.”

As William Seymour Tyler explains in The Theology of Greek Poets (1869), “The men and women of the Iliad and Odyssey are habitually religious” and the “language of religion is often on their tongues.”

“They seem to have an abiding conviction of their dependence on the gods,” he writes. “The results of all actions depend on the will of the gods; it lies on their knees (θεῶν ἐν γούνασι κεἶται, Od. i. 267), is the often repeated and significant expression of their feeling of dependence.”

Today the usual English expression, “in the lap of the Gods,” refers to a situation that one can’t control—something controlled by fate, destiny, providence. The phrase “in the lap” is used here to mean in the care, keeping, or control (a figurative sense of “lap” as a place where a child is held).

Why, you ask, is the English expression “lap of the gods” instead of “laps of the gods”?

First of all, the expression is an idiom. And idioms don’t have to make sense, either literally or grammatically. If they did, one would go to the toolbox rather than the linen closet to make one’s bed.

However, we think the expression does make grammatical sense. When we say “the gods” here, we’re thinking of them as a collective divinity, not individually as Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and so on.

The word “lap” has been used figuratively since the early 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but we’ll skip to this OED example from Shakespeare: “Who are the violets now / That strew the greene lap of the new come spring” (from Richard II, written around 1595).

The dictionary’s first example of “in the lap of the gods” is from the early 20th century: “Perhaps a year—perhaps six months… It is in the lap of the gods” (from Bull-dog Drummond, a 1920 novel written by H. C. McNeile under the pseudonym “Sapper”). The ellipsis is in the novel.

But we found this earlier example in the Pittsburgh Daily Gazette and Advertiser, Aug. 12, 1869: “The future of Cairo is ‘in the lap of the gods.’ ”

And here’s an even earlier example, using “on the lap.” The writer speculates that the papers of Teresa, Contessa Guiccioli, might reveal something new about her affair with Lord Byron:

“This among other chances ‘lies on the lap of the gods’; and especially on the lap of a goddess who still treads our earth.” (From Algernon Charles Swinburne’s preface, written in December 1865, to an edition of Byron’s poems that was published the following year. Byron had died in 1824, and the countess lived on until 1873.)

Interestingly, a May 24, 1873, article in the Evening Star, Washington, D.C., published a few weeks after the countess’s death, changes “on the lap” to “in the lap” while misquoting Swinburne: “However, this, like much else besides, lies in the lap of the gods, and especially in the lap of one goddess, who still treads the earth.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Blah blah blah, yada yada yada

Q: Is there a correct way to punctuate droning expressions like “blah blah blah” and “yada yada yada”? Commas? Hyphens? Nothing at all?

A: There’s no real answer here. You can use commas, hyphens, or nothing at all—unless you’re writing for a publication with rules about such things.

We’d use commas with “blah, blah, blah” if we wanted to convey a meandering, hesitant kind of blather. But we’d dispense with the commas to imitate an uninterrupted droning sound.

As for “yada yada yada,” we’d skip the commas, since it strikes us as steady machine-gun fire. But feel free to use hyphens or commas if they seem right to you.

Expressions like these are the kind of thing that authors take great liberties with—and they’re entitled to. Let’s look at how they’ve been used over the years.

The use of “blah” as a noun for nonsensical or empty talk dates back to 1918, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s “imitative” in origin, the dictionary says, indicating how this sort of talk sounds to the unlucky listener.

In Oxford’s earliest example, a writer refers to the “old blah about ‘service,’ ‘doing one’s bit,’ etc.” It’s from an entry dated July 3, 1918, in the diary of Howard Vincent O’Brien, a Chicago newspaperman and novelist. The diary was published anonymously in 1926 under the title Wine, Women and War.

The dictionary describes “blah” in this sense as a colloquial usage originating in the US, and defines it as “meaningless, insincere, or pretentious talk or writing; nonsense, bunkum.” (We think it’s interesting that this use of “blah” preceded its use as an adjective for “dull” by almost 20 years.)

The word is frequently repeated (as “blah blah” or “blah blah blah”), the dictionary says, and gives these later citations:

“Then a special announcer began a long debate with himself which was mostly blah blah” (Colliers, Jan. 15, 1921).

“So you heard about it from that femme fatale, did you? Damn that man! Bla, bla, bla!” (from Michael Arlen’s 1924 novel The Green Hat).

Even today, the repetitive use sometimes has commas and sometimes doesn’t. So take your pick.

The OED’s entry for “yada yada” (also spelled “yadda yadda”) has no commas, and most of its examples are comma-free. This usage is another American colloquialism, though of a later vintage.

Oxford defines it as an interjection, “imitative of the sound of human speech,” and “probably influenced by (or perhaps an alteration of)” the 19th-century noun “yatter.” The word is used, the dictionary says, in “indicating (usually dismissively) that further details are predictable or evident from what has preceded: ‘and so on,’ ‘blah blah blah.’ ”

Early forms of the expression go back at least to the 1940s. The OED points to a song, “Yatata Yatata Yatata” (Oscar Hammerstein, 1947), whose title and lyrics mimic empty cocktail chatter.

But the dictionary’s earliest example of the expression spelled with “d” instead of “t” is from The Essential Lenny Bruce (1967). Note the comedian’s creative spelling: “They’re no good, the lot of them—‘Yaddeyahdah’—They’re animals!”

The dictionary notes that Bruce’s usage predates the posthumous publication of his book. Some fans have said he used a version of “yada yada” in stand-up routines in the 1950s.

Subsequent OED examples have the more familiar spellings, like these (note the arbitrary use of commas):

“I’m talking country codes, asbestos firewalls, yada yada yada” (Washington Post, Jan. 5, 1981).

“Moody is forcing a heap of very tired metaphors down your throat—as the nuclear family fissions, so does the nuclear reactor, yadda yadda yadda” (a book review in the Village Voice, April 8, 1997).

“Best actor of his generation, blah blah blah. … Brilliant architect of the ‘method’ performance, yada, yada” (the British magazine Arena, May 2005).

As we mentioned, the OED classifies “yada yada” as an interjection. But in the 1990s people began using it as a noun. We’ll conclude with this example:

“The EULA, or ‘End-User License Agreement,’ is the yadda yadda yadda that you agree to when you install software on your computer. It’s usually pages and pages of stuff that no one reads” (from the Hoosier Times, Bloomington, Ind., March 20, 2005).

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English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

A phony etymology

Q: A Francophile friend has suggested that “phony” is somehow related to “faux.” True or false?

A: False. “Phony” and “faux” are not related. However, “false” and “faux” come from the same Latin source.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “phony” (it uses the British spelling “phoney”) is “probably a variant of fawney,” an old slang term for a finger ring. The OED says “fawney” comes from fáine, Irish for ring.

How, you’re probably wondering, could the Irish word for a ring be the ultimate source of “phony”?

The missing link here is an old confidence game known by such terms as “fawney dropping,” “going on the fawney,” or the “fawney rig.” (A “rig” was a trick or swindle.)

In the second edition of A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1788), Francis Grose describes the scam this way:

“Fawney Rig. A common fraud, thus practiced: A fellow drops a brass ring, double gilt, which he picks up before the party meant to be cheated, and to whom he disposes of it for less than its supposed, and ten times more than its real, value.”

The earliest citation in the OED for the confidence game is from A View of Society and Manners in High and Low Life (1781), by George Parker: “The Fawney rig.”

And here’s another example from Parker’s book: “There is a large shop in London where these kind of rings are sold, for the purpose of going on the Fawney.”

The word “phony” showed up in the US in the late 19th century as an adjective meaning false: “Many of the ‘phony’ bookmakers in the ring had not enough play to keep them alive” (from the Chicago Tribune, June 29, 1893).

The noun, meaning a false person or thing, showed up in the early 20th century. The first OED citation is from Six Ex-Tank Tales, a 1902 collection of sketches by Clarence Louis Cullen that originally appeared in the New York Sun:

“If youse tinks f’r a minnit dat youse is goin’ t’ git away wit’ a phony like dat wit’ me youse is got hay in y’r hemp, dat’s wot.” (The ex-tank, or ex-tankard, tales are supposedly told during “deliberations of the Harlem Club of Former Alcoholic Degenerates.”)

As for “false” and “faux,” both terms are derived from falsus, classical Latin for false. The term was originally fals in both Old English and Old French, but the French version was faux when English borrowed it in the 17th century as a synonym for “false.”

In this early OED example, from a late 10th-century glossary compiled by the Benedictine abbot Ælfric of Eynsham, “false” modifies “penny” in Old English: “fals pening.” In Anglo-Saxon times, a “penny” was a foreign coin.

The use of “false” was relatively rare in Old English, but expanded in Middle English after the Norman Conquest in the 11th century, influenced by Old French and Anglo-Norman.

The dictionary’s first example for “faux” used in English to mean false is from The Atheist (1684), a play by the English dramatist Thomas Otway: “Let me never see day again, if yonder be not coming towards us the very Rascal I told thee of this Morning, our faux Atheist.”

“Faux” was italicized in that citation, indicating that it was still considered foreign. Charlotte Brontë apparently felt the same way when she put it in quotation marks a century and a half later:

“You have a ‘faux air’ of Nebuchadnezzar in the fields about you, that is certain” (from Jane Eyre, 1847).

It wasn’t until the late 20th century, according to OED citations, that “faux” was being used in plain type: “His creative talent is still obscured by his own faux-cynical statements” (from the Times Literary Supplement, July 20, 1984).

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

Far and few between

Q: I have always used “few and far between,” but now I hear people saying “far and few between.” Am I hallucinating?

A: No, you’re not hallucinating. “Few and far between” has been the usual wording since the expression showed up in writing in the 1600s. But “far and few between” has appeared occasionally since the 1800s, and more frequently in the last couple of decades.

A linguist would refer to “far and few between” as an example of word reversal, word exchange, word metathesis, or informally a malapropism (mixing up two similar-sounding words).

(We discussed such bloopers as malapropisms, spoonerisms, mondegreens, and eggcorns on the blog in 2011 as well as in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions.)

The earliest example of “few and far between” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a letter written by Sir Ralph Verney on July 13, 1668: “Hedges are few and far between.” The letter is cited in Margaret M. Verney’s Memoirs of the Verney Family During the Civil War, published in 1899.

The OED doesn’t have any citations for “far and few between.” The earliest example we’ve seen is from Mieldenvold, the Student (1843), Frederick Sheldon’s sprawling poem about the travels and yearnings of a romantic German student:

“The houses too, are ‘far and few between’; / Both gentle, simple, — all are but the same. / A sense of dreariness pervades the scene.”

It’s unclear why Sheldon put the expression in quotation marks. It appeared without quotes in a book review two years later:

“The ‘originals’ among the plates were so far and few between, that it became almost a labour to find one out.” (From the British and Foreign Medical Review, London, July-October 1845. The passage refers to illustrations in a book about surgery.)

Until recently, “far and few between” was barely a blip on the lexical radar, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks expressions in digitized books published up to 2008. Since then, there’s been a noticeable increase in the usage, but “few and far between” is still overwhelmingly more popular.

Here, for example, are search results from the News on the Web corpus, which tracks web-based newspapers and magazines from 2010 to the present: “few and far between” (8,931) versus “far and few between” (759).

We’ve had similar results from searches in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and in NewsBank, a database of newspapers, magazines, press releases, blogs, videos, broadcast transcripts, and government documents. A search of the British National Corpus didn’t find any examples of “far and few between.”

The linguist Arnold Zwicky has noted the increased use of “far and few between” and has offered an explanation for the word reversal. In a Feb. 5, 2016, post on his blog, he says the original expression is an idiom that’s “learned as a whole, probably without much appreciation of its parts.”

As a result, he writes, “when some of those parts are syntactically and phonologically very similar, as few and far are, and when in addition both truncated far and few and few and far occur, the way is clear for some speakers to try the non-conventional order of those parts; after all, we don’t expect idioms to make a lot of sense in their fine details, so why not?”

“All it would take is for some speakers to produce the other order, either as an inadvertent error or by misremembering … the details of the idiom, or by creatively varying the order, and these speakers can then serve as the focus for the spread of far and few between,” he says. “Once this version spreads, we have a core of new speakers who just think that it’s the way the idiom works, or that it’s one of two equally acceptable versions of the idiom (since they’re probably hearing both). For them, far and few between is not some kind of error.”

In recent years, though, we’ve found that the use of “far and few between” has fallen. A NewsBank search indicates that “far and few between” peaked in 2011 with 289 examples, and had fallen by 2018 to 183 examples. The usage is still out there, as you’ve noticed, but sightings are fewer and farther between.

Finally, we wrote a post in 2014 that mentions the etymology of “few.” The original source is believed to be the Indo-European root pau-, denoting smallness of quantity or number, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Although “few” is spelled with an “f” in English and other Germanic languages, Ayto notes, the “p” of pau- survives in French (peu), Spanish (poco), and Italian (poco). In fact, the Indo-European root can still be seen in the English words “paucity,” “pauper,” “poor,” and “poverty.”

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

What’s for dessert?

Q: Would you please discuss “desert” in its various forms, not forgetting “dessert” and the many pastry shops named “Just Desserts.”

A: We’ll take a look at the origins of these words later, but meanwhile here’s a memory aid. The word for the sweet treat that ends a meal, “dessert,” is the only one of the bunch that has a double “s” (pretend the extra “s” is for sugar).

And this is how Pat summarizes the difference between the sound-alike words “deserts” and “desserts” in the new fourth edition of her grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

People who get what they deserve are getting their deserts—accent the second syllable. John Wilkes Booth got his just deserts. People who get goodies smothered in whipped cream and chocolate sauce at the end of a meal are getting desserts (same pronunciation)—which they may or may not deserve. “For dessert I’ll have one of those layered puff-pastry things with cream filling and icing on top,” said Napoleon. (As for the arid wasteland, use one s and stress the first syllable. In the desert, August is the cruelest month.)

Those are just the nouns! There’s also a verb spelled “desert” (to abandon), accented on the second syllable. So in the sentence “Don’t desert me in the desert,” the verb and the noun are spelled alike but pronounced differently.

All these words came from Latin by way of French, and some are related, as we’ll explain. Let’s examine them one at a time, beginning with the oldest, which may date from the 12th century.

• “desert,” the noun for a barren land (stress the first syllable, DEH-zert).

Etymologically, a “desert” is a deserted or abandoned place. The word was adopted from Old French (desert), which was descended from the Latin verb dēserĕre (to leave, forsake, abandon).

From the beginning, it generally meant “a wilderness” or “an uninhabited and uncultivated tract of country,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But more specifically it meant  “a desolate, barren region, waterless and treeless, and with but scanty growth of herbage.”

That’s how it’s used in the OED’s earliest example, from a guide for monastic women called the Ancrene Riwle, which may have been composed before 1200: “In þe deseart … he lette ham þolien wa inoch” (“In the wilderness … he let them suffer hardships aplenty”).

The word is pronounced the same way when it’s an adjective, as in “desert climate,” “desert boots,” or “desert island.”

The phrase “desert island,” by the way, was first recorded in 1607, the OED says, but it didn’t mean a hot, dry, sandy island. It meant one that was remote and seemingly uninhabited (that is, deserted). Which brings us to …

• “desert,” the verb meaning to abandon (stress the last syllable).

This word comes from the same sources as the noun—the French desert and the Latin dēserĕre—but it appeared much later, in the 16th century.

In the OED’s earliest examples, the verb was a legal term with several meanings: to relinquish, to put off for the time, to cease to have the force of law, or to be inoperative.

The dictionary’s first use was recorded in 1539 in Scottish Acts of James V: “That this present parliament proceide & stande our [over] without ony continuacioun … quhill [while] it pleiss the kingis grace that the samin [same] be desert.” (We’ve expanded the OED’s citation to provide more context.)

In the early 17th century, the verb “desert” acquired the meanings it has today: to abandon, forsake, run away, quit without permission, and so on. The earliest known example is this 1603 quotation:

“He … was resoluit [resolved] to obey God calling him thairto, and to leave and desert the said school.” (Cited in James Grant’s History of the Burgh and Parish Schools of Scotland, 1876.)

• “deserts,” the noun for what one deserves (stress the last syllable).

This word isn’t related to the others. It comes from the same source as “deserve,” the Old French verb deservir (to deserve), from Latin dēservīre. The Latin verb originally meant to serve zealously or with merit, but in late popular Latin, the OED says, it meant “to merit by service.”

Originally, in the late 1200s, the English noun was used in the singular (“desert”) and had a rather abstract meaning—a person’s deserving, or worthiness, of being rewarded or punished. Before long, a “desert” also meant an act, a quality, or conduct deserving of reward or punishment.

But in the late 1300s it came to mean the rewards or punishments themselves—as the OED says, “that which is deserved.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the word used in this sense is from William Langland’s poem Piers Plowman (1393). Note that it’s still singular here: “Mede and mercede … boþe men demen / A desert for som doynge” (“Reward and payment … both men deem a desert for some doing”).

In modern English, the word is nearly always plural, and most often occurs in the phrase “just deserts.” The OED defines the phrase as meaning “what a person or thing really deserves, esp. an appropriate punishment.”

The expression, according to OED citations, was first recorded in the singular in 1548 (“iust deserte”) and in the plural in 1582 (“iust desertes”). As we’ve written on the blog, the letter “i” was used in those days because “j” didn’t exist in English.

• “dessert,” the noun for the last course of a meal (stress the last syllable).

It’s only right that we should save this one for last. It was borrowed into English in 1600 from a recently coined French noun (dessert) that meant “removal of the dishes” or “dessert,” the OED says. The French noun was derived from a verb, desservir, which the OED defines as “to remove what has been served, to clear (the table).”

(The OED dates the French noun dessert from 1539. The first two uses appeared in the fourth book of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, according to Émile Littré’s Dictionnaire de la Langue Française. We mention this only because the Rabelaisian origin somehow seems appropriate.)

The word’s earliest appearance in English was disapproving. The OED citation is from William Vaughan’s Naturall and Artificiall Directions for Health (1600): “Such eating, which the French call desert [sic], is unnaturall.”

Unnatural or not, the dessert course immediately caught on and became indispensable. Here’s a succinct headline the OED quotes from a 1966 issue of the magazine Woman’s Day: “A starter. A main dish. A dessert.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Is ‘Gypsy’ a slur?

Q: In the quilting world, there’s a popular design named “Gypsy Wife.” When a woman recently posted a photo of a nice one she made to a Facebook page, she was lambasted for using the term “Gypsy.” Because of the complaints, she removed the photo. Is “Gypsy” a slur?

A: This is a complicated and sensitive question.

Some people who identify themselves as ethnically Roma (also called Romani or Romany) are offended by “Gypsy,” and most standard dictionaries have reservations about using it to mean Roma. On the other hand, some Roma people don’t mind being called “Gypsies” and others even embrace the term.

What’s more, the uncapitalized “gypsy” has meanings that are ultimately derived from the original sense but no longer have ethnic or racial associations. And those uses are not regarded as pejorative, at least in dictionaries.

Our conclusions are that that “Gypsy” (with a capital “G”) is offensive to some people, and should be used with caution if at all. It should be avoided entirely if any ethnic connection is implied; instead, the words “Roma” or “Romani” should be used. Meanwhile, the non-ethnic uses of “gypsy” (with a lowercase “g”) should not be condemned. Here’s a summary of the word’s history.

The earliest form of the word in English, which the Oxford English Dictionary dates to the 1530s, was “Gipcyan,” an abbreviated version of “Egyptian.” At that time, as John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins (2011), “it was widely thought that the Romany people originated in Egypt.”

They didn’t, as we now know. A genome study in Current Biology, December 2012, shows that the founding population of the Roma people originated in northern India 1,500 years ago and rapidly migrated into Europe through the Balkans, with some genetic input along the way from the Near or Middle East. The Romani language is descended from Sanskrit, in which romá is the plural of rom (man or husband).

So the “Gypsies” were mislabeled from the start, since they didn’t come from Egypt. And many early appearances of “Gypsy” in English were highly pejorative because, as OED citations show, these itinerant foreigners were often viewed with contempt and mistrust, suspected of crimes, and driven away. Here are the OED’s earliest examples:

“The Kinges Maiestie aboute a twelfmoneth past gave a pardonne to a company of lewde personnes within this Realme calling themselves Gipcyans for a most Shamfull and detestable murder.” (From a letter written by Thomas Cromwell on Dec. 5, 1537.)

“It is ordayned agaynste people callynge themselves Egypcyans, that no such persons be suffred to come within this realme.” (From The Newe Boke of Justyces of the Peas, 1538, by the judge and legal scholar Anthony Fitzherbert.)

“Hee wandring … in the manner of a Gipson … was taken, and trust vp for a roge [trussed up for a rogue].” (From Martins Months Minde, 1589, an attack by an unknown writer on the pseudonymous pamphleteer known as Martin Marprelate.)

The OED defines this ethnic sense of “Gypsy” as “a member of a wandering race (by themselves called Romany), of Hindu origin, which first appeared in England about the beginning of the 16th cent. and was then believed to have come from Egypt.”

But the word very soon acquired transferred meanings, the OED says. In the 1600s it was used to mean a man who was “a cunning rogue,” the dictionary says, and for a woman who was “cunning, deceitful, fickle, or the like.”

In later use, Oxford adds, “gypsy” (by this time lowercased) was used playfully rather than contemptuously for a woman, “and applied esp. to a brunette.”  All those uses have died out.

But since then “gypsy” (also spelled “gipsy”) has acquired several more meanings, none of them pejorative. Most date from around the mid-20th century, and here we’ll paraphrase the many definitions in standard dictionaries:

(1) Someone who’s free-spirited or doesn’t live in one place for long.

(2) A person with a career or way of life that’s itinerant or unconventional, especially a part-time or temporary college faculty member or a performer in the chorus line of a theatrical production.

(3) An unlicensed, nonunionized, or independent operator, particularly a trucker or cab driver but also including plumber and other trades.

We don’t think any of those three senses of “gypsy” are offensive, though undoubtedly some could be used in a dismissive manner. At any rate, dictionaries attach no such warning labels to them.

[Note: On July 4, 2019, a reader of the blog wrote us to say that she is a Roma and considers every use of “gypsy,” ethnic or otherwise, uppercase or lowercase, “a hurtful racial slur.” But on Dec. 22, 2019, another reader wrote us to say that he is Romani and “No true Roma actually care nor do we find the term offensive.”]

Dictionaries also include without a caution the use of the lowercase term for a member of a traditionally itinerant group that’s unrelated to the Roma. This definition would include people known as “Travelers” in Ireland, Scotland, and the US, who are not descended from the Roma and do not speak Romani.

However, the original, ethnic meaning of “Gypsy” is another matter. Nowhere does the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, label “Gypsy” as offensive or contemptuous. But many standard dictionaries do have reservations about the term.

American Heritage labels “Gypsy” as “often offensive” in only one sense, when it means “Romani.” Merriam-Webster labels it “sometimes offensive.” And Webster’s New World says it’s “now often considered offensive, the word Rom (pl., Roma) or Romani being preferred.”

As for the online standard British dictionaries, Oxford and Cambridge have no reservations. Macmillan labels the term “offensive” when it means “a Romany.” Longman says “most” Gypsies and Collins says “some” prefer to be called Romanies.

So the apparent consensus among lexicographers is that as an ethnic term, “Gypsy” should be used with caution if at all.

Even the use of the lowercase “gypsy” to refer to theatrical performers came under attack last year, according to an article in the New York Times on April 20, 2018.

The writer, Michael Paulson, noted that the use of “gypsy” to refer to the performers in a chorus line apparently derives from “the fact that until the early 20th century, many American actors proudly earned a living by traveling from city to city.”

“To many,” he wrote, the word “is pejorative, no matter the context.” He quoted Carol Silverman, a professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon, as saying, “It is an ethnic slur.”

He also quoted Petra Gelbart, a curator at RomArchive, a digital archive: “The fact that the term Gypsy is so often used to denote free-spirited or traveling lifestyles has real-life repercussions for actual Romany people,” reducing them to “ridiculous stereotypes that can make it difficult to find employment or social acceptance.”

On the other side, Paulson cited Laurence Maslon, a professor at New York University and author of the book Broadway to Main Street (2018), as saying that to stage performers, “It was a badge of honor, not a badge of shame, that you were itinerant.”

And Tom Viola, executive director of the nonprofit organization Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, said, “In our theatrical community, ‘the gypsy’ is beloved.” He said the organization is sticking with “Gypsy of the Year” as the name of its annual fund-raising performance.

As you may know, the issue of Gypsy persecution is much more prominent in Europe than in the US. In a 2012 report, the Roma and Travelers division of the Council of Europe had this to say about terminology:

“The term ‘Roma/Gypsies’ was used for many years by the Council of Europe, before the decision was taken to no longer use it in official texts in 2005.” The move was made principally because of objections by international Roma associations, the Council says, who regarded it as “an alien term, linked with negative, paternalistic stereotypes which still pursue them in Europe.”

But the report added that “in some countries, the term ‘Gypsies’ or its national equivalent has no negative connotations, is accepted by the people concerned and may occasionally be more appropriate.”

One organization that is not fazed by the term “Gypsy” is the 130-year-old Gypsy Lore Society, founded in Britain in the 19th century and now headquartered in the US.

The society publishes books, a newsletter, and the scholarly journal Romani Studies, which features articles on “the cultures of groups traditionally known as Gypsies as well as Travelers and other peripatetic groups.”

“Much of the material published on Gypsies and Travelers on the Internet,” the society cautions on its website, “is misleading due either to stereotyping, antiquated perspectives on ethnicity or culture, poor scholarship, excessive political correctness or other biases and, in some cases, outright fabrication.”

As for the striking quilt pattern called “Gypsy Wife,” there’s no special significance to the name, according to its creator, the Australian quilt designer Jen Kingwell.

In an interview at a quilt show in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 21, 2015, she said, “I have no idea why it’s called that. I find naming quilt patterns about the hardest thing ever.”

Personally, we think it’s an imaginative name and we find no offense in it. The design is certainly free-spirited and unconventional, though not unlicensed (it’s copyrighted).

[Update, April 16, 2021: A reader informs us that the name of Jen Kingwell’s quilt pattern has since been changed to “Wanderer’s Wife.”]

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English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

Self denial

Q: It’s chalk screeching on a blackboard when I hear people, especially TV people, using “I” as an object. But I’m confused as to when “myself” should be used instead of “me.” Sometimes “myself” just feels more comfortable. Your views?

A: We’ve written about “myself” several times on our blog, most recently in 2018. And Pat has written about it in the new fourth edition of Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.

Here’s the section on “myself” from the updated and expanded Woe Is I, which came out a few weeks ago:


In the contest between I and me, the winner is often myself. That’s because people who can’t decide between I and me often choose myself instead. They say things like Jack and myself were married yesterday. (Better: Jack and I.) Or: The project made money for Reynaldo and myself. (Better: for Reynaldo and me.) You’ve probably done it yourself.

Well, it’s not grammatically wrong, but I don’t recommend this self-promotion. Ideally, myself and the rest of the self-ish crew (yourself, himself, herself, etc.) shouldn’t take the place of the ordinary pronouns I and me, he and him, she and her, and so on. They’re better used for two principal purposes:

• To emphasize. I made the cake myself. Love itself is a riddle. The detective himself was the murderer. (The emphasis could be left out, and the sentence would still make sense.)

• To refer back to the subject. She hates herself. And you call yourself a plumber! They consider themselves lucky to be alive. The problem practically solved itself.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Our etymological chops

Q: The Playbill for Lincoln Center’s tribute to Oscar Peterson says Kenny Baron, one of the pianists performing, “honed his chops” playing with Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Freddie Hubbard, and other jazz musicians. How did “chops” come to mean skill? A test for your etymological chops.

A: The story begins back in the early 16th century when “chop” appeared in English as a term for the jaw.

The earliest known example (with “chop” spelled “choip”) is from “The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy,” which was composed by the Scottish poet William Dunbar in 1505 and printed in 1508, according to the Oxford English Dictionary:

“Thy cheikbane bair and blaiknit is thy ble. / Thy choip, thy choll garris men for to leif chest” (“Thy cheekbones stick out and pale is thy complexion. / Thy jaw, thy jowl makes men live sinlessly”). We’ve expanded the citation from the poem, which describes a flyting, or literary war of words, between Dunbar and another poet, Walter Kennedy.

By the end of the 16th century, the OED says, the plural “chops” was being used to mean the jaws or mouth “in contemptuous or humorous application to men.”

The dictionary cites an anonymous 1589 pamphlet attacking the Anglican hierarchy: “Whose good names can take no staine, from a bishops chopps” (from “Hay Any Work for Cooper,” by the pseudonymous Martin Marprelate).

Skipping ahead a couple of centuries and crossing the Atlantic, the term came to be used in jazz to mean the power of a trumpeter’s embouchure—the way the lips and tongue are applied to the mouthpiece.

The OED’s earliest example is from the August 1937 issue of the jazz magazine Tempo: “Surely his chops can’t be beat already.”

A few decades later, “chops” came to mean a jazz musician’s skills: “Maybe you could get your chops together on this horn” (from Black Voices: An Anthology of Afro-American Literature, 1968, edited by Abraham Chapman).

And by the late 20th century, according to OED citations, the word meant talent or skill in any field: “Most academic writers just don’t have the chops to make riveting reading out of the quiltwork of 19th-century farm wives” (from the Boston Phoenix, April 27, 1990).

Over the years, “chops” has had several other colloquial senses, especially in American slang, including “to bust someone’s chops” (to harass a person, 1953) and “to bust one’s own chops” (to exert oneself to the utmost, 1966). The dates are for the first OED citations.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Horticultural doppelgängers

Q: Can “doppelgänger” refer to a lookalike plant as well as a person who looks like somebody else? Specifically, the query applies to cultivars in the genus Hosta. Sometime leaves of two or more different cultivars look alike, though they are not of the same parentage.

A: We see no reason why “doppelgänger” can’t be used loosely to mean a lookalike Hosta cultivar.

Oxford Dictionaries Online defines “doppelgänger” as an “apparition or double of a living person,” but it includes several examples that refer to things as doppelgängers:

  • “Nestled deep within the human brain lies a pair of small, almond-shaped structures that bear the Greek name for their doppelgänger: amygdala.”
  • “Its doppelgänger among the desserts is the chocolate fundido, a sticky, spicy fondue of melted Oaxacan chocolate, served with a platter of cookies, churros, and fruit for dipping.”
  • “So what happens if a winery produces both world-class Burgundian doppelgängers—Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (and throw in Riesling, too)—but is half a globe away?”

By the way, we’re using an umlaut over the “a” in “doppelgänger” because many standard dictionaries list that spelling first, followed by the umlaut-free version as an equal variant. Either spelling is standard, though our email spellchecker disagrees and recognizes only “doppelgänger.”

English borrowed the term in the 19th century from the German doppelgänger or the Dutch dubbelganger, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which translates the original terms as “double-goer.” The modern German dictionaries in our library define doppelgänger as a double.

An early English version, “double-ganger,” appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830): “If he turn his cloak, or plaid, he will obtain the full sight which he desires, and may probably find it to be his own fetch or wraith, or double-ganger.” We’ve expanded the citation, which is in a footnote.

The usual English term now, “doppelgänger” or “doppelganger,” showed up two decades later, minus the umlaut. The earliest OED example is from an 1851 entry in the Denham Tracts, a series of pamphlets, published from 1846 to 1859, by the English folklorist Michael Aislabie Denham:

“Hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes.” The citation is excerpted from a long list of ghostly terms. The Folklore Society in London reprinted the pamphlets as the Denham Tracts in 1895. An index at the end includes this entry: “Dopple-gangers, a class of spirits,” and points to the page with the excerpt cited by the OED.

Getting back to the garden, “Doppelgänger” (or “Doppelganger”) is the name of a two-tiered coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, also known as “Doubledecker” (or “Double Decker”) and “Double Walker,” reflecting the spooky etymology of “doppelgänger.”

Finally, Michael Pollan uses “doppelgänger” to mean a botanical lookalike in “Weeds Are Us,” an article in the New York Times Magazine, Nov. 5, 1989:

Standing at the forefront of evolution, weeds are nature’s ambulance chasers, carpetbaggers and confidence men. Virtually every crop in general cultivation has its weed impostor, a kind of botanical doppelgänger that has evolved to mimic the appearance as well as the growth rate of the cultivated crop and so insure its survival. Some of these impostors, like wild oats, are so versatile that they can alter their appearance depending on the crop they are imitating—an agricultural fifth column.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Dilly, dilly, come and be killed

Q: I came across the word “dillies” the other day (I can’t remember where!) and it reminded me that when I was a child in England many years ago, “dilly” was the name for a female duck. I haven’t heard it since, and strangely enough, cannot find “dilly = duck” on the internet! Is this a usage that has entirely disappeared?

A: In the days when people kept domestic ducks, the word “dilly” was more common than it is today. In modern English, it exists only as a colloquial or dialectal usage, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word began as a call to ducks, the OED says, and consequently “dilly” (along with “dilly-duck”) evolved into “a nursery name for a duck.”

The earliest duck-call example we’ve found appeared in a popular music-hall song first performed in the mid-18th century. The lyrics to the song, originally entitled “Mrs. Bond,” later became a nursery rhyme.

The comic song is about a cook who needs “a duckling or two” for her customers’ dinner. She instructs a servant to call the ducks by crying “Dilly, dilly, dilly, dilly, come to be killed,” but when he fails to entice them Mrs. Bond goes to the pond and calls them herself.

The song was introduced in performances of Samuel Foote’s two-act farce The Mayor of Garret (1763), according to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (2nd ed., 1997), by Iona and Peter Opie. The song doesn’t appear in the published text of the play, but the Opies say it was immediately printed by rival London music publishers.

The song’s oft-repeated refrain is “Dilly, dilly, dilly, dilly, come to be killed, / For you must be stuffed and my customers filled!”

A nursery-rhyme version of the song was first published in 1797 in Samuel Arnold’s Juvenile Amusements, according to the Opies, and subsequently appeared in several 19th-century collections of children’s poetry (the wording often varied).

The OED suggests that the evolution of “dilly” from a duck call to the name for a duck was inspired by the nursery rhyme.

But in the meantime, among adults the saying “dilly, dilly, come and be [or “to be”] killed” became a catch-phrase symbolizing a sweet enticement used to lure an unsuspecting victim. It was used this way in early 19th-century political journalism—first in Britain, then in the US and Australia.

For example, a member of Parliament, Robert Thornton, used the catch-phrase in the House of Commons on June 16, 1813, in arguing against an invitation to the East India Company to open its ports to wider trade. He likened the resolution to “the line in Mrs. Bond’s song—’Dilly Dilly Wagtail, come to be killed.’ ”

His remarks were reported on June 17, 1813, in at least two British newspapers, the London Star and the London Chronicle, though the wording differed. A report also appeared in July 1813 in a British periodical, the Satirist: or, Monthly Meteor:

“Mr. R. Thornton, in one of the debates on the East India question, wittily observed, that the invitation to the Company to open their trade reminded him of the child’s song,—’Dilly, Dilly, come and be killed.’ ”

In social commentary, too, the duck call was used to symbolize a lure to the unwary.

An article about “cannibalism” among different elements of society was published in Britain and the US in 1828. The author mentions one class of “cannibals” that “must be nameless” (probably the clergy), who “persuade their prey, like ‘dilly dilly duck,’ ‘to come and be killed’ for the good of his own soul.”  The unsigned article was printed in the New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal (London, July 1828) and the Museum of Foreign Literature and Science (Philadelphia and New York, September 1828).

The OED’s citations for “dilly”—both as a duck call and as a name for a duck—aren’t fully updated and don’t begin until 1831, with an example of Mrs. Bond’s duck call in the nursery rhyme.

But Oxford does have the earliest example we’ve seen for “dilly” used to mean a duck. It’s from a comic poem first published in 1838, in which the eels in Mrs. Bond’s pond eat her baby ducklings.

We’ll expand the OED citation for context: “The tenants of that Eely Place / Had found the way to Pick a dilly.” (From “The Drowning Ducks” by Thomas Hood, with puns on the London street names Ely Place and Piccadilly.)

Was a “dilly” always a female duck, the counterpart to the “drake”? The OED doesn’t say, but in 19th-century British literature that’s generally the case.

In The Boy’s Book of Modern Travel and Adventure (1863), Merideth Johnes uses “her” in referring to a “poor dilly-duck.” R. D. Blackmore’s novel Mary Anerley (first serialized in 1879) has a passage in which “coy lady ducks” are later referred to as “tame dilly-ducks.” And Summer in Broadland (1889), a travel book by Henry Montagu Doughty, uses “she” and “her” in reference to an inquisitive “dilly duck.”

So why was “dilly” used as a duck call in the first place? That’s a good question, and we don’t have a clue. The word certainly doesn’t sound like the quacking of a duck.

What’s more, other meanings of “dilly” aren’t related. The adjective “dilly” has been used to mean stupid or foolish, but only since the 1870s and mostly in Australia. In American slang “dilly” has meant delightful or delicious since the early 1900s—a use that inspired the noun use (“it’s a dilly”). The source there is the first syllable of “delightful” and “delicious,” the OED says.

Another similar sounding term, “dilly dally,” is also unrelated, as far as we know. It was recorded in noun form in the 1500s and as a verb in the 1700s. But the OED says it’s probably a repeating variant (“a reduplication with vowel variation”) of the verb “dally” (circa 1300), along the lines of “shilly shally,” “zig-zag,” and other such phrases.

Also unrelated are some uses of “dilly” in nursery rhymes. We’ve found examples dating from 1606 of chants like “fa-la-la lantido dilly,” “trangidowne dilly,” “lankey down dilly,” “daffy-down dilly” (an expansion of “daffodil”), and others.

Perhaps the most familiar of these is an anonymous 17th-century English song that begins, “Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly, lavender’s green, / When I am king, dilly dilly, you shall be queen.”  (Early versions used “diddle” instead of “dilly.”)

But getting back to your question about “dilly” in the barnyard, apparently there’s no logic in the words people use to call domestic animals. Such words are “chiefly monosyllabic and dissylabic” and are “generally repeated in groups of three,” according to one 19th-century observer, who added: “This language has but little in common with that used by the animals.”

The writer was H. Carrington Bolton, whose paper “The Language Used in Talking to Domestic Animals” appeared in the March and April 1897 issues of the American Anthropologist.

In a section entitled “Calls to Ducks,” Bolton says that “dilly, dilly” isn’t solely a British usage: “Dilly, dilly is also current in the United States; diddle is reported from Virginia, and widdy from North Carolina.”

It seems that what was true in the 19th century is no longer true now. The Dictionary of American Regional English, whose evidence dates largely from the 20th century, lists “diddle” and “widdy” as calls to ducks and other poultry. But alas, no “dilly.”

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

‘Play’ time

Q: In a YouTube clip I’ve seen, a pianist at a hotel lounge says he likes to “play to guests.” Is it “play to” or “play for”? Wouldn’t “play to” suggest currying favor with the guests, as in “play to the gallery”?

A: The verb “play” is especially playful. You can “play” tennis, a violin, the innocent, Lady Macbeth, a sonata, the ponies or a slot machine, a CD, your queen at chess or cards, and so on.

Things get even more playful when “play” is part of a phrasal verb, a multi-word verb that’s treated as a single unit with a meaning that can stray far from the senses of the verb itself.

You can “play with” your food, “play up” or “play down” an illness, “play on” an opponent’s weak point, “play around” sexually, “play up to” your boss, “play along” with a con artist, “play at” a boring task, and so on.

The phrasal verb you mention, “play to,” has two meanings, according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:

(1) “To behave or perform in a particular way for (someone or something) in order to get approval or attention … He didn’t mean what he was saying. He was just playing to the crowd.”

(2) “To make use of (something) … a film that plays to stereotypes of housewives.”

As for your question, we see nothing wrong with a pianist’s saying he likes to “play to guests.” In this case, “to” is a simple preposition pointing to the pianist’s audience, not part of a phrasal verb.

But we wouldn’t use the verb “play” with the preposition “to” if we felt a reader or listener might think we were using the phrasal verb. For example, we wouldn’t say the pianist “plays to the guests,” since it sounds too much like “plays to the crowd” or “plays to the gallery”—that is, plays up to the guests (the meaning of sense #1 above).

We should note here that “play for” is more common than “play to,” according to our recent searches of newspaper, magazine, and book databases. “Played for,” for instance, was more than twice as popular as “played to” in Google’s Ngram viewer, which compares phrases in digitized books.

As for the etymology, the verb “play” had many of its modern meanings when it showed up as plægian in Old English: to do something for fun, to take part in a game or sport, to perform on a musical instrument, and to play with words—that is, to pun.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary of “play” used in the punning sense also includes one of the earliest puns in the English language. The citation describes Pope Gregory I’s reaction on seeing a group of Angle children from Britain for sale in a Roman slave market:

“Ða gyt he ahsode hwæt heora cyning haten wære: & him mon ondswarade ond cwæð, þætte he Æll haten wære. Ond þa plegode he mid his wordum to þæm noman & cwæð: Alleluia, þæt gedafenað, þætte Godes lof usses scyppendes in þæm dælum sungen sy.”

(“He asked moreover what their king was called; the reply came that he was called Ælle. And then he played with his words on the name, saying: Alleluia, it is fitting that praise of God our Creator should be sung in those places.’’)

The pun refers to Ælle, king of the Anglian kingdom of Deira in what is now northern England. We restored the ellipses in the citation, which comes from an anonymous early Old English translation of Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, a Latin church history written in the eighth century by the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede.

Earlier in the passage, the Pope had asked where the children were from. When told “þæt heo Ongle nemde wæron” (“that they were named Angles”), he punned “þæt heo engla æfenerfeweardas in heofonum sy” (“that they should be joint heirs with the angels in heaven”). A third pun in Bede’s Latin doesn’t work in Old English, so we’ll skip it.

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

Rogues’ galleries and mug books

Q: A photo of various politicians made me think of that great term from British crime stories—“rogues’ gallery.” Americans use the less classy “mug book.” Any thoughts on the origins of these two expressions? Are women included in a rogues’ gallery?

A: As it turns out, “rogues’ gallery” originated in the US in the mid-19th century as a term for the collected images of known criminals. The first written use of the noun phrase referred to NYPD daguerreotypes of not just men and women, but also boys and girls.

All six standard dictionaries we’ve consulted, American and British, have entries for “rogues’ gallery” in that sense. However, none of the dictionaries, which focus on contemporary usage, include “mug book,” a term that’s in slang dictionaries as well as the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

Standard dictionaries now use the plural possessive “rogues’ gallery,” but the term was a singular possessive when it first appeared in print, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from the Dec. 5, 1857, issue of the New York Times: “There must be positive proof that the man or woman, girl or boy, whose likeness is added to the Rogue’s Gallery of the Detective Police, is an incorrigible offender.”

Oxford defines “rogues’ gallery” as “a collection of photographs of known criminals, used to identify suspects; (in extended use) any collection of people or things notable for a certain shared quality or characteristic, esp. a disreputable one.”

The earliest OED example of the extended sense is a headline in an American magazine (Popular Mechanics, September 1923): “Rogue’s gallery of pests is kept for farmers.”

This more recent example is even more extended: “Bob Dylan, Arthur Lee, Keith Richard, Bob Marley—the rogue’s gallery of rebel input that forms the hard stuff at the centre of rock” (from Bob Marley and the Roots of Reggae, 1977, by Cathy McKnight and John Tobler).

The term still shows up in its original sense in both the US and the UK. For instance, an article in the New York Post on March 19, 2016, describes the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list as “a rogues’ gallery of murderers, rapists, drug traffickers, child abusers and armed robbers with zero regard for human life.” And this headline appeared on July 22, 2016, in the Sun (London): “Cops release second rogues’ gallery of Hyde Park water fight troublemakers.”

A search of newspaper and magazine databases suggests that the extended usage is more common now than the original sense. Here are a few recent examples from the New York Times:

“Among the rogues’ gallery of Romanov pretenders who emerge in the aftermath, a young woman surfaced in 1920 claiming to be Princess Anastasia” (Book Review, Aug. 10, 2018).

“As the more astute analyses of the Russia story have pointed out, the corruption allegedly engineered by a rogues’ gallery of Russian politicians, businessmen, intelligence agents and cybercriminals would not be possible without a ready-made architecture of American graft waiting for them to exploit” (TV review, May 20, 2018).

“As the rogues’ gallery of fallen world leaders grows, you might be tempted to conclude that ours is the most corrupt era in history” (Magazine, May 2, 2018).

As for “mug book,” the term has been used since the early 20th century to mean “a book containing photographs of people’s faces, esp. in police records,” the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a 1902 collection of sketches by Clarence Louis Cullen that originally appeared in the New York Sun:

“I’d often seen him in New York, and I’d seen his mush in Byrnes’s mug book, too.” (The passage, from More Ex-Tank Tales, refers to a scam artist who sells counterfeit gold bricks. The ex-tank, or ex-tankard, tales are supposedly told during “deliberations of the Harlem Club of Former Alcoholic Degenerates”).

The term “mug shot,” which the OED defines as “a photograph of a person’s face, esp. in police or other official records,” showed up a half-century later. The dictionary’s first example is a 1950 citation from the Dictionary of American Slang (1960), compiled and edited by Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner:

“When police passed around a mug shot of Willie yesterday, 11 of 17 employees of the Queens Boulevard branch of the Manufacturers Trust Co. named him on the spot as the gang leader.” (We’ve expanded the citation, which comes from an AP story that appeared in newspapers on March 10, 1950. It refers to the American bank robber Willie Sutton.)

The terms “mug shot” and “mug book” ultimately come from the slang use of the noun “mug” to mean a face, especially an unattractive one—a usage that showed up in the early 1700s. As the OED explains, the slang usage is “perhaps in allusion to the drinking mugs made to represent a grotesque human face which were common in the 18th cent.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the slang usage is from a short-lived London journal, the British Apollo, Feb. 13-18, 1708: “My Lawyer has a Desk, nine Law-books without Covers, two with Covers, a Temple-Mug, and the hopes of being a Judge.” The term “Temple-Mug” here apparently means a typical face in the Temple legal district of London.

In the late 19th century, the word “mug” came to mean a “photograph or other likeness of a person’s face, esp. in police or other official records. The earliest Oxford citation is from a New Orleans newspaper, the Lantern, July 9, 1887: “He had his mug taken in fireman’s clothes.”

Finally, here’s an expanded OED example from Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely:

I sat down at the vacant desk and Nulty turned over a photo that was lying face down on his desk and handed it to me. It was a police mug, front and profile, with a fingerprint classification underneath. It was Malloy all right, taken in a strong light, and looking as if he had no more eyebrows than a French roll.

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

Was ‘pin money’ really for pins?

Q: An article in the Guardian about sexism in the workplace says, “Women are no longer routinely told to their faces that they’re only working for ‘pin money,’ that they should be ashamed of taking work from men with families to feed.” Where does the term “pin money” come from? Did it once refer literally to real pins?

A: No, “pin money” was never about pins in the ordinary sense of the word. The use of “pin” in this 17th-century expression makes it sound more demeaning than it actually was.

Today “pin money” simply means a trivial amount of money, perhaps enough for incidentals. And since the days of the Suffragists, it’s been used in a belittling way to demean the wages of working women.

But you’re asking about the historical meaning of “pin money,” which in its earliest sense meant “a (usually annual) sum allotted to a woman for clothing and other personal expenses; esp. such an allowance provided for a wife’s private expenditure,” to quote the Oxford English Dictionary.

The phrase was first recorded, the OED says, in a suit brought against Lord Leigh by Lady Leigh in 1674: “On difference between him and his lady about settlement of 200 l. [pounds] per annum, pin-mony” (from a document later collected in the legal digest English Reports in Law and Equity, 1908).

The dictionary’s second citation clearly demonstrates that “pin money” wasn’t about pins. In a scene from John Vanbrugh’s comedy The Relapse; or, Virtue in Danger, first performed in 1696, a young heiress and her nurse discuss the lady’s upcoming nuptials (we’re expanding the dialogue here):

Miss Hoyden: For this I must say for my Lord … he’s as free as an open House at Christmas. For this very Morning, he told me, I shou’d have two hundred a Year to buy Pins. Now, Nurse, if he gives me two hundred a Year to buy Pins; What do you think he’ll give me to buy fine Petticoats?

Nurse: A, my dearest. … These Londoners have got a Gibberidge [gibberish] with ’em, would confound a Gypsey. That which they call Pin-money, is to buy their Wives every thing in the varsal [whole] World, down to their very shoe-tyes: Nay, I have heard Folks say, That some Ladies, if they will have Gallants, as they call ’um; are forc’t to find them out of their Pin-money too.

We can’t resist adding this example from our own reading. Near the end of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mrs. Bennet congratulates her daughter Elizabeth, newly engaged to Mr. Darcy:

“Oh! my sweetest Lizzy! how rich and how great you will be! What pin money, what jewels, what carriages you will have!”

What did pins have to do with a woman’s personal expenses?

Oxford Dictionaries Online, a standard dictionary, says the “pin” here originally referred to a jeweled or ornamental fastener, and denoted a wife’s clothing and other personal expenses.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, raises an interesting possibility: the French word for “pins,” épingles, had long been used in a related sense.

In 15th-century France the plural épingles meant a “gift given to a woman on completion of a business transaction with her husband.” And in the mid-17th-century the French used it to mean “money given to a woman in recognition of some service she has rendered.”

In English, the plural “pins” was used similarly in the 16th century, a century before the expression “pin money” was recorded in OED citations.

This example appears in a will made in 1542 by John Nevile, Lord Latimer: “I give my said doughter Margarett my lease of the parsonadge of Kirkdall Churche … to by her pynnes withal” (from Testamenta Eboracensia, Vol. VI, 1902, a selection of wills registered in York).

And in 1640, Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork, made this legacy: “Which Rent I haue bestowed on my daughter Mary to buy her pins” (from the earl’s diaries, autobiographical notes, and other writings, published as The Lismore Papers in 1886).

As you can see, the plural “pins” had a special meaning—a woman’s expenses—before “pin money” was first used to mean her personal funds.

And, as the dictionary’s citations show, the money involved (whether referred to as “pins” or “pin money”) was often considerable and was taken very seriously by the wealthy—and their lawyers.

This quotation is from William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (Vol. II, 1766): “If she has any pinmoney or separate maintenance, it is said she may dispose of her savings thereout by testament, without the control of her husband.”

The legal encyclopedia Halsbury’s Laws of England has this historical note in a 1979 edition, “Pin money was … usually provided for in a settlement by a yearly rent charge on the husband’s real estate.”

And in his book Road to Divorce: England, 1530-1987, Lawrence Stone writes: “By the terms of a divorce bill, the wife forfeited claim to a return of her marriage portion, and also to her pin-money.”

This meaning of “pin money” is described by the OED as “historical,” meaning that it’s a usage of the past. It faded away toward the end of the 19th century.

But the phrase survives, according to the OED, in an “extended use” that developed in the early 1700s: “a trivial amount of money; (also) spending money, esp. for inessential items and incidental expenses.”

The dictionary’s earliest example, dated 1702, is from A Compleat History of Europe, a multi-volume work by the Welsh writer David Jones: “I am ashamed to name for what a Pin Money his Books were sold.”

That extended sense is now the usual one, as seen in this more recent OED example: “That’s pin money for a company of Sears’ size, but every little bit helps these days” (Toronto Globe & Mail, Nov. 14, 1992).

The OED has no separate entry for a more specific, derogatory use of “pin money” that developed around the turn of the 20th century. In this sense, “pin money” was used to trivialize the earnings of working women as merely incidental to a family’s support.

For example, the phrase “pin-money clerk” was used to mean a woman who supposedly did office work to provide herself with trifles, not because she had to earn a living. The term cropped up during a time when Suffragists were campaigning not only for votes for women, but for wider employment of women.

In January 1912 a British quarterly, the Living Age, ran an article deploring the “disastrous” economic effects of Suffragists who encouraged more women to work outside the home: “The ‘pin-money clerk’ is blamed for the lowering of wage that cheap female labor has been responsible for in the clerical market.”

This notion was so deeply engrained that in November 1929, Britain’s Minister for Employment, J. H. Thomas, delivered what was later described as his “pin money speech.”

“It is not only uneconomic and unfair, but against the nation’s interests for women to work for what they call pin money, and deprive other people, of legitimate work,” he said. (The remark was reported in newspapers in Britain, Australia, and the US.)

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