The Grammarphobia Blog

Bone appétit

Q: When I was a child, my mother used to tell me a story about a wealthy landowner and a shepherd that ended with the proverb “the nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat.” I’ve seen many theories about the origin and meaning of the proverb. Are you aware of the actual origin and meaning?

A: The proverb originated in the Middle English of the late 14th century. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from John Trevisa’s 1398 translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Order of Things”), a 13th-century Latin work compiled by Bartholomeus Anglicus (Bartholomew the Englishman):

“Þe nerre þe bone, þe swetter is the fleissh” (“the nearer the bone, the sweeter is the flesh”).

The passage is from a section of the encyclopedic work about why some foods are sweet and others bitter, why some stimulate the appetite and others suppress it. No story is mentioned. The one you heard from your mother probably appeared later and used the proverb to make a point.

The OED‘s citations for the proverb include versions with “closer” as well as “nearer.” The first citation with the usual modern wording is from a May 13, 1778, letter by Samuel Cooper, a Congregational minister in Boston, to Benjamin Franklin, who was then the American ambassador to France: “We all agree the nearer the bone the sweeter the meat.”

The dictionary doesn’t comment on the meaning of the expression, but the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable describes it as a proverbial saying that reflects “both the belief that meat close to the bone has the best taste and texture, and the idea that it is valued because it represents the last vestiges of available food.”

The slang lexicographer Eric Partridge has noted that it’s also used as a “low catch-phrase applied by men to a thin woman” (from the 1937 first edition of A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English).

The OED cites Partridge’s comment as well as this passage from Shibumi, a 1979 novel by Trevanian, the pseudonym of Rodney Whitaker: “A little skinny in the arms and waist for my taste but, like my ol’ daddy used to say: the closer the bone, the sweeter the meat!”

In a post we wrote a few years ago, we included an analysis by the philologist Neal R. Norrick of two proverbs: “Like father, like son” and “The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat.”

In “Proverbs,” an essay in the Encyclopaedia of the Linguistic Sciences, Norrick explains that proverbs like the one you’re asking about don’t adhere to the traditional use of noun phrases and verb phrases.

“Many proverbs such as Like father, like son and The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat adhere to formulas, here like X, like Y and The X-er, the Y-er, which do not conform to customary NP + VP syntactic structure,” Norrick writes. “So special interpretative rules beyond regular compositional semantic principles are necessary to assign these proverbs even literal readings.” (“NP” and “VP” are short for “noun phrase” and “verb phrase.”)

Such literal readings, he says, “provide the basis on which figurative interpretations are determined.”

“One interpretative rule will relate the formula like X, like Y to the reading ‘Y is like X’ to derive for Like father, like son the interpretation ‘the son is like the father,’ ” he writes. And “another rule related the formula The X-er, the Y-er to ‘Y is proportional to X’ to interpret The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat as ‘the sweetness of the meat is proportional to the nearness of the bone.’ ”

As we say in our earlier post, Norrick’s analysis can be heavy going for lay readers. To put things simply, proverbs are often idiomatic expressions that don’t necessarily conform to the traditional rules of English.

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When bragging is ever so humble

Q: What word would you use for a situation in which people criticize themselves to get others to disagree and reassure them? For example, “I’m such a dummy” … “No, of course you’re not.”

A: We can’t think of a word that would do the job by itself. Perhaps the closest is “humblebrag,” a boast disguised as self-criticism, but it’s not close enough. We’ll have more to say about “humblebrag” later, but let’s consider your question first.

Phrases like “false modesty” and “insincere humility” imply the self-effacement but not the ulterior motive—getting praise or reassurance.

A phrase like “manipulative self-criticism” might do. Or perhaps a longer expression like “using self-criticism to fish for compliments.”

You could, of course, make up a new word along the lines of “humblebrag,” but we suspect that a neologism like “humbleswoggle” isn’t quite what you’re looking for.

Sorry we can’t be more helpful. Now let’s look at “humblebrag.”

Merriam-Webster online defines the verb as “to make a seemingly modest, self-critical, or casual statement or reference that is meant to draw attention to one’s admirable or impressive qualities or achievements.” The dictionary has a similar definition for the noun.

M-W says the “first known use” of “humblebrag” was in 2002, while Oxford Dictionaries online dates it to the “early 21st century.” The comedy writer Harris Wittels helped popularize the term in the early 2010s with his @humblebrag Twitter account and his 2012 book Humblebrag: The Art of False Modesty.

Here are a few “humblebrag” examples: “I get bored with constantly being mistaken for a model” … “I’ve lost so much weight that none of my clothes fit” … “It’s hard to manage the housekeeping with one place in the Hamptons and another on Park Avenue.”

In researching the term, we came across a Harvard Business School paper, “Humblebragging: A Distinct—and Ineffective—Self-Presentation Strategy,” by Ovul Sezer, Francesca Gino, and Michael I. Norton (April 2015).

The authors, citing seven studies, assert that combining a brag with complaints or humility is “less effective than straightforward bragging.”

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A contraction too far?

Q: I recently noticed an example of a three-word contraction in a novel: “couldn’t’ve.” Is this usage accepted? Is it an outlier? Something new? Something old that’s faded with time? Also, I wonder how far contractions can go. Four words? Five?

A: English speakers often mush together three words in speech. For example, “I would have” may be pronounced as “I’d’ve,” or “We might not have” as “We mightn’t’ve.”

However, such contractions are rarely seen in writing, except perhaps in dialogue. Even then, a careful writer would probably use “I’d have” or “We mightn’t have.” Why? Because three contracted words can be hard to read. And a writer wants (or should want) to be understood.

How far can one go in contracting written words? We think three words is already a word too far. Today, contractions generally include a verb, along with a subject or the word “not.” An apostrophe shows where letters have been dropped.

In the past, longer contractions were common in writing, including ha’n’t, sha’n’t, ’twon’t, ’twouldn’t, and a’n’t, the father of ain’t. But in the 18th century, language commentators began condemning contractions as harsh-sounding, vulgar, or overly familiar. By the end of the century, they were considered a no-no in writing, though tolerated in speech.

It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that written contractions—at least the two-word variety—were again acceptable. In the 1920s, for example, Henry Fowler used them without comment in his influential usage guide.

In the new, fourth edition of Woe Is I, Pat’s grammar and usage guide, she lists contractions that she considers acceptable in formal writing and those that should be used only in dialogue, humor, or casual writing.

Fit to Print

aren’t, can’t, couldn’t, didn’t, doesn’t, don’t, hadn’t, hasn’t, haven’t, he’d (he would; he had), he’ll, here’s, he’s (he is; he has), I’d (I would; I had), I’ll, I’m, I’ve, isn’t, it’ll, it’s (it is; it has), let’s, mightn’t, mustn’t, oughtn’t, she’d (she would; she had), she’ll, she’s (she is; she has), shouldn’t, that’s (that is; that has), there’s (there is; there has), they’d (they would; they had), they’ll, they’re, they’ve, wasn’t, we’d (we would; we had), we’ll, we’re, we’ve, weren’t, what’ll, what’re, what’s (what is; what has), what’ve, where’s (where is; where has) who’d (who would; who had), who’ll, who’s (who is; who has), who’ve, won’t, wouldn’t, you’d (you would; you had), you’ll, you’re, you’ve

Out of Bounds

AIN’T. In presentable English, it’s not OK and it never will be OK. Get used to it. If you’re tempted to use it to show that you have the common touch, make clear that you know better: Now, ain’t that a shame!

COULD’VE, SHOULD’VE, WOULD’VE, MIGHT’VE, MUST’VE. There’s a good reason to stay away from these in your writing. Seen in print, they encourage mispronunciation, which explains why they’re often heard as could of, should of, would of, might of, and must of (or, even worse, coulda, shoulda, woulda, mighta, and musta). It’s fine to pronounce these as though the h in have were silent. But let’s not forget that have is there. Write it out.

GONNA, GOTTA, WANNA. In writing, these are substandard English. Unless you’re talking to your sister on the phone, make it going to, got to, want to, and so on.

HOW’D, HOW’LL, HOW’RE, WHEN’LL, WHEN’RE, WHEN’S, WHERE’D, WHERE’LL, WHERE’RE, WHY’D, WHY’RE, WHY’S. Resist the urge to write contractions with how, when, where, or why, except that old standby where’s. We all say things like How’m I supposed to pay for this and where’m I gonna put it?” But don’t put them in writing.

IT’D, THAT’D, THERE’D, THIS’D, WHAT’D. Notice how these ’d endings seem to add a syllable that lands with a thud? And they look ridiculously clumsy in writing. Let’s use the ’d contractions (for had or would ) only with I, you, he, she, we, they, and who.

THAT’LL, THAT’RE, THAT’VE, THERE’LL, THERE’RE, THERE’VE, THIS’LL, WHO’RE. No. These clumsies are fine in conversation, but written English isn’t ready for them yet. Do I use that’ll when I talk? Sure. But not when I write.

To repeat what we said above, those no-nos are acceptable in dialogue, humor, or casual writing, but not in formal writing.

Although usage guides now welcome contractions, some people still hesitate to use them in writing. We think that’s silly. As we’ve written in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, writers have been using contractions in English since Anglo-Saxon days.

Old English contractions include nis from ne is (“is not”), naes from ne waes (“was not”), nolde from ne wolde (“would not”), naefde from ne haefde (“did not have”), and nat from ne wat (“does not know”).

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Impactful wisdom

Q: I read an article recently in the Daily Beast that used “impactful” as an adjective. Is it a real word?

A: Yes, “impactful” is a word, though it’s not a crowd pleaser. We’d prefer one with more impact—“powerful,” “persuasive,” “effective,” and so on.

The adjective is recognized in Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionaries online as well as Dictionary.com (which has a lengthy usage note on the subject). Webster’s New World doesn’t include “impactful” but it has an entry for “impactive” (“of or having an impact”).

You may be surprised to learn that “impactful” was used as long ago as 1939. The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, gives this as its earliest known use:

“The coronation of a pope, the non-stop European crisis—these and kindred events become right-of-way news on radio—more immediate and impactful than even the front page” (from the June 1939 issue of Commentator Magazine).

However, the word was rarely used during the next couple of decades. This is the OED’s second example: “It was resolved that initially the company should concentrate on producing an acceptable, exciting and impactful new house symbol” (from the Times, London, April 3, 1967).

Our searches of newspaper databases suggest that after a trickle of uses in the 1960s, the usage began to take off in the early ’70s.

We spotted examples like “impactful message” and “impactful headline” (both 1971); “impactful systems” (1972); “the way to be impactful” (1974); “impactful factor” (1975); “impactful paper” (a reference to the Bangkok Post, 1976); “our first trip and of course our most impactful” (1977), and a reference to documentaries that are “controversial, hardhitting, meaningful, impactful” (1979).

The OED says “impactful” is derived from the noun “impact” and means “having a significant impact or effect”—which is essentially how standard dictionaries define it. (We’ve written posts about the noun and verb “impact” before, most recently in 2010, so we won’t repeat ourselves.)

Though it’s found in dictionaries, “impactful” is not an elegant word. Even in the lexicon of stuffy bureaucratese, “impactful” stands out. And ironically, it’s deadening, not impactful.

That last newspaper example above (“controversial, hardhitting, meaningful, impactful”) would be much more effective without the final, redundant adjective. “Hardhitting” has more impact.

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Naughty, naughty

Q: I’ve noticed when listening to US podcasts that the first decade of the 2000s is often referred to as the “aughts.” Here in the UK, the much more pleasing “noughties” seems to have gained most traction. Why do you think it hasn’t caught on stateside?

A: It’s true that Americans generally don’t use the term “noughties,” and it doesn’t appear in any of the standard American dictionaries.

We can only guess why. Perhaps it sounds too much like a coy version of “naughties,” as in “Naughty, naughty!” (We’ll have more to say about “naughty” later.)

The term “noughties” is found in all the standard British-based dictionaries, though some of them label it “humorous” or “informal.”

The Macmillan, Collins, Longman, and Oxford online dictionaries all define the “noughties” as the decade between 2000 and 2009. Another British dictionary, Cambridge, defines “noughties” as “the period of years between 00 and 10 in any century, usually 2000–2010,” and provides this example: “They were born in the noughties and grew up completely at ease with computer technology.”

But the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, favors the narrower definition. It says that “noughties,” preceded by the article “the,” means “the decade from 2000 to 2009.”

The OED spells the word “noughties” in its entry, and has a first example of that spelling from 1990. But it also includes a citation from 1989 spelled “naughties.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “noughties” is from a British newspaper: “After the Eighties and the Nineties, what should we be calling the next decade? The Noughties?” (The Independent, London, Jan. 19, 1990.)

And its sole citation for “naughties” is from an American column about what to call the decade after the 90s: “The Naughties was suggested by 40 readers.” (William Safire in the New York Times Magazine, May 7, 1989.)

All the rest of the OED citations come from Britain or New Zealand and spell the term “noughties.”

The dictionary says the term was formed by adding “-ties” to “nought” or “naught,” in imitation of such other words as “twenties” and “thirties.” Oxford adds that the formation was “perhaps influenced by naughty nineties,” which it defines as “the 1890s considered as a period of moral laxity and sexual licence.”

The word spelled “naught” or “nought” is a noun for a “zero” or a pronoun meaning “nothing,” as we wrote on our blog in 2013. It’s the negative form of “aught” in its original sense: “anything.” When used for a “zero,” it’s mainly “naught” in the US and “nought” in the UK.

But “aught,” like “ought,” can also be a noun for “zero.” In this sense, the term is chiefly spelled “aught” in American English and “ought” in British English, as in dates like “nineteen-ought-nine” for 1909, a usage we discussed in 2018.

The use of “ought” and “aught” for “zero” emerged in the early 1820s, the OED says, “probably” as variants of “nought” and “naught.” (Jeremy Butterfield, in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 4th ed., suggests that “nought” was “a misdivision of a nought as an ought.”)

Usage was mixed early on, as this OED citation shows: “It was said … that all Cambridge scholars call the cipher aught and all Oxford scholars call it nought” (from Frank, an 1822 novel by Maria Edgeworth).

As for the adjective “naughty,” it also has something to do with “nothing.” It was derived from the pronoun “naught,” the OED says, and when it first appeared in the 14th century it meant “having or possessing nothing; poor, needy.”

The dictionary’s only examples with this meaning are from the same source, William Langland’s allegorical poem Piers Plowman (circa 1378). The Middle English poem uses both “nauȝty” and the comparative form, “nauȝtier.”

By the middle of the 1400s, Oxford says, “naughty” meant “morally bad, wicked,” and in the following century it came to mean “immoral, licentious, promiscuous, sexually provocative.”

In the 1600s, the more familiar meaning of the word appeared: “disobedient, badly behaved.” In this sense, the OED says, the word is “used esp. of a child, but also humorously or depreciatively of an adult or an adult’s behaviour.”

Beginning in the mid-19th century, the word in this sense was sometimes “reduplicated for emphasis,” the dictionary says. Such repetitions, it adds, were frequently used as interjections intended as mild reprimands, “often with ironic or depreciative connotation, esp. of adult behaviour.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Emily’s Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights (1847): “This is your last ride, till papa comes back. I’ll not trust you over the threshold again, you naughty, naughty girl.”

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Why foxes have fur, horses hair

Q: Why do we say some animals have “hair” while others have “fur”?

A: All mammals have hair—dogs, cats, foxes, pigs, gerbils, horses, and people. Even dolphins have a few whiskers early in their lives. Scientifically speaking, there’s no difference between hair and fur.

“This is all the same material,” Dr. Nancy Simmons, a mammalogist with the American Museum of Natural History, said in a 2001 interview with Scientific American. “Hair and fur are the same thing.”

She added that there are many norms for hair length, and that different kinds of hair can have different names, such as a cat’s whiskers and a porcupine’s quills.

Well, science is one thing but common English usage is another. Most of us do have different ideas about what to call “hair” and what to call “fur.”

For example, we regard humans as having “hair,” not “fur.” And we use “hair” for what grows on livestock with thick, leathery hides—horses, cattle, and pigs.

But we generally use “fur” for the thick, dense covering on animals like cats, dogs, rabbits, foxes, bears, raccoons, beavers, and so on.

Why do some animals have fur and others hair? The answer lies in the origins of the noun “fur,” which began life as an item of apparel.

In medieval England, “fur” meant “a trimming or lining for a garment, made of the dressed coat of certain animals,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The source, the dictionary suggests, is the Old French verb forrer, which originally meant to sheathe or encase, then “developed the sense ‘to line,’ and ‘to line or trim with fur.’ ”

When the word “fur” first entered English, it was a verb that meant to line, trim, or cover a garment with animal hair. The earliest OED use is from Kyng Alisaunder, a Middle English romance about Alexander the Great, composed in the late 1200s or early 1300s:

“The kyng dude of [put on] his robe, furred with meneuere.” (The last word is “miniver,” the white winter pelt of a certain squirrel.)

The noun followed. Its first known use is from The Romaunt of the Rose, an English translation (from 1366 or earlier) of an Old French poem. The relevant passage refers to a coat “Furred with no menivere, But with a furre rough of here [hair].”

The noun’s meaning gradually evolved over the 14th and 15th centuries. From the sense of a lining or trimming, “fur” came to mean the material used to make it. Soon it also meant entire garments made of this material, as well as the coats of the animals themselves.

Oxford defines that last sense of “fur” this way: “The short, fine, soft hair of certain animals (as the sable, ermine, beaver, otter, bear, etc.) growing thick upon the skin, and distinguished from the ordinary hair, which is longer and coarser. Formerly also, the wool of sheep” [now obsolete].

Note that this definition establishes the distinction between the special hair we call “fur” (short, fine, soft), and “ordinary hair” (longer, coarser).

The dictionary’s earliest citation is a reference to sheep as bearing “furres blake and whyte” (circa 1430). The first non-sheep example was recorded in the following century, a reference to the “furre” of wolves (Edmund Spenser, The Shepheardes Calender, 1579).

From the 17th century on, examples are plentiful. Shakespeare writes of “This night wherin … The Lyon, and the belly-pinched Wolfe Keepe their furre dry” (King Lear, 1608). And Alexander Pope writes of “the strength of Bulls, the Fur of Bears” (An Essay on Man, 1733).

But a mid-18th-century example in the OED stands out—at least for our purposes—because it underscores that “fur” was valued because it was soft and warm: “Leave the Hair on Skins, where the Fleece or Fir is soft and warm, as Beaver, Otter, &c.” (From An Account of a Voyage for the Discovery of a North-west Passage, 1748, written by the ship’s clerk.)

Elsewhere in the account, the author notes that deer or caribou skins were “cleared of the Hair” to make use of the skin as leather.

As for “hair,” it’s a much older word than “fur” and came into English from Germanic sources instead of French.

Here’s the OED definition: “One of the numerous fine and generally cylindrical filaments that grow from the skin or integument of animals, esp. of most mammals, of which they form the characteristic coat.”

The word was spelled in Old English as her or hær, Oxford says, and was first recorded before the year 800 in a Latin-Old English glossary: “Pilus, her.” (In Latin pilus is a single hair and pili is the plural.)

By around the year 1000, “hair” was also used as a mass or collective noun, defined in the OED as “the aggregate of hairs growing on the skin of an animal: spec. that growing naturally upon the human head.”

In summary, most of us think of “fur” as soft, cuddly, warm, and dense. We don’t regard “hair” in quite the same way (even though it technically includes “fur”). “Hair,” in other words, covers a lot more bases.

But in practice, English speakers use the words “hair” and “fur” inconsistently. People often regard some animals, especially their pets, as having both “fur” and “hair.”

They may refer to Bowser’s coat as “fur,” but use the word “hair” for what he leaves on clothes and furniture. And when he gets tangles, they may say that either his “hair” or his “fur” is matted and needs combing out.

Furthermore (no pun intended), two different people might describe the same cat or dog differently—as having “hair” or “fur,” as being “hairy” or “furry,” and (particularly in the case of the cat) as throwing up a “hairball” or a “furball.” They simply perceive the animal’s coat differently.

Our guess is that people base their choice of words on what they perceive as the thickness, density, or length of a pet’s coat. The heavy, dense coat of a Chow dog or a Persian cat is likely to be called “fur.” And the short, light coat of a sleek greyhound or a Cornish Rex is likely to be called “hair.”

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Foreboding or forbidding?

Q: I’ve noticed an uptick in the adjectival use of “foreboding.” It’s often used mistakenly for “forbidding” in describing challenging weather, terrain, etc. It’s also used for something that’s merely spooky, not a presentiment of evil.

A: Standard dictionaries agree with you that the adjective “foreboding” suggests a sense of impending misfortune while “forbidding” used adjectivally means unfriendly, unpleasant, or threatening.

Oxford Dictionaries Online, for example, defines “foreboding” as “implying or seeming to imply that something bad is going to happen,” and it gives this example: “when the Doctor spoke, his voice was dark and foreboding.”

Oxford defines “forbidding” as “unfriendly or threatening in appearance,” and it includes this example: “a grim and forbidding building.”

Most of the recent examples we’ve seen in the news media use the two words in the standard way. Here are a couple of sightings:

“It’s a question asked in a foreboding tone when markets behave a certain way: ‘What does the bond market know that the stock market doesn’t?’ ” (CNBC, March 14, 2018).

“From the outside, the forbidding concrete walls and narrow slit windows of the Pettis County Jail make it look like a fortress was planted smack dab in the middle of the historical downtown area for Sedalia, Mo.” (Washington Post, March 14, 2019).

But as you’ve noticed, “foreboding” is sometimes used in the sense of “forbidding,” as in these online examples:

“Others found a foreboding climate in the winter weather here” (from a Jan. 27, 2019, article on Cleveland.com about Vietnamese refugees).

“A species of archaea that lives in such foreboding places as volcanic craters, deep-sea hydrothermal vents, and hot springs” (Natural History, March 2019).

When “foreboding” is used to mean spooky, it’s often difficult to tell whether the usage is ominous (suggesting impending doom) or just menacing (simply threatening).

Take this example: “Resident Evil was always a franchise that leaned heavily on tension—threatening players with a foreboding atmosphere, lurking enemies and limited resources” (from a Dec. 4, 2018, review on CNET of the video game Resident Evil 2).

Is the atmosphere ominous or dangerous? Foreboding or forbidding? We’ll let the reviewer have the last word.

As for the etymology here, the adjective “foreboding” ultimately comes from boda, the Old English noun for a herald or messenger, and bodian, an Old English verb meaning to announce, announce beforehand, or foretell, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The earliest OED example for the noun is from King Ælfred’s translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ, a sixth-century Latin treatise by the Roman philosopher Boethius: “Þu þe eart boda and forrynel ðæs soþan leohter” (“You who are the herald and forerunner of the true light”).

The verb showed up in writing around the same time in Elene, the longest of the four signed works by the Old English poet Cynewulf. The OED dates the poem, based on the story of St. Helena and the Holy Cross, at sometime before 900. This is the quotation:

“Gode þancode, sigora dryhtne, þæs þe hio soð gecneow ondweardlice þæt wæs oft bodod feor ær beforan fram fruman worulde” (“She thanked God, the Lord of Triumph, from whom she knew the truth, which was often foretold since far before the beginning of the world”).

Although the Old English verb could mean to announce something or announce it beforehand, an Anglo-Saxon writer might add the prefix fore- to the verb to emphasize its beforeness, making clear that forebodian meant to foretell, not just to tell.

The online Boswell and Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary has this Old English excerpt from Psalm 71:15: “Múþ mín fórebodaþ rihtwísnysse ðine” (“My mouth foretells thy righteousness”). The citation comes from Psalterium Davidis, Latino-Saxonicum Vetus, psalms in Old English and Latin, collected by the English antiquarian Henry Spelman (1562-1641). The psalms were edited and published by his son John in 1640.

The earliest OED example for the adjective “foreboding” used to mean ominous is from The Depositions and Examinations of Mr. Edmund Everard (1679): “By a fore-boding guilt they knew perfectly … I had grounds enough wherewith to accuse them.” Everard was an informer in a concocted anti-Catholic conspiracy in 17th-century Britain known as the Popish Plot.

The other adjective, “forbidding,” ultimately comes from the Old English verb forbéodan—a compound of the prefix for- (against) and the verb béodan (to command). Here’s an expanded OED example from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of Old English writing from the 800s to the 1100s:

“þa wiðcweð se arcebiscop and cwæð þet se papa hit him forboden hæfde” (“The Archbishop refused and said that the Pope had forbidden it”). The citation refers to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s refusal to consecrate the Abbot of Abingdon as Bishop of London.

And here’s the dictionary’s first example for the adjective “forbidding” in its unfriendly, unpleasant, or threatening sense: “That awful Cast of the Eye and forbidding Frown” (from the Spectator, Feb. 14, 1712).

Finally, a recent use of “foreboding” that could mean either ominous or threatening: “On Sunday afternoon, sirens wailed and cellphones erupted with about 12 minutes of notice that a funnel cloud had dropped from a foreboding Alabama sky and was bound for Beauregard” (New York Times, March 5, 2019).

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Does water stand or sit?

Q: Is the correct phrase “standing water” or “sitting water”? Or can we can have it both ways?

A: “Standing water,” the usual expression, has referred to still or stagnant water since the late 14th century. It’s overwhelmingly more popular than “sitting water,” which as far as we can tell didn’t show up in print until about 20 years ago.

In searching the News on the Web corpus, a database of newspaper and magazine articles published since 2010, we found 2,985 examples of “standing water” and only 17 for “sitting water.”

A search with Google’s Ngram viewer of digitized books published from 2000 to 2008 had similar results.

Of the two phrases, only “standing water” is mentioned in the eight online standard dictionaries we’ve consulted. Collins has a separate entry for the expression, but several others mention it in their entries for the adjective “standing.”

Collins defines “standing water” as “any body of stagnant water, including puddles, ponds, rainwater, drain water, reservoirs, etc.” It has several examples, including this one: “Home to fish, birds and other wildlife, standing water is also enjoyed by recreational fishermen and walkers.”

Of the other standard dictionaries, Merriam-Webster, Oxford, and Webster’s New World define the adjective “standing” as still, not flowing, or stagnant, and give “standing water” as an example. American Heritage defines “standing” similarly, but doesn’t give an example.

None of the entries for the adjective “sitting” in the standard dictionaries we’ve checked include the sense of still or stagnant water.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t have an entry for “standing water,” but within its entry for the adjective “standing” it includes this sense: “Of water, a piece of water: Still, not ebbing or flowing, stagnant.”

The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from John Trevisa’s 1398 Middle English translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Order of Things”), an encyclopedic Latin reference work compiled in the 13th century by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus (Bartholomew the Englishman):

“In dyches is water y-norisshede and y-keppe, bothe rennynge and stondynge water” (“In ditches is water nourished and kept, both running and standing water”).

The OED doesn’t have an entry for “sitting water,” and its entry for the adjective “sitting” doesn’t include still or stagnant water as a sense.

The earliest example we’ve found for “sitting water” used in this sense is from a Nov. 18, 1998, article in the Coronado (Calif.) Eagle and Journal about the discovery of abandoned oil tanks beneath homes:

“At one tank site, there is a slight sheen to sitting water, indicating some oil is on top of it.”

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Hamlet in the closet

Q: I was teaching Hamlet for the first time in decades and we joked about the use of “closet” in the scene where Hamlet stabs Polonius. I wonder how the usage evolved from meaning a small room to a state of secrecy, especially about being gay? It also seems to me that the Brits may use wardrobes more than we do, so the use of “closet” in its gay sense might not work the same way for them.

A: You’ll be surprised to hear that the noun “closet” is now used in Britain as well as America in both of the senses you mention—literal and figurative.

“Closet” in its literal sense—a small room for storing clothes, linens, or supplies—“has been the standard term in North American use since at least the late 19th century,” the Oxford English Dictionary says.

But “during the later 20th century,” the OED adds, “it has increasingly been used in British English to refer to such a place used for storing clothes, although cupboard and (especially) wardrobe are still used in this sense.”

“Closet” in its figurative sense—a state of hidden homosexuality—has also jumped the pond. It has appeared in writing in the US since the early 1960s and in the UK since at least the early 1980s, according to citations in the OED and in slang dictionaries.

So where “closet” is concerned, speakers of American English and British English are on the same page.

The word has had a long and interesting history. First recorded in English in the 14th century, it originally had meanings far removed from either clothes or homosexuality.

“Closet” evolved from a noun in Old and Middle French, closet (a small enclosure or small field). The –et ending was a diminutive added to clos (an enclosed space), a noun that was in turn derived from the Latin clausum (a closed place, an enclosure).

The word first reached England as the Anglo-Norman closet (also, but rarely, spelled closette), which meant a private room or chapel. And from Anglo-Norman, the OED says, it entered English, in which it originally meant “a private or secluded room; an inner chamber.”

The OED’s earliest example is from an English translation, done sometime before 1387, of the Polychronicon, a religious and historical chronicle written in Latin in the mid-1300s by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden:

“Remigius from his childhode dwelled in a closett.” (The reference is to St. Remigius, who lived in the 5th and 6th centuries, and the OED says that “closett,” the translator’s rendering of the Latin reclusorio, in this case meant “a monastic cell.”)

In its early uses, “closet” generally meant a place set aside for a particular purpose, like a private chapel or private pew, a monarch’s private apartment, a council chamber, or a room for study, devotion, or contemplation. (Most of these uses are now “historical,” the OED says, meaning they’re found only in reference to the past.)

So when Hamlet visits his mother’s closet and kills Polonius, who’s hiding behind a tapestry, the term refers to the Queen’s private apartment.

The purposes of a medieval “closet” weren’t all so stageworthy. Since the 1400s, the word has also been used to mean a toilet or privy. Compound terms include “closet of ease” (1600s); “water closet” (1700s, first shortened to “W.C.” in the 1800s); and “earth closet” (1800s).

In the 1500s “closet” came to mean a storage space. The OED’s definition is “a recess or space adjoining a room, generally closed off by a door or doors reaching to the floor, and used for storage of clothes, linen, utensils, household supplies, etc.; a built-in cupboard; a wardrobe.”

Oxford’s earliest use is from a 1532 entry in a ledger that includes the cost of “makyng a Closett in my chamber.” (Cited from A Researcher’s Glossary of Words Found in Historical Documents of East Anglia, compiled by David Yaxley, 2003.)

Subsequent examples include “Confectionaire or Closet of sweet meat” (1616); and “Closset of books” (1686).

In the 18th century, Jane Austen wrote that a storage place entirely filled with shelves should not be called a closet: “I have a very nice chest of drawers and a closet full of shelves—so full indeed that there is nothing else in it, and it should therefore be called a cupboard rather than a closet, I suppose.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation, which is from a letter written May 17, 1799, during a visit to Bath.)

As we mentioned earlier, “closet” in the sense of a built-in wardrobe appeared in late 19th-century American usage and emigrated to Britain a century or so later.

So much for the word’s literal uses. But almost from the beginning, “closet” had been associated with concealment. Figurative uses having to do with hiding and secrecy began to emerge in the early 15th century.

This is the OED’s earliest such use: “Within a lytel closet of his entendement [intention].” It’s from The Book of the Pylgremage of the Sowle, a 1413 translation, first published in 1483, from the French of Guillaume de Deguileville.

Later Oxford citations include “the closette Where god delyteth to make his resydence” (1499), “closet of her heart” (1549), “the Closet of your Conscience” (1633), “the Closet of a Man’s Breast” (sometime before 1677), “the dark closet of his bosom” (1766), and “the innermost closet of her thought and life” (1911).

Adjectivally, too, “closet” has denoted secrecy. The OED has examples like “closet duties” (1639); “closet sins” (sometime before 1656); “closet good works” (1657); and “closet memoirs” (1706).

The familiar phrase “skeleton in the closet” was “brought into literary use by Thackeray” in 1855, the OED says, though it was “known to have been current at an earlier date.” (Here “skeleton” means “a secret source of shame or pain to a family or person,” the dictionary says.)

In the later 19th century, other things than skeletons were said to be “out of the closet” once revealed. The OED has this example: “Seeing the spectre of prohibition dragged out of the closet in every political campaign” (Galveston Daily News, March 6, 1892).

Finally, in the 20th century, the adjective “closet” was used to describe a person who was hiding something. The OED defines this usage, which is sometimes meant ironically, as “not open about something concerning oneself which, if revealed, could cause problems or embarrassment.” Examples include “closet drinker” (1948), “closet liberal” (1967), “closet Papist” (1985), and “closet romantic” (2005).

So it was probably inevitable that “closet” would come to be associated with covert or unacknowledged homosexuality.

In the earliest such example, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang dates “closet queen” to graffiti observed in 1959, but the evidence can’t be confirmed. The first published examples are from the early 1960s, and they’re also adjectival; Random House and Green’s Dictionary of Slang cite “closet fags” (1961), and the OED has “closet queen” (1963).

The OED also cites “in the closet” (secretly gay) and “come out of the closet” (to acknowledge being gay; both from 1968). Green’s has “open the closet” (to expose a person as gay; 1972).

And Oxford has examples of “out of the closet” (1970), “to come out” (1971), the adjectives “closeted” and “out” (both 1974), and the verb “out” (to expose someone’s homosexuality; 1990 in both the US and the UK).

We’ll end with a puzzle. In the sense of acknowledging one’s homosexuality, there are 1940s examples of the verb phrase “come out”—but without the “closet” that appeared decades later. And those early examples may have nothing to do with figurative closets. Here they are, courtesy of the OED:

Come out, to become progressively more and more exclusively homosexual with experience” (a definition from Gershon A. Legman’s appendix to George W. Henry’s book Sex Variants, 1941).

Come out, to be initiated into the mysteries of homosexuality” (by the pseudonymous “Swasarnt Nerf,” in Gay Guides for 1949, edited by Hugh Hagius).

Oxford suggests that these early uses of “come out” were not about closets but were “perhaps influenced” by the social debut sense of the phrase, as when a debutante “comes out.”

That may be true. Or perhaps the early connection between “closet” and “come out” lived underground in those days and has yet to be discovered. Time will tell.

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A bunch of sauces?

Q: Have you noticed that suddenly people are using the word “bunch” as an all-purpose collective? Even (especially) when the objects in question cannot readily be visualized as making up a bunch? The NY Times, for example, has a seafood restaurateur talking about “a bunch of different sauces.”

A: We agree that “a bunch of different sauces” sounds a bit off-kilter, and we’d prefer a different wording. But this is a legitimate usage, according to nine out of ten standard dictionaries.

In modern English, “bunch” is widely used in three distinct ways:

(1) It can mean a cluster or bundle of similar things that are fastened or held together, like a “bunch” of grapes, flowers, or keys.

(2) It can be a collective noun for things or people considered as a group, as in a “bunch” of houses, friends, or lies. Here, “a bunch of” means “a number of.”

(3) It can be a quantifier meaning a large quantity or amount of something, like a “bunch” of malarkey, trouble, or mustard. Here, “a bunch of” means “a considerable amount of.”

Of the ten standard dictionaries we checked, American and British, all include definitions that would fall into categories #1 and #2. (Several consider #2 “informal,” and Macmillan accepts it as applying to people but not things.)

However, only five accept the newest use (#3), where a “bunch” means a considerable amount of one thing, and three of them label it “informal.”

Their examples include “a bunch of money,” “a bunch of trouble,” “a bunch of food,” and “slather on a bunch of Dijon.”

(For the record, these are Merriam-Webster Unabridged, the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, and Oxford Dictionaries Online.)

Your example, “a bunch of different sauces,” falls under definition #2. And by the way, the Times has printed the phrase more than once. It appeared over a decade ago in an article describing a Colombian-style hamburger that “loads on ham, bacon, lettuce, tomato and a bunch of sauces, including the inevitable pineapple” (June 15, 2008).

As we said, we wouldn’t describe a collection of sauces as a “bunch.” We have a hard time thinking of liquids as a “bunch,” but that’s just a prejudice on our part. Inelegant though it is, the usage must be acknowledged as standard.

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), edited by Jeremy Butterfield, makes an interesting point about this use of “bunch” for a collection of things. If the plural noun that follows “bunch” is “qualified by an adjective or other qualifier that indicates  a feature or features held in common,” he says, “the informality is much less evident.” His examples: “a bunch of corrupt politicians” … “a bunch of weary runners.”

So in Butterfield’s view, “a bunch of different sauces” would be less informal than “a bunch of sauces.” We think he’s right.

Today’s uses of “bunch” have been a long time in the making. The word has had a very long history and it didn’t always mean what it means today.

In medieval times it meant a hump or lump on the body of a person or animal—like a swollen tumor, a camel’s hump, and so on.

The word, first recorded in the early 1300s, is “of uncertain origin” and “probably onomatopoeic,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. (Similar-sounding words were also used to mean a hump or swelling: “bulch,” circa 1300; “botch,” c. 1330; “bouge, 1398; and “bulge,” c. 1400.)

The OED’s earliest confirmed example is from a religious poem, “Body and Soul” (c. 1325), where the word appears in a passage about fiends and hell-hounds: “Summe were ragged and tayled / Mid brode bunches on heore bak” (“Some were ragged and tailed / With broad humps on their back”).

This later OED example describes the humps on a dromedary: “A camell of Arabia hathe two bonches in the backe.” From John Trevisa’s 1398 translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Properties of Things”), a sort of medieval encyclopedia written by Bartholomew de Glanville in 1240.

The modern meaning of “bunch” as a bundle emerged in the 16th century. Here’s how the OED defines this sense of the word: “A collection or cluster of things of the same kind, either growing together (as a bunch of grapes), or fastened closely together in any way (as a bunch of flowers, a bunch of keys); also a portion of a dress gathered together in irregular folds.”

In the dictionary’s earliest use, dated 1570, the Latin floretum is defined as “A Bunche of flowers” (from Peter Levens’s Manipulus Vocabulorum).

Half a century later, “bunch” was also used more generally to mean any collection of things or people—much as we use “lot,” the OED says.

In the dictionary’s examples, “bunch” in this sense is used for collections including “Patriarches, Prophets, Judges, and Kings” (1622), “duties” (1633), “cherubs” (1832), and “railroad workers” (1902). Exemplary people have been described as the “best of the bunch” since the late 19th century.

The OED’s entry for “bunch” (which it says “has not yet been fully updated”) has no separate definition corresponding to #3 above—the use of “bunch” for a considerable amount of something.

However, it does include an example of one such usage, by Samuel Johnson: “I am glad the Ministry is removed. Such a bunch of imbecility never disgraced a country” (from a 1782 conversation, cited in James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, published in 1791).

Johnson’s quote is also mentioned in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, along with an example of “a bunch of hooey” from two centuries later (New York Times Book Review, Nov. 21, 1999). M-W has no reservations about the use of “bunch” for an amount of something.

The usage guide says various objections to “bunch,” chiefly from “writers of college handbooks,” arose in the early 20th century as the word became more popular.

“Objections were first to its application to a group of people, then switched to its use as a generalized collective,” M-W says. “Along the way an objection to its use before a mass noun sprang up. This was a particularly bad idea.”

All these objections, the usage guide says, have “had no ostensible effect on actual usage—except perhaps on papers written for college courses.”

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Is ‘deprioritize’ a priority?

Q: Here’s a hideous new word that I saw a few days ago: “deprioritize.” Let’s deprioritize it.

A: We wouldn’t describe either “prioritize” or “deprioritize” as lexical beauties, but speakers of bureaucratese seem to find them handy.

Both terms are relatively new. “Prioritize” showed up in writing in the 1950s and “deprioritize” two decades later, according to our database searches.

Standard dictionaries define the verb “prioritize” as (1) to put things in order of importance, or (2) to treat something as more important than others.

We haven’t found “deprioritize” in standard dictionaries, though the collaborative Wiktionary says it means “to reduce the level of priority”—that is, treat something as less important.

The verb “deprioritize” is out there, as you’ve noticed, but it’s apparently not out enough to make it into either standard dictionaries, which focus on the contemporary meanings of words, or the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

We’ve seen only a few hundred examples of “deprioritize” in our searches of digitized newspapers, magazines, broadcast transcripts, business journals, government documents, press releases, and so on.

A few early ones showed up in the 1970s, including this one: “It’s been my feeling that other types of antisocial behavior often take precedence over malicious destruction of property and, consequently, many tend to deprioritize its significance” (from the Journal of Police Science and Administration, Gaithersburg, Md., March 1977).

A search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks the appearance of words or phrases in digitized books, indicates that the use of “deprioritize” began to increase in the early 1980s, but it’s still primarily used by bureaucrats, academics, technocrats, politicians, and such.

The verb “prioritize” appeared in print in the mid-1950s. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from “Words, Wit and Wisdom,” a syndicated column by the lexicographer William Morris that appeared in various newspapers on Nov. 9, 1954. Here’s an expanded version of the OED citation, in which Morris criticizes “the trend toward making verbs of nouns and adjectives by adding ‘-ize’ ”:

“ ‘Finalize’ and ‘concretize’ are two such barbarisms which made their first appearance in the shop-talk of the advertising business shortly after the last war. Now they seem—according to this column’s Washington operative, Jack E. Grant—to be firmly embedded in the speech of government workers, along with ‘civilianize’ (replace military personnel with civilians) and ‘prioritize’ (give preferential rating to).”

As for “prioritize,” the verb is now accepted by standard dictionaries, though the online American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says in a usage note that it took a while and some diehards are still grumbling:

“Like many verbs ending in -ize, prioritize has been tainted by association with corporate and bureaucratic jargon. Even though the word still does not sit well with some, it should be considered standard. In our 2008 survey, two-thirds of the Usage Panel accepted it in the sentence Overwhelmed with work, the lawyer was forced to prioritize his caseload. Barely half of the Panel accepted this same sentence in 1997. Acceptance may have increased not simply from familiarity but from usefulness, as there is no exact synonym.”

Although “deprioritize” isn’t in standard dictionaries, it may get there yet. Like “prioritize,” it can be useful and it has no exact synonym. But as your comment suggests, familiarity may also breed contempt.

Both “prioritize” and “deprioritize” are derived from the noun “priority,” which meant “precedence in order or rank” when it showed up in Middle English in the early 1300s. We wrote a post in 2016 about the highs and lows of priority.

The earliest example of “priority” in the OED says pride springs from, among other things, “Erthly honowre or priorte” (Cursor Mundi, an anonymous poem written sometime before 1325).

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