English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Happy belated birthday?

Q: Why do we say “happy belated birthday” when it should be “belated happy birthday”? The “happy birthday” is belated, not the “birthday.” Please help me understand the proper syntax.

A: Like you, we wouldn’t describe the syntax, or word order, in “happy belated birthday” as logical. But we doubt that anyone would have trouble with the semantics, or meaning, of the expression.

As you point out, the congratulatory phrase “happy birthday” is the thing that’s belated, not the “birthday” itself. Therefore, the logical arrangement of the words would be “belated happy birthday.” So why do many people find it more natural to say “happy belated birthday,” logic be damned?

We believe this is because of a clash between the logical order of the words and the natural order of adjectives. We’ve written several times about the order of adjectives, including a post in 2010 about why people say “a perfect little black dress” instead of “a black perfect little dress,” and one in 2017 about why a toy is “my nice new blue plastic truck” rather than “my plastic blue new nice truck.”

As we say in those earlier posts, it’s natural for an adjective that expresses subjective opinion (like “happy”) to come before an adjective that expresses age (like “belated”). So one would refer to “a delightful old recipe,” not “an old delightful recipe,” and “a risky premature birth,” not “a premature risky birth.”

As for “happy belated birthday” and “belated happy birthday,” you can find both expressions in books, newspapers, magazines, blogs, and social media. The first version is generally more popular in less edited sources, and the second in more edited ones.

A search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in books, shows that the logical version (“belated happy birthday”) is significantly more popular in these more closely edited works. However, a general Google search as well as a search of the News on the Web corpus, a database of articles from online newspapers and magazines, indicates that “happy belated birthday” is more popular.

Greeting card companies generally offer a wide variety of ways to say “happy birthday” belatedly. Although “happy belated birthday” seems to be the most common, “belated happy birthday” is also offered, as well as “belated birthday wishes,” “belated birthday greetings,” and “belated”-free offerings like “happy birthday … fashionably late” and “I feel horrible about missing your birthday … console me with leftover cake.”

As far as we can tell, the phrase “happy birthday” didn’t show up until the mid-19th century. At first it was literal, referring to the occasion itself. Later, it came to be a formulaic congratulatory expression.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from “Pauline,” a short story by Elizabeth Scaife in the 1843 edition of the Keepsake, an annual literary magazine in London:

“Remembrance painted another birthday of younger years—a happy birthday—the birthday of her first love—a birthday of abounding and exulting expectation, and she could not but feel how different were the hopes she then cherished, and the realities which had overshadowed them.”

The first example we’ve found for the formulaic expression is from Mary’s Birthday, a play by the American writer George Henry Miles: “I wish you a very happy birthday, Miss Mary, and many happy returns.” (The comedy was published in 1858 and performed in the 1859 Broadway season.)

How did people wish each other a happy birthday before “happy birthday” appeared on the scene? The answer is in the previous example. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, people used “many happy returns,” “many happy returns of the day,” “many returns,” and so on as “conventional wishes and greetings on a special day, now spec. on a person’s birthday.”

The noun “return” here refers to the “act or fact of recurring or coming round again” or “each of a series of repetitions of an action,” according to the OED. The dictionary’s first citation refers to New Year’s Day:

“And to wish we may see many returns of this Day, many happy New-Years” (from The Church of England Not Superstitious, 1714, by William Teswell, an Anglican rector).

The OED’s earliest use of “returns” in connection with a birthday is from The Battle of Life (1846), a novella by Dickens. We’ll expand the quotation for context:

“ ‘The notion of wishing happy returns in such a farce as this,’ said the Doctor to himself, ‘is good! Ha! ha! ha!’ ” Dr. Jeddler, who finds life a farce, has just kissed his daughter Marion on her birthday and said “many happy returns of the—the idea!—of the day.”

We’ve found several earlier examples, including these in the title and first stanza of “Many Happy Returns of the Day,” a verse by Sylvanus Swanquill, pseudonym of the English writer John Hewitt:

“So this is your birthday, my friend! / You’re just sixty-seven, they say; / You look eighty-eight, but I wish you / Many happy returns of the day.” (From the Court Journal, London, Oct. 17, 1835.)

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Urine analysis

Q: I’ve had quite a few doctor’s visits and laboratory tests lately and the medical personnel I’ve encountered use “pee” for urinate, both as a directive (in a cup) or while discussing results. I don’t object to this usage, but I wonder if it isn’t a bit informal in this setting. What do you think?

A: We’ve had this experience, too. At doctors’ offices, not only are we invited to “pee” into a cup, but sometimes we’re even asked how regularly we “poop.”

It may be that in medical settings, this deliberate informality is intended to make patients comfortable and put them at ease—a welcome contrast to the bewildering technical terminology the patients are faced with.

Or perhaps it’s an extension of the calculated familiarity that’s sometimes called the “hospital we,” as in “How are we feeling this morning,” a usage we wrote about in 2011.

We aren’t bothered by these usages in a medical setting, largely because our minds are focused on more important things—like whether we’d better start putting our affairs in order!

As for the words themselves, we’ve written before about the etymology of “poop,” which didn’t mean “defecate” until the late 19th century.

And though we have discussed “piss” and words derived from it, we’ve never written about “pee.” So here goes.

As a verb meaning to urinate, “pee” is simply a shorter form of “piss.” It originally developed in the 18th century, when it stood for “the initial letter of piss,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When it was first used, “pee” was a transitive verb—that is, it required an object, the thing that was urinated in or on.

The dictionary’s earliest example is about a cat: “He never stealt, though he was poor, / Nor ever pee’d his master’s floor” (from Ebenezer Picken’s Poems and Epistles, Mostly in the Scottish Dialect, 1788).

Early in the 19th century, the verb was also used intransitively (without an object), and again the OED’s earliest citation is Scottish: “To pee, to make water” (from John Jamieson’s Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, 1825).

Standard dictionaries in the US and the UK now describe the use of “pee” to mean urinate as informal—that is, acceptable in speech and casual writing.

Here’s an example from Lexico, formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online: “In the bathroom, the girl in the next stall answers her cell phone while she’s peeing.’

In modern British English, the phrase “peed off” is used in the same sense as “pissed off,” according to Lexico, which includes this among its examples:

“She looked really rather peed off but it made for a nugget of great telly.”

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English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Careering or careening?

Q: My brother claims that a reckless driver “careens” off the road, but I think the proper word is “career”? Who’s right—or does anybody care?

A: The answer depends on whether the accident happens in Devonshire or Dubuque. A British speaker is more likely to use “career,” while an American would choose “careen.” Both are acceptable.

This wasn’t always the case, however. Until the early 20th century, a traditional distinction was made between the two verbs. “Career” meant to rush recklessly and out of control, while “careen” meant to tilt, tip, or heel over (as a ship might do).

But as we wrote in 2006, “careen” is now broadly accepted—in common usage as well as in standard dictionaries—for both senses. We felt then (and still do) that the old distinction between “career” and “careen” had become obsolete in American usage.

In fact, we’ve found examples of the hurtling sense of “careen” in American publications dating from the 1860s, though the usage didn’t become widespread until the 1920s.

As we pointed out in our post, some usage guides were still insisting on the traditional distinction even then. But they’ve since changed their positions.

For example, the 1999 edition of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage included an entry for “careen, career,” recommending that “precise writers” recognize the difference. But that entry disappeared with the manual’s fifth edition, published in 2015.

Nowadays the Times uses both verbs (but mostly “careen”) in the high-speed sense. Here are recent examples of each: “A Greyhound driver who authorities say fell asleep before the bus careened off a road in the Utah desert …” (May 15, 2019). “The vehicles careered through a guardrail into southbound traffic” (Jan. 3, 2019).

We also noted in 2006 that Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage upheld the old distinction and recommended “careering out of control,” not “careening.” But the fourth edition, published in 2016 as Garner’s Modern English Usage, says that American English “has made careen do the job of career, as by saying that a car careened down the street.”

We checked 10 standard American and British dictionaries, and all of them currently accept both “career” and “careen” in the sense of moving fast and without control. Six of them (one American, five British) label “careen” as mainly a North American usage.

While some dictionaries simply accept “career” and “careen” as synonyms, a few say that the movement implied in “careen” includes a lurching, swaying, or otherwise erratic course. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary has this usage note:

“Both words may be used to mean ‘to go at top speed especially in a headlong manner.’ A car, for instance, may either careen or career. Some usage guides hold, however, that the car is only careening if there is side-to-side motion, as careen has other meanings related to movement, among which is ‘to sway from side to side.’ ”

We would argue, however, that back-and-forth movement isn’t necessary and that a vehicle can also “careen” by hurtling in a straight line. The linguist and lexicographer Jeremy Butterfield apparently agrees.

In Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Butterfield writes that because the original nautical meaning was to lean over or tilt, the verb “carries a residual notion in non-nautical contexts of leaning or tilting.”

But he continues: “In a separate modern development in American English, since the 1920s, careen has rapidly become standard in the sense ‘to rush headlong, to hurtle, especially with an unsteady motion,’ i.e. the speed is more central to the meaning than any latent notion of leaning or tilting.”

Butterfield adds that this modern meaning of “careen” is found “much less often in British English, the broad sense being often covered by the verb career.”

Etymologically, “career” and “careen” are unrelated, though both have roots in classical Latin. “Career” can be traced to carrus (wagon) and “careen” to carīna (keel of a boat).

Both words first entered English as nouns in the 16th century, when they were borrowed from French. The first to appear in English writing was “career,”  which the OED says was first recorded in 1534 when it meant a “course” (as in the path of a star through the heavens) or a “running” (as in terms of horsemanship like “full career” for full gallop).

The French source was carrière (racecourse), a noun acquired from the late Latin carrāria, which the OED says meant “carriage-road” or simply “road,” a derivation of carrus (wagon).

Later in the 16th century, the English noun “career” was also recorded in the sense of a race track. It wasn’t until the 19th century that “career” developed the sense of a person’s path in life, the OED says, and it didn’t specifically mean “a course of professional life or employment” until the 20th.

This is Oxford’s first example of the modern meaning: “The foundation of any sound Foreign Service must consist of ‘career men’ who have become expert” (Literary Digest, June 25, 1927). There “career” is an attributive noun—that is, a noun used as a modifier.

As for the verb “career,” it was first recorded in 1594, the OED says, when it meant “to take a short gallop” or “to charge.” This sense led in the 1600s to a related sense that the OED calls a “transferred and figurative” meaning: “to gallop, run or move at full speed.”

That’s the latest sense of the verb for which the OED has citations, and they extend only to 1856. This one is a representative example: “The little Julian was careering about the room for the amusement of his infant friend” (from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Peveril of the Peak, 1823).

Moving on to “careen,” it was first recorded in 1591 as a noun meaning “the position of a ship laid or heeled over on one side,” as in the expression “on (upon) the careen,” Oxford says.

Shortly afterward, in 1600, “careen” appeared as a verb meaning to turn a ship on one side for cleaning, repairs, etc. And in the 18th century it came to mean to tilt or lean over, first in the seagoing sense and later more generally (as when vehicles or buildings were said to “careen”—that is, tip or fall sideways).

The modern meaning of “careen” is defined in the OED as “to rush headlong, to hurtle, esp. with an unsteady motion,” and it’s labeled “chiefly US.”

As we mentioned above, we’ve found “careen” used this way in American publications dating back to the 1860s.

The earliest example we’ve spotted is from an unsigned short story in a California newspaper. In the relevant passage, a character reveals himself by flinging aside his disguise:

“Off flew the bottle-green overcoat—away went the red wig—across the room careened the green spectacles.” (“The Lover’s Masquerade,” Red Bluff Independent, Feb. 25, 1869.)

We’ll give a few more examples from subsequent decades, just to show that the 1869 usage wasn’t an oddity:

“The horse careened down the avenue and broke the wagon to pieces by collision with a wood team.” (Indianapolis News, Oct. 31, 1876.)

“The sleepers [sleeping cars] on the eastern express from Chicago, due at Minneapolis at 7:30 this morning, were thrown from the track at Mendota and careened down a sixty foot embankment to the river.” (Bismarck Tribune, Dakota Territory, Jan. 2, 1880.)

“After a dozen spirits [of the departed] had come from the cabinet, careened through the atmosphere and vanished into space, a particularly depressing scene took place.” (From an article about a seance, Salt Lake Herald, April 24, 1892.)

The OED’s earliest example is from an early 20th-century science fiction novel describing the motion of a spaceship: “The cruiser ‘Vanator’ careened through the tempest.” (From The Chessmen of Mars, 1923, by Edgar Rice Burroughs.)

A couple of decades later the American linguist Dwight L. Bolinger wrote: “Careen of recent years has come to mean ‘to rush headlong,’ or ‘hurtle,’ doubtless because of its resemblance to career—but this is rather an example of displacement than of pairing, for one rarely reads or hears the word career nowadays.” (From “Word Affinities,” a paper published in the journal American Speech, February 1940.)

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

Why is a ‘square meal’ square?

Q: Why do we call a balanced meal a “square meal” rather than a well-rounded one?

A: The phrase “square meal” is derived from the use of the adjective “square” to mean just, equitable, honest, or straightforward, senses that began showing up in the late 16th century and gave rise to such expressions as “playing square,” “a square deal,” “the square thing,” “on the square,” and “fair and square.”

An early example in the Oxford English Dictionary for “square” meaning honest is from a pamphlet that purports to be a defense of Elizabethan con men, but actually exposes their tricks with humorous tales of double-dealing:

“For feare of trouble I was fain [glad] to try my good hap [fortune] at square play” (The Defence of Conny Catching, 1592, by Cuthbert Cunny-Catcher, pseudonym of the English author Robert Green). “Coney catching,” Elizabethan slang for chicanery, comes from “coney” (spelled various ways), a tame rabbit raised to be eaten.

Over the years, the adjective “square” took on various other senses that may have contributed to its use in the expression “square meal,” which showed up in the US in the mid-19th century.

In the early 17th century, “square” was used to describe someone who was “solid or steady (at eating or drinking),” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example refers to “a square drinker, a faithfull drunkard; one that will take his liquor soundly” (from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, 1611, compiled by Randall Cotgrave).

The next citation, which we’ve expanded, describes gluttons: “By Heaven, square eaters! More meat, I say! Upon my conscience, the poor rogues have not eat this month! How terribly they charge upon their victuals!” (from Bonduca, a tragicomedy written sometime before 1625 by the Jacobean playwright John Fletcher).

In the early 19th century, “square” came to mean balanced or in good order. Here’s an OED example from Mr. Midshipman Easy, an 1836 novel by Frederick Marryat:

“If she is unhappy for three months, she will be overjoyed for three more when she hears that I am alive, so it will be all square at the end of the six.”

As for “square meal,” when the phrase showed up in American English it referred to a “full, solid, substantial” meal, according to the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an article about the American West in a British periodical. We’re expanding the quotation to give more of the context:

“Roadside hotel-keepers are every now and then calling the miners’ attention to their ‘square meals’: by which is meant full meals, in contradistinction to the imperfect dinner a man has to put up with on the mountains.” (From the Sept. 19, 1868, issue of All the Year Round, a literary magazine edited and owned by Charles Dickens.)

However, we’ve seen several earlier examples online, including this one from a restaurant ad in an American newspaper:

“We can promise all who patronize us that they can always get a hearty welcome and ‘square meal’ at the Hope and Neptune. Oyster, chicken and game suppers prepared at short notice” (from the Mountain Democrat, Placerville, Calif., Nov. 8, 1856).

Standard dictionaries now define “square meal” as one that’s balanced or nutritious as well as substantial.

Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online) defines it as “a substantial, satisfying, and balanced meal,” and gives this among its examples: “Daily physical fitness is just as crucial to good health as getting three square meals and eight hours of shut-eye.”

As for the early etymology, English borrowed the adjective “square” from Old French in the late 14th century, but it ultimately comes from exquadrāre, a colloquial Latin term composed of ex- (out) and quadrāre (to make square).

The earliest OED citation for the adjective refers to “a Square plate perced with a certein holes” (from A Treatise on the Astrolabe, 1391, an instructional manual by Chaucer for an instrument used by astronomers and navigators to take celestial readings).

The Latin term exquadrāre is also the source of the noun “square,” which showed up in the 13th century, and the verb, which appeared in the late 14th. The noun originally referred to an L-shaped carpenter’s square while the verb meant to reshape something into a square form.

The first OED citation for the noun is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1300:

“And do we wel and make a toure / Wit suire and scantilon sa euen, / Þat may reche heghur þan heuen” (“And let us make a tower with square and gauge that may reach higher than heaven”). The poem expands on Genesis 11:4 by adding the reference to “suire and scantilon,” Middle English terms for a carpenter’s square and gauge for measuring dimensions.

The dictionary’s earliest example for the verb, which we’ve expanded, is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “The kyng comaundide, that thei shulden take the greet stoonus, and the precious stoonus, into the foundment of the temple, and thei shulden square hem” (“The king commanded that they should take the great stones, and the precious stones, and they should square them for the foundation of the temple”). The biblical passage is 1 Kings 5:17.

In closing, we should note that there are several myths about the origin of “square meal.” The most common folk etymology is that the expression is derived the square wooden plates once used for meals in the Royal Navy. Forget about it.

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

When a family daughters out

Q: In his novel Money for Nothing, Donald E. Westlake has a character say a family “daughtered out.” The meaning is clear, the family name went extinct for lack of male heirs. Did Westlake invent this use of “daughter”?

A: The phrasal verb “daughter out” is familiar to genealogy buffs. A family name is said to “daughter out” when there are no sons to pass it on. (The assumption, of course, is that daughters always take their husbands’ names.)

The expression appeared in writing in the 1940s, but it can’t be found in the usual standard, slang, or etymological dictionaries. And unfortunately, there’s no mention of it in the Dictionary of American Regional English, so we can’t say where it might have originated.

However, “daughter out” is included in the collaborative Wiktionary, which defines it this way: “(of a surname or of heritable property in a patrilineal naming or inheritance system) To expire due to having only females surviving the death of the last male in a line.”

Wiktionary also lists the principal parts of the verb: “third-person singular simple present daughters out, present participle daughtering out, simple past and past participle daughtered out.”

Westlake used “daughtered out” twice in the same scene of his 2003 novel Money for Nothing.

The characters Josh and Robbie are in a taxi, and the driver tells them that the woman they’re going to see, Mrs. Rheingold, “was one of the Caissens, old-time family around here, you know. Early settlers. Daughtered out.”

She got married, the cabbie says, “just around the time the last of her aunts expired, leaving her the absolute last Caissen, and not even a Caissen anymore but a Rheingold.”

“Daughtered out,” Robbie then says, and Josh suspects that Robbie repeated it “because he’d just now figured out what it meant.”

Westlake apparently liked the expression, because he’d used it decades earlier.

In his novel Brothers Keepers (1975), two monks are speaking and one says, “The Van deWitts daughtered out during the Civil War.” He later explains that the “line eventually produced no sons … and therefore the name ceased to exist.”

As we said above, the expression has been in use since the 1940s, if not before. The earliest example we’ve found is from a nonfiction book about a historic New Hampshire mill:

“The name of Goffe ‘daughtered out’ one hundred years ago, but the descendants persisted on the location just the same.” (John Goffe’s Mill, 1948, by George Woodbury.)

The phrase also cropped up in 1957 in a short item in Reader’s Digest: “New England expression: ‘The family name daughtered out’ (Paul Flowers in Memphis Commercial Appeal).”

A letter to the editor of the journal American Speech (February 1961) cites the use of the expression in The Devil in Bucks County, a 1959 novel by Edmund Schiddel:

“There used to be lots of Coatesworths here in the early days, and they did own land up your way. But they were daughtered out, long ago.”

An article in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology (October 1967) uses the term in reference to a New Hampshire family named Merrow: “Meanwhile Deacon Daniel’s progeny proliferated Merrows well into the twentieth century before they almost ‘daughtered out.’ ”

It’s possible that “daughter out” was a New England expression. We’ve seen much later examples in which it’s said to have originated in Massachusetts, Maine, or Vermont. But we’ve also seen suggestions that it comes from Canada or the South.

One late 20th-century example connects the term to a particular genealogist: “The Joyce family surname died out in this line of the Joyce family—‘daughtered out’ as the late great genealogist, Maclean W. McLean used to say” (from the Mayflower Quarterly, 1997).

McLean did use the term, but he apparently didn’t coin it. The earliest uses by him that we’ve been able to find are from a 1972 issue of the American Genealogist, in which he uses the term twice in separate articles: “this Whelden family had not ‘daughtered out’ ” … “the [Harper] family ‘daughtered out.’ ”

These days, “daughtered out” is commonly used on genealogical websites and can often be found in other kinds of writing as well. It’s not to be confused with the title of a reality-TV program, OutDaughtered, which is about a young couple with six daughters (five of them quintuplets).

The couple, Danielle and Adam Busby, are certainly overwhelmed by daughters, but there’s no suggestion that the Busby name will be “daughtered out.” Adam could have other male relations named Busby—or a future son-in-law could adopt the Busby name!

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

In the weeds

Q: On two recent dates, talking heads on TV news spoke of individuals being “in the weeds” in the context of being deeply in the know about a particular issue. I had never heard this usage before. Is this new? Or am I just behind?

A: People tramping through the brush have literally been “in the weeds” since Anglo-Saxon times, when “weed” was wéod in Old English. But as far as we can tell, English speakers didn’t begin using “in the weeds” figuratively until the mid-20th century, when it acquired the slang sense of being in the suburbs or outskirts of a town.

Since then, “in the weeds” has taken on several other slang, colloquial, or informal senses. It can mean being in a safe or secluded place, flying at a low altitude or under the radar, being overwhelmed by work, and being engaged in (or bogged down by) the intricate details of an issue. We suspect that the talking heads you heard were using it to describe experts or detail-oriented people.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang has the earliest example we’ve seen for “in the weeds” used figuratively (in the suburbs or outskirts): “Then we would pick up the tail of one of them until they got out in the weeds at the edge of town somewheres” (from Rap Sheet: My Life Story, 1955, by Blackie Audett, aka James Henry Audett).

The expression soon took on the slang sense of a safe or secure place, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED’s first example quotes Fred Taylor, the Ohio State men’s basketball coach: “We probably took some of them by surprise last year … but everybody is going to be hiding in the weeds looking for us this year” (from the Chicago Daily Defender, Nov. 23, 1960).

Then in US Air Force slang, “in the weeds” came to mean flying at a very low level. The earliest OED citation is from F4 Phantom: A Pilot’s Story (1979), by Robert Prest:

“I counter roll and push downwards, seeking to gain the energy that I need to smoke away into the distance down in the ‘weeds’ at zero feet or thereabouts, where his pulse radar will be unable to pick me up.”

A couple of years later the expression took on the colloquial sense of “a cook, waiter, bartender, etc.: overwhelmed with orders or work,” according to the dictionary. Its earliest example is from an On Language column by William Safire in the New York Times Magazine (May 2, 1981):

“A busy bartender is said to be buried or in the weeds.” The dictionary says this sense is also found “in extended use”—that is, in reference to overworked people in other jobs.

The usage you’re asking about came along a decade later. Oxford defines it this way: “at the most basic or grass-roots level; engaged with intricate or precise details, esp. to an extent considered distracting or limiting.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from the Journal of Commerce (March 4, 1993): “One White House official at first dismissed questions about the Ex-Im Bank plan as ‘too far down in the weeds for me.’ ”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t label the usage, but Cambridge Dictionary online, the only standard dictionary we’ve seen with an entry for “in the weeds,” considers the detail sense of the expression “US informal.”

Finally, here’s an example from the New York Times on April 4, 2019, about two of President Trump’s choices for the Federal Reserve Board:

“While the institution has strongly rooted values around technical competence and apolitical debate, Mr. Trump’s latest choices have been political actors rather than in-the-weeds experts in any of the main areas in which the Fed makes policy.” (The two men withdrew their names from consideration.)

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

On ‘equity’ and ‘equality’

Q: I assume that “equity” and “equality” are related if you go back far enough. Please write about the history of these two words. “Equity” seems to be replacing “equality” at the university where I teach.

A: Broadly speaking, both words mean the quality of being fair or equal. Their ultimate source, and that of their many relatives in English, is the Latin adjective aequus (level, even, just)—not to be confused with the noun equus (horse).

As they’re used in modern English, “equity” and “equality” may occasionally overlap, but they’re generally used in different ways—“equity” in regard to fairness, “equality” in regard to sameness.

Here are the definitions in Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online), which are representative of those in other standard dictionaries:

“equity: The quality of being fair and impartial.” The example given: “equity of treatment.”

“equality: The state of being equal, especially in status, rights, or opportunities.” The example given: “an organization aiming to promote racial equality.”

(Lexico is an online collaboration in which Oxford University Press provides content for a website owned by the Lexico Publishing Group, owner of

Both words entered English writing in the 14th century, “equity” around 1315 and “equality” in the late 1390s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, traces the two terms, along with their relative “equal” (early 1390s), to classical Latin words derived from the adjective we mentioned above, aequus.

While “equal” came directly from the Latin aequālis, “equity” and “equality” took a less direct route into English, by way of Old French.

First on the English scene was “equity,” from the Old French equité (a derivative of the Latin aequitātem).

The Middle English spellings varied widely (“equite,” “equyte,” “equitee,” and so on), but from the beginning the noun had to do with what the OED calls “the quality of being equal or fair; fairness, impartiality; even-handed dealing.”

The dictionary’s earliest known use is a reference to the divine mystery of God’s “domes [judgments] in equyte” (circa 1315, from a poem by William de Shoreham, vicar of Chart-Sutton).

In legal language, “equity” has a special sense, one believed to have existed in writing since 1591. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines it this way: “Justice achieved not simply according to the strict letter of the law but in accordance with principles of substantial justice and the unique facts of the case.”

As the OED says, this meaning of “equity” comes from the notion that a decision “in equity” was “one given in accordance with natural justice, in a case for which the law did not provide adequate remedy, or in which its operation would have been unfair.”

While “equity” had meanings related to fairness and justice, “equality” had to do with sameness or equivalency. It came into English from the Old French équalité (today it’s égalité), which in turn was a borrowing of the Latin aequālitātem (from aequālis).

The noun “equality” is generally defined, the OED says, as “the quality or condition of being equal,” and in the earliest citation it’s used in a physical sense:

“Þe see hatte equor, and haþ þat name of equalite, ‘euennesse,’ for he is euen and playne.” (“The sea hath aequor [Latin for an even, level surface], and hath that name of equality, ‘evenness,’ for it is even and plain.”)

That passage is from John Trevisa’s translation, sometime before 1398, of De Proprietatibus Rerum, an encyclopedic Latin work compiled by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus. We’ve expanded the quotation and taken it from a different manuscript than the OED used.

Other senses of “equality” followed. In the early 1400s, the word was used to mean equal “quantity, amount, value, intensity, etc.,” Oxford says. And in the early 1500s it was used for equal “dignity, rank, or privileges with others” or “being on an equal footing.”

Toward the end of the 16th century, these usages led to a new sense of the word: “the condition of being equal in power, ability, achievement, or excellence.” The OED credits Shakespeare with the first written evidence:

“The on-set and retyre / Of both your Armies, whose equality / By our best eyes cannot be censured” (King John, probably written in the 1590s).

One of the most common meanings today emerged in the late 19th century in the phrase “equality of opportunity,” which the OED defines as “equal chance and right to seek success in one’s chosen sphere regardless of social factors such as class, race, religion, and sex.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an 1891 issue of the Economic Review (London): “It will possibly, however, be contended that here the ideal is equality of Opportunity.”

Today the phrases “equality of opportunity” and “equal opportunity” (first recorded in this sense in Britain in 1925) are both common—though not equally common. The shorter “equal opportunity” is more popular, according to Google’s Ngram viewer.

The noun phrase “equal-opportunity employer” originated in the US in the 1960s, the OED says. Oxford’s definition is “one who professes not to discriminate against applicants or employees on such grounds”—that is, “race, gender, physical or mental handicap, etc.”

As we said above, the Latin adjective aequus gave us many English words beside “equity” and “equality.” We already mentioned “equal,” which was first recorded in a scientific work by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1391.

A passage in A Treatise on the Astrolabe (1391) explains how to regulate the complex astronomical instrument, and Chaucer uses “howres equales” and “howres in-equales” to mean “equal hours” and “unequal hours.”

That early use of “equal” retains a whiff of the Latin aequālis in its spelling, “equales”; the modern spelling didn’t appear until the 16th century.

Other English words that can be traced to aequus include “iniquity” (1300s); “equation” (1393); “equator” (circa 1400); “equinox” (c. 1400); “equate” (1400s); “equivalent” (c. 1460); “equalize” (1500s); “equidistant” (probably before 1560); “equivocate” (1590); “equivocal” (1601-02); “equanimity” (1607); “adequate” (1608) and “inadequate” (1675); “equilibrium” (1608); “equable” (1643); and a latecomer, “egalitarian” (1885).

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English English language Expression Language Pronunciation Usage

Conceptually speaking

Q: A recent post of yours introduced me to the use of “concept” as a verb. But how do I pronounce it? Is it KON-sept (like the noun) or “kon-SEPT”? My linear left brain wants to stick with KON-sept, but my intuitive right brain says uh-uh.

A: As we noted in our post, we checked 10 standard American and British dictionaries and found only one that includes “concept” as a verb. Unfortunately that one,, lists no specific pronunciation for the verb.

It has only a single pronunciation, KON-sept, at the head of its entry, which begins with the noun. We can only guess whether that pronunciation is supposed to apply to all the forms of the word.

However, when a word exists in both noun and verb forms, the usual pattern is that the noun is accented on the first syllable and the verb on the second, as with CON-vict (noun) and con-VICT (verb), REC-ord (noun) and re-CORD (verb).

We’ve written about this pattern before, including posts in 2012 and 2016.

And as we said, the same pattern applies to the noun-verb pairs “permit,” “extract,” “addict,” “combat,” “compound,” “conduct,” “incense,” “insult,” “present,” “produce,” “refuse,” and “subject.”

The nouns are accented on the first syllable while the verbs (along with their participles) are accented on the second syllable.

If “concept” were to follow this pattern, the verb would be pronounced con-CEPT and the participles con-CEPT-ing and con-CEPT-ed.

That’s why your brain somehow didn’t accept the reverse pronunciation (CON-sept). You knew from experience (even if you hadn’t articulated it to yourself) that words like those above sound differently depending on their function—noun versus verb.

Native English speakers can often guess correctly at the pronunciations of words they haven’t seen before. Through experience in reading, speaking, and listening, they’ve absorbed the conventions associated with how spellings are generally pronounced.

So when they come across an unfamiliar word, they simply extrapolate from what they already know—and their guess is often right.

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comic fiction fiction

Sick of politics? Want a break?

Turn off the news and read the first chapter of Swan Song, a comic novel about a real estate scam on the Space Coast of Florida. Can the three musketeers—Selma Waxler and her old friends Kitty and Rose—foil the snake that’s slithered into their retirement paradise?
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Swan Song

By Stewart Kellerman

Chapter 1


I was always fussy about my hair, but I had to tighten the purse strings when things fell apart. To save a few pennies, I’d take my own colors to Annette’s House of Aloha: Miss Clairol, an ounce of Topaz and an ounce of Moon Haze. I still had beautiful hair, as nice as when I was a schoolgirl. Maybe a little nicer, if I say so myself. I waved naturally, which I didn’t as a girl. Believe it or not, I hadn’t permed since I was in my twenties and unattached.

Annette used to set my colors with two ounces of L’Oreal, but I made her switch to Clairoxide after the Disaster. It was sixty-five cents less and my dear friend Kitty saw something in Florida Today about how this big shot at L’Oreal had been a Nazi during the war.

If I needed a good treatment, Annette would shampoo me with Wella, first the conditioner, then the conditioning shampoo. My boys used the stuff, too—Dewey, my oldest, and Zoot, number two—but only the shampoo, the one with cholesterol.

Annette knew a terrific trick. She’d rub in a tiny amount of conditioner as she applied my color. This was so the tips shouldn’t dry out. She learned that in Paw­tucket, where she had a unisex before moving to the Space Coast.

Of course, everyone in Florida came from somewhere. Sid and I used to live on Kimball Terrace, the dead-end block next to Yonkers Raceway. We had a detached brick with a flagstone patio in back and a finished basement. It took Sid half a summer vacation, but he put up the paneling downstairs all by himself, a very nice wormy cherry.

I discovered Annette soon after moving to Satellite Beach, where we bought when Sid retired from teaching radio and television at Gompers, his vocational high school in the Bronx. This was a few weeks into 1981, not too long after the Reagans got to Washington.

I was still a mere bobby-soxer of sixty-five, barely old enough to get my senior discount at Mercury Marquee (Sid used to call it the Sin-a-Plex). He was sixty-six, nearly four years younger than Reagan at the Inauguration. Day in and day out, Sid was carrying on about that cowboy in the White House. Little did he realize, but Reagan wasn’t the rustler we had to worry about.

To be fair, it was Kitty who found the House of Aloha, Annette’s beauty parlor in Spaceport Plaza. Annette was between Reliable Realty—don’t get me started on that—and Golden Chopsticks, Sid’s favorite Chinese restaurant. He was very picky when it came to Chinese, wouldn’t touch anything but the most boring dishes from the chow mein school.

Spaceport Plaza, by the way, wasn’t exactly a mall, but one of those older-style shopping centers on A1A where you had to step outside to go from store to store. All the shops were stucco, pink stucco with little aquamarine awnings in front—Spanish style.

Kitty had always been the pioneer. She discovered Pelican Pond, our retirement village in Satellite Beach. She bought first, then I did, and Rose brought up the rear. Rose was forever last, the sweetest person in the world, but a faint heart who was always waiting for Kitty and me to show her the way.

We’d been together through thick and thin. The Three Musketeers—that’s what everyone used to call us when we were growing up on Livonia Avenue in Brooklyn. We wouldn’t let anybody separate us. We had plenty of aggravation from our husbands, let me tell you, but we insisted on finding three houses close to one another in Yonkers. Rose lived down the street from me on Kimball Terrace and Kitty was one block over on Halstead.

Kitty was the brave one. I remember when we were in tenth grade at Thomas Jefferson and she took Rose and me into the city for Chinese at the Singapore. This was the first time any of us had tried Chinese food and Rose was acting like Daniel in the lion’s den.

“What the hell are you afraid of?” Kitty hollered for the whole room to hear. “Christ Almighty, it won’t jump up and bite you. You’re supposed to be doing the goddamn biting.”

I should have warned you about Kitty’s mouth. All ears were burning at the tables around us. Even the Chinese waiters were getting an earful. Well, Rose may have been a crybaby, but I wasn’t exactly Selma the Lion-Hearted when I saw the menu.

I couldn’t tell my egg foo from my mu shu in those days, let alone the more exotic stuff—octopus suckers, chicken toes, eye of newt, for all I know. I kept asking our waiter if the dishes had onions. I didn’t like cooked onions. I could eat raw onions chopped up with tuna and other things, but not cooked in my food.

Onions never agreed with Sid, either, raw or other­wise. He was of the opinion—and not just an opinion in his case—that onions give you gas. Sid always had an opinion, too many of them in my opinion. We wouldn’t have been in such a state if he’d listened to me.

I wanted to be on the pond, but Sid knew better. Kitty and Leo had already bought a lovely Hacienda, one of the higher-quality waterside villas. Rose and Sol were still hemming and hawing, but it looked as if they’d take the plunge and get a Hacienda, too.

Sid had other ideas. The way he figured it, we’d be throwing good money away to be on a pond, especially an artificial one, when we didn’t even have a canoe. He wanted us to get a Chalet, the cheaper unit with a breeze­way instead of a garage. The Chalets were over by Tropi­cana Trail and the traffic congestion. As an added attraction, you had a lovely view through your picture window of Luna Lanes, the bowladrome across the street.

“Everyone wants to be on the pond,” Sid argued as we examined the prospectus in Yonkers. “You have to pay top dollar there. Why should we go into debt to be on the water?”

“But that’s where I want to be, on the pond next to Kitty and Rose.”

“We shouldn’t tie ourselves down with a mortgage at our age, Bubbie. If we buy away from the water, we’ll have our home free and clear. And we can put the left­over into a nest egg.”

“I don’t want an ugly bowling alley in my face. I don’t even like bowling. And what are we going to do with a nest egg? Sit on it until we hatch chickens?”

“I’m sorry, but I’m not a high roller like some other husbands I could mention. I had to slave in the school system all my life.”

“You’ll be getting a very nice bundle from your vari­able annuity when you retire, $22,215 in cold cash, as you never cease to remind me. Why can’t we use this manna from heaven to buy a Hacienda? We’d need to borrow only ten thousand more.”

“It doesn’t make sense to pay double-digit interest rates to be on a phoney-baloney pond. Who needs water?”

Listen to him, Sid Waxler, the Answer Man. Let him speak for himself. You should have seen me as a girl. I used to slice through the water without a splash, just like the girls in Billy Rose’s Aquacade. Even in Florida, I could have swum circles around the tadpoles sunning them­selves topless by the pool of the Econo Lodge on A1A, the place with the turquoise tiles.

As soon as we got to Pelican Pond, I joined Aquacise at the Olympic pool. Maybe I shouldn’t be the one to say this, but I was a sensation. Loretta Liebowitz, our lady lifeguard, said I had more natural talent and enthusiasm than the rest of the class combined, though that might have been a slight exaggeration.

Sid used to take me to Orchard Beach in the summer, back when we had the one-bedroom on Sedgwick Ave­nue in the Bronx, our first home together. We used to suntan in section twelve, where the musicians congre­gated. Sid would lie back on a beach towel, his eyes closed, as I serenaded the crowd with my mandolin, an old Gibson.

Sid wasn’t much of a swimmer—more of a splasher, actually. I have a picture from the old days. He’s at the beach, holding Dewey on his shoulder. Dewey in dia­pers, such a tiny thing. Sid’s hair is stuck to his head like a wet washcloth. He’s a stringbean, standing there in his trunks. They were navy, the trunks, but you can’t tell from the picture because it’s a black-and-white.

Sid’s hair was still as black as ever when we got to Florida, but he never appreciated his good fortune. I worked so hard to get my color right and he didn’t have to lift a pinkie. It wasn’t fair. He was still a stringbean, too. I’d like someone to explain that. I had to struggle every day of my life to keep my girlish figure. Sid, on the other hand, could stuff whatever garbage he wanted into that big trap. Not an ounce stuck to his bones. This had to be the metabolism or something, maybe hormones. At night, I’d look at his tiny little size-thirty belt draped over the armchair in our bedroom and feel like stran­gling him with it.

As usual, Sid had his way about the Chalet. We got it for $74,895 plus closing costs, just about what we cleared from selling the house in Yonkers. And he insisted we put the entire $22,215 from the school system into a one-year CD at Sun Bank, the branch on South Babcock in Melbourne. It had the best rate around, fifteen per­cent compounded, and you got a pocket calculator for opening the account.

Sid moved the rest of our money, a few thousand from Yonkers Savings, into a joint checking account at South­land, the bank with the drive-in window around the cor­ner on A1A. It was across from the Econo Lodge and next to Oinkers, the barbecue place on the ocean. You could get a platter of ribs for three ninety-five, a platter big enough to hold a ten-pound turkey.

For some reason, it made Sid feel good to have that nest egg in the bank. You would have thought it was a Fabergé from listening to him. But what were we saving for? Unless I was mistaken, burial shrouds were still being made without pockets.

My God, the aggravation we went through over that money. I get sick thinking about it. I curse the weasel responsible for what happened. His bones should be broken and trampled into the earth. Excuse me, but a bitter heart makes you say such things.

Well, I gave in on the Chalet, but I insisted on a kitchen with room for our Inca gold dinette set from Yonkers. That’s why we bought a Chalet Luxe, the two-bedroom end unit with a bath and a half and an eat-in kitchen. It was equipped with new Hot Point appliances, wall-to-wall carpeting, and a tiled Neptune green tub in the master bath that you stepped down into.

Sid liked the idea of the spare bedroom that came with an end unit. I furnished it with twin beds, in case the boys decided to do Sid and me a big favor and pay us a visit. Not that Dewey, the snob, or Zoot, the hipster, would stay with us—let alone Fleur, Dewey’s socialite wife.

All we got from the children was grumble, grumble, groan. Mostly they complained that the only thing we did was complain about them, which I couldn’t figure out, since there was no way to get a word in edgewise with all their complaining. I have a question, Dr. Broth­ers. If we were such rotten parents, how did they turn out to be so perfect?

Well, I’m not the only person to tumble into the gen­eration gap and crack my skull. Kitty emerged black and blue from raising Myra, her little sweetheart. And Rose had a concussion or two, thanks to Becky and Zach, the sweetness and light of her life.

I remember when I worked for Ansonia Shoes before the war. It was just off Herald Square, which was why you could always find me in Macy’s at lunch time. I was the steno in the office, but I did a lot of other things—the sales floor, the cash register, the account book.

I sent the checks to Mrs. Wolfowitz, the boss’s wife, when she went to Grossinger’s over the summer. I even filled in when the model was sick. I wasn’t a model size—she was a four and I was four and a half—but I’d squeeze my foot into it.

The point is, we got the most beautiful stuff at cost from Binghamton and the other shoe places upstate. I rated beautiful shoes and made sure my friends had them, too. No wonder I had such good friends. You have to be a friend to have one.

Well, maybe I should have put up more of a stink about the pond, as if that would have changed Dr. No’s mind. He could be very stubborn, ignoring me till I wilted like a warm salad. He was just as obstinate about the Disaster, but I don’t want to talk about that.

To buy Swan Song, visit your local bookstore or

English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

How appropriate is ‘apropos’?

Q: A website I read regularly uses “apropos” as if it means “appropriate” rather than “relevant” (the way I use it). Is this a new trend? Is it really right, and have I been wrong all these years?

A: The word “apropos” has several meanings in English, depending on whether it’s a preposition, an adverb, or an adjective.

As a preposition, it means “in respect to” and is often accompanied by “of,” according to the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged, which gives this example:

“Apropos the early church, Ford might have noted (and expatiated on) the qualifications added to the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ particularly in reference to heretics” (John T. O’Connor, The American Historical Review, October 1986).

As an adverb, M-W Unabridged says, it means either “at an opportune time” or “by the way.”

For the first sense, it cites this example: “Your letter came very apropos, as, indeed, your letters always do” (Charlotte Brontë, letter, Nov. 14, 1844).

And for the second, it cites this one: “Apropos, this brings me to a point on which I feel, as the vulgar idiom goes, ‘very awkward,’—as I always do in these confounded money-matters” (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Lucretia, 1846).

As an adjective, the way it’s used in the New York Times article that caught your eye, it can mean either “to the point” (that is, relevant) or “suitable or appropriate,” according to M-W Unabridged.

For the “relevant” sense, the dictionary cites “an apropos comment/remark” (no source given). For the “appropriate” sense, it cites the sentence “An old barn and New York’s Catskill Mountains serve as an apropos backdrop” (Country Living, July 2011).

We checked nine other standard British and American dictionaries and they generally have similar definitions, though the wording differs here and there.

Oxford Dictionaries, for example, defines the adjective as “very appropriate to a particular situation,” while Webster’s New World defines it as “fitting the occasion; relevant; apt,” and American Heritage as “fitting and to the point.”

Nevertheless, we’d use “appropriate” (or “fitting,” “suitable,” “proper,” and so on) if that’s what we meant. The use of “apropos” strikes us as affected.

Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), the only contemporary usage guide in our library that comments on the issue, agrees with you and considers it a misuse.

English borrowed “apropos” in the 17th century from the French à propos, formed of à (to) + propos (purpose), according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The word was first used as an adverb, says the OED, adding that its use with “of” is an echo of the French à propos de. (The dictionary does not categorize the word as a preposition.)

Oxford defines the adverb as meaning “to the purpose; fitly, opportunely,” and its earliest example uses it in that last sense: “The French … use them with better judgment and more apropos” (from John Dryden’s Of Dramatick Poesie, an Essay, 1668).

The adjective, which followed soon afterward, is defined in the OED as “to the point or purpose; having direct reference to the matter in hand; pertinent, opportune, ‘happy.’ ” In other words, it could mean relevant or appropriate.

Oxford’s first citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a rambling description of a plan to allocate taxes fairly in England: “It is certainly now the opus Dei, and a propos what he had said before in that Page” (An Account of Several New Inventions and Improvements Now Necessary for England, 1691, by Thomas Hale).

We’ll end with a clearer, lighter, and more appropriate OED example, also expanded, from Alexander Pope’s Epistle of Horace (1738), which updates the Roman satirist Horace to satirize life under the British Prime Minister Horace Walpole. Here Pope begins a riff on the old tale of the town mouse and country mouse:

Our friend Dan Prior, told (you know)
A tale extremely ‘à-propos’
Name a town life, and in a trice
He had a story of two mice.

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

Is ‘suicide’ a forbidden word?

Q: I read a profile in the NY Times about Kelly Catlin, a cyclist who committed suicide. A reader took umbrage over use of the word “suicide” and claimed that Poynter and other sources are using different language to describe this act. Is it true? And if so, is this yet another step toward sanitized language?

A: The objection in the news media is to the verb phrase “commit suicide,” not to the noun “suicide” itself. Since 2015, The Associated Press Stylebook has restricted the use of “commit suicide,” but the guidance is ignored by much of the media, even by some AP editors and reporters.

As the AP stylebook puts it, “Avoid using the phrase ‘committed suicide’ except in direct quotations from authorities. Alternate phrases include ‘killed himself,’ ‘took her own life’ or ‘died by suicide.’ The verb ‘commit’ with ‘suicide’ can imply a criminal act.”

(Suicide isn’t a federal crime in the US, but its legality is ambiguous in some states; assisted suicide is a crime in most states.)

The AP style guide’s entry for “suicide” has been discussed several times on the website of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies since a March 27, 2015, article about changes in the stylebook. In that article, David Minthorn, a co-editor of the style manual, discusses the news agency’s thinking about how to report about suicides:

“Committed in that context suggests possibly an illegal act, but in fact, laws against suicide have been repealed in the U.S., at least in certain states, and many other places, so we’re going to avoid using that term on our own, although it’s a term that authorities widely use and we will use it while quoting authorities.”

Despite the stylebook prohibition, the expression often appears in AP articles that don’t quote authorities. Here’s an example from a May 3, 2019, story that mentions a young woman with post-traumatic stress disorder who had to give up her service dog: “About a month after losing Bailey, Katie committed suicide.” We found scores of similar examples in a search of AP articles that appeared online over the last year.

The phrase routinely shows up in the online news media. In a search for “committed suicide” in the online New York Times archive, we found a dozen examples in just one recent month (April 2019). And a search for the phrase in the News on the Web corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles published from 2010 to the present, found 33,351 examples.

As for the etymology, the phrase “commit suicide” first appeared in writing in the early 18th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example is from An Apology for Mr. Thomas Rind (1712). In Rind’s account of why he left the Presbyterian Church in Scotland and became an Episcopalian, he writes that the struggle over his faith “had almost driven him to Despair, and to commit Suicide.”

The noun “suicide” showed up in the mid-17th century, derived from the modern Latin suīcīdium, formed by combining the classical Latin suī (of oneself) and -cīda (killer). Previously, in classical Latin, “suicide” was referred to as mors voluntaria, or voluntary death.

“Historically,” the OED notes, “suicide was regarded as a crime in many societies. Laws against suicide existed in English common law until 1961.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of “suicide” is from Glossographia, a 1656 dictionary compiled by Thomas Blount: “Suicide, the slaying or murdering of himself; self-murder.”

In the early 15th century, the verb “commit” took on the sense of to “carry out (a reprehensible act); to perpetrate (a crime, sin, offence, etc.),” according to the OED. The earliest citation is from a February 1445 entry in the parliamentary records of England:

“The said prower afterward, byfore the justicez of the saide benche expressely knowleched, that no such stelthe … was comitted.” (At the time, a “prower” was a purveyor of supplies, and “stelthe,” or stealth, referred to stealing or taking secretly and wrongfully.)

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Trouble’s weird sister

Q: A review in the New Yorker of a poetry collection says the poet’s later work “has troubled the idea that poems might tame the world by metaphor.” Have you ever seen “trouble” used this way? Weird to me.

A: We do occasionally run across this ambiguous use of the verb “trouble,” but not in ordinary English. All the examples we’ve seen are in literary criticism or academic writing.

In most of these cases the meaning of the verb is so vague that it could be any number of things—”question,” “reject,” “doubt,”  “repudiate,” “discredit,” “challenge,” “rebut,” “undermine,” “disprove,” “dismiss,” “diminish,” or “deny.”

As we’ll explain later, none of those senses of “trouble” are found in the Oxford English Dictionary or in any of the 10 standard dictionaries we’ve checked.

The sentence you quote is from Dan Chiasson’s review of Swift: New and Selected Poems, by David Baker (New Yorker, April 8, 2019). Chiasson seems to use “trouble” in the sense of “reject.” At least that’s our interpretation, which we arrived at after reading the entire review.

This is often the case when you find the verb “trouble” in writing that’s scholarly or literary. A lone sentence, without further context, isn’t enough to tell the reader what the word means.

We’ll mention a few more examples in which we’ve hazarded a guess at the meaning of the verb. In the following passage, “have troubled” probably means “have undermined” or “have diminished”:

“In the forty years since, transnational feminisms, Native and indigenous feminisms, and women of color feminisms have troubled the idea of a global sisterhood while also providing tools to navigate the global realities of our contemporary societies.” (From a 2013 call for papers to be published in Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies.)

In this next example, “trouble” seems to mean “disprove” or “discredit”:

“In Scurvy Lamb also seeks to trouble the notion that sailors, doctors, and other scientists readily accepted the use of citrus fruits as a cure for scurvy.” (From Sarah Schuetze’s review of Jonathan Lamb’s book Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery, in the fall 2017 issue of Digital Defoe: Studies in Defoe & His Contemporaries.)

And in this sentence, to “trouble” appears to mean to “challenge” or “call into question”:

“In this section I will discuss four problems that trouble the theory of counterfactuals.” (From Julian Reiss’s “Counterfactuals,” a chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Social Science, 2012, edited by Harold Kincaid.)

In our opinion, any word that confuses the reader should be replaced. We aren’t saying that a word can’t be open to interpretation, just that it shouldn’t be deliberately obscure for no good reason.

(To be fair, academics and literary critics aren’t the only writers who seem to like murky language; legal, medical, and technical writing is full of it.)

But let’s move on to the history of the verb “trouble” and the recognized dictionary definitions.

Etymologically, to “trouble” is to “disturb,” and there’s a connection between the two verbs. Both came into Middle English from Old French after the Norman Conquest, and they have a common ancestor in classical Latin: the noun turba (a tumult, a crowd), from the Greek τύρβη (túrbē, disorder).

During Roman times, turba gave rise to new words in classical Latin—the adjective turbidus (confused, disordered) and verbs turbāre and disturbāre (disturb or disorder).

It’s disturbāre that gave us the verb “disturb” (the “dis-” is an intensifier, not a negative prefix). And it’s turbidus that eventually gave us the verb “trouble,” though there were side trips along the way.

During the Middle Ages, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, the adjective turbidus was altered in late Latin to turbulus (agitated, confused, muddy). This in turn led to the late Latin verb turbulāre (to disrupt or agitate), which made its way into Old French and finally English as the verb “trouble.”

So “trouble” has several relatives, not only “disturb” but also “turbulent,” “turbine,” and even “turbid” (muddy, confused).

The verb has been part of written English since at least the early 1200s (the noun came slightly later, circa 1230). This is the OED’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded to give more of the context:

“Þu schuldest … nawt trubli þin heorte & sturien in to wreaððe” (“Thou shouldst … not trouble thy heart and stir it to wrath”). The quotation is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous Middle English guide for monastic women. The manuscript cited is a copy from around 1230, but the OED says the original may date from before 1200.

The meaning of “trouble” in that medieval manuscript is still with us today. The OED defines it this way: “to put into a state of (mental) agitation or disquiet; to disturb, distress, grieve, perplex.”

In the 1300s, the verb developed several meanings “related to physical disturbance,” Oxford says, but they’re now obsolete or archaic. To “trouble” water, for example, was to stir it up and make it cloudy (a sense that survives in the expression “troubled water”).

Today, the meanings of “trouble” all have to do with “mental disturbance, and related uses,” the OED says, and all emerged in the 13th to 16th centuries. Here we’ll summarize them, based on definitions in the OED and 10 standard American and British dictionaries (the examples are ours):

  1. to afflict or cause pain or discomfort: “His war wound no longer troubles him.”
  2. to cause anxiety or worry: “Her bad grades trouble her parents.”
  3. to agitate, disturb, or distress: “Memory loss can deeply trouble a patient.”
  4. to cause (perhaps minor) inconvenience: “Can I trouble you for a light?”
  5. to pester, bother, or annoy: “I asked you not to trouble your father with it.”
  6. to take pains or make an effort: “Don’t trouble to make your bed.”

In all those senses, the meaning of the verb “trouble” is immediately clear. There’s no ambiguity.

As we said before, no dictionary has yet recognized the fuzzy sense of “trouble” used in literary criticism and scholarly writing. We suspect this is because (a) it’s not in general use and (b) there’s no agreement on what it means.

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comic fiction fiction Writing

A snake in the Garden of Eden

Check out Swan Song, a comic novel by Stewart Kellerman (with a foreword by Patricia T. O’Conner) about an elderly couple who get more than they bargained for when they move from the New York suburbs to the Florida paradise they’ve dreamed of.

Sure, Sid and Selma Waxler’s best friends from Yonkers are nearby, and Selma and the other wives are delighted with all the “amenities” of lush, tropical Pelican Pond. But Sid is bored, and that spells trouble.

A snake has slithered into paradise and charmed the socks off Sid and the other bored husbands. Before long, Sid is drawn into a shady real estate scheme that threatens to topple everything he and Selma have worked for.

This comic novel has its bittersweet moments, as the “Three Musketeers”—Selma and her old friends Kitty and Rose—cope with demanding adult children, silly husbands, and the challenges of aging.

But in the end, Selma and Sid revive their marriage (yes, there is sex after 65!) and rediscover what’s most important in life.

Read the first chapter of Swan Song.

To buy Swan Song, visit your local bookstore or

English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Can the “floor” be the “ground”?

Q: My wife and I started noticing the use  of “ground” for “floor” a few years ago. Now it’s rampant and almost universal. I will just scream at the TV, “It’s the FLOOR dang it!” Is there any reasonable explanation for this widespread abuse?

A: Usually, as we say in a 2009 post, the “floor” is what you walk on inside a building, and the “ground” is what you walk on outside. However, people have been using “ground” for “floor” in the indoors sense since at least the mid-19th century.

We wouldn’t describe the usage as “rampant” or “almost universal.” It’s out there, but not out there enough to get into most online standard dictionaries. Only two of the ten that we’ve consulted include it—with similar qualifications.

Collins describes the use of “ground” for “the floor of a room” as “mainly British,” while Merriam-Webster Unabridged says it’s “chiefly British,” and gives this example from Aldous Huxley’s 1928 novel Point Counter Point: “kneeling on the ground beside the couch he leaned over her.”

From what we’ve observed, the use of “ground” for “floor” appears in both American and British English.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, includes it without the “British” qualification (or any other).

In fact, the earliest written example in the OED is from An American Dictionary of the English Language (1847), by Noah Webster. The dictionary, a revised and enlarged edition published four years after Webster’s death, defines “ground” as, among other things, “a floor or pavement.”

The OED also cites British sources, including this example (which we’ve expanded) from Murder in the Mews (1937), a short story by Agatha Christie: “We came along at once and forced the door open. Mrs. Allen was lying in a heap on the ground shot through the head.”

As we’ve said, the usage isn’t new. You became aware of it a few years ago, and you now seem to hear or see it everywhere.

There’s a name for this phenomenon: the “recency illusion.” The linguist Arnold Zwicky came up with the term, which he’s defined as “the belief that things YOU have noticed only recently are in fact recent.”

The use of “ground” for “floor” may have you screaming at the TV, but it doesn’t seem to bother language commentators. It isn’t mentioned in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Pat’s Woe Is I (4th ed.), or other guides.

We wouldn’t be surprised if the usage begins showing up in more dictionaries, perhaps labeled “informal” or “colloquial.” If that happens, usage writers may have something to say about it.

Is there an explanation for this use of “ground”? Well, perhaps it was influenced by the use of the phrase “ground floor” for the floor of a building at ground level. That phrase appeared a couple of centuries before people began using “ground” to mean “floor.” However, we haven’t seen any evidence for or against this idea.

As you know, the noun “ground” can refer to many things other than the surface of the earth—a parade ground, grounds for divorce, coffee grounds, a ground for an electrical connection, the grounds around a house, etc. So it’s not surprising that people might use such a flexible word to mean a “floor.”

If the “ground” at the bottom of an ocean can be called the “floor,” a usage that dates back to the 17th century, is it really so outlandish to call a building’s “floor” the “ground”?

(In “Lycidas,” a 1637 elegy for a friend drowned in the Irish Sea, Milton refers to the seabed as “the wat’ry floore.”)

When the noun “ground” first appeared in Anglo-Saxon times (spelled grund or grunde), it referred to the bottom of something—the sea, a well, a ditch, and so on, according to the OED.

Perhaps the oldest citation is from Beowulf, an Old English epic that may have been written as early as 725: “Me to grunde geteah fah feondscaða” (“A sea fiend dragged me to the ground”).

In the 10th century, “ground” came to mean the surface of the earth. The first Oxford example is from the Blickling Homilies (971): “gefyldan eal oþ grund” (“they all fell to the ground”).

When “floor” showed up in Old English (spelled flór), it referred to the wood, brick, stone, etc. that people walked on in a room.

The first OED citation is from King Ælfred’s translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ, a sixth-century Latin treatise by the Roman philosopher Boethius: “He gefeoll niwol of dune on þa flor” (“He fell headlong down on the floor”).

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