The Grammarphobia Blog

A wretched creature

Q: A friend gave me a copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Almost from the start, the creature is referred to as “the wretch.” An online search indicates that some variation of “wretch” appears 64 times in a novel of only 200 pages—more often than “monster” (33) or “dæmon” (20). But “wretch” seems to have lost its punch in our times.

A: In modern English, “wretch” principally means someone who’s extremely unfortunate, an object of pity. But less commonly it also means one who’s despicable, an object of loathing.

Both senses of the word have been around for more than a thousand years, and nearly all standard dictionaries still accept both. But the bad-guy sense has slipped to second place, and today some British dictionaries label it “literary” or “humorous” or “informal” (as in “those ungrateful wretches!”).

In Mary Shelley’s time, both meanings of “wretch” were common and she uses them both in her novel. Sometimes she calls Frankenstein’s creature a “wretch” because he’s suffering in misery and loneliness, and the reader is supposed to feel sorry for him. But at other times, as when he murders a child, the “wretch” is loathsome, a “filthy dæmon” that must be destroyed.

The two meanings developed from an earlier and now obsolete sense of “wretch”—an outcast. This use dates back to Beowulf, which may have been written as early as 725. Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s citation from the poem:

“Ða wæs winter scacen, fæger foldan bearm; fundode wrecca, gist of geardum” (“Then winter was gone, earth’s lap grew lovely, longing woke in the cooped-up exile for a voyage home”). We’ve used Seamus Heaney’s translation, which renders the Old English word for “wretch” (wrecca) as “exile.”

The OED cites another Old English use: “Ða lioð þe ic wrecca geo lustbærlice song ic sceal nu heofiende singan” (“The songs that I, an outcast, once sang joyfully I must now sing grieving”). From King Ælfred’s translation, circa 888, of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiæ.

The OED defines that original use of “wretch,” which has now died away, as “one driven out of or away from his native country; a banished person; an exile.”

It was from that sense that the two modern meanings developed in Old English. The first to come along, according to OED citations, was the sense of a terrible person. This is the earliest known example in writing:

“Hyre se feond oncwæð, wræcca wærleas, wordum mælde” (“To her the fiend answered, faithless wretch, and spoke his words”). From Juliana, an account of the martyrdom of St. Juliana of Nicomedia, presumed written by the poet Cynewulf between 970 and 990. The “wretch” in the passage is the demon Belial.

The OED says “wretch” in that sense means “a vile, sorry, or despicable person; one of opprobrious or reprehensible character; a mean or contemptible creature.”

The other modern sense, in which a “wretch” is miserably unhappy or unfortunate, was first recorded circa 1000, Oxford says.

This is the dictionary’s earliest citation: “Ne mæg mon æfre þy eð ænne wræccan his cræftes beniman” (“No one can ever rob a wretch of his skills more easily”). From the Metres of Boethius, a later rendering of De Consolatione Philosophiæ.

That sense of the word, still the most common in standard English, is defined in the OED as “one who is sunk in deep distress, sorrow, misfortune, or poverty; a miserable, unhappy, or unfortunate person; a poor or hapless being.” (In an offshoot of that usage, the OED says, “wretch” is sometimes used playfully, a meaning that emerged in the 15th century.)

A final note about the history of “wretch.” It can be traced to an ancient Indo-European word stem that linguists have reconstructed as wreg-, meaning to push, drive, or track down. (This root wreg, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, is also the source of our words “wreck,” “wrack,” and “wreak,” a verb that originally meant to avenge, punish, or drive away.)

After wreg– entered prehistoric Germanic, it became a noun, wrakjon, which American Heritage says meant both “pursuer” and “one pursued.” Later, in the era of writing, this old noun took different directions in different Germanic languages.

What developed into our word “wretch” became recke in German, which means a warrior or hero. As the OED comments, “The contrast in the development of the meaning in English and German is remarkable.”

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An indisputable choice?

Q: “Undisputed” or “indisputed”? Is there a clear winner? My sense is “undisputed” means neither party disputed the facts, which is the sense I’m seeking, while “indisputed” means not capable of dispute. Can you help?

A: If your choice is between “indisputed” and “undisputed,” there is no choice. The adjective “indisputed” is now considered archaic or obsolete. However, “indisputable” is a possibility. In choosing between “undisputed” and “indisputable,” the word you want is “undisputed.” Here’s the story.

We’ve checked ten standard dictionaries and none regard “indisputed” as standard English. In fact, only two even mention it. Merriam-Webster Online and the subcription-based Merriam-Webster Unabridged both describe “indisputed” as an “archaic” synonym for “undisputed.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says “indisputed” is an “obsolete” adjective meaning “not disputed; undisputed, unquestioned.”

“Indisputable,” the oldest of the three adjectives, showed up in the mid-16th century, the OED says, and describes something “that cannot be disputed” or is “unquestionable.” It’s derived from the medieval Latin indisputābilis, combining the negative prefix in- and the classical disputābilis (disputable).

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Ralph Robinson’s 1551 translation of Utopia (1516), a Latin political satire by Thomas More: “[That] whiche with good and iust Judges is of greater force than all lawes be, the kynges indisputable prerogatiue.”

“Undisputed,” which showed up a couple of decades later, originally meant “not disputed or argued with,” according to the OED, but now generally means “not disputed or called in question.” Standard dictionaries agree.

The first OED citation for “undisputed” is from a 1570 edition of Actes & Monumentes, an ecclesiastical history by John Foxe: “So in the end the bishop making to our Ambassadours good countenaunce … dismissed them vndisputed wythall.” The reference is to a clerical appointment made without opposition.

Etymologically, “undisputed” ultimately comes from disputāre, which meant to compute, investigate, or discuss in classical Latin, but took on the sense of to dispute or contend in colloquial Latin.

“Indisputed,” which appeared in the 17th century, meant not disputed. The first OED citation is from Religio Medici (1643), a wide-ranging memoir by the English polymath Thomas Browne:

Natura nihil aget frustra, is the only indisputed Axiome in Philosophy.” The Latin axiom means “Nature does nothing in vain.”

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On snooting and snouting

Q: My grandfather used a lot of idioms that I’ve never heard outside Pequannock, Lincoln Park, or Montville, N.J. (all settled by the Dutch—good farmland). One was “snout,” meaning to complain loudly and make the listener feel as if he/she were at fault. Would love to know the origin.

A: The words “snoot” and “snout” have been used by Americans in various ways since the mid-1800s to express disdain for someone. Both terms ultimately come from the contemptuous use of “snout” for a big or oddly shaped human nose, a usage that dates back to England in the mid-13th century.

We suspect that this 19th-century American sense is the source of your grandfather’s use of “snout” to mean complain loudly and critically. But it may also have been influenced by expressions in German or the variety of German spoken in Pennsylvania, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

In the 19th century, DARE says, Easterners began using the expressions “make a snout” or “make snoots” in the sense of “to grimace, to make faces (at someone).” The dictionary suggests that this “US use may in some cases reflect the equivalent Ger phr eine Schnauze (or Schnute) machen, PaGer en schnut mache.”

The regional dictionary’s earliest example is from a New York newspaper: “This reminds us of the language of the little fellow to the chap that had him down … ‘If I can’t lick you, I can make snoots at your sister!’ ” (Brooklyn Eagle and Kings County Democrat, June 20, 1844.)

The only other 19th-century DARE citation is from a newspaper in Frederick, Md.: “She made a snoot at me and told me to scat.” (Daily News, Aug. 27, 1884.)

An early 20th-century example from southeastern Pennsylvania supports the dictionary’s suggestion that the usage may have been influenced by German, especially the dialect spoken in Pennsylvania, which is also known as Pennsylvania Dutch:

“Make a snout (snoot). Grimace. ‘Teacher, he’s making snouts at me.’ … fr. Pa. Ger. schnoot mŏchă; Ger. schnauze machen.” (From German American Annals, Philadelphia, January-February 1908.)

(German-speaking settlers and their descendants in Pennsylvania were often referred to as “Dutch” because the word “German” was Deutsch in German and Deitsch in the local dialect.)

DARE doesn’t have any examples for “snoot” or “snout” used by itself as a verb meaning to complain or grimace. However, all five standard American dictionaries now list “snoot” as a verb that means to treat disdainfully or condescendingly.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has several 20th-century American examples of “snoot” used in the sense of “to snub; to treat scornfully or with disdain.”

The earliest OED example is from A Couple of Quick Ones, a 1928 novel by the New Yorker writer Eric S. Hatch: “I followed him … up the street to where the Wright limousine was snooting the world in general at the kerb.”

The latest Oxford citation is from a review of The Slipper and the Rose, a film updating the Cinderella story: “Cinderella (Gemma Craven) gets snooted by her Stepsisters and gazes sorrowfully into the flames of the scullery fire.” (Time, Jan. 17, 1977.)

Oxford doesn’t connect the pejorative use of “snoot” and “snout” in verb phrases with the use of “snoot” alone in the scorning sense, but we wouldn’t be surprised if a connection is found one day.

Interestingly, the OED does have several examples of “snout” used in much the way your grandfather used it, but they’re all from Australia. The dictionary says that in Australian slang, “snout” means “to bear ill-will towards; to treat with disfavour, to rebuff.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Moods of Ginger Mick, a 1916 novel about World War I by C. J. Dennis: “An’ snouted them that snouted ’im, an’ never give a dam.”

If your grandfather served in World War I or II, he may have picked up his use of “snout” in the fault-finding sense from Australian soldiers, though we think a more likely source is the grimacing American use of “snoot” and “snout” in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Both the Australian and American usages ultimately come from the scornful use of “snout” in medieval England for a big or odd human nose, a sense that showed up in King Horn, a Middle English poem of chivalry and romance dating from the mid-1200s:

“He lokede him abute, / Wiþ his colmie snute” (“He looked all about / With his sooty snout”).

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Cannon fodder

Q: Three “cannon” or three “cannons”? Is this a uniquely UK English problem?

A: The answer is yes. After checking ten standard British and American dictionaries, we can safely say that the plural of “cannon” is a bone of contention only in the UK.

In the US, this noun has two plurals and you’re free to use either one—“cannons” or the collective noun “cannon.” All five standard American dictionaries agree.

But opinion in the UK is mixed. Three of the British dictionaries list only “cannons” as the plural, and the two that do include “cannon” differ about the usage—one say it’s “mainly UK,” the other says it’s American.

Our advice? If you live in the US, either plural will do. If you live in the UK and you want to be in the majority, use “cannons.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical records, has plenty of evidence for both plural forms—“cannons” (dating from the 15th century) and “cannon” (from the 16th). But Oxford doesn’t say which is more common in the US or the UK.

As for its etymology, “cannon” is a relative of the word “cane” (as in sugar cane), and its name comes from the gun barrel’s resemblance to a hollow reed.

The noun came into English in the 1400s from Anglo-Norman and Old French (canon), in which it meant a pipe, tube, or artillery piece, the OED says.

Earlier ancestors were the Old French cane (hollow reed) and the Italian cannone (organ pipe, reed, tubular object), both from the Latin canna (a hollow reed or cane).

The Romans acquired canna from the Greek κάννα (kanna, reed), and the OED says it “perhaps” can be traced even farther back to Hebrew and Arabic, which have similar words.

From the beginning, however, “cannon” in English meant the big gun. The OED defines it this way: “A large, heavy piece of artillery formerly used in warfare, typically one requiring to be mounted for firing, usually on a wheeled carriage; now chiefly used for signaling, ceremonies, or re-enactment.”

The oldest recorded examples of the noun are in the plural. Oxford’s earliest citation is from a work on the art of war written in the late Middle Ages, in the days when cannons shot projectiles of lead, iron, or stone:

“The canonys … bloweth out … stonys grete” (“The cannons … shoot out … great stones”). From Knyghthode and Bataile (circa 1460), an anonymous Middle English work that rewrites, paraphrases, and puts into verse a fourth-century Latin book on war, De re Militari, by Publius Vegetius Renatus.

The modern spelling first appeared in the 16th century in the state papers of King Henry VIII. These are the OED citations, which treat the word as an ordinary noun (singular “cannon,”  plural “cannons”):

“5 gret gonnes of brasse called cannons, besides sondery [sundry] other fawcons [small cannons]” (1525) … “To  sende unto Tynmowthe … a cannon, a saker [light cannon], etc.” (1545).

(A note of explanation. Old ballistic weapons were often named after birds of prey or venomous snakes, and the passages just quoted mention some of these: the “falcon,” spelled “fawcon” above; the “saker,” for the lanner falcon or Falco sacer; and the “basilisk” and “culverin,” both serpents. This naming practice also accounts for “musket,” an archaic word for a sparrowhawk.)

The collective use—the plural without the “s”—was first recorded, the OED says, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 (1598), though with the French spelling: “Thou hast talkt … Of basilisks, of canon, culuerin.”

Examples of both plurals, “cannons” and “cannon,” are common from the 1600s onward. Here are the most recent OED citations for each:

“I got to walk around one battlefield after another, posing for pictures with cannons and Colonial reenactors” (from The Darkest Minds, a 2012 novel by Alexandra Bracken).

“There’s definitely a regiment readying to move out. They’ve got supply wagons and cannon lined up” (from Madness in Solidar, a 2015 novel by L. E. Modesitt Jr.).

Perhaps the most memorable use of “cannon” in the plural is from Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Brigade (1854), in which you can almost hear the galloping hoofs: “Cannon to right of them, / Cannon to left of them, / Cannon in front them / Volley’d and thunder’d.”

Jeremy Butterfield, in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), quotes the poem to illustrate the use of “cannon” as a collective noun. He notes that historically, the word has been used both ways—“as an ordinary noun, with plural cannons; but also collectively.”

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Watch it back

Q: What’s the story behind the expression “watch it back”? It’s used so often on TV, especially reality shows where people say something like “When I watch it back, I realize how dramatic I was being.”

A: The expression “watch it back,” meaning to watch a replay of something, showed up in writing a couple of decades ago, though the verb phrase hasn’t yet made it into any of the standard, slang, or etymological dictionaries we’ve checked.

However, it’s definitely out there, as you’ve noticed, especially in the movie, TV, and sports worlds. A search of the News on the Web corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles published since 2010, found 268 examples.

Here’s a recent example in which Bella Ramsey describes how Lyanna Mormont, the character she played in Game of Thrones, is crushed to death by a giant zombie as she fatally stabs him:

“When you watch it back, you can hear him crushing her ribs. But I think her adrenaline got her through it. She was in a lot of pain, but at that moment, her aim was to kill the giant. The way I thought about it, she was taking her last breath to do this. It was her final moment before he squeezed her to death” (New York Times, April 30, 2019).

The expression “watch it back” (a conflation of the more common “watch it” and “play it back”) may have originated in the film business. The earliest example we’ve seen is from an interview with Thandie Newton about playing Tom Cruise’s love interest in Mission: Impossible 2, a 2000 film directed by John Woo:

“Tom and I, for example, we’d organize a scene that felt right, we’d block it, and we’d think that was great. And then John Woo walks over and says ‘why don’t you try walking around each other like this’ and it felt very unnatural. But then we’d watch it back and that’s why he’s so phenomenal—it’s in the way he orchestrates the scene” (Box Office Guru, June 5, 2000).

A few months later, the English actor Julian Sands used the expression in an interview about acting in Timecode (2000), an experimental film directed by Mike Figgis:

“We rehearsed it through a couple of times but really we learned it by doing it, and after each run-through we would chill for an hour or two and then watch it back (on four monitors) and refine it some more” (the Guardian, Aug. 19, 2000).

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A writerly and painterly subject

Q: When, where, why, and how did such a word as “writerly” enter the writers’ writing scene? Are there some good writerly examples?

A: The adjective “writerly,” which usually means author-like or consciously literary, showed up in print in the 1950s.

A more scholarly sense appeared in the 1970s, as literary theorists began using “writerly” to describe a text with various possible interpretations.

The earliest example for the adjective in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Times Literary Supplement (Aug. 16, 1957): “Serious Canadian writers at present are firmly resolved to concentrate upon the writerly virtues.”

The OED defines the original meaning of the adjective as “appropriate to, characteristic or worthy of a professional writer or literary man; consciously literary.”

But it’s often hard to tell from the dictionary’s examples whether “writerly” is being used to mean author-like or deliberately literary.

It can be read either way, for instance, in this  citation: “A clever and writerly book” (Spectator, Jan. 24, 1958).

As for the etymology, Oxford says “writerly” was modeled after the much older adjective “painterly,” which meant characteristic of a painter or artistic when it showed up in the late 16th century:

“It was a very white and red vertue, which you could pick out of a painterly glosse of a visage” (from The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, a pastoral romance by Sir Philip Sidney, published in 1590, four years after the author’s death).

Although the OED also has two 19th-century citations for “painterly,” it says the usage was “rare before 20th cent.,” when an additional sense appeared: “Of a painting or style of painting: characterized by qualities of colour, stroke, and texture rather than of contour or line.”

The new sense showed up in Principles in Art History, M. D. Hottinger’s 1932 translation of Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe, a 1915 work by the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin: “in the painterly style of the Dutch genre painters of the seventeenth century.”

The phrase “in the painterly style” here is a translation of “in dem malerischen Stil.” In a note on malerisch, Hottinger explains his translation:

“This word has, in the German, two distinct meanings, one objective, a quality residing in the object, the other subjective, a mode of apprehension and creation. To avoid confusion, they have been distinguished in English as ‘picturesque’ and ‘painterly’ respectively.”

The OED’s earliest 20th-century citation for the original, “artistic” sense of “painterly” is from the Times (London, May 14, 1941): “He painted architectural subjects in a highly personal way, showing remarkable painterly gifts.”

Getting back to “writerly,” the dictionary says the scholarly sense is derived from the use of the term scriptible by the French literary theorist Roland Barthes.

In his 1973 book Le Plaisir du Texte (The Pleasure of the Text), Barthes uses the terms lisible (readable) and scriptible (writable). Lisible texts are easily readable, while scriptible texts challenge readers.

He says the lisible texts give readers plaisir (pleasure) while the scriptible ones give them jouissance (a French term for enjoyment that can mean delight, bliss, or orgasm).

The first OED citation for “writerly” used in the academic sense is from Richard Miller’s 1974 translation of S/Z, a 1970 study by Barthes of Balzac’s novella Sarrasine:

“The writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world (the world as function) is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages.” We’ve expanded the citation to give readers a better sense of Barthesian style.

In literary theory, Oxford says, “writerly” describes a text “admitting of a range of possible interpretations; demanding the active engagement of the reader.”

The dictionary adds that literary theorists usually contrast “writerly” with “readerly,” which it defines as “admitting only of a fixed interpretation; immediately comprehensible without demanding active engagement on the part of the reader.”

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Were it not for the grammar

Q: I’ve noticed what I take to be an instance of hypercorrection in this sentence: “Were it not for my grandfather, I would never be born.” I would say, “Had it not been for my grandfather, I would never have been born.” I feel in my grammar bones that the subjunctive is wrong here. I await your exegesis.

A: The opening clause of that sentence, “Were it not for my grandfather,” is grammatically equivalent to “If it were not for my grandfather” (we’ll explain why later). So the sentence is conditional, the kind that often begins with an “if” clause or the equivalent and continues with a “would” clause.

The only thing wrong with the sentence is the second clause, “I would never be born.” It should read, “I would never [or “not”] have been born.”

Because that clause refers to an event in the past—the speaker’s birth—the verb is in the conditional perfect tense (“would have been”), not the simple conditional (“would be”).

The simple conditional is used in a “would” clause that refers to the present or future: “Were it not for my grandfather’s money, I would be poor.” (We wrote about how to juggle tenses with “would” in 2011 and in 2015.)

As we said above, the first clause of that sentence is fine. “Were it not” is a rather formal way of beginning a conditional sentence, but it’s not wrong or “hypercorrect.” (As we wrote in 2009, hypercorrectness is making a mistake in an attempt to be ultra-correct.)

A less formal version would have begun with “If,” as in “If it weren’t for my grandfather.” But there are other options as well, like the one you suggest, “Had it not been for my grandfather,” as well as “If it hadn’t been for my grandfather.”

All four beginnings—(1) “Were it not,” (2) “If it were not,” (3) “Had it not been,” and (4) “If it hadn’t been”—are grammatically equivalent.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language would describe all four as “remote conditionals.” These are conditional statements that pose a hypothetical situation (in this case, the nonexistence of a grandfather) that’s unlikely, impossible, or unreal.

Since the grandfather did in fact exist, making the condition unreal, the verb in that clause is in the subjunctive mood, a mood used to express hypothetical situations that are contrary to fact. (The classical example: “If I were king.”)

This accounts for the use of the subjunctive “were” instead of “was” in versions #1 and #2. (In 2014, we discussed this use of “were.”) But the subjunctive mood doesn’t alter verbs in perfect tenses, like the past perfect “had been” in versions #3 and #4.

Now, on to the issue we mentioned above—why the “if” versions (“If it were not,” “If it hadn’t been”) are equivalent to those without it (“Were it not,” “had it not been”). What happens grammatically when we swap one for the other?

To put it simply, we drop the “if” and switch the order of the following elements—the subject and its verb or auxiliary. Here’s how this works with our examples:

“If it were not” → “Were it not” (drop “if”; flip subject “it” and verb “were”)

“If it hadn’t been” → “Had it not been” (drop “if”; flip subject “it” and auxiliary “had”)

As the Cambridge Grammar explains this process, the “if” here is replaced with a “subject-auxiliary conversion.” The result is what the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, call an “inverted conditional.”

Here are a few of the examples they give of inverted conditionals (we’ll show only the relevant clauses):

“If that were to happen” → “Were that to happen”

“If he had seen the incident” → “Had he seen the incident”

“If I had had any inkling of this” → “Had I had any inkling of this”

One more characteristic of inverted conditionals: When they’re expressed in the negative, the negative element comes after the subject (“had he not seen”), instead of before (“had not he seen”).

This means that contractions aren’t used in inverted conditional statements. We say, “Had it not been for my grandfather” (not “Hadn’t it been”), and “Were it not for my grandfather” (not “Weren’t it”). The negative element follows the subject, “it.”

The Cambridge Grammar illustrates with the example “Had it not been for the weather,” noting that the contracted form (“Hadn’t it been for the weather”) isn’t normal English.

A final note before we leave the subject of remote conditional statements. The “if” clause (or equivalent) doesn’t have to include a verb. It could begin with “But for” or “If not for.”

So our original sentence, beginning “Were it not for my grandfather,” could have verbless versions as well: “But for my grandfather” and “If not for my grandfather.”

That last construction always reminds us of Bob Dylan’s If Not for You. And that gives us an excuse to share the original version of the song, which Dylan himself recently posted to the Internet.

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Screw the pooch

Q: I’m reading a book that uses the phrase “screw the pooch.” I can tell what it means, but I can’t even imagine where it originated.

A: The expression “screw the pooch,” which is another way of saying “screw up,” appeared in writing in the 1970s and may possibly be a couple of decades older, though the evidence for the earlier origin is quite iffy.

The earliest written example we’ve seen is from The All-American Boys, a 1977 memoir by the NASA astronaut Walter Cunningham, written with the assistance of the American journalist and biographer Mickey Herskowitz:

“The accident board convened, took weeks to gather its findings, took months to file a report, and finally confirmed what everyone had assumed: pilot error rather than equipment failure. The betting in the office on the Apollo 17 crew had long since switched—aviators characteristically do not wait for the accident report—‘That sure cinches it for Dick,’ the refrain went. ‘Ol’ Gene just screwed the pooch.’ ”

(Gene Cernan had been involved in a helicopter accident, but it did not affect his scheduled assignment to command Apollo 17. If Cernan had lost the command, Richard F. Gordon Jr. would have replaced him. Dick Gordon had been scheduled to command Apollo 18, but the mission was canceled.)

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “screw the pooch” as a chiefly US colloquial expression that means “to make a (disastrous) mistake; to fail; to spoil or put an end to something,” and compares the usage to the more common phrase “screw up.”

The dictionary says the expression was popularized by Tom Wolfe’s use of it in The Right Stuff, his 1979 book about the space program: “Grissom had just fucked it, screwed the pooch, that was all.”

(The reference is to an incident on July 21, 1961, at the end of the second Mercury mission. After splashdown, the hatch on Gus Grissom’s capsule blew, and he had to jump into the water. Grissom denied causing the hatch to blow.)

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, suggests that “screw the pooch” may “perhaps” be derived from the “coarse slang” American expression “fuck the dog,” which it defines as “(a) to shirk one’s duties or responsibilities; to mess about or waste time; (b) to make a (disastrous) mistake; to fail; to spoil or put an end to something.”

Oxford compares “fuck the dog” to the usual X-rated phrasal verb for failing, “fuck up.” The dictionary’s first citation for the three-word expression is from A World to Win, a 1935 novel by the American writer Jack Conroy:

“ ‘One of the first things you gotta learn when you’re f——n’ the dog,’ said Leo, ‘is t’ look like you’re workin’ hard enough t’ make yer butt blossom like a rose.’ ”

The Dictionary of American Regional English, in its entry for “fuck the dog,” points readers to the earlier use of the verb “dog” in the sense of “to shirk or not do one’s best, especially on the job; to waste time, loaf; to malinger.”

The first DARE citation for “dog” used this way is from the New York Evening Journal (March 20, 1910): “He [Stanley Ketchel] says that Papke couldn’t beat him in Pittsburg, and that Papke was dogging it at the end.”

(The passage apparently refers to the boxer Billy Papke’s loss to Frank Klaus the year before. Ketchel and Papke fought four times for the Middleweight championship, but not in Pittsburgh. Ketchel won three times, Papke once.)

Getting back to your question, the linguist Ben Zimmer looked into a suggestion that “screw the pooch” originated during a discussion in the spring of 1950 between two students at Yale, Jack May and John Rawlings.

Zimmer tracked down a 2010 memoir by May, An Alphabet of Letters, that describes an exchange in which May chides Rawlings for being late with a school project:

“JACK: You’re late, John, you’re fouling up. You are fucking the dog.

“JOHN: Really, you are so vulgar and coarse, I just don’t want to hear it.

“JACK: You’re still late. Is this better? You are screwing the pooch.

“JOHN: (shrill laughter).”

May goes on to explain that Rawlings enlisted in the Air Force and helped design early prototypes of space suits for chimpanzees on NASA missions. When May saw the film of The Right Stuff in 1983 and heard “screw the pooch,” he was convinced that Rawlings had introduced the expression to the space program. However, May couldn’t confirm this, since Rawlings had died in 1980.

Well, it’s a good story, but we’ll stick with the earliest written evidence: Walter Cunningham’s 1977 memoir of his days in the space program.

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