The Grammarphobia Blog

Pat reviews 4 language books

Read Pat in the New York Times Book Review on four new books about the English language.

 

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A newfangled suffix?

Q: I keep seeing “admonishment,” “abolishment,” and “diminishment,” though I assume that correct usage dictates “admonition,” “abolition,” and “diminution.” Are these “-ment” words recently fashioned? Do their users deserve punishment (or punition)?

A: Interestingly, all six of those nouns (the ones ending in “-tion” as well as those ending in “-ment”) showed up hundreds of years ago, borrowed to one degree or another from Anglo-Norman, Middle French, or Old French, but ultimately derived from Latin.

The “-tion” versions you prefer have been preferred by English speakers for centuries, though they seem to be used less these days. As far as we can tell, there’s been no significant increase lately in the use of the “-ment” versions.

That’s the impression we have after comparing the three pairs in Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words or phrases in digitized books: (1) “admonition” / “admonishment,” (2) “abolition” / “abolishment,” and (3) “diminution” / “diminishment.”

We suspect that your belief that the “-ment” versions may be new is an example of the “recency illusion,” a term coined by the linguist Arnold Zwicky for “the belief that things YOU have noticed only recently are in fact recent.”

The oldest of these words, “admonishment,” appeared in the late 13th century. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Kentish sermon dated around 1275: “So us defendet þo ilke þinges fram senne and fram þe amonestement of þo dieule” (“So these very things defended us from sin and from the admonishment of the devil”).

“Admonition” showed up a century later. The earliest OED example is from Chaucer’s translation (circa 1380) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ, a sixth-century Latin treatise by the Roman philosopher Boethius: “Nedeþ it ȝitte … of rehersyng or of amonicioun” (“It needs … of rehearsing and admonition”).

Both “admonishment” and “admonition” are ultimately derived from the classical Latin verb admonēre (remind, advise, urge, warn, inform, or rebuke).

As for “diminution,” the OED cites another Chaucer work, the poem Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1374), for the earliest example: “To encrece or maken dyminucioun Of my langage.”

“Diminishment” arrived nearly two centuries later. The first Oxford example is from a religous tract by the English cleric John Bales: “All is to demynyshment of a kynges power” (from The Actes of Englysh Votaries, a 1551 critique of the monastic system).

The two nouns ultimately come from two classical Latin words: the verb dīminuĕre (make smaller) and the adjective minūtus (small).

(We wrote a post in in 2014 on the common misspelling of “diminution” as “dimunition.”)

The last two words, “abolition” and “abolishment,” showed up around the same time in the early 16th century.

The first Oxford citation for “abolition” is from The Supplycacyon of Soulys, a 1529 treatise in which Thomas More defends the Roman Catholic clergy against Reformist critics: “They by the dystruccyon of the clergy, meane the clere abolycyon of Chrystys fayth.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for “abolishment” is from Common Places of Scripture, Richard Taverner’s 1538 translation of the writings of the Lutheran theologian Erasmus Sarcerius: “Where so euer throughout the worlde the abolyshment of the bysshop of Romes vsurped power shal be bruted or cronicled.”

As for the suffixes, “-ment” ultimately comes from the classical Latin -mentum (used to form nouns from verbs), while “-tion” comes from -io and io-nem (added to the t ending of Latin participial stems to form nouns).

Getting back to your question, do the users of these “-ment” words deserve punishment (or punition)? No. We have no objection to the “-ment” versions. As for the relatively rare “punition,” that’s more likely to raise eyebrows these days.

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The true truth

Q: After recent unrest in Memphis, the city’s police director said he suspected that there were “some individuals who try to agitate a situation, and it’s unfortunate because it hinders the true truth coming out.” Is “true truth” a new concept in the era of “fake news”?

A: No, “true truth” is not a product of our times. It dates back to Renaissance England and is one in a long line of phrases implying that sometimes the truth is relative.

Other phrases include “plain truth,” “naked truth,” “whole truth,” “absolute truth,” “unadorned truth,” “unvarnished truth,” and “cold truth.” Nobody is much bothered by these expressions.

But “true truth” seems to cross a line, since the noun phrase is virtually self-modifying. After all, the truth by definition is true.

Redundant or not, the phrase “true truth” has been around since the 16th century, if not earlier. This is the oldest example we’ve found, from a poem believed to have been published around 1555:

“Nor stay is there none as the true truth sayth” (from The Tryumphe of Tyme, a translation by Henry Parker, Lord Morley, from Petrarch’s Italian).

We also found this example in a poem published in 1602: “With that true truth, his arrand [message] I had sed [spoken]” (from Three Pastoral Elegies of Anander, Anetor, and Muridella, by William Basse).

This 1611 use is a better illustration of the phrase’s meaning: Among the “gifts that gracious Heav’ns bestowe,” the poet says, is the ability “to discern true Truth from Sophistrie” (from Josuah Sylvester’s translation of a work by Guillaume de Salluste du Bartas).

We’ve also found the expression in religious tracts and philosophical treatises—not only in English but in French (la vraie vérité) and German (die wahre Wahrheit).

The German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, writing around 1800, criticizes those who say to themselves, “we who speak have undoubtedly the true truth inborn in us, and, hence, the man who contradicts us must necessarily be in the wrong.” (From A. E. Kroeger’s English translation of “Fichte’s Criticism of Schelling,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, July 1878.)

“True truth” also crops up in journalism and in fiction. In “White Lies,” an anonymous opinion piece that ran in the weekly journal Truth (London, Sept. 1, 1881), the phrase appears 11 times.

Here are a few examples: “true truth is of all things the most impracticable” … “to say the true truth would be cruel” … “the true truth would sound too harsh.”

And in a romantic novel, Greifenstein (1890) by F. Marion Crawford, a character says: “But you have gone too far—you have lost sight of the true truth in pursuing a truth that was true yesterday.”

As far as we can tell, the only dictionary in which the phrase appears is Joseph Wright’s The English Dialect Dictionary (1905 edition). Wright defines “the true truth” as “the plain, unvarnished truth.” He gives this example from James Prior’s novel Forest Folk (1901), in which a character speaks in a north Yorkshire dialect: “If we don’t speak the trew trewth this time, we are liars, sich un’s as yer don’t often see.”

Getting back to some of those other “truth” phrases we mentioned above, a couple date back to the 15th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary has the earliest known written uses of “plain truth” (circa 1425) and “naked truth” (1436). And in searches of historical databases, we’ve found early examples of “whole truth” (1549); “absolute truth” (1567); “unadorned truth” (1782); “unvarnished truth” (1820); and “cold truth” (1836).

Perhaps the most famous of such phrases is one from the 16th century: “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

The OED defines this expression and its variants as meaning “the absolute truth.” Specifically, the dictionary adds, it’s “used to emphasize that something, esp. a statement, is or should be true in every particular, with no facts omitted or untrue elements added.”

“The phrase forms part of the oath or the affirmation … declared or agreed to by witnesses in court before giving testimony,” the OED explains. “A witness can choose to place one hand on the Bible when swearing the oath, but is now usually not required to do so.”

The earliest example in the OED is religious rather than judicial: “What shoulde we teache in matters of saluation [salvation] but the Truthe, and all the truthe, and nothyng but the truth?”  (From a sermon preached in 1571 by John Bridges at Paul’s Cross, an outdoor pulpit in London, and published the same year.)

This later 16th-century example refers to the oath taken by a jury foreman: “You shal present and tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so helpe you God, and by the contents of this booke.” (From The Order of Keeping a Court Leete, 1593, by Jonas Adams. The “court leet,” which had jurisdiction over petty offenses and civil disputes, dated from medieval times and was held periodically in a local manor or district before a lord or his steward.)

Finally, in this OED citation from the early 17th century the oath is specifically for witnesses: “The oath giuen to Iurors [Jurors] is, That they shall deale iustly and truely betweene partie and partie; but the witnesses are to speake the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and so they take their oath.” (From Consuetudo, 1622, a tract on mercantile law by Gerard de Malynes.)

The oath has come down through the centuries largely intact. This OED example is from Martin F. Scheinman’s 1977 book Evidence and Proof in Arbitration (the brackets are in the original): “The oath generally used is: ‘Do you swear [or affirm] to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?’ ”

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Poaching eggs vs. poaching deer

Q: Why are poaching a deer and poaching an egg such different activities?

A: As unlike as the two actions are, poaching an egg and poaching a deer may be related etymologically, though the early history is uncertain and language authorities are divided over the issue.

The Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, edited by Julia Cresswell, says the two meanings of “poach” are probably related:

“Poaching eggs and poaching game may seem vastly different activities, but they are both probably connected with the Old French word pochier or French pocher, ‘to enclose in a bag.’ ”

John Ayto goes a step further in his Dictionary of Word Origins, saying without qualification that “English has two words poach, both of which go back ultimately to Old French.”

The cooking term, Ayto writes, “is an allusion to the forming of little white ‘bags’ or ‘pockets’ around the yolk of eggs by the coagulating white,” while the hunting or fishing term “seems to mean etymologically ‘put in one’s pocket.’ ”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, edited by Robert K. Barnhart, agrees that the kitchen sense of “poach” comes from the pocket meaning of pochier, but says the hunting sense is derived from another meaning of the Old French verb—poke out, which in turn comes from similar words in old Germanic languages.

We’ll let the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, have the last word. It says the use of “poach” in hunting and fishing is “of uncertain origin,” though “perhaps a borrowing from French.”

The OED adds that the “put in a bag” sense here is “apparently a primary one,” but the etymological connection between the French and English terms is unclear.

The dictionary defines “poach” in its cookery sense as “to cook (an egg) without the shell in simmering, or over boiling, water; to simmer or steam (an egg) in a poacher.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which uses the past participle as an adjective, is from a cookbook written around 1450:  “Pocched egges … breke faire rawe egges and caste hem in þe water.”

The first Oxford example for “poach” used purely as a verb in cooking is from John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse (1530), a French grammar for English speakers: “I potche egges, je poche des œufs. He that wyll potche egges well muste make his water sethe first.”

As for the illicit sense of “poach,” the OED defines it as “to go in illegal pursuit of game, fish, etc., esp. by trespassing (on the lands or rights of another) or in contravention of official protection.”

In the dictionary’s earliest example, which uses the noun “poachers,” the verb is implied: “Many poachers ran vp [up] and downe ye countrye to espye where were any olde or sicke prelate, & there-vpon poasted to Rome to purchase a graunt of his lyuing [living].” (From Pageant of Popes, 1574, John Studley’s translation of a papal history in Latin by the English cleric John Bale.)

The next OED citation is from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), compiled by Randall Cotgrave: “Pocher le labeur d’autruy, to poche into, or incroach vpon, another mans imployment, practise, or trade.”

The first Oxford example that uses the verb in its hunting sense is from an early 18th-century English dictionary: “To poach … to destroy Game by unlawful means, as by laying Snares, Gins, etc.” (From The New World of Words, a 1706 dictionary edited by John Kersey. A gin is a trap for catching birds or small mammals.)

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Why ‘mayn’t’ may not live on

Q: I’ve encountered “mayn’t” often lately— e.g., in Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame, etc.—but my usage manual says the contraction is now rare. What happened to it?

A: The use of “mayn’t” is indeed rare today, though it was common in the 19th century, when Lewis Carroll was writing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and in the early 20th, when Kenneth Grahame published The Wind in the Willows.

Many standard dictionaries still have entries for “mayn’t,” the contraction of “may not,” but it’s rarely heard now in British English and it’s virtually nonexistent in American English.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says “mayn’t is rare in all varieties of English.”

Suzanne Romaine, writing in The Cambridge History of the English Language (1992), says the contraction “moved from colloquial normality to great rarity in the course of the twentieth century.”

In The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum note the virtual demise of “mayn’t” as a negative auxiliary verb: “though current in the earlier part of the twentieth century, it has now virtually disappeared from the language.”

And the British linguist David Crystal, in a Jan. 25, 2015, entry on his website, says “mayn’t” is “very rare in British English, and would hardly ever be used in American English.”

Why is “mayn’t” dying out or dead? Probably because English speakers are using “can’t” instead. And that’s undoubtedly the result of the increasing use of “can” for “may” as an auxiliary verb to ask or grant permission, a subject that we discussed in 2017.

As we say in the earlier post, the traditional rule is that “can” means “able to” and “may” means “permitted to.” For example, “Jesse can run fast” and “May I go for a jog, Mom?”

However, standard dictionaries now accept the use of both “can” and “may” as auxiliary verbs for asking permission, though some suggest that “can” here is informal.

As Merriam-Webster Unabridged explains, “The use of can to ask or grant permission has been common since the 19th century and is well established, although some commentators feel may is more appropriate in formal contexts.”

The M-W lexicographers suggest that the permission sense of “can” evolved from the use of both auxiliaries to express possibility, “because the possibility of one’s doing something may depend on another’s acquiescence.”

The contraction “mayn’t” showed up in writing in the early 17th century, according to citations in the OED. The dictionary’s earliest example is from “On the University Carrier,” a 1631 poem that Milton wrote during his Cambridge years: “If I mayn’t carry, sure I’ll ne’er be fetched.”

The comic poem marks the death of Tobias Hobson, driver of the coach that carried students between the university and The Bull, a London Inn. Hobson also hired out horses. The expression “Hobson’s choice” is said to come from his insistence that anyone hiring a horse must choose the one nearest the stable door.

We’ll end with a “mayn’t” example from Alice in Wonderland. It’s a bit long, but we couldn’t resist the pun at the beginning of this excerpt.

“Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?” Alice asked.

“We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle angrily: “really you are very dull!”

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself for asking such a simple question,” added the Gryphon; and then they both sat silent and looked at poor Alice, who felt ready to sink into the earth. At last the Gryphon said to the Mock Turtle, “Drive on, old fellow! Don’t be all day about it!” and he went on in these words:

“Yes, we went to school in the sea, though you mayn’t believe it—”

“I never said I didn’t!” interrupted Alice.

“You did,” said the Mock Turtle.

“Hold your tongue!” added the Gryphon, before Alice could speak again. The Mock Turtle went on.

“We had the best of educations—in fact, we went to school every day—”

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A pot to piss in

Q: An email is making the rounds that includes the derivations of several common phrases; one of them links the expression “a pot to piss in” with the collecting and selling of urine to fur tanners. Any truth to this?

A: No, that story is a hoax.

It’s true that in preindustrial times, urine was sometimes used to remove hair from animal hides before they were tanned. But the 20th-century expression “a pot to piss in” has nothing to do with making leather.

We wrote about the verb and noun “piss” in 2016 and about varieties of “pot” in 2017, but we’ve never discussed “a pot to piss in.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “not to have a pot to piss in” as “to be penniless, to have no money or resources.” The dictionary says it’s slang that originated in the US and was “in early use more fully not to have a pot to piss in nor a window to throw it from and variants.”

The earliest written example, the OED says, is from a 1934 typescript of Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood (published in 1936): “My heart aches for all poor creatures putting on dog, and not a pot to piss in or a window to throw it from.”

This OED example from 20 years later also has the long version of the expression: “A woman must be crazy to … take up with a loafer that ain’t got a pot to piss in nor a window to throw it out.” The passage was recorded in 1954 by the American folklorist Vance Randolph and later published in his book Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales (1976).

The dictionary’s earliest example of the short version (minus the window) is from later in the ’50s: “Some don’t even have a pot to piss in but nevertheless they think that they are a lot better than you are.” From Herman R. Lantz’s People of Coal Town, a 1958 study of a midwestern coal-mining community.

As we said before, it’s fictitious that “a pot to piss in” originated in the tanning trade. This false etymology (along with that of “piss poor” and other expressions), is sheer invention and has been debunked by etymologists.

For the record, the phrase “piss poor” simply means really poor or, as the OED says, “of an extremely poor quality or standard.”

Here, “piss” is an intensifier, an element used for emphasis. In this usage, which Oxford says originated in the US in the mid-20th century, “piss” is “prefixed to an adjective (occasionally to a noun) as an intensifier, usually implying excess or undesirability.”

The dictionary’s earliest use of “piss poor” is from MacKinlay Kantor’s Glory for Me (1945), a novel in blank verse: “I guess I know I’m piss-poor in a job like this. It’s trivial, it’s dull: I hate it more and more each day.”

Oxford also has this early use of “piss elegant” (flashy or affectedly refined): “The cast is very good. Gertie is enchanting at moments but inclined to be piss-elegant” (from Noel Coward’s diary, Oct. 9, 1947).

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Progressively more?

Q: I’ve read that the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been subjected to “progressively severe” punishment. I see that sort of usage a lot, and it seems to require a “more” (“progressively more severe”). Am I too picky?

A: Yes, you’re too picky. This doesn’t raise a red flag with us, perhaps because the use of the adverb “progressively” to mean “gradually” or “steadily” seems to have a built-in sense of “more”—that is, it suggests an increase unless a word like “less” is added to indicate otherwise.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines “progressively” in this sense as “by continuous advance; step by step, gradually; successively.”

Cambridge Dictionary online, one of the few standard dictionaries with an entry for “progressively,” defines it similarly and cites “increasingly” as a synonym. (Most dictionaries list “progressively” without comment in their entries for the adjective “progressive.”)

Another standard dictionary, Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online), defines the adverb as “steadily” or “in stages,” and has more than half a dozen examples in which “progressively” is used by itself  to mean “increasingly” or “increasingly and steadily.” Here are a few of them:

“Over the past decade, straw burning has been progressively prohibited” … “The drought situation is getting progressively worse” … “An ever-increasing population is progressively intensifying the stresses on the environment” … “He has progressively moved his students towards a fully integrated digital design process.”

Lexico also has several examples with “more,” including these: “The approval process became progressively more difficult and politicized” … “It was progressively more difficult to find work in the theatre” … “I created a situation in which my job could only get progressively more difficult.” Although “more” in these examples adds emphasis, it could be dropped without significantly changing the sense.

The dictionary doesn’t have any examples in which “progressively” is used with “less” to mean “decreasingly,” but here’s one from a recent news article about the impact of testing driverless cars on public streets:

“Still, we can rest assured that the testing will become progressively less disruptive to us as the technology advances” (the Hill, May 14, 2019).

When the adverb “progressively” showed up in the early 17th century, it meant “in a progressive manner; in the way of progression or progress,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Syntagma Logicum, a 1620 treatise on logic, in which Thomas Granger writes of “the conforming, adapting, and disposing” of things “being inuented progressiuely.”

In the 20th century, the dictionary says, “progressively” developed its modern sense of “in a forward-looking, innovative, or avant-garde manner.” The first Oxford citation is from The Miracle of Right Thought (1910), a self-improvement book by the American writer Orison Swett Marden:

“The man who would succeed must think success, must think upward. He must think progressively, creatively, constructively, inventively, and, above all, optimistically.”

The adverb is derived from the adjective “progressive,” which was originally a term in astronomy for “moving forward in space,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first citation for the adjective is from a late 14th-century translation of a Latin treatise that purports to predict the weather by using astrology:

“A good shorte table for to knawe when all the planetis are stacionarye or retrograde or progressive.” (From Exafrenon Prognosticationum Temporis, by the English mathematician, astronomer, and abbott Richard of Wallingford. The Latin treatise was written in the early 1300s, and the OED dates the anonymous English translation at sometime before 1388.)

Over the years, the adjective “progressive” has taken on many other senses. Here are the current meanings, with examples, from Lexico:

  • “Happening or developing gradually or in stages: a progressive decline in popularity.”
  • “(Of a medical condition) increasing in severity: progressive liver failure.”
  • “(Of taxation or a tax) increasing as a proportion of the sum taxed as that sum increases: steeply progressive income taxes.”
  • “(Of a person or idea) favouring social reform: a relatively progressive Minister of Education.”
  • “Favouring change or innovation: the most progressive art school in Britain.”
  • “Relating to or denoting a style of rock music popular especially in the 1970s and characterized by classical influences, the use of keyboard instruments, and lengthy compositions: classic progressive albumsprogressive bands like Black Sabbath and the Edgar Broughton Band.”

The adverb “progressively” has evolved too, though not as extensively. It is now primarily used in only the gradually developing and innovative senses of the adjective, as in these Lexico definitions and examples:

  • “Steadily; in stages: successive governments progressively increased expenditure on welfaresymptoms become progressively worse over a period of years.”
  • “In a forward-looking, innovative manner: we have a strong product but to retain this momentum we must think progressivelya circle of progressively minded reformers.”

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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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