The Grammarphobia Blog

Fixing the damn roads

Q: Gretchen Whitmer, our new governor in Michigan, ran at least in part on a pledge to “fix the damn roads.” She hauls out that line on a regular basis. When did “damned” shrink to “damn”? And for that matter when did “waxed paper” and “popped corn” become “wax paper” and “popcorn”?

A: Both “damn” and “damned” as well as “wax” and “waxed” have been used adjectivally for hundreds of years, while the movie munchie has been written variously as “popped corn,” “pop corn,” and “popcorn” over the last century and a half.

The loss of the “-ed” in these terms isn’t at all surprising. The “-ed” ending can be difficult to pronounce before a consonant. As a result, it’s often dropped in speech, or not heard when pronounced. This can lead to its loss in writing. For example, “ice cream” and “iced cream” both appeared in the 17th century, but only the “d”-less version has survived.

The use of “damned” as an adjective to express disapproval or add emphasis showed up in the late 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The first OED citation, which uses the word in both senses, is from The Taming of the Shrew, a Shakespeare comedy believed written in the early 1590s: “Where is that damned villaine Tranio?”

The earliest Oxford example for “damn” used similarly, which we’ll expand a bit, appeared in the late 18th century: “a man that was in Company there the evening before that cut up a caper and was noted for a damn cuss” (from a March 12, 1775, entry in the Narragansett [R.I.] Historical Register).

Although you can find this use of both “damn” and “damned” in standard dictionaries, the shorter version is more popular now in newspapers, magazines, and books.

A search of the News on the Web Corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present, indicates that the expression your governor used, “damn roads,” is 20 times as popular as “damned roads.” A search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, shows the unsuffixed version is more than twice as popular.

The earliest OED example for “wax” used adjectivally is from Anglo-Saxon times: “Funalia, cerei, waex-condel” (an entry for “wax candle” in the Corpus Glossary, circa 725, a Latin-Old English glossary preserved at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge). The Old English waex in the compound waex-condel is an attributive noun—a noun used adjectivally.

The dictionary’s first example for “waxed” used as a participial adjective is from a Middle English account of St. Augustine’s life, written sometime before 1380. Here’s an expanded version of the citation from Sammlung Altenglische Legenden, an 1878 collection of medieval English legends edited by Carl Horstmann:

“Þe ache for þe tyme was so stronge / þat he lafte þe speche of his tonge. / Þerfore in a waxed table / he wrot þat alle men, wiþouten fable, / for him schulde preize God witerly” (“The ache was so strong that he was speechless for the time being. Therefore he wrote on a waxed tablet that all honest men should praise God truly”).

As for paper treated with wax, the phrase “waxed paper” showed up in the mid-18th century, while “wax paper” appeared in the early 19th, according to our searches of digitized books. Here are the earliest examples we’ve seen for each phrase:

“The merchant now thinks it necessary to enclose all his country despatches in oiled or waxed paper cases, as he is aware that the rivers will soon be flooded, and that the Tapall [postman] must swim over with the post-bags on his head” (from Sketches of India, 1750, by Henry Moses).

“The pattern must first be cut out, and afterwards traced on the wax paper with a pencil, and again cut out with a sharp pair of scissors” (from The Wreath, Or Ornamental Artist, 1835, written anonymously by “A Lady”). The passage is from instructions for making a decorative light fixture out of wax paper.

You can find both “wax paper” and “waxed paper” in standard dictionaries. The shorter version is nearly twice as popular in the NOW database of online newspapers and magazines, but the two phrases are equally popular in the digitized books searched by Ngram Viewer.

Finally, we get to “popcorn,” which was “pop corn” when it first appeared in writing in the 19th century as the corn grown for popping.

The earliest example in the OED is from a newspaper in Norwalk, Ohio: “We believe, if the pop corn was not flinty, it would be a better crop, and certainly a more productive one, than the large eared corn” (from the Huron [County] Reflector, May 15, 1838).

It’s “popped corn” in the dictionary’s first citation for corn that’s been popped: “I have been popping corn to-night, which is only a more rapid blossoming of the seed under a greater than July heat. The popped corn is a perfect winter flower, hinting of anemones and houstonias” (from a Jan. 3, 1842, entry in Henry David Thoreau’s journal).

We’ve found several 19th-century examples of the snack written as “popcorn,” the only version now in standard dictionaries. This one is from the October 1879 issue of Potter’s American Monthly: “PopCorn balls and cider, that’s the bill of fare; popcorn and cider. There is something in a five-cent popcorn ball that just knocks a butter-brown country girl off her pins.”

Finally, here’s an early 20th-century example with the usual spelling: “He purchased a large bag of popcorn” (Just William, 1922, a collection of short stories by the English writer Richmal Crompton).

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