English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

A job is a job is a job

Q: I’m bugged by the use of “job” and “of” in this sentence: “I have the job of delivering the bad news.” The “job” here is a task, not a position, and what is the “of” doing there? There’s no possession involved.

A: You raise two issues—the meaning of the noun “job” and its use with the preposition “of.” We’ll start with the noun.

A “job” doesn’t always mean an occupation or line of work. It can also mean a task, a responsibility, or simply something that needs to be done—senses of the word that have been common for centuries.

So a person can have both “the job of sales assistant” and “the job of delivering the bad news.” And a company that’s lagging in some area can try “to do a better job.” In modern English, “job” has these and many other senses.

However, when the noun “job” came into English in the 16th century it didn’t mean a paid position, as it does today. It originally meant “a piece of work; esp. a small and discrete piece of work done as part of one’s regular occupation or profession,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word first appeared in the phrase “job of work,” recorded in documents (dated 1557-58) relating to the reigns of King Edward VI and Queen Mary : “Doinge certen Iobbes of woorke.” (The letter “i” was used before “j” became established.)

Here’s a later example with the word used alone: “I cannot read, I keep a Clark to do those jobbs for need” (from Thomas Middleton’s play The Mayor of Quinborough, 1615–20, known today under the title Hengist, King of Kent).

The origins of the word “job” are unknown, the OED says, but it’s significant that in the mid-1500s a separate noun “job” meant “a cartload,” or “the amount that a horse and cart can bring at one time.” (This later led to the dialectal nouns “jobble” and “jobbet,” for a small load of hay or whatnot.)

So it’s possible that the two kinds of “job” are etymologically connected. The OED suggests that the original “job” (in “a job of work”) may have conveyed the sense of a “piece” or a “mass”—that is, an amount of something that needed to be carried or moved and hence represented a task.

In fact, the noun “jobber” (1600s), in the sense of a small trader, may also derive from that early sense of “job” as a cartload of something to be hauled.

Apart from its mysterious etymology, “job” later developed many wider meanings than the “piece of work” definition given above. Here are some of them in chronological order, with the OED definitions:

  • “An isolated or casual piece of work, undertaken for a one-off payment or on a hire basis” (first recorded in 1660).
  • Criminals’ slang. A crime, esp. one arranged beforehand; spec. a theft, a robbery” (1679).
  • “A task, a thing to be done; an operation, a procedure; a function to be fulfilled” (1680).
  • “A state of affairs, a situation, a set of circumstances,” frequently used with a modifier (1680), as in the 19th-century phrase “to make the best of a bad job.”
  • Printing. A small piece of miscellaneous work, such as the printing of posters, leaflets, cards, etc.” (1770).
  • “A paid position of regular employment, a post, a situation; an occupation, a profession” (1781).
  • “A difficult task” (colloquial), as in “That was a job!” (1832).
  • “A person’s particular responsibility, duty, or role,” as in “It was my job to pay all the bills” (1841). This is the sense of “job” in the sentence you ask about.
  • “A piece of work carried out using the tool or material specified,” used with a modifying noun, as in “needle job” (1846).
  • “An operation involving cosmetic surgery … the result of such an operation” (colloquial), used with a  modifying noun, as in “nose job” (1947).

Finally, you ask what “of” is doing in “the job of delivering the bad news.” The expression is a genitive construction, not a possessive. As we’ve noted several times on our blog, the term “genitive” is broader than “possessive.”

In addition to possession (“the lawyer’s office”), the genitive can indicate the source of something (“the girl’s story”), an amount (“two cups of cream”), the date (“yesterday’s storm”), a part (“the cover of the book”), duration (“five years of experience”), type (“the job of cleaning up”), and so on.

In the expression you ask about, “the job of delivering the bad news,” the genitive indicates the type of job.

The “of” in uses like this, the OED explains, serves to connect two nouns, the first denoting the class and the second a particular example of that class.

In “the job of delivering the bad news,” the noun “job” represents the class, and “of” connects it to “delivering the bad news,” a gerund phrase that functions as a noun denoting an example of the class.

OED citations for “of” used this way date back to Old English. With spellings updated, they include “borough of Lincoln” (1123), “color of scarlet” (1530), “vice of covetousness” (1691), and “month of November” (1749).

We also use “of” after “job” to express things like “a good job of painting his room” or “a better job of marketing the product” or “the worst job of redecorating I’ve ever seen.”

There again, what follows “of” answers the question, “What kind of job?”

We’ll end with a quote from one our favorite fictional detectives, Lord Peter Wimsey: “I think the most joyous thing in life is to loaf around and watch another bloke do a job of work.” (The Five Red Herrings, 1931, by Dorothy L. Sayers.)

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English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

In defense of ‘crispy’

Q: I’m aware that “crispy” has been around for centuries, but it still bugs me. Since “crisp” is already an adjective, why a suffixed “crispy”?

A: Yes, the adjective “crisp” has been around since Anglo-Saxon days. So why did writers feel the need to add the suffix “-y” to it in the 14th century?

We’re only speculating here, but we can think of several possibilities. Some writers may have wanted to differentiate the adjective from a now-obsolete Middle English noun spelled “crisp.” Others may have thought “crispy” looked more like an adjective than “crisp.” (A number of similarly suffixed adjectives had been coined in the 13th century.)

We lean toward a possible phonological explanation. The “-y” suffix may have been added because the “sp” consonant cluster at the end of “crisp” can be hard to pronounce before a word beginning with a consonant or consonant cluster. That’s why “crispy chicken” is easier to pronounce than “crisp chicken.”

In fact, many Old English forms of the adjective “crisp” had a vowel at the end. For instance, it’s spelled crispe in the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example. In Anglo-Saxon times, the “e” in crispe would have been pronounced as in our word “bet.”

Interestingly, the “s” and “p” of “crisp” were often transposed in Old English and Middle English writing, perhaps reflecting pronunciation difficulties. And bare versions of the adjective (those without an additional vowel) tended to follow nouns rather than precede them.

When the adjective “crisp” showed up in Old English, it meant curly, as in curly hair. It’s derived from crispus, classical Latin for “curled.” Although standard dictionaries still include the hair sense of “crisp,” it now usually refers to stiff, closely curling, or frizzy hair.

The OED’s earliest example is from an anonymous Old English translation (circa 900) of Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, a Latin church history written in the eighth century by the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede:

“Se gunga wæs geworden hale lichoman … and hæfde crispeloccas fægre” (“The youth became sound of body … and he had fair curly locks”). The passage comes from Bede’s description of a miracle in which a young leper was cured.

The term crispe in the compound crispeloccas (crispe loccas in some manuscripts) is technically an accusative plural—that is, it modifies a plural direct object. The form of an Old English adjective varied as its role changed. So crisp, for example, could end with “-e,” “-a,” “-u,” “-ra,” “-re,” and so on.

The letters “s” and “p,” as well as another pair, are transposed in the next OED citation: “He is blæcfexede and cyrps” (“He is black haired and curly”). It’s from an Old English homily written around 1000 by the Benedictine abbot Ælfric of Eynsham (published in Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church, 1844, edited by Benjamin Thorpe).

When the adjective “crispy” appeared in the late 14th century, Oxford says, it also referred to curly hair: “By grete heete the heer of the berd and of the heed ben cryspy and curlyd.” From John Trevisa’s 1398 Middle English translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Order of Things”), an encyclopedic Latin work compiled in the 13th century by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus.

Around this time, a now-obsolete noun “crisp” could refer to either a “thin or delicate textile fabric, used esp. by women for veils or head-coverings” or a “kind of pastry made by dropping batter into boiling fat,” according to the dictionary. (Today, a “crisp” can mean a baked fruit dessert like an apple crisp. And in Britain, “crisps” are what Americans would call potato chips.)

In its entry for the “-y” suffix, the OED notes that “in the 15th cent., if not earlier, certain monosyllabic adjectives were extended by means of this suffix, apparently with the design of giving them a more adjectival appearance, e.g. hugy [from] huge, leany [from] lean.”

The dictionary also notes the following “fresh coinages” of adjectives with the “-y” suffix in texts before 1300: “dready, fiery, frighty, hairy (cf. Old English hæriht), happy, needy, sleepy (but cf. Old English unslǽpig), tidy (c1250 = in good condition).”

In the 16th century, the OED says, the adjective “crisp” took on a new sense: “Brittle or ‘short’ while somewhat hard or firm in structure (usually as a good quality); said esp. of hard things which have little cohesion and are easily crushed by the teeth, etc.”

The first citation is from John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse (1530), a French grammar for English speakers: “I crasshe, as a thynge dothe that is cryspe or britell bytwene ones tethe.”

In the early 17th century, “crispy” also took on this sense of being brittle: “Bressaudes, the crispie mammocks that remaine of tried hogs grese” (from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, 1611, compiled by Randall Cotgrave).

In contemporary dictionaries, “crisp” is now the broader term and can refer to food (“crisp bacon,” “crisp lettuce”), paper or cloth (“crisp new dollar bills”), the weather (“a crisp autumn day”), and speaking or writing (“a crisp, no-nonsense presentation”). “Crispy,” on the other hand, usually refers to food that’s firm, brittle, and crunchy (“a crispy sugar topping”). Both adjectives sometimes refer to tight curls.

“Crisp” is much more popular than “crispy,” according to a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks digitized books. But both terms are standard English when used to describe food. We see nothing wrong with “crispy” and could argue that adding that “-y” to “crisp” in Middle English was in keeping with the term’s Old English usage.

The two adjectives were used for centuries without objection. As far as we can tell, William Safire was the first language commentator to criticize the usage. In a Jan. 6, 1985, On Language column in the New York Times Magazine, he calls it “an itsy-pooism.” Oh, come on!

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Abluting in the loo

Q: The noun “ablution,” namely the washing of one’s body, suggests a verb “ablute.” Ever hear of that?

A: Yes, there is a verb “ablute.” In fact, people have been “abluting” themselves for more than 300 years, though the verb is used infrequently these days, and mainly in British English.

Merriam-Webster Online defines the verb “ablute” as “to wash one’s body” or “to perform one’s ablutions,” and says it’s synonymous with “bathe.”

The verb is “chiefly British,” M-W says, and provides two contemporary examples: “the minimalist bathroom where he ablutes every day” (Irish Times, Oct. 12, 2009), and “After I finished the paper, I headed to the bathroom to ablute myself, as is my wholesome Canadian habit” (Toronto Globe and Mail, March 13, 2004).

As those examples demonstrate, the verb is both intransitive (used without an object, as in “he ablutes every day”), and transitive (used with an object, as in “to ablute myself”).

This is not a common word, even in dictionaries—at least the ordinary ones. Of course it’s in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, where it’s described as “colloquial.” Most of the contemporary uses we’ve seen are semi-humorous.

As for standard dictionaries, Merriam-Webster Online, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online) are the only ones we’ve found, British or American, that have entries for the verb.

However, several standard dictionaries have entries for the adjective “abluted” (washed clean, thoroughly washed) and for the noun “abluent” (a cleansing substance). And “ablution” (the washing of one’s body, mostly used in the plural) is found nearly everywhere.

One might assume that “ablute” was a humorous back-formation based on “ablutions,” but that’s not how the verb originated.

The OED says “ablute” was first recorded in the early 1700s as a direct borrowing from classical Latin, in which ablūt– is the past participial stem of abluere (to wash off).

The first use was medical: “Let the Wound be well abluted with hot Tinctures de Myrrha” (from The Experienced Chirurgion, 1703, by the naval surgeon John Moyle. “Chirurgion” was an early spelling of “surgeon”).

The verb “ablute” has been found in writing ever since. But as we mentioned above, the more modern sightings are colloquial and often tongue-in-cheek. Here’s a partial selection from the OED:

“We are a private lot, not inclined to communal abluting” (the Sun Herald, Sydney, March 14, 1993; here the derivative “abluting” is a noun).

“I abluted in a staff loo” (Derbyshire Life and Countryside magazine, November 2002).

“Also featured in the catalogue are soap applicators for abluting those hard-to-get-to little places” (the Independent on Sunday, June 10, 2007).

As for those relatives of “ablute,” the first to be recorded in English was “ablution” in the late 14th century. This noun, meaning “the act or process of washing clean,” came partly from French and partly from Latin.

The earliest known example, circa 1395, is in the plural and was spelled “ablucions” in Middle English. But in those days it referred to the purification of substances by emulsifying them in hot water, not to personal cleanliness.

On a more personal level, the word came to mean ritual religious washing in the 1500s, and ordinary bathing in the 1600s.

But even then “ablution” (more often “ablutions”), when used in reference to bathing or washing oneself, was “frequently humorous (with mock formal tone),” Oxford says.

The earliest use for personal bathing is from 1664, but this example better illustrates the mock formality of the word: “Having performed the ceremony of ablution, I shifted” (Tobias Smollett’s novel Roderick Random, 1748).

The adjective “abluted,” defined in the OED as “that has been washed clean,” was first recorded in 1650. Like the verb “ablute,” it comes from classical Latin (ablūtus, past participle of abluere, to wash off or away).

Similarly, the noun “abluent” (a cleansing agent), first recorded in 1726, is from classical Latin (abluent, present participle of abluere). Oxford adds that the post-classical Latin noun abluentia (1702) meant “cleansing medicines.”

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English Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

A ‘bury’ old usage

Q: In driving around the New York suburbs, I couldn’t help noticing the number of towns with “bury” in their names— Danbury in Connecticut, Westbury on Long Island, and Asbury Park in New Jersey. I suppose the suffix is related to the noun “borough.” Is it also related to the verb “bury”?

A: The combining form “-bury” in Danbury and the noun “Bury” in the English town of Bury St Edmunds are indeed related to “borough.” However, the use of “-bury” and “Bury” in place names isn’t related to the verb “bury.”

The geographical use of “-bury” and “Bury” is derived from burg or burh, Old English for a town or fortified place, while the verb “bury” comes from byrgan, an Old English verb meaning to raise a mound, cover, or inter. John Ayto notes in his Dictionary of Word Origins that interment originally referred to “covering a dead body with earth,” and “the general sense ‘put underground’ did not develop until the 14th century.”

The geographical and interment senses of “bury” come from different roots in prehistoric Germanic and Proto-Indo-European, according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. (Though these roots predate written language, linguists have reconstructed them.)

The verb “bury” is derived from the Germanic bergan (to protect) while the geographical terms are derived from the Germanic bergaz (hill or mountain), according to American Heritage. The two Germanic terms ultimately come from different roots with the same spelling in Proto-Indo-European, the etymological ancestor of English and most other European languages.

The source of the verb in Indo-European is bhergh-1 (to hide or protect), American Heritage says, and the source of the geographical terms is bhergh-2 (high). Despite the identical spelling, the dictionary lists them as separate entries with different etymological descendants.

Getting back to Anglo-Saxon times, the Old English geographical terms burh and burg are the ancestors of  “berg,” “borough,” “burg,” “bury,” and similar elements in modern compound place names.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for the geographical term (with burge meaning city) is from an Old English glossary dated around 820: “to burge and to wealle” (“to the walls of the city”). From Anglo-Saxon and Old English Vocabularies (1883), by Thomas Wright and Richard Paul Wülcker.

The earliest example in the online Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary for the term used in a place name is from a ninth-century manuscript that describes the building of bebban burh (Bamburgh) in the sixth century by Ida, the first known Anglian king. Bebban burh became the royal seat of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria:

“hér ida féng to ríce, ðonon norþanhymbra cyne-cyn onwóc, and ríxode twelf geár. he timbrode bebban burh, seó wæs ǽrost mid hegge betýned, and ðǽr æfter mid weallehere” (“Ida, who founded the royal line of the Northumbrians, reigned for 12 years [547-559]. He built Bamburgh, which was at first enclosed by a hedge, and later by a wall”). From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Version A, written around 890.

During the Middle English period (roughly 1150 to 1450), the terms were spelled in many different ways in place names. Here are some examples from the University of Michigan’s online Middle English Dictionary: Tileburh (circa 1250), Oldebyry (1290), Kynnesbiry (1290), Goldesburgh (1303), Wyndilbyry (1334), Burgewelle (1346), Peterburgh (1397), Borowefeld (1406), Neu Salesbery (1450-53), and Newe Salysbury (1457).

The OED notes that the Old English stem burg or burh had a vowel change when used in the dative case—that is, as an indirect object, an object of a preposition, and so on: “This dative, biri, berie, buri, was also at times used for the nominative; whence the modern Bury, -bury, in place-names.”

The earliest example in the OED for a place name with the modern “-bury” spelling is from the prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c. 1386): “Here bygynneth the Book of the tales of Caunterbury.”

As for the verb, the first Oxford citation is from an Old English hymn, written sometime before 1000, that describes the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea: “Þone geomormod Josep byrigde” (“whom sorrowful Joseph buried”).

If you’d like to read more, we ran a post in 2008 on why the verb “bury” usually rhymes with “merry” rather than “hurry,” though you can find both pronunciations in dictionaries.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Period furniture

Q: The terms “ottoman,” “divan,” “settee,” and “sofa” seem to have been used in Victorian England. Were they known earlier? Are they interchangeable? Do they come from Turkish, Persian, or some other Eastern culture? As a writer of historical fiction, I must get this right!

A: The nouns “ottoman,” “divan,” “settee,” and “sofa” overlap here and there, but they’re not interchangeable. What’s more, some meanings have shifted over the years, so writers of historical fiction have to be on their toes in describing period furniture.

What these all have in common is a level base, usually cushioned or upholstered. The differences mostly have to do with the extras—that is, whether they have arms, a back, neither of those features, or both of them.

Etymologically, most of these terms come from Arabic or Persian and entered English in the 17th and 18th centuries. We’ll examine them one at a time, beginning with “ottoman” (since you mentioned it first).

“Ottoman,” derived from Arabic, entered English in the late 18th century in the furniture sense: an armless, backless seat or footrest that may also have hidden storage space inside. This is the definition given in the Oxford English Dictionary: “A low upholstered seat without a back or arms, typically serving also as a box, with the seat hinged to form a lid.”

As a furniture term, “ottoman” comes from the earlier adjective “Ottoman,” meaning Turkish, a word derived from Uṯmān (Othman), the Arabic name for Osman I, founder of the Turkish (or “Ottoman”) empire. The furniture was “probably so called to suggest the Oriental style of the seat,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The furniture term was recorded in French as ottomane in 1729 and was borrowed into English 50 years later, according to OED citations. The French word for the item, Oxford says, was also borrowed by other European languages: German (Ottomane, 1772 or earlier); Italian (ottomana, 1797); Spanish (otomana, 1849); and Catalan (otomana, 1888).

The OED’s earliest use in English is from a memorandum written by Thomas Jefferson on Aug. 19, 1789, when he was in France: “Pd. [paid] for an Ottomane of velours d’Utrecht.”

The dictionary’s most recent example is from the autumn 2001 issue of the Art Room Catalogue: “This hugely versatile and attractive ottoman serves as a seat, a footstool or even an occasional table.”

In Oxford’s 19th-century British quotations, people are described as sitting on ottomans (sometimes two at a time), as well as resting their feet on them.

“Divan,” derived from Persian, entered English in the late 1690s in the furniture sense: a long, raised platform against a wall, or a couch-like affair with no back or arms. Here’s the OED definition: “Originally: a long seat consisting of a continued step, bench, or raised part of the floor, against the wall of a room, which may be furnished with cushions, so as to form a kind of sofa or couch. Now usually: a low bed or couch with no back or ends.”

As John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “The word divan has a long and spectacularly variegated semantic history.”

In Persian, etymologists say, a dēvān was originally a small book or collection of documents. Later this came to mean a register or an account book, and later still the office of an accountant or other government official. Eventually, Ayto says, the Persian word broadened to mean “various chambers and the bodies that occupied them, such as tax offices, customs collectors, courts, and councils of state.”

Typically, the walls of these chambers were lined with long seats, and consequently a dēvān came to mean such a seat—a sense that passed from Persian into both Arabic (dīwān) and Turkish (divān), and from them into the European languages.

In fact, many of the Persian meanings of dēvān filtered into French and then into English, OED citations show. For example, “divan” was first recorded in English as “an Oriental council of state” in 1586, and as a Turkish council hall or chamber of justice sometime before 1597.

The sense of a “divan” as a long seat was first recorded in English in the late 17th century.  Here’s the OED citation: “These Duans are a sort of low stages … elevated about sixteen or eighteen inches or more, above the floar. … Upon these the Turks eat, sleep, smoake, receive visits, say their prayers, &c.” (From Henry Maundrell’s A Journey From Aleppo to Jerusalem, published in 1703. Maundrell, who died in 1701, based the book on a diary he kept during a voyage made in the spring of 1697.)

The word for the seat is spelled “divan” in the OED’s next citation (dated 1702) and all that follow. But for more than a century it referred only to Eastern interiors as described in travel memoirs, fiction, or foreign political reporting. It wasn’t used to mean a piece of European furniture until the mid-19th century. This is the earliest sighting in Oxford:

“The bed being soft and comfortable, Mr. Quilp determined to use it, both as a sleeping place by night and as a kind of Divan by day” (from Charles Dickens’s novel The Old Curiosity Shop, 1841).

We found this earlier American example: “Also a charge of one hundred dollars for one divan and eight cushions” (from the Boston Atlas, May 2, 1840). The article, an anonymous opinion piece, described President Martin Van Buren’s bills for furnishing the White House with “foreign trash” in 1837, the year he took office.

As far as we can tell, “divan” wasn’t common in Western furniture terminology until the early 20th century. Oxford’s next example is from 1919, and according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the term in its Western sense had its heyday in the 1930s and ’40s.

“Settee,” a native English word from the early 1700s, usually means a bench or modest-sized sofa. The OED definition: “A seat (for indoors) holding two or more persons, with a back and (usually) arms; occasionally also with divisions.”

The dictionary says this word is “perhaps” a variant of the older noun “settle,” which originated in Old English in the late 800s and meant something to sit on, like a chair, bench, or stool. According to OED citations, “settle” survived into Victorian times but in the narrower sense of a long wooden bench.

As for a “settee,” it may be wooden or upholstered. The OED’s first citation is from a 1716 issue of the London Gazette: “All Sorts of Hangings for Rooms and Stair-cases, Chairs, Settees and Screens.” In those days, “hangings” meant wallpapers and decorator fabrics.

In Victorian England, “settee” would have been a common enough term for a bench or smallish sofa. One 1840 example in the OED compares a “settee” to a “double-arm’d chair.”

“Sofa,” derived from Arabic, entered written English in the early 1700s in its modern sense, defined in the OED as “a long, stuffed seat with a back and ends or end, used for reclining; a form of lounge or couch.”

However, it meant something different a century earlier, when it was first borrowed into English from the Arabic ṣoffah. In the early 1600s, it meant a kind of cushioned dais found in Eastern countries. The OED defines “sofa” in the Eastern sense as “a part of the floor raised a foot or two, covered with rich carpets and cushions.”

So in its earliest uses, beginning in 1625, “sofa” appeared in travel memoirs describing the chambers of sultans, viziers, and other potentates.

The word in its modern Western sense, according to the OED, was first recorded in English a century later in a description of an Italian interior: “The Bridegroom sits on a very low sort of seat not unlike an oriental sofa.” (An entry by the philosopher George Berkeley, dated Jan. 20, 1717, in journals kept during a trip to Italy.)

Soon “sofa” became more common, though occasionally its spelling varied, as in these OED examples: “On her Sophee she sits, Vouchsafing audience to contending Wits” (from The Universal Passion, 1727, a satire by Edward Young). “I threw myself on a soffa” (from Samuel Richardson’s 1753 novel Sir Charles Grandison).

As words go, “sofa” has been uncommonly useful. (It was also adopted, as sofa, into French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese.) It was very common throughout the 19th century and it still is. It’s held its own against other words used today for the same thing. It’s somewhat less popular than “couch” but far more common than “davenport.”

“Couch,” derived from French in the 1300s, meant a bed for most of its history, though by the 19th century it denoted something like a chaise-longue with a low back and one end-piece. “Davenport,” meaning the same as “sofa,” is a late 19th-century term, probably taken from the name of an American manufacturer.

We’ll end a quotation from the New York Times Magazine, June 21, 1981: “There used to be a split on davenport and sofa; now the split is between sofa and couch.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Inartful dodgers

Q: “Inartful” seems to be the word of choice now for excusing comments by public figures that cross the line, especially those by President Trump. However, I can’t find it in my American Heritage and Merriam-Webster dictionaries. Is it a legitimate word?

A: Yes, the adjective “inartful” is a legitimate word that showed up in the early 19th century. But it’s in only one of the 10 standard dictionaries that we regularly consult. Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, defines it as “lacking artifice; unsophisticated, unrefined; wanting polish or technical skill. Later also: unsubtle, tactless.”

Wiktionary, an online collaborative dictionary, has only that later sense: “Awkwardly expressed but not necessarily untrue; ill-phrased; inexpedient.” (Merriam-Webster online has an entry for a similarly spelled word, “unartful,” which it defines as “lacking craft” or “lacking skill.”)

“Inartful” is now generally used in that newer sense of being awkwardly expressed, according to our searches of the News on the Web corpus, a database of newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present.

Although the term was relatively popular in the early 19th century, “inartful” fell out of favor for a century and a half until it was revived in the late 20th century, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books.

As you’ve noticed, it’s sometimes used by supporters of President Trump to explain his more controversial comments, though we haven’t seen him use the word himself. Here are a few “inartful” examples from both Democrats and Republicans:

“Do I think some of his verbal formulations are inartful? Yeah” (Ken Blackwell, former mayor of Cincinnati and Trump transition official, on the President’s language, Politico, Aug. 3, 2019).

“I think the president is often inartful, but remarkably effective” (Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House Speaker, Washington Examiner, July 16, 2019).

“He said the truth in an inartful way” (Jesse Jackson on former Vice President Joe Biden’s comment that he worked with segregationists when he was in the Senate, Chicago Tribune, June 27, 2019).

“The expression I used the other day was inartful: Of course America is great and, of course, America has always been great” (Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York on his saying, two days earlier, “We’re not going to make America great again—it was never that great,” Politico, Aug. 15, 2008).

As for its etymology, “inartful” originally meant lacking artifice—that is, natural. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an early 18th-century political tract: “A Man of plain and Inartful Simplicity of Manners” (from The Life of Aristides the Athenian, anonymously published in Dublin in 1714).

But all of the OED’s examples from the 19th century onward use the word in its negative senses (unskilled, badly done, clumsy, tactless): “lace … clotted together in a very inartful manner” (1831); “inartful language” (1957, describing poor writing); “flawed and inartful drafting” (1986); “this inartful reference to his client’s probable future” (2005).

The word’s origins are simple enough. It was formed, the OED says, when the negative prefix “in-” was added to “artful.” So on the surface, at least, “inartful” is comparable to another “artful” opposite—“artless,” a word that appeared slightly earlier than “artful” in the late 16th century.

Both “artless” (first recorded in 1586) and “artful” (1590) were formed with the addition of suffixes to the noun “art,” which since the 1300s had meant not only skill but also artifice. And these new words formed from “art” reflected its two-pronged meanings.

Consequently, for several hundred years “artless” has meant unskilled, ignorant, inexperienced, clumsy; but it has also meant free of artifice—that is, sincere, natural, without guile. Similarly, “artful” has meant skilled or clever, but it has also meant artificial, cunning, deceitful.

These varied meanings of the two adjectives are still found in current usage, according to standard dictionaries. But in the case of “artless,” the OED says, “the usual sense” now is “without guile; sincere, ingenuous.” And in many standard dictionaries, the leading definition of “artful” is sly or cunning.

Meanwhile, as we said earlier, since the 19th century “inartful” has had only negative meanings—clumsy, tactless, and so on. So while “inartful” and “artless” look like they’d mean the same thing, they’re by no means synonymous as used today.

We borrowed the title of this post from the headline of an On Language column by William Safire in the New York Times Magazine (Aug. 4, 1985). In that column, Safire said “inartful” wasn’t a legitimate word. Even years later, in a 2008 column, he said it was “lexicographically unrecognized” (the OED’s entry for “inartful” was not written until 2009).

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English English language Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Fed up with feedback?

Q: I assiduously avoid the hackneyed use of “feedback” for giving one’s opinion about something, as in this NY Times headline: “How to Give Your Therapist Feedback.” I know that the term can be used to describe the behavior of electrical and other systems. How did “feedback” get its meaning in common parlance?

A: The use of “feedback” for the reaction of people to a product, service, performance, and so on is derived from the term’s earlier use in reference to the output and input signals of an electrical system. That earlier sense also led to the use of “feedback” for the sound distortion produced when the output and input signals don’t get along.

This kind of linguistic evolution is not unusual. Many technical terms have taken on nontechnical senses. Projects as well as trains can be derailed, punches and messages have been telegraphed, the analog computer is gone but not analog people, and politicians as well as actors can take center stage.

When the noun “feedback” first appeared in English in the early 20th century, it referred to the “return of a fraction of the output signal from one stage of a circuit, amplifier, etc., to the input of the same or a preceding stage,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first OED citation is from the Nov. 27, 1920, issue of Wireless Age: “An inductive feed-back in relation to the secondary system generates local oscillations.”

We found a somewhat earlier example for the term used as a phrasal adjective in a British patent for an electrical signaling system: “One of the variable current sources is a feed-back circuit of the system or a local source of high-frequency current” (Patent GB130432, Aug. 7, 1919).

The sound-distortion sense of “feedback” showed up in the 1930s. The OED defines it as the “effect whereby sound from a loudspeaker reaches a microphone feeding the speaker, thereby distorting the sound, and typically generating a screeching or humming noise.” The dictionary adds that it can also refer to a musical sound “created as a deliberate effect, usually through the amplifier of an electric guitar.”

The OED’s earliest sound-distortion example is from the June 26, 1936, issue of Science: “A button conveniently located on the side is used to turn the instrument [sc. a crystal microphone] on and off after it has been placed in the proper position, thus eliminating much of the problem of feed-back.”

Merriam-Webster Online has an earlier, adjectival example: “Howls, screeches and feed-back microphonic noises which block quality reception have been greatly minimized or totally eliminated in practically all of the new radios now on the market” (Hartford Courant, Oct. 2, 1932).

The earliest Oxford example for “feedback” used in the deliberate musical sense is from the 1960s: “Muddy’s new album Electric Mud is a morass of feedback … reverb and every other trick” (Blues Unlimited, Dec. 10, 1968).

So how did the arrangement of the output and input signals of an electrical system give us a term for positive and negative comments about an activity?

In a word history of “feedback,” Merriam-Webster explains that “negative feedback” originally referred to electronic “feedback that tends to dampen a process by applying the output against the initial conditions,” while “positive feedback” originally referred to “feedback that tends to magnify a process or increase its output.” That apparently inspired the figurative use of “feedback” for positive and negative evaluations.

“Of the several possible meanings of feedback the one that is probably encountered most frequently today (the one meaning ‘helpful information or criticism’) is the most recent,” M-W says. “This sense began seeing use in the 1940s, often found in the field of psychology, and it was over a decade before it crept into the broadened use it currently has.”

The earliest examples we’ve seen are in highly technical articles in scholarly journals from the late 1940s. The social scientist Karl Wolfgang Deutsch, for example, discusses “the feedback notion of consciousness,” and cites “a few suggestive analogies between mechanical or electrical feedback nets, nerve systems, and societies.” (“Some Notes on Research on the Role of Models in the Natural and Social Sciences,” Synthese, January 1948.)

The first OED example for “feedback” meaning a response appeared a decade later: “In … a lecture … the live speaker has a reaction, a ‘feed-back’ from the listeners, and … he can adjust his speech accordingly” (from “Speech Education,” an essay by the linguist J. L. M Trim, in The Teaching of English, 1959, edited by Randolph Quirk and A. H. Smith).

All 10 of the standard dictionaries we regularly check include “feedback” in this sense. Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, defines it as “information about reactions to a product, a person’s performance of a task, etc. which is used as a basis for improvement.” Here’s one of the dictionary’s many examples: “Individuals want feedback on their performance and it is also crucial to their self-development.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Scrubbing floors and computers

[Note: This post was updated on Dec. 23, 2020.]

Q: In an article about the Gilroy, CA, shooting, the NY Times says investigators “also are continuing to scrub various electronic devices and trying to learn if he had any help carrying out the shooting.” Isn’t this an incorrect use of “scrub,” which I’d always understood to mean, in this context, to make data unrecoverable?

A: No, that’s not the only definition of “scrub” in digital technology. When used in technical senses, the verb “scrub” can mean either (1) to clean or erase, or (2) to examine by fast-forwarding or rewinding.

These uses of “scrub” are well known to people familiar with digital and audio/video technologies. They’re becoming more common as time goes by, though the second one is rather new.

However, in searching the ten standard British and American dictionaries we usually consult, we were surprised to find that only two have caught up to these senses of the word.

For instance, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has definitions having to do with cleaning and erasing; here they are, along with examples:

“a. To maintain the integrity of by finding and correcting errors: software that automatically scrubs stored data.

“b. To erase in such a way as to render unrecoverable: scrubbed the laptop’s hard drive to destroy incriminating evidence.”

And has this in the audio/video sense: “to fast-forward or rewind in an audio or video file by dragging the progress marker forward or backward across the timeline bar: Scrub forward through the pregame and start playback from the kickoff.

Some older, specialized reference books have limited definitions too, perhaps because fast-forwarding and rewinding technology was less developed at the time. Here are examples of the verb as used in computer science:

“To examine a large amount of data and eliminate duplicate or unneeded items” (McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 2003). “To wipe information off a disk or remove data from store” (Simon Collin’s Dictionary of Computing, 2009).

In its nontechnical usage, “scrub” has similar senses: (1) to vigorously clean something by rubbing, as in “he scrubbed the kitchen floor,” and (2) to cancel or eliminate, as in “the launch was scrubbed” or “his horse was scrubbed from the race.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has no entries for computer senses of “scrub,” at least not yet. As for less technical uses, the OED describes the verb as Germanic in origin and “of obscure history.”

The verb was first recorded in Middle English writing in the 1300s, when it meant to curry-comb a horse, a sense that may have come from Middle Low German or Middle Dutch terms for scraping or scrubbing.

In its modern sense—to clean by hard rubbing—“the word may perhaps have been re-imported from Dutch as a nautical term,” the OED suggests.

This current sense of “scrub” was first recorded in the 16th century, at a time when Holland was a major naval power and many Dutch nautical words came into English. In those days, the English word meant “to clean (esp. a floor, wood, etc.) by rubbing with a hard brush and water.”

However, the earliest OED example, from 1595, uses the term figuratively. It’s from a contemporary account of Sir Francis Drake’s final, disastrous expedition against Spain in the West Indies:

“If part of our companie had been sent thither upon our first arrival at Rio de la Hacha, doubtles we had done much goode, but now they [the Spaniards] had scrube it very bare.” (From Sir Francis Drake His Voyage, 1595, a contemporary narrative written by a passenger, Thomas Maynarde. In December 1595, Drake’s men landed at the city only to find that the Spanish had “scrubbed” it bare—that is, removed everything of value.)

The dictionary’s earliest use of “scrub” meaning to cancel or eliminate is from the early 19th century, and is found in the private writings of Sir Walter Scott:

“If I were alone, I could scrub it [a visit to London], but there is no doing that with Anne” (a diary entry written March 22, 1828, and first published in The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, 1941).

The dictionary defines the word in this sense as “to cancel, scrap, call off; to eliminate, erase; to reject, dismiss.” It adds that this usage was “reinforced by the popularity of the expression amongst servicemen in the war of 1939–45.”

Oxford includes several WWII uses, both British and American, including this enlightening passage from a letter to the editor of the Spectator. The letter, from a British naval officer, ran on May 25, 1945, in response to a review of a book on air force slang:

“The author can possibly justify the inclusion of the term ‘scrub,’ meaning ‘to cancel,’ in a collection of R.A.F. slang. The expression is in common use in the Royal Navy and has been for many generations. It derives from the days when all signals and orders were written on a slate. When the signals were cancelled or orders executed, the words on the slate were ‘scrubbed out’ or, equally correctly ‘washed out.’ ”

[Note: Two readers called our attention to the increasingly common fast-forward and rewind sense of “scrub.” As one commented: “Audio and video scrubbing is moving quickly through a recording (fast-forward or fast-rewind) while the recording plays in order to find a specific spot in the recording. It does not seem like a stretch to me to go from searching an audio or video recording for something specific to searching data recorded on a computer drive for something specific.”]

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Pronunciation Usage Word origin Writing

Do you say AH-kwa or ACK-wa?

Q: After viewing a 1967 “Aquaman” cartoon, I overheard some people make fun of the narrator Ted Knight’s ACK-wa-man pronunciation. But when I was a child in the ’60s, everyone pronounced “aqua” that way. Why is AH-kwa-man the usual pronunciation now?

A: The word “aqua” was probably pronounced AH-kwa when it showed up in English in the Middle Ages, but the pronunciation was AKE-wa or ACK-wa for hundreds of years before AH-kwa was revived in American English in the 1970s. As you remember, the usual pronunciation in the US was indeed ACK-wa when Aquaman splashed on to the comic scene in the mid-20th century. Here’s the story.

English borrowed the Latin word aqua (“water”) in the late 1300s. In Middle English, “aqua” was a noun used attributively (that is, adjectivally) in the names of various solutions in pharmacy and chemistry, such as “aqua mirabilis” (an aromatic mixture of nutmeg, ginger, wine, etc.), “aqua regia” (nitric and hydrochloric acids), and “aqua vitae” (strong distilled alcohol).

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to “aqua rosacea” (rose water): “of grene rose aqua rosacea is made by seþynge of fuyre oþer of þe sonne” (“rosewater is made by boiling green rose with fire or the sun”). From John Trevisa’s translation in the late 1300s of De Proprietatibus Rerum, an encyclopedic Latin reference work compiled in the mid-1200s by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus.

In the late 19th century, according to OED citations, “aqua-” began being used as “a combining form or quasi-adj., esp. in expressions referring to aquatic entertainment.” The dictionary’s first example is from the June 1887 issue of Gentleman’s Magazine: “When the ‘Théâtre Nautique’ first opened its doors the bill presented … a three act aqua-drama of Chinese life, entitled ‘Kao-Kang.’ ”

Other early aquatic compounds were “aqua-glider” (1930), “aquadrome” (1935), and “aquacade” (1937). The comic-book character Aquaman (created by Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger) first appeared in the November 1941 anthology More Fun Comics No. 73.

In classical times, the initial a of the Latin aqua was pronounced much like the “a” of the English word “about,” according to modern linguistic reconstructions of classical Latin. And the first syllable of a two-syllable word like aqua was stressed, so it would have been pronounced something like UH-kwuh.

Some scholars believe the word aqua was used in classical Latin to imitate animal sounds. In Rudens, a comedy by  the Roman playwright Plautus, a wet, shivering survivor of a shipwreck stutters “aqu aqu aqua” (“wa-wa-water”), which some Latinists believe suggests the quacking of a duck. And the poet Ovid’s use of “sub aqua sub aqua” in Metamorphoses to describe Lycian peasants turned into frogs is said to suggest croaking.

Skipping ahead, Latin pronunciation had evolved significantly by the time Trevisa introduced the English word “aqua” in translating the Latin aqua. In medieval Latin, heavily influenced by church usage, the a of aqua was pronounced like the first vowel of “father” or “aha,” according to the historian G. Herbert Fowler (“Notes on the Pronunciation of Medieval Latin in England,” published in the journal History, September 1937).

So Trevisa, a Catholic cleric, would have pronounced the Latin aqua as AH-kwa. In fact, aqua is still pronounced that way in ecclesiastical Latin. You can hear it in the line “Aqua lateris Christi, lava me” of this choral rendition of Anima Christi, a 14th-century prayer to Jesus.

We haven’t found any evidence of how Trevisa pronounced his new English word “aqua,” but we assume that he and other British scholars would have used the medieval Latin pronunciation. In other words, the original pronunciation of “aqua” in Middle English was probably AH-kwa.

However, the pronunciation of the first “a” in “aqua” has  changed noticeably in English since the Middle Ages, according to British and American dictionaries from the 18th to the 21st century.

In the UK, for example, A General Dictionary of the English Language (1780), by Thomas Sheridan, pronounces “aqua” as AKE-wa (the first vowel is described as the one in “hate” and the second as the one in “hat”). In A Critical  Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791), John Walker pronounces it similarly, using “fate” and “fat” as his examples.

Another British source, An English Pronouncing Dictionary, on Strictly Phonetic Principles (first ed., 1917), by Daniel Jones, pronounces it in compound terms as ACK-wa or AKE-wa. Jones describes AKE-wa as a less-frequent variant, and drops it from the 1944 fifth edition of his dictionary. The first vowel of ACK-wa is pronounced with the “a” of “cat” and the second with the “a” of “China.”

In American English, “aqua” was pronounced AKE-wa (with the vowel sounds of “fate” and “fat”) in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, according to the first and last editions of the Century Dictionary, published from 1889 to 1911.

But it was both ACK-wa and AKE-wa in the mid-20th century, according to our 1956 printing of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, Unabridged. ACK-wa (“the preferred form”) was pronounced with the “a” sounds of “add” and “sofa.”

Getting back to your question, we assume that the “aqua” of Aquaman was usually pronounced ACK-wa (the favored pronunciation in Webster’s Second) when the comic-book character first appeared in 1941.

In the 1960s, when Aquaman made his first animated appearances, the preferred pronunciation of “aqua” in the US was still ACK-wa, with AKE-wa as a less common variant, according to a 1963 printing of The Merriam-Webster Pocket Dictionary in our library.

But by the late 1970s, “aqua” had three different pronunciations in the US: ACK-wa, AH-kwa, and AKE-wa, according to Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (2d. ed, 1979), with the variants listed in the order “most frequent in general cultivated use.”

Today, AH-kwa is the usual American pronunciation, with ACK-wa a less common variant, according to the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged. A British dictionary, Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online), says the only British pronunciation is ACK-wa.

(The first “a” is pronounced as “uh” in both American and British English when it’s unstressed in such terms as “aquarium,” “aquatic,” and “Aquarius.”)

We haven’t seen any authoritative explanation for the revival of the AH-kwa pronunciation in the US over the last four decades. It may have been inspired by the pronunciation in ecclesiastical Latin, but the use of Latin has declined in Roman Catholic churches since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

We’ll end with a YouTube video of Ted Knight’s introduction to the Aquaman TV series, which ran from 1967 to 1970 on CBS.

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English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

The evolution of ‘enormity’

Q: I’m bothered by the use of “enormity” in this sentence: “We can’t let the enormity of the climate crisis prevent us from doing what needs to be done.” Yes, climate change is not only bigness but also badness. Still I think this is a misuse.

A: “Enormity” is a word often found in writing about climate change and its effects, and we think it’s being used appropriately.

When journalists write things like “the sheer enormity of the climate challenge” (the Guardian), “the enormity of global warming” (Scientific American), “the enormity of climate change” (National Geographic), and “the enormity of the climate problem” (The Hill), they’re using the noun for something that’s not just huge but huge in a disconcerting, overwhelming, or alarming way.

As we wrote in 2007, “enormity” has traditionally been a negative word, meaning badness rather than bigness. But in the 12 years since we wrote that post, usage has been shifting and it apparently still is. Many lexicographers now accept a definition that combines the two notions into one.

We checked 10 standard dictionaries and found some differences of opinion. As expected, all still include the traditional definition of “enormity” as monstrous evil or wickedness. But almost all accept other definitions as well.

The predominant opinion seems to be that definitions of “enormity” now include hugeness or immensity of a difficult, grave, or serious nature—that is, vast size with a negative judgment attached.

For instance, the definitions of “enormity” in Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online) include this one: “the great or extreme scale, seriousness, or extent of something perceived as bad or morally wrong.” And this one is from Longman: “the great size, seriousness, or difficulty of a situation, problem, event, etc.”

Some dictionaries go further and include a neutral sense of “enormity” that was once considered incorrect: great size or extent, as in “the enormity of the universe.” The definitions in Merriam-Webster Unabridged and Merriam-Webster Online, for instance, include “the quality or state of being huge.”

Lexico, too, accepts what it calls a “neutral use” in which the noun means “large size or scale,” as in “I began to get a sense of the enormity of the task.” This newer sense, Lexico suggests, was “influenced by enormous.”

But in a usage note, Lexico says this sense “generally relates to something difficult, such as a task, challenge, or achievement,” so even there, the so-called “neutral use” seems to have a negative and not-so-neutral element.

For now, we at Grammarphobia still have reservations about a completely neutral use of “enormity” for size alone with no negative connotations.

And some leading dictionaries agree with us. They either omit a neutral definition (as with Collins and Longman), or attach warning labels. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language labels it a “usage problem,” and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.) says it’s “considered a loose usage by some.”

We suspect that Merriam-Webster is ahead of the curve here, and that someday “enormity” will be completely accepted in the sense of enormousness alone, with no negative flavor at all. But we don’t think it’s there yet, especially since it’s rarely used in a positive way (as in “The enormity of the swimming pool is a selling point”).

It’s interesting that originally there was no notion of size in either the noun “enormity” or the adjective “enormous.” When they first appeared in English, “enormity” in the 1400s and “enormous” in the 1500s, the two words had to do with deviation from moral or legal norms.

They’re derived from Latin—the noun ēnormitātem, the adjective ēnormis—in which the ē prefix means “out” and norma means a “mason’s square” or “pattern,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first to enter English, the OED says, was “enormity,” borrowed from the French énormité. The dictionary’s earliest example is from a medieval life of St. Mary of Egypt, the prostitute who became an ascetic. This is the quotation, from a circa 1480 copy of a text thought to date from before 1400:

“Nothire stekis fra goddis mercy of þe syne þe quantyte, na ȝet of It þe Inormyte” (“Neither the multitude of the sin nor yet the enormity of it shuts out god’s mercy”).

As used there, Oxford says, the noun meant “deviation from moral or legal rectitude.” Before long, in the 1470s, it was used in another sense: “a breach of law or morality; a transgression, crime.”

The adjective “enormous,” borrowed directly from the Latin ēnormis, was used in a similar way early on. Its original meaning, the OED says, was “deviating from ordinary rule or type; abnormal, unusual, extraordinary, unfettered by rules; hence, mostly in bad sense, strikingly irregular, monstrous, shocking.”

Here’s the dictionary’s earliest example: “Soo shall this enormous facte be loked vppon with worthye correction.” (From The Testament of Master Wylliam Tracie, written sometime before 1533 by John Frith. William Tracy was an early Lutheran, and the “enormous facte” that Frith refers to is presumably the exhumation and public burning of Tracy’s body after the reading of his will, which declared his dissident faith and denied any bequests to the Catholic clergy.)

But soon “enormous” was being used to mean merely large, or, as the OED puts it, “excessive or extraordinary in size, magnitude, or intensity; huge, vast, immense.” Oxford has one example from 1544 and several more from the mid-1600s onward. This remains “the only current sense” of the word, the dictionary adds.

Meanwhile, in the 17th and 18th centuries, this neutral use of “enormous” in the sense of size began to influence “enormity.” Instead of a mere crime or a moral lapse, an “enormity” was ratcheted up in magnitude to “extreme or monstrous wickedness” or “a gross and monstrous offence,” the OED says.

For instance, an 18th-century author quoted in the OED uses the phrase “deeds of peculiar enormity and rigour” to describe the mass executions and atrocities committed by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his men against the Mexican population (The History of America, 1777, by William Robertson).

So an element of hugeness has been part of “enormity” for several hundred years, alongside the notion of something bad or morally wrong.

The OED does include a definition of hugeness alone: “excess in magnitude; hugeness, vastness.” But it labels the usage “obsolete,” adding that “recent examples might perhaps be found, but the use is now regarded as incorrect.”

This is the dictionary’s earliest use of “enormity” as hugeness: “A worm of proportionable enormity had bored a hole in the shell” (from a 1792 edition of Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia, a fictional account by Rudolf Erich Raspe).

The OED is not a standard dictionary but an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. Its entry for the “enormity” has not been fully updated, and none of its examples, for any of the meanings of “enormity,” go beyond the 19th century.

In fact, its newest example, from 1891, is something of a joke: “ ‘You have no idea of the enormity of my business transactions,’ said an eminent Stock Exchange speculator to a friend. He was perhaps nearer the truth than he intended.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Changing times

Q: Can you help me understand what ’Change means in this sentence from a short story I’m reading: “The tears just flowed like thawing snow; as they do in nature, though less often on ’Change.” The apostrophe and capital letter seem to be very confusing here. The author was an Englishman.

A: In Britain, the term “change” or “Change” has referred to a money exchange, a stock exchange, or a commercial exchange for hundreds of years, though the usage isn’t seen much now. In the late 18th century, an apostrophe was added in the mistaken belief that “Change” was short for “Exchange.”

In the sentence you’re asking about, the word apparently refers to a stock exchange. It’s from “The Fetch,” a story by Robert Aickman from his collection Intrusions: Strange Tales (1980).

The narrator, a merchant banker in London, uses it in describing the tears shed by his new wife’s maid, who has discovered that the banker’s ancestral home in Scotland is haunted.

The noun “change” was first used in the Middle Ages to mean a place for bartering or money-changing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It had this sense for centuries before “exchange” came to mean the same thing and eventually replaced it. Here’s the story.

In the business sense, a “change” was originally “a place for the conversion of money or bullion,” and “a place where merchants or bankers transact business,” the OED says. Those meanings today are obsolete or historical, the dictionary adds.

The word in these senses can be traced to a verb in post-classical Latin, cambiare, which in the 8th century meant “to exchange, to give in exchange, to obtain by exchange” and in the 11th century meant “to change money,” the dictionary says. From medieval Latin, the usage passed into Old French, Anglo-Norman, and finally into English.

Around the year 1200, Oxford explains, chaunge in Anglo-Norman was used “with reference to a money changer’s table,” and toward the end of the 1200s or perhaps earlier, “La Chaunge” was used “as the name of such a place in London.”

Early English uses in the dictionary include “Le Eldechaunge” (1317) and “Le Oldechaunge” (1389), meaning “the Old Change.” (This in fact was the name of a lane in London where such business was conducted in those days. Similarly, in the 18th century, “Change Alley” was a street in the City of London where many stockbrokers did business at coffee houses.)

So “change” long preceded “exchange” as a noun for a place of trade. It wasn’t until the mid-16th century that an “exchange” came to mean a money-changer’s office or “a building in which the merchants of a town assemble for the transaction of business,” the OED says.

The word acquired an official stamp when the capitalized noun “Exchange” came to mean the Royal Exchange, a commercial center in the City of London where merchants traded goods.

The building, modeled on the Antwerp Bourse, was constructed in 1566 and originally called the “Burse,” but in 1571 Queen Elizabeth gave it the title “Royal Exchange.”

The OED’s earliest written use of “Exchange” as short for “Royal Exchange” dates from 1589, but no doubt merchants used it in speech much earlier.

Beginning in the late 17th century, according to OED citations, the phrase “upon Change” (later “on Change”) was used to mean “at the Royal Exchange” or “on the stock exchange.”

In the early 1800s, the apostrophe crept in. As Oxford explains, the shorter word has been “often apprehended since the 19th cent. as a shortening (with elision of the initial syllable) of exchange … and hence frequently spelt ’change.”

The dictionary’s first citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a Nov. 23, 1821, entry in the English journalist William Cobbett’s diary of his travels through rural England:

“Young wives standing in need of something to keep down the unruly ebullitions which are apt to take place while the ‘dearies’ are gone hobbling to ’Change.” (Cobbett’s travel diary was first published in serial form from 1822 to 1826 in Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, and as a book, Rural Rides, in 1830.)

Henry W. Fowler, in the 1926 first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, notes that “Change” is “not an abbreviation of Exchange, & should have no apostrophe.” Sir Ernest Gowers repeated that in the 1965 second edition. However, the usage was so rare by the late 20th century that R. W. Burchfield dropped the entry in his revised 1998 third edition.

The example you came across in that 1980 short story is unusual. In searches of newspaper databases, we’ve found plenty of examples from the 19th century, but very few from the 20th later than the 1930s. Today the usage is found mainly in historical writing, as is the case with this OED citation:

“He knew he could make money on ’Change—he had demonstrated that over the last few years.” (From Norman B. Ream, a 2013 biography of a 19th-century businessman, by Paul Ryscavage.)

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English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

Who’s zori now?

[In observance of Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer, we’re republishing a post from Aug. 30, 2013.]

Q: My words for “flip-flops” are “zories” and “go-aheads.” My daughter cringes if I call them “thong sandals”—what could she be thinking of? I’ve lived in Iowa for 40 years now, but I grew up in the ’50s on Navy bases in California. Sailors brought the term “zories” back from Okinawa.

A: We’ve saved your question for the Labor Day weekend, summer’s last hurrah. We hope you and our other readers get in one last fling before putting away the flip-flops.

Pat used to call them simply “thongs” when she was growing up in Iowa in the ’50s and ’60s, but some sensitive folks (like you know who) may find the usage cringe-worthy today.

As for your terms for those floppy, usually rubber sandals, you may have picked up “go-aheads” as well as “zories” on those naval bases in California.

The Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines “go-aheads” this way: “Chiefly Hawaii and California. A sandal held on the foot by a strap between the big toe and the next toe.”

And an item entitled “Marine Corps Slang” in the December 1962 issue of the journal American Speech has this definition: “GO-AHEADS, n. Japanese zori, or the American adaptation, thong sandals.”

Doris E. Thompson, a University of Nebraska contributor who wrote the item, said she’d heard the “go-aheads” usage as a civilian employee at the Marine Corps schools at Quantico, VA.

You’ll be surprised to hear this, but the use of the term “zori” (or “sori”) for those sandals first showed up in English nearly two centuries ago.

The earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a book called Japan, an 1822 collection of writings edited by the English journalist Frederic Shoberl:

“The shoes of the Japanese consist of straw soles or slips of wood. Those in common use are called sori.”

The OED describes “zori” as a plural noun, and defines it as “Japanese thonged sandals with straw (or leather, wood, etc.) soles.” The word is derived from two Japanese terms: so (grass or straw) and ri (footwear or sole), according to Oxford.

(Geta, similar Japanese sandals, are on elevated wooden platforms and worn with kimonos and other traditional clothing.)

Although most of the OED examples cite the use of “zori” in Japan, the most recent is from a 1984 awards manual issued by the British Judo Association:

“Zori (flip-flops) are compulsory wear at BJA events and should be worn off the mat in Clubs, Schools, etc.”

All six Oxford citations for the usage have “zori,” not “zoris” or “zories,” as the plural.

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list “zori” or “zoris” as the plural.

Our Google searches indicate that when an “s” plural is used, the spelling “zoris” is preferred over “zories” two to one.

The Dictionary of American Regional English has citations for “zori” going back to the late 1950s, and says the usage appears most often in the West and Hawaii. The DARE examples include “zori,” “zoris,” and “zories” as plurals.

The earliest DARE citation is from a Sept. 30, 1958, ad in the Idaho State Journal: “ ‘Zoris’ Thong Sandals—Ideal Shower Shoes … 77¢.” (The newspaper is in Pocatello.)

The most recent citation is from Our Lady of the Forest, a 2003 novel by David Guterson (author of the bestseller Snow Falling on Cedars):

“Was there really something called Florida Priest Week? A coterie of priests in bathing suits and zoris, discussing, say, the communion of saints?”

The term “flip-flop,” by the way, is quite old too, first showing up in English in the 1600s, when it referred to the sound of a footfall. However, the OED describes this appearance as a “nonce-use,” one coined for a specific occasion.

In the late 1800s, the term showed up in American political lingo to mean “a change of mind or position on something; a reversal,” according to Oxford.

The dictionary’s first citation for this usage is from the July 13, 1890, issue of the Chicago Tribune: Mr. Ericksen’s friends in the twenty-third executed a flip-flop, and … went over to Michael Francis in a body.”

The use of the word in reference to “a plastic or rubber sandal consisting of a flat sole and straps” showed up in the 1950s, according to OED citations.

Interestingly, the first citation for the usage in the dictionary is from a British customs form filled out in 1958 by the novelist P. D. James: “Maps, 1 pair of ‘flip-flops,’ 1 shirt (white), 1 shirt (coloured) [etc.].”

As for “thong,” it’s not just quite old, it’s very, very old, with prehistoric roots in the days before writing.

“Etymologically, a thong is something that ‘binds’ up,” John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

The word, according to Ayto, is derived from thwangg-, a term reconstructed from prehistoric Germanic.

“In the Old English period,” he says, “it was thwong; it began to lose its w in the 13th century.”

When it first showed up in Old English sometime before 950, according to the OED, it meant a “narrow strip of hide or leather, for use as a lace, cord, band, strap, or the like.” In the early days, it generally referred to a shoe lace.

The earliest written examples in the OED of “thongs” or “thong sandals” used to mean footwear date from the mid-1960s.

However, we’ve found many examples of “thong sandals” from the 1940s and ’50s in searches of Google Books. Here’s one from A Charmed Life, a 1955 novel by Mary McCarthy:

“They seemed utterly different from the other New Leeds people—a thing Jane often pondered on, aloud, in a dreamy reverie, studying her bare toes in her Mexican thong sandals and half-wondering whether she was getting a callous.”

And we’ve found examples dating from the ’50s of  “thongs” used alone. Here’s one from a July 11, 1958, ad in the Los Angeles Tribune for a leather version of the familiar flip-flops:

“GENUINE ALL / LEATHER THONGS / Glove leather wrapped / Full Foam / cushion construction / $5.00 value … $1.”

Finally, we get to the “thong” your daughter has in mind. It’s described by American Heritage as a “garment for the lower body that exposes the buttocks, consisting of a narrow strip of fabric that passes between the thighs supported by a waistband.”

The earliest citation for what the OED calls a “skimpy garment (similar to a G-string)” is from the April 22, 1975, issue of the Times of London: “Rudi Gernreich[’s] … new bathing suit, also available as an item of lingerie … is called the Thong.”

The dictionary’s latest example is from a Feb. 17, 1988, article in the Chicago Tribune: “Cindy Crawford … wears a little lacey swimdress with golden Lycra thong in Sports Illustrated’s annual T-and-A swimsuit issue.”

Again, enjoy the Labor Day weekend, and thongs for the memories!

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And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a novel. 

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