The Grammarphobia Blog

Skid row or skid road?

Q: In discussing a crackdown on homeless people in Los Angeles, I got into a disagreement with a friend over the terms “skid row” and “skid road.” I think it’s “row” and my friend says “road.” Any information?

A: Standard dictionaries accept both “skid row” and “skid road” as terms for a rundown part of town frequented by people down on their luck. The usage originated as “skid road,” a logging term, in the late 19th century, but the more common wording for a rundown area has been “skid row” since the mid-20th century.

When “skid road” first showed up in writing, it referred to “a way or track formed of skids along which logs are hauled,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary describes “skids” as “peeled logs or timbers, partially sunk into the ground, and forming a roadway along or down which logs are drawn or slid.”

The earliest OED example is from an 1880 topographical survey of the Adirondacks region: “Advised that lumbermen had cut ‘skid-roads’ on which logs were drawn.”

However, we’ve found this earlier example from the Oct. 30, 1875, issue of the Pacific Rural Press, a weekly published in San Francisco: “Six yoke of oxen were drawing a log over the skid road.” The “skid road” here was a log road leading to a saw mill in northern California. Many early examples are from the West Coast.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang suggests that the original “skid road” may have been a log road that led down to Yesler’s mill in Seattle in the 1850s. But we’ve seen no written evidence that what is now Yesler Way was referred to as a “skid road” earlier than the 1875 California citation above.

In the early 20th century, “skid road” came to mean an area of a town where loggers congregated. The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded here, is from an Aug. 1, 1906, entry in the ship’s log of the SS Columbia, which carried cargo and passengers along the West Coast: “ ‘We’ll likely see him in town.’ ‘Sure, Mike. He’ll be in the Skid road somewhere.’ ”

Such logging hangouts, with their saloons and gambling houses, were soon attracting all sorts of workers who wanted to unwind in their time off. Green’s Dictionary cites this example: “ ‘Skid-road’ is another word from the lumber industry. It has come to mean any street where the ‘working stiff’ hangs out” (from “Westernisms,” a paper by Kate Mullen published in American Speech, December 1925).

The term “skid row” showed up a couple of years later as these honky-tonk areas developed an unsavory reputation. Green’s cites this example from a glossary of criminal slang: “Skid row, n., the lowest strata of the underworld” (“Jargon of the Underworld,” Elisha K. Kane,  Dialect Notes, 1927).

Finally, these places (and their denizens) fell on hard times, with both “skid row” and “skid road” now meaning a “run-down area of a town where the unemployed, vagrants, alcoholics, etc., tend to congregate,” the OED says.

We’ve found this early example in a California newspaper: “Skid row, where down-and-outers find 10-cent beds and 10-cent meals” (San Bernardino Sun, April 6, 1935).

In a little over half a century, a usage that began as a road on which logs were skidded to a saw mill was now a place where people had skidded into lives of insolvency, dissolution, and defeat.

As we’ve said, dictionaries now include “skid row” and “skid road” as standard English. The more common term is “skid row,” though the use of both has fallen off in recent years, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares words or phrases in digitized books.

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Why is a loo a toilet in the UK?

Q: I was at the Museum of Edinburgh and learned about “gardyloo,” the Scottish warning cry before waste water was thrown out the window. Is that where “loo,” the British term for a bathroom, comes from?

A: The origin of “loo,” the informal British word for a toilet or lavatory, is a mystery, though you can find a number of questionable stories about its origins online, including the common belief that the usage comes from “gardyloo.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, sums up the situation this way: “Of unknown origin.” The OED dismisses several doubtful etymologies because of a lack of evidence or chronological gaps. Here is the dictionary’s opinion of “gardyloo” as the source for the toilet sense of “loo”:

“It is frequently suggested that the word is shortened from gardyloo n., but the assumed semantic development is considerable, and not supported by any evidence; additionally, the chronological gap is very considerable between the period when the cry would have had any contemporary currency and the earliest attestations of the present word.”

The term “gardyloo” first appeared in writing in the 17th century, according to the online Dictionary of the Scots Language, but it was obsolete by the time “loo” came to mean a toilet centuries later. (The OED says “gardyloo” is derived from “a pseudo-French phrase gare de l’eau ‘beware of the water’; in correct French it would be gare l’eau.”)

Oxford also dismisses suggestions that the “loo” usage comes from (1) “ablution,” a word we discussed in our recent “Abluting in the loo” post; (2) bourdaloue, an 18th-century French term for a chamber pot; and (3) “Waterloo,” the site of Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 (perhaps a pun on “water closet”).

The dictionary’s earliest “unambiguously attested” example for “loo” used to mean a lavatory is from Pigeon Pie (1940), a comic novel by Nancy Mitford. Here’s an expanded version with more of the original flavor:

“Like in the night when you want to go to the loo and it is miles away down a freezing cold passage and yet you know you have to go down that passage before you can be happy and sleep again.”

The OED has several earlier ambiguous citations suggesting that English speakers may have been using “loo” (or a word that sounded like it) in speech as far back as the late 19th century.

One example is this punning cartoon caption from Punch (June 22, 1895): “We will begin again at ‘Hallelujah,’ and please linger longer on the ‘Lu.’ ” Another is from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922): “O yes, mon loup. How much cost? Waterloo. Watercloset.” And this citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a letter written by Lady Diana Cooper (Feb. 22, 1936): “We’ve come to this very good hotel—your style, with a pretty Moorish bath in an alcove in every room and a lu-lu à côté.”

Although the evidence is sketchy at best for all the “loo” theories we’ve seen, the OED doesn’t quite dismiss the idea that the usage may have come from lieux, plural of lieu, French for place.

In the 17th century, Oxford says, the French used lieux euphemistically to mean latrines (we’ve found a citation in Curiosités Françoises, 1640, by the French linguist Antoine Oudin). And in the 19th century, lieux was used as a short form of the euphemistic lieux d’aisances, places of ease or restrooms.

The dictionary raises the possibility that the French term may have slipped into English in the late 19th century, saying the use “of the French word in an English context in the meaning ‘privy’ may perhaps be shown” by this example:

“I am myself employed in constructing a lieu here in our great Residentiary house, & tho’ I have many & great difficulties to encounter I trust it will turn out a paragon, both for sweetness, utility, & cheapness.” (From a Nov. 14, 1782, letter by the English poet and cleric William Mason. A residentiary house is the home of a canon residentiary.)

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Did muckrakers once rake muck?

Q: I was wondering if the word “muckraker” originated as a literal term for someone whose duty it was to clean stables, latrines, etc.?

A: The word “muckraker” was used figuratively when it showed up in the early 1600s—as a derogatory term for a miser. However, it’s ultimately derived from “muckrake,” literally a tool for raking muck.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun “muckrake” as a “rake for collecting muck; spec. a dungfork; (also) a rake for clearing debris from ponds, etc.” The OED’s earliest example is from a 1366 entry in the accounts of Brandon, a manor in Suffolk, England:

“Vno muckrake cum ij Tyndes ferre” (“One muckrake with two iron tines”). From “English in Manorial Documents of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries,” an article in the August 1936 issue of Modern Philology.

At the time that manorial document was written, “muck” usually referred to “the dung of farm animals used for manure,” the OED says, but by the 15th and 16th centuries it was also being used to mean “mud, dirt, filth; rubbish, refuse,” both literally and figuratively.

In the 17th century, John Bunyan used a “muckrake” as a symbol of man’s preoccupation with earthly things. He describes “a man that could look no way but downwards, with a Muck-rake in his hand” (The Pilgrim’s Progress, Second Part, 1684). Bunyan’s comment inspired some later writers to use “muckrake,” “muckraking,” and “muckraker” in various figurative senses.

In the 19th century, the noun “muckrake” was used figuratively to mean a “ready or indiscriminate means for gathering in wealth, information, etc.,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first figurative citation uses the term in its wealth sense: “Mammon may not lift his eyes from his ‘muckrake’ long enough to see all this” (from Home Evangelization, 1850, published by the American Tract Society).

In the next citation, a “muckrake” is a means for gathering critical information—in this case about the wives of famous men: “Let us rather, with muck-rake and drag-net, make prize of more modern material, which may be found lying loose around and within comparatively easy reach” (from “Some Celebrated Shrews,” by Frank W. Ballard, Galaxy magazine, March 1868).

A decade later, “muckrake” appeared as a figurative verb meaning to be concerned with mundane matters. Here is the OED’s first example: “Men, forgetful of the perennial poetry of the world, muck-raking in a litter of fugitive refuse.” (From the Fortnightly Review, April 1879. Anthony Trollope was a founder of the review, and George Henry Lewes, George Eliot’s companion, was its first editor.)

When the noun “muckraking” showed up at the end of the 19th century, it meant the “practice of uncovering and publicizing evidence of corruption and scandal, esp. among powerful or well-known people or institutions.” The first Oxford citation is from the Fresno (Calif.) Republican Weekly, May 22, 1895: “They would not have been able to learn much in one evening’s muck-raking of such a cesspool of presumed corruption.”

As we’ve said, the noun “muckraker” referred to a miser when it showed up at the beginning of the 17th century. The earliest OED citation is from The Plaine Mans Path-way to Heauen (1601), by the Puritan cleric Arthur Dent:

“We see the world is full of such pinch-pennies, that wil let nothing goe, except it bee wrung from them perforce, as a key out of Hercules hande. These gripple [grasping] muck-rakers, had as leeue part with their bloud, as their goods.”

The only literal uses of “muckraker” we’ve seen are in reference to the downward-looking allegorical character in The Pilgrim’s Progress. For example, Thomas Heptinstall, editor of a 1796 edition of Bunyan’s book, includes a “Key to the Allegory” that refers to him as “the Muck-Raker.”

And a satirical poem in the Sept. 3, 1884, issue of Punch uses the term for an aristocrat waiting for someone to take his bet at a horse race: “And old Lord Snaffle, ‘waiting for a taker,’ / Might sit for Bunyan’s grovelling Muck-raker.”

In the early 20th century, “muckraker” was used figuratively to describe the questionable practices of a newspaper that printed sensationalized stories. We found this example in an Indiana paper, challenging a report that newspapers needed to be swept of sensationalism:

“A large majority of the daily newspapers stand in no need of such regeneration, and the small and dwindling minority which practices the arts of the muck raker and the sideshow ‘barker’ will shortly be out of business” (from the Feb. 28, 1903, issue of the Daily Tribune in Terre Haute).

A few years later, “muckraker” took on its modern metaphorical sense of an author or journalist who investigates and exposes misconduct in government or business. An April 14, 1906, speech in Washington by President Theodore Roosevelt helped popularize the new usage.

Roosevelt used Bunyan’s symbolism in urging reporters and writers to focus on worthy accomplishments as well as corruption: “The men with the muckrakes are often indispensable to the well-being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck, and to look upward to the celestial crown above them, to the crown of worthy endeavor.”

Although the President’s speech didn’t include the word “muckraker,” it began appearing later in the year as a derogatory term for an investigative reporter. The Insurance Age, a monthly trade journal, used it that way to headline a column in November 1906: “Burton J. Hendricks, Reportorial Cub and Muckraker—The End of His Screeds the Best Thing About Them.”

In online standard dictionaries, the noun “muckraker,” verb “muckrake,” and noun “muckraking” have lost much of that negative sense, though not quite all. Cambridge, for example, defines “muckraker” as “a person, especially one in a news organization, who tries to find out unpleasant information about people or organizations in order to make it public.”

Merriam-Webster defines “muckrake” as “to search out and publicly expose real or apparent misconduct of a prominent individual or business.” And Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, defines “muckraking” as the “action of searching out and publicizing scandal about famous people.”

Finally, a “muckrake” on a farm, according to Collins, is still “an agricultural rake for spreading manure.”

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How susceptible are you?

Q: I recently saw the phrase “susceptible to many interpretations.” Normally, I would use “of” as the preposition. Do you agree that it would be more fitting than “to”?

A: We think that either “of” or “to” is acceptable in that construction—“susceptible of many interpretations” or “susceptible to many interpretations.” Both phrases have been used by eminent writers, and as of 2008 the two versions were equally common in published books, according to Google’s Ngram viewer.

A survey of standard dictionaries shows no clear agreement here, but our impression is that a writer of British English would probably use the older “susceptible of” in this context, while an American might use either one.

Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, is a good illustration of the British preference. It defines “susceptible of” as “capable or admitting of,” and gives these examples: “The problem is not susceptible of a simple solution” … “These things are not susceptible of translation into a simple ‘yes or no’ question” … “Each item separately may be susceptible of an innocent explanation.”

Another British guide, Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), agrees, saying that “susceptible of” is “equivalent to ‘admitting or capable of.’ ”  Fowler’s gives these examples: “A passage susceptible of more than one interpretation” … “an assertion not susceptible of proof.”

On the American side, Merriam-Webster Unabridged says that “susceptible” in this sense is “used with of or to.” Here’s how M-W defines this use of “susceptible”: “of such a nature, character, or constitution as to admit or permit: capable of submitting successfully to an action, process, or operation.”

Merriam-Webster’s examples use both prepositions: “susceptible of proof” … “susceptible to solution” … “susceptible of being mistaken.”

Another US dictionary, American Heritage, also illustrates this sense of “susceptible” with both prepositions: “a statement susceptible of proof” … “a disease susceptible to treatment.”

However, one major American dictionary, Webster’s New World, is a hold-out for “susceptible of” in this sense. It says “susceptible of” means “that gives a chance for; admitting; allowing.” Its example: “testimony susceptible of error.”

All dictionaries agree that “susceptible” is used with “to” when it means easily affected or liable to be affected. Examples: “a man susceptible to her charms” … “a child susceptible to ear infections” … “a street susceptible to flooding” … “a boss susceptible to flattery.” (Memory aid: In that sense, “susceptible to” is much like “vulnerable to” or “subject to.”)

And all dictionaries agree that the adjective “susceptible” by itself—with no following preposition—usually means impressionable, emotionally sensitive, or easily moved by feelings. It’s often used to describe tender-hearted people. Examples: “the more susceptible in the audience were in tears” … “a susceptible young man is always falling in love” … “a movie too violent for susceptible children.”

In addition, the bare adjective is used to describe those likely to be affected by something, as in “distemper is deadly, and puppies are especially susceptible.”

As for its history, “susceptible” came into English in the early 17th century as a borrowing from the medieval Latin susceptibilis, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The medieval term, which meant capable, sustainable, or susceptible, was derived from the classical Latin suscipĕre (to take up, support, or acknowledge).

The original meaning of “susceptible” was the one you ask about, “capable of undergoing, admitting of (some action or process).” Here’s the first OED example: “This Subiect of mans bodie, is of all other thinges in Nature, most susceptible of remedie” (Francis Bacon, Of the Proficience and Aduancement of Learning, 1605).

All of the dictionary’s examples for this sense of “susceptible” are accompanied by “of,” but they extend only to 1871 (the OED says its “susceptible” entry has not yet been fully updated).

However, we know that “to” had crept into use in American English by the mid-19th century. We’ve found more than a dozen examples of “susceptible to proof” in American newspapers of the 1800s, beginning with this one:

“Intimations, not perhaps susceptible to positive proof, have reached me that … [etc.]” (from a letter written Feb. 11, 1847, by the acting territorial Governor of California, Lieut. Col. John C. Frémont, and published Dec. 4, 1847, in the Boon’s Lick Times, Fayette, Mo.).

We’ve also found many American examples of “susceptible to interpretation” (since 1874), “susceptible to error” (since 1880), and “susceptible to mistakes” (since 1885). So in American English, the use of “susceptible to” in the sense we’re discussing is solidly established.

The more common meaning of “susceptible”—easily affected or liable to be affected—was first recorded in 1702. This sense was also accompanied by “of” originally, but the OED’s later examples have “to” (“susceptible to attack,” 1883; “susceptible to smallpox,” 1887, and so on).

The newcomer is the bare adjective, with no preposition. This “susceptible” was first recorded in 1709. These are the OED’s most recent examples of the different senses:

“We must remember also the susceptible nature of the Greek” (from Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Dialogues, 2nd ed., 1875) … “By cultures and by inoculations into susceptible animals” (from A System of Medicine, edited by Thomas Clifford Allbutt, 1899).

Like us, you’re probably susceptible to fatigue, so we’ll stop here.

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Petard hoisting

Q: I’ve always thought that one was “hoist on” one’s own petard, but I recently saw it as “hoist by” one’s own petard. I think “on” makes sense and “by” doesn’t.

A: When Shakespeare coined the expression in Hamlet more than 400 years ago, he used the preposition “with.” Online standard dictionaries now include “by” as well as “with.” Both of those make sense to us, though “on” does not.

Merriam-Webster, for example, calls its entry “hoist with one’s own petard or hoist by one’s own petard,” and defines the usage this way: “victimized or hurt by one’s own scheme.” Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online) and American Heritage also include both prepositions.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the expression as meaning “blown into the air by his own bomb; hence, injured or destroyed by his own device for the ruin of others.”

The OED says the usage originated in Act III, Scene 4 of Hamlet (probably written between 1599 and 1602). Hamlet uses it when he speaks of foiling the efforts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to betray him: “Tis the sport to haue the enginer / Hoist with his owne petar.”

The word “hoist” here is a past tense and past participle of the old verb “hoise.” When this verb first appeared as a nautical term in the late 15th century, to “hoise” meant to “raise aloft by means of a rope or pulley and tackle, or by other mechanical appliance,”  the OED says.

Here’s an example from William Caxton’s 1490 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid: “They made the saylles to be hyssed vppe.”

The modern verb “hoist” appeared in the mid-16th century as a corruption of “hoise.” The OED’s first example is from an English translation, overseen by Nicholas Udall, of Erasmus’s Latin paraphrase, or retelling, of the New Testament: “His onely soonne they hoihsted vp and nayled on the crosse.”

The verb “hoise,” which the OED describes as obsolete or dialectal, had two different past tenses and past participles: “hoised” and “hoist.”

When Shakespeare used “hoist” in Hamlet, the raising was done by a “petard,” which Oxford describes as a small bomb made of a metal or wooden box filled with powder, used to blow in a door, gate, etc., or to make a hole in a wall. Now historical.”

The earliest Oxford citation for “petard” is from an obscure 1566 entry in the accounts of the lord high treasurer of Scotland. The next cite is clearer:

“A squib or petard of gun powder vsed to burst vp gates or doores with” (from A Worlde of Wordes, 1598, an Italian-English dictionary by John Florio).

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When a rose isn’t a rose

Q: Twice in the last few days I’ve seen the hibiscus shrub (or its blossoms) referred to in the plural as “roses of Sharon.” I would have thought it more correct to say “rose of Sharons.” Is there a rule for such plurals?

A: The usual rule for pluralizing a compound term that’s split into parts, with or without hyphens, is to put the plural ending on the most important part, as in  “attorneys-at-law,” “brigadier generals,” and “mothers-in-law.”

The compound common names of plants are usually treated the same way, especially when the key element is a noun at the end: “African violets,” “fringed bleeding hearts,” “morning glories,” “northern blue flags,” “pussy willows,” “trumpet vines,” and “Virginia creepers.”

However, things get fuzzy when the important term is elsewhere in the compound, especially if it’s being used loosely. A “lily of the valley,” for example, isn’t really a lily, nor is a “rose of Sharon” a rose. The terms “lily” and “rose” are being used figuratively in the sense of “flower.”

Similarly, the “Johnny” of “Johnny jump up” refers to a violet, while the “Jack” of “Jack in the pulpit” is a flower-hooded spike. And “forget-me-not” doesn’t even have a key word. It originated as an English translation of the Old French expression “ne m’oubliez mye.”

We haven’t found any special rules for pluralizing such horticultural compounds. And the online standard dictionaries aren’t much help—only a few include plurals for these compounds—and the entries are inconsistent.

Merriam-Webster, for example, includes both “Jack-in the-pulpits” and “Jacks-in-the-pulpit” as standard. American Heritage has “Jack-in-the-pulpits” and “Johnny-jump-ups.” M-W, AH, Collins, and Dictionary.com list “lilies of the valley” as plural. None of the dictionaries have a plural for “rose of Sharon.”

A search of garden websites indicates that some gardeners make the key word plural (“roses of Sharon”), others pluralize the last word (“rose of Sharons”), and still others add a plural noun at the end (“rose of Sharon bushes”).

A search of the iWeb corpus, a database that contains 14 billion words from 22 million web pages, came up with these results: “rose of Sharons,” 30; “roses of Sharon,” 19; “rose of Sharon bushes,” 43; “rose of Sharon plants,” 19; “rose of Sharon trees,” 16; and “rose of Sharon shrubs,” 15.

With no lexical guide and usage up in the air, pick whichever one sounds best to your ears. We’ve planted a few over the years, and “rose of Sharons” sounds more natural to us than “roses of Sharon” or “rose of Sharon bushes.”

As we’ve said, the rose of Sharon isn’t a rose. In fact, the common name may refer to several different plants, including Hypericum calycinum, a flowering shrub native to southeast Asia and southwest Europe, and Hibiscus syriacus, a flowering shrub native to east Asia.

Although the common name has biblical roots, none of the plants now called “rose of Sharon” are likely to have grown in ancient Israel.

In the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) 2:1, the maiden who is one of the two main speakers refers to herself in Hebrew as חבצלת השרון, or havatzelet hasharon. Havatzelet is a flower that has been variously identified as a crocus, lily, daffodil, or tulip. Hasharon is the plain of Sharon along the Mediterranean coast of Israel.

Early English versions of the Old Testament translate havatzelet as “flower.” The Wycliffe Bible of 1384, for example, renders havatzelet hasharon as “flour of the feeld” while the Coverdale Bible of 1535 has it as “floure of the feelde.” It was translated similarly in earlier Greek and Latin versions of the bible: ἄνθος τοῦ πεδίου (anthos tou pediou, flower of the field) in the Septuagint, and flos campi (flower of the field) in the Vulgate.

The Geneva Bible of 1560 was the first English bible to translate havatzelet as “rose”: “I am the rose of the fielde.” The Oxford English Dictionary says “it is not clear why the Geneva Bible uses this particular translation, rather than the generic flower of earlier English versions.”

The first OED example for “rose of Sharon” is from An Exposition Vppon the Booke of the Canticles (1585), by the Puritan clergyman Thomas Wilcox: “I Am the rose of Sharon.” (The Canticles is another name for the Song of Songs.) The King James Version of 1611 uses the same wording as Wilcox.

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Vowel movement

Q: You’ve discussed adjective order (why we say “a perfect little black dress,” not “a black perfect little dress”), but you haven’t written about the order of vowels—why we say “zig-zag,” not “zag-zig.”

A: As we’ve written several times on our blog—in 2010, 2017, and 2019—certain kinds of adjectives occur in a predictable order. An opinion adjective normally comes ahead of one for size, and both come before color. You can see this pattern in “a perfect little black dress.”

However, a phrase like “zig-zag” or “tick-tock” conforms to an entirely different language pattern (call it another unwritten rule if you like). This one governs how we arrange vowel sounds in a sequence.

We touched on this subject before in a 2015 post about so-called “reduplicative” words, those formed by the repetition of similar words or word elements, perhaps with some alterations.

For example, “goody-goody,” with no alteration in the elements, is a simple (or “copy”) reduplicative. One like “fuddy-duddy,” with the consonant altered in the repetition, is a rhyming reduplicative. And one like “zig-zag,” with the vowel sound altered in the repetition, is known as an “ablaut” (that is, vowel) reduplicative.

And as it happens, ablaut reduplicatives conform to a pattern, one in which vowel sounds naturally occur in a certain order. Invariably, a high vowel (quick, tight, and pronounced at the front of the mouth) will be reduplicated by a lower one (more drawn out, open, pronounced further back). Here’s how this works.

A short “i” sound, as in “zig,” comes before an “a” sound, as in “zag.” This is why we prefer “zig-zag” to “zag-zig,” just as we prefer “riff-raff” to “raff-riff” and “wishy-washy” to “washy-wishy.”

Similarly, a short “i” sound comes before an “o” sound (“flip-flop,” “criss-cross”). Here are the most common reduplicatives that illustrate this “i-a-o” (think of “tic-tac-toe”) order.

  • “i” before “a” sounds: “zig-zag,” “riff-raff,” “pitter-patter,” “mish-mash,” “splish-splash,” “dilly-dally,” “shilly-shally,” “tittle-tattle,” “jingle-jangle,” “wishy-washy,” “flim-flam,” “knick-knack,” “chit-chat,” “wig-wag”
  • “i” before “o” sounds: “tick-tock,” “clip-clop,” “flip-flop,” “hip-hop,” “tip top,” “drip-drop,” “criss-cross,” “ding-dong,” “ping pong,” “King Kong,” “sing song”

(Less significantly, an “ee” sound comes before an “o” or “aw” sound, but there aren’t many ablaut reduplicatives like this. Among the few examples are “see-saw,” “teeter-totter,” “be-bop,” and “hee-haw.”)

Patterns of ablaut reduplication are found not only in different languages, but in entirely different language families. The phenomenon has been discussed by philologists for more than a century and a half, with early research papers on the subject dating as far back as 1862.

English speakers have been forming new words by this kind of repetition since the Middle Ages. Historically, as the linguist Donka Minkova has written, simple or “copy” reduplicatives (like “yo-yo”) came first, with the others appearing by the end of the 15th century—the rhyming types, like “hocus-pocus,” and the ablauts, like “riff-raff.” (From “Ablaut Reduplication in English: The Criss-crossing of Prosody and Verbal Art,” published in the journal English Language and Linguistics, May 2002.)

The formation of new reduplicatives, Minkova writes, “declined sharply in the twentieth century.” (She rules out formations in which one half modifies the other: “Super-duper is a case of reduplication, while pooper scooper is not.”)

Scholars aren’t the only ones to take note of such patterns. Marketers are on the case, too. Think of ablaut reduplicatives the next time you spot brand names like “Kit Kat,” “Tic Tac,” “Spic and Span,” and “Ding Dongs.”

What happens when there’s a clash between the unwritten rules of adjective order and vowel order? The usual arrangement of the vowels seems to take precedence over the order of the adjectives.

That’s why we say “big bad wolf” instead of “bad big wolf.” A short “i” sound, as in “big,” comes before an “a” sound, as in “bad.”

Of course, “big bad” is not itself a reduplication—that is, a single element being echoed. But we have a choice in how to arrange two short adjectives. And the preferred order is based not on the meaning of the words but on their vowel sounds.

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