The Grammarphobia Blog

Nag, nag, nag

Q: Is the “nag” who’s constantly scolding people related to the “nag” that’s a tired old horse?

A: No, the noun for someone who complains or criticizes isn’t related to the much earlier equine term, which referred to a small riding horse, not one on its last legs, when it showed up in Middle English in the 14th century.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for the older term is from a household account in England for 1336-37: “Item in i ferro anteriore pro le nagg” (“Item: 1 front shoe for the nag”). Published in Household Accounts from Medieval England (1992), by C. M. Woolgar.

The OED says “nag” originally meant “a small riding-horse or pony,” but now usually refers to “an old or feeble” horse. The usage is of uncertain origin, but it perhaps came from neighen, a Middle English verb meaning to neigh (hnǣgan in Old English), according to the dictionary.

Oxford cites the University of Michigan’s online Middle English Dictionary for the “neigh” origin, but adds that it “presents phonological difficulties.” The MED apparently agrees, since it introduces the etymology with a question mark.

Another possible source for the equine “nag” is negge, a word for a small horse in early modern Dutch (spoken about 1500-1800). The OED says Nomenclator, a 1567 dictionary by the Dutch scholar Hadrianus Junius, gives “nagge” as English for negge. However, Nomenclator appeared more than two centuries after “nagg” was used in that medieval household account cited above.

As for the scolding sense of “nag,” it didn’t have quite the same meaning when it first appeared in the Yorkshire dialect of the late 17th century. An entry for “gnag” in a glossary of contemporary provincial expressions defined it as “to gnaw, bite at something hard,” the OED says.

The glossary was unpublished when its author, White Kennett, an Anglican bishop, died in 1728. Oxford University Press, which published a critical edition of the work in 2018 in Etymological Collections of English Words and Provincial Expressions, dates it to the late 1690s.

The OED’s next citation for the verb has the usual spelling: “Nag, to gnaw at anything hard” (from A Glossary of North Country Words, 1825, by the British antiquarian John Trotter Brockett).

The scolding sense of “nag” showed up a few years later. Oxford cites another dialectal dictionary: “Knag, to wrangle, to quarrel, to raise peevish objections” (The Dialect of Craven, in the West-Riding of the County of York, 1828, by William Carr).

The following OED citation has the usual spelling: “The servant writes … to know whether Mrs. Squaw nags” (The Life and Remains of Douglas Jerrold, an 1859 biography by the English journalist William Blanchard Jerrold about his father, a dramatist and journalist).

As for the noun “nag,” the earliest Oxford example is spelled “knag” in the Cumberland dialect of the mid-19th century, in which it meant an act of nagging: “Theer was glee’ an’ Jenn’an’ Jenny Reed, / Aw’ knag, an’ clash, an’ saunter” (The Songs and Ballads of Cumberland, 1866, by Sidney Gilpin).

The dictionary’s first example with the usual spelling is a reference in a London newspaper to “a counter piece of nag in some German Standard” (the Westminster Gazette, Nov. 26, 1894).

Finally, the earliest OED citation for the noun used to mean “a person who habitually nags or finds fault” is from a book by the wife of George Armstrong Custer about her life with the cavalry commander: “To accept the position of ‘nag’ and ‘torment’ was far from desirable” (Boots and Saddles, 1855, by Elizabeth Bacon Custer).

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The Grammarphobia Blog

You’re darn tootin’!

Q: Have you ever addressed “darn tootin’ ”?

A: No, we haven’t. But here goes.

The phrase “darn tootin’ ” emerged in early 20th-century American slang and means “correct” or “absolutely right.” It’s used by itself as an exclamation, or as an adjective in the expression “you’re darn tootin’.”

There are many written forms of the expression. In the earliest example we’ve found, it’s the name of horse in a stunt-riding exhibition:

“Performers from America’s greatest Wild West shows, introducing the celebrated outlaw horses Dam Tootin, Reputation, Helen Blazes, Gee Whiz, Tom Gregory, Aeroplane and many others.” (From an ad in the Santa Rosa [CA] Press Democrat, July 11, 1912.)

We also found an early example with a more euphemistic modifier: “You are ‘mighty tootin’.” (From a filler item headed “Speaking of slang” in the Laurens [S.C.] Advertiser, Dec. 31, 1913.)

The oldest citation given in Green’s Dictionary of Slang is from 1916, when it appeared in “Word List from Nebraska,” an article in the journal Dialect Notes (later named American Speech): “darn-tootin’. adj. Correct, right. ‘You’re darn-tootin’ about that thing.”

That form but without the hyphen (“you’re darn tootin’ ”) appears to be the most common. Other variations begin with “you are,” “yore,” “yer,” and so on, coupled with “damned,” “damn,” “goddam,” or euphemisms like “durn” and “doggone.”

We found this version in a Texas newspaper whose editors used a pair of hyphens for modesty: “When asked if he did not believe that he would soon be well, he responded with his familiar and characteristic phrase, ‘you’re d- -n tootin’ ” (from an interview with an “old scout” called Navajo Bill, El Paso Morning Times, Dec. 6, 1917).

The euphemistic “darn” and variations are used here as adjectives that add emphasis. “Damned” has been used in writing as an intensifying adjective since the late 16th century and “damn” since the late 18th, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The final word is the least variable, almost always written as “tootin’ ” with the “g” dropped, though “tooting” does appear occasionally.

Why does the adjective “tooting” mean “correct” in slang? As Green’s explains, the image is one in which “the intensity of one’s statement” produces “a ‘noisy’ impact.”

Green’s treats this as a figurative use of the verb “toot,” whose literal meaning is “to make a noise” (as of a siren or a horn). The figurative “sound” of the noise amounts to an affirmation, the dictionary says.

The OED treats this use of the adjective “tooting” in much the same way, saying it’s “used, usually with preceding adv. or adj. (as damn or variant), as a strong affirmative or intensive.” Oxford includes the usage within its entry for the literal adjective “tooting,” meaning “that toots, as a horn, siren, etc.,” a usage first recorded in the mid-1600s.

The OED’s earliest example of the slang expression is from a 1932 issue of American Speech: “You’re damn tootin’, emphatic affirmative.”

Oxford also includes examples from American novels in which the adjective is used with a different modifier or no modifier: “You’re plumb tootin’ crazy” (Bernard Malamud, The Natural, 1952). “You tol’ me a tootin’ lie” (Gregory McDonald, Fletch and the Widow Bradley, 1981).

In case you’re curious, the phrase “rootin’ tootin’,” which the OED defines as “noisy, rumbustious, boisterous; lively, ‘rip-roaring,’ ” also dates from the early 1900s and probably originated in the US.

The earliest example we’ve found is from a turn-of-the-century American newspaper: “John was a rootin’-tootin’, fightin’ and shootin’ Border Ruffian from the remote Head Waters of Bitter Crick” (from a short story by George Ade, Houston Daily Post, Sept. 29, 1901).

The OED, whose earliest examples of “rootin’ tootin’ ” are from 1913 and 1924, says this colloquial expression is “chiefly associated with the cowboy culture of the American West.”

In discussing the phrase’s etymology, the OED mentions a “rare” adjective in the Lancashire dialect of England, also written “rootin’ tootin’,” that was defined in the 1800s as “inquisitive” or “meddlesome.” But the American phrase “was probably formed independently,” the dictionary says.

In the British version, Oxford suggests, “rootin’ ” may imply poking about and rummaging, with “tootin’ ” thrown in as a rhyming reduplication (a subject we wrote about in a recent post). But in the American phrase, the sense of noisy and lively is connected with the sound of horns and the fanfare of trumpets.

In discussing the etymology of “rootin’ tootin’,” Oxford draws a comparison with an earlier noun (and occasional adjective) “rooty-toot,” which the dictionary dates from 1852 and labels  “slang (chiefly US).”

The OED defines “rooty-toot” as “something noisy, riotous, or lively; spec. an early style of jazz music. Also: a trumpeting or similar sound; a flourish, a fanfare.”

The dictionary also makes note of a slightly earlier British verb “rooty-toot” (1850), which it calls “an imitative or expressive formation” mimicking “the sound of a trumpet.” The verb is defined as “to make a tooting sound with, or as with, a horn or trumpet. Also: to move or behave jauntily.”

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