English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Knit picking

Q: Please settle a dispute. Which is the correct past tense—“I knit a sweater” or “I knitted a sweater”?

A: They’re both correct. You can say “I knit a sweater last week” or “I knitted a sweater last week.” In fact, an Anglo-Saxon would have used the same word in Old English (cnytte) for the present and past tenses of “I knit,” though knitting back then wasn’t quite the same as it is now.

Most of the 10 contemporary standard dictionaries that we regularly consult say the past tense of “knit” can be either “knit” or “knitted.” All five American dictionaries and two of the five British dictionaries agree with that. Three British dictionaries consider “knitted” the only past tense.

When the verb showed up in Old English as cnyttan (to knit), it meant “to tie in or with a knot; to tie, fasten, bind, attach, join, by or as by knotting,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Aelfric’s Grammar, an Old English introduction to Latin, written around 995: “Ic cnytte, necto” (ic is “I” in Old English; necto is Latin for “I bind, tie, fasten, connect,” etc.).

It wasn’t until the early 1500s, as Middle English gave way to early Modern English, that “knit” took on the sense of “to form (a close texture) by the interlooping of successive series of loops of yarn or thread.”

The first OED example is from John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse (1530), a French grammar for English speakers: “I knyt bonettes or hosen.”

Interestingly, the c of cnyttan was pronounced like the “c” of “cat” and the k of knytten (the usual spelling of the infinitive in Middle English) was pronounced like the “k” of “king.”

As the OED explains, “kn– is an initial combination common to all the Germanic languages and still retained by most. In English, the k is now silent, alike in educated speech and in most of the dialects; but it was pronounced apparently till about middle of the 17th cent.”

“In the later 17th and early 18th centuries,” the dictionary adds, “writers on pronunciation give the value of the combination as = hn, tn, dn or simple n. The last was probably quite established in Standard English by 1750. The k is still pronounced in some Scottish dialects; in others the guttural is assimilated to the dental, making tn-, esp. after vowels, as a tnife, my tnee.”

Why did English speakers stop pronouncing the “k” in words like “knee,” “knife,” “knot,” and “knowledge”? Probably because it was too much trouble.

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fiction humor retirement

Space Coast chronicle

For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel by Stewart Kellerman (with a foreword by Patricia T. O’Conner) about a New York couple who get more than they bargained for when they retire to Florida.

I was always fussy about my hair, but I had to tighten the purse strings when things fell apart. To save a few pennies, I’d take my own colors to Annette’s House of Aloha: Miss Clairol, an ounce of Topaz and an ounce of Moon Haze. I still had beautiful hair, as nice as when I was a schoolgirl. Maybe a little nicer, if I say so myself. I waved naturally, which I didn’t as a girl. Believe it or not, I hadn’t permed since I was in my twenties and unattached.

Annette used to set my colors with two ounces of L’Oreal, but I made her switch to Clairoxide after the Disaster. It was sixty-five cents less and my dear friend Kitty saw something in Florida Today about how this big shot at L’Oreal had been a Nazi during the war.

If I needed a good treatment, Annette would shampoo me with Wella, first the conditioner, then the conditioning shampoo. My boys used the stuff, too—Dewey, my oldest, and Zoot, number two—but only the shampoo, the one with cholesterol.

Annette knew a terrific trick. She’d rub in a tiny amount of conditioner as she applied my color. This was so the tips shouldn’t dry out. She learned that in Paw­tucket, where she had a unisex before moving to the Space Coast.

Of course, everyone in Florida came from somewhere. Sid and I used to live on Kimball Terrace, the dead-end block next to Yonkers Raceway. We had a detached brick with a flagstone patio in back and a finished basement. It took Sid half a summer vacation, but he put up the paneling downstairs all by himself, a very nice wormy cherry.

I discovered Annette soon after moving to Satellite Beach, where we bought when Sid retired from teaching radio and television at Gompers, his vocational high school in the Bronx. This was a few weeks into 1981, not too long after the Reagans got to Washington.

I was still a mere bobby-soxer of sixty-five, barely old enough to get my senior discount at Mercury Marquee (Sid used to call it the Sin-a-Plex). He was sixty-six, nearly four years younger than Reagan at the Inauguration. Day in and day out, Sid was carrying on about that cowboy in the White House. Little did he realize, but Reagan wasn’t the rustler we had to worry about.

To be fair, it was Kitty who found the House of Aloha, Annette’s beauty parlor in Spaceport Plaza. Annette was between Reliable Realty—don’t get me started on that—and Golden Chopsticks, Sid’s favorite Chinese restaurant. He was very picky when it came to Chinese, wouldn’t touch anything but the most boring dishes from the chow mein school.

Spaceport Plaza, by the way, wasn’t exactly a mall, but one of those older-style shopping centers on A1A where you had to step outside to go from store to store. All the shops were stucco, pink stucco with little aquamarine awnings in front—Spanish style.

Kitty had always been the pioneer. She discovered Pelican Pond, our retirement village in Satellite Beach. She bought first, then I did, and Rose brought up the rear. Rose was forever last, the sweetest person in the world, but a faint heart who was always waiting for Kitty and me to show her the way.

We’d been together through thick and thin. The Three Musketeers—that’s what everyone used to call us when we were growing up on Livonia Avenue in Brooklyn. We wouldn’t let anybody separate us. We had plenty of aggravation from our husbands, let me tell you, but we insisted on finding three houses close to one another in Yonkers. Rose lived down the street from me on Kimball Terrace and Kitty was one block over on Halstead.

Kitty was the brave one. I remember when we were in tenth grade at Thomas Jefferson and she took Rose and me into the city for Chinese at the Singapore. This was the first time any of us had tried Chinese food and Rose was acting like Daniel in the lion’s den.

“What the hell are you afraid of?” Kitty hollered for the whole room to hear. “Christ Almighty, it won’t jump up and bite you. You’re supposed to be doing the goddamn biting.”

I should have warned you about Kitty’s mouth. All ears were burning at the tables around us. Even the Chinese waiters were getting an earful. Well, Rose may have been a crybaby, but I wasn’t exactly Selma the Lion-Hearted when I saw the menu.

I couldn’t tell my egg foo from my mu shu in those days, let alone the more exotic stuff—octopus suckers, chicken toes, eye of newt, for all I know. I kept asking our waiter if the dishes had onions. I didn’t like cooked onions. I could eat raw onions chopped up with tuna and other things, but not cooked in my food.

Onions never agreed with Sid, either, raw or other­wise. He was of the opinion—and not just an opinion in his case—that onions give you gas. Sid always had an opinion, too many of them in my opinion. We wouldn’t have been in such a state if he’d listened to me.

I wanted to be on the pond, but Sid knew better. Kitty and Leo had already bought a lovely Hacienda, one of the higher-quality waterside villas. Rose and Sol were still hemming and hawing, but it looked as if they’d take the plunge and get a Hacienda, too.

Sid had other ideas. The way he figured it, we’d be throwing good money away to be on a pond, especially an artificial one, when we didn’t even have a canoe. He wanted us to get a Chalet, the cheaper unit with a breeze­way instead of a garage. The Chalets were over by Tropi­cana Trail and the traffic congestion. As an added attraction, you had a lovely view through your picture window of Luna Lanes, the bowladrome across the street.

“Everyone wants to be on the pond,” Sid argued as we examined the prospectus in Yonkers. “You have to pay top dollar there. Why should we go into debt to be on the water?”

“But that’s where I want to be, on the pond next to Kitty and Rose.”

“We shouldn’t tie ourselves down with a mortgage at our age, Bubbie. If we buy away from the water, we’ll have our home free and clear. And we can put the left­over into a nest egg.”

“I don’t want an ugly bowling alley in my face. I don’t even like bowling. And what are we going to do with a nest egg? Sit on it until we hatch chickens?”

“I’m sorry, but I’m not a high roller like some other husbands I could mention. I had to slave in the school system all my life.”

“You’ll be getting a very nice bundle from your vari­able annuity when you retire, $22,215 in cold cash, as you never cease to remind me. Why can’t we use this manna from heaven to buy a Hacienda? We’d need to borrow only ten thousand more.”

“It doesn’t make sense to pay double-digit interest rates to be on a phoney-baloney pond. Who needs water?”

Listen to him, Sid Waxler, the Answer Man. Let him speak for himself. You should have seen me as a girl. I used to slice through the water without a splash, just like the girls in Billy Rose’s Aquacade. Even in Florida, I could have swum circles around the tadpoles sunning them­selves topless by the pool of the Econo Lodge on A1A, the place with the turquoise tiles.

As soon as we got to Pelican Pond, I joined Aquacise at the Olympic pool. Maybe I shouldn’t be the one to say this, but I was a sensation. Loretta Liebowitz, our lady lifeguard, said I had more natural talent and enthusiasm than the rest of the class combined, though that might have been a slight exaggeration.

Sid used to take me to Orchard Beach in the summer, back when we had the one-bedroom on Sedgwick Ave­nue in the Bronx, our first home together. We used to suntan in section twelve, where the musicians congre­gated. Sid would lie back on a beach towel, his eyes closed, as I serenaded the crowd with my mandolin, an old Gibson.

Sid wasn’t much of a swimmer—more of a splasher, actually. I have a picture from the old days. He’s at the beach, holding Dewey on his shoulder. Dewey in dia­pers, such a tiny thing. Sid’s hair is stuck to his head like a wet washcloth. He’s a stringbean, standing there in his trunks. They were navy, the trunks, but you can’t tell from the picture because it’s a black-and-white.

Sid’s hair was still as black as ever when we got to Florida, but he never appreciated his good fortune. I worked so hard to get my color right and he didn’t have to lift a pinkie. It wasn’t fair. He was still a stringbean, too. I’d like someone to explain that. I had to struggle every day of my life to keep my girlish figure. Sid, on the other hand, could stuff whatever garbage he wanted into that big trap. Not an ounce stuck to his bones. This had to be the metabolism or something, maybe hormones. At night, I’d look at his tiny little size-thirty belt draped over the armchair in our bedroom and feel like stran­gling him with it.

As usual, Sid had his way about the Chalet. We got it for $74,895 plus closing costs, just about what we cleared from selling the house in Yonkers. And he insisted we put the entire $22,215 from the school system into a one-year CD at Sun Bank, the branch on South Babcock in Melbourne. It had the best rate around, fifteen per­cent compounded, and you got a pocket calculator for opening the account.

Sid moved the rest of our money, a few thousand from Yonkers Savings, into a joint checking account at South­land, the bank with the drive-in window around the cor­ner on A1A. It was across from the Econo Lodge and next to Oinkers, the barbecue place on the ocean. You could get a platter of ribs for three ninety-five, a platter big enough to hold a ten-pound turkey.

For some reason, it made Sid feel good to have that nest egg in the bank. You would have thought it was a Fabergé from listening to him. But what were we saving for? Unless I was mistaken, burial shrouds were still being made without pockets.

My God, the aggravation we went through over that money. I get sick thinking about it. I curse the weasel responsible for what happened. His bones should be broken and trampled into the earth. Excuse me, but a bitter heart makes you say such things.

Well, I gave in on the Chalet, but I insisted on a kitchen with room for our Inca gold dinette set from Yonkers. That’s why we bought a Chalet Luxe, the two-bedroom end unit with a bath and a half and an eat-in kitchen. It was equipped with new Hot Point appliances, wall-to-wall carpeting, and a tiled Neptune green tub in the master bath that you stepped down into.

Sid liked the idea of the spare bedroom that came with an end unit. I furnished it with twin beds, in case the boys decided to do Sid and me a big favor and pay us a visit. Not that Dewey, the snob, or Zoot, the hipster, would stay with us—let alone Fleur, Dewey’s socialite wife.

All we got from the children was grumble, grumble, groan. Mostly they complained that the only thing we did was complain about them, which I couldn’t figure out, since there was no way to get a word in edgewise with all their complaining. I have a question, Dr. Broth­ers. If we were such rotten parents, how did they turn out to be so perfect?

Well, I’m not the only person to tumble into the gen­eration gap and crack my skull. Kitty emerged black and blue from raising Myra, her little sweetheart. And Rose had a concussion or two, thanks to Becky and Zach, the sweetness and light of her life.

I remember when I worked for Ansonia Shoes before the war. It was just off Herald Square, which was why you could always find me in Macy’s at lunch time. I was the steno in the office, but I did a lot of other things—the sales floor, the cash register, the account book.

I sent the checks to Mrs. Wolfowitz, the boss’s wife, when she went to Grossinger’s over the summer. I even filled in when the model was sick. I wasn’t a model size—she was a four and I was four and a half—but I’d squeeze my foot into it.

The point is, we got the most beautiful stuff at cost from Binghamton and the other shoe places upstate. I rated beautiful shoes and made sure my friends had them, too. No wonder I had such good friends. You have to be a friend to have one.

Well, maybe I should have put up more of a stink about the pond, as if that would have changed Dr. No’s mind. He could be very stubborn, ignoring me till I wilted like a warm salad. He was just as obstinate about the Disaster, but I don’t want to talk about that.

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English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

But if the husband be dead …

Q: I was reading the King James Bible and came across this passage in Romans 7:2: “but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law.” Can you explain why “be” is used this way? What would be the proper usage in standard English today?

A: Let’s begin with all of Romans 7:2 in the King James Version of the Bible: “For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband.”

In the second half of the verse (“but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband”), “be” is used in the subjunctive mood to express a hypothetical situation. In modern English, the subjunctive here would be expressed with “were,” not “be”: “but if the husband were dead, she would be freed from the law of her husband.”

However, the subjunctive is less common now than it was in Old English, Middle English, and the early Modern English of the King James Version (written from 1604 to 1611). Today that passage might instead be written in the indicative mood, the verb form used to make an ordinary statement: “but if the husband is dead, she is free from the law of her husband.”

These days, the subjunctive is primarily used for three purposes: (1) to express a wish: “She wished that her husband were less demanding”; (2) to express an “if” statement about a condition that’s contrary to fact: “If he were less demanding, she’d be a lot happier”; (3) to express that something is being asked, demanded, ordered, suggested, and so on: “He suggested that she wear high heels to the party.”

In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the subjunctive was used much more broadly: to express doubt, unreality, potential, wishes, desires, requests, commands, prohibitions, obligations, theories, and conjectures. As the subjunctive began waning in Middle English, modal auxiliary verbs like “can,” “could,” “may,” “might,” “must,” “shall,” “should,” “will,” and “would” stepped in to express many of these intentions and beliefs.

So the hypothetical mood, or attitude, of the speaker in those three subjunctive sentences above could be expressed in declarative sentences by using modal auxiliary verbs: (1) “She wished that her husband would be less demanding”; (2) “If he could be less demanding, she’d be a lot happier”; (3) “He suggested that she should wear high heels to the party.”

We’ve written several times on the blog about modal auxiliary verbs, most recently in 2018. And we’ve written often about the subjunctive, including a post in 2010 that discusses the use of the verb “be” over the years.

In the 2018 post, we note that modality can be expressed with adverbs, adjectives, and nouns as well as with modal verbs. We also discuss the archaic use of “be” in place of the plural “are” (as in “the powers that be”). And in the 2010 post, we note that the subjunctive is losing ground in British English, though it’s holding its own (for now) in American English.

We’ve also pointed out that some archaic uses of the subjunctive have survived on both sides of the Atlantic, such as “lest she forget” (instead of “forgets”), “God forbid” (instead of “forbids”), “come what may” (instead of “comes”), “suffice it to say” (instead of “suffices”), and “long live the Queen” (instead of “lives”).

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Slang Usage Word origin Writing

Scrambled yeggs?

Q: Your article about “yegg” traces its use for a bank robber back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, a recent reprint of an 1856 article in Scientific American uses “yeggman” similarly. Evidently the word originated long before your citations.

A: The date on that Scientific American reprint is wrong; it should be 1906, not 1856. The brief item mushes together two sections of an extensive article published on Jan. 27, 1906. We emailed the magazine for a comment but it hasn’t responded.

The Jan. 2, 2020, reprint that you saw was among the “Artifacts From the Archive” published to celebrate the magazine’s 175th anniversary. We reproduce it here in its entirety:

Want to Crack Open a Safe? Try Nitroglycerine

Originally published in January 1856 [sic]

Today the safe-breaker no longer requires those beautifully fashioned, delicate yet powerful tools which were formerly both the admiration and the despair of the safe manufacturer. For the introduction of nitroglycerine, “soup” in technical parlance, has not only obviated onerous labor, but has again enabled the safe-cracking industry to gain a step on the safe-making one. The modern “yeggman,” however, is often an inartistic, untidy workman, for it frequently happens that when the door suddenly parts company with the safe it takes the front of the building with it. The bombardment of the surrounding territory with portions of the Farmers’ National Bank seldom fails to rouse from slumber even the soundly-sleeping tillers of the soil.
Scientific American, January 1856

The original 1906 Scientific American article, headlined “The Ungentle Art of Burglary,” includes the following sections, which were edited and linked in the reprint:

Burglary—specifically safe-breaking—has in the last decade gradually ceased to be an exact science. To-day the safe-breaker no longer requires those beautifully fashioned, delicate yet powerful instruments and tools which were formerly both the admiration and the despair of the safe manufacturer. The modern “yeggman,” tramping it casually along a country road with a three-ounce phial of nitro-glycerine, a tiny battery, a few yards of wire, and an ignition-cap in his pocket, is able to open and rob almost any kind of a safe, if not with neatness, certainly with dispatch. No longer is the ambitious “strong-arm” man doomed to hours of exhausting and necessarily noiseless drilling, wedging, spreading, or jacking; for the introduction of nitro-glycerine, “soup” in technical parlance, has not only obviated these onerous labors, but has again enabled the safe-cracking industry to gain a step on the safe-making one.


The yeggman, however, is often an inartistic, untidy workman, for it frequently happens that when the door suddenly parts company with the safe it takes the front of the building with it, and consequently the selection of the valuables desired from the contents of the strongbox is often so hurried that it is only partially successful. The bombardment of the surrounding territory with portions of the Farmers’ National Bank seldom fails to rouse from slumber even the soundly-sleeping tillers of the soil.

As we say in our June 19, 2015, post about “yegg,” it apparently showed up in the late 19th century as a noun for a beggar and a verb meaning to beg. A reader of our blog found both usages in the Jan. 14, 1894, issue of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

It’s uncertain how “yegg” and “yeggman” soon came to mean a burglar or a safecracker. The most common suggestion is that the criminal use derives from “John Yegg,” the alias of a bank robber in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The earliest examples we’ve found, from 1901, appeared almost five years before the original Scientific American piece.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Disoriented or disorientated?

Q: In listening to P. D. James books with the Libby app, I often hear “disorientated,” and it always sounds uneducated to me. I know it’s standard in the UK and nonstandard in the US. My question: If I’m in London or Cambridge or Oxford and use “disoriented,” will a fellow academic think my usage nonstandard?

A: As far as we can tell, “disorientated” as well as “disoriented” are standard in British English, though “disorientated” is more popular. We’ve found both of these terms in searches of the British National Corpus, with “disorientated” about twice as common as “disoriented.” In fact, both appear in P. D. James novels.

All five standard British dictionaries that we regularly consult—Cambridge, Collins, Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online), Longman, and Macmillan—include both “disoriented” and “disorientated” as standard, but most of them describe the longer term as a British usage.

Interestingly, four of the five American dictionaries we consult the most— (based on Random House Unabridged), Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and Webster’s New World—include “disorientated” as well as “disoriented” as standard. American Heritage has only “disoriented.”

Dictionaries aside, would academics in the UK raise an eyebrow at the use of “disoriented” by an American? Well, perhaps. But their objections wouldn’t be justified. Both forms have been used by respected writers for centuries.

As Jeremy Butterfield explains in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), the two verbs that gave us those participial adjectives and past tenses “have a long history (disorient first recorded in 1655, disorientate in 1704) and both are still in use (corresponding to the noun disorientation).”

“In most contexts, disorient, being shorter, is the better form, and it is about three times as frequent in the OEC [Oxford English Corpus] data,” Butterfield writes. “Curiously, to judge by the same data, British English shows a marked preference for disorientate. As a result, disorient may be viewed by some BrE speakers as a pernicious Americanism; conversely, many AmE editors detest the longer form.”

Like Butterfield, we also prefer the shorter form in most cases, though we see no reason why a writer couldn’t use the longer version for stylistic reasons—to improve the rhythm of a sentence, for example, or to avoid an awkward rhyme.

We suspect that P. D. James varied the use of “disoriented” and “disorientated” for stylistic reasons. Here are some examples from her novels:

“But, disoriented in the claustrophobic darkness, she could no longer distinguish the ceiling from the walls” (Death of an Expert Witness, 1977).

“The contrast between the sun-warmed  terrace, where once again, luncheon was set out on a linen-covered trestle table, and the dark, rank-smelling pit of the Devil’s Kettle was so great that Cordelia felt disoriented” (The Skull Beneath the Skin, 1982).

“These patients become quite disorientated during treatment” (A Suitable Job for a Woman, 1991).

“The path was barely visible but for most of the route it was fringed with brambles, a welcome if prickly barrier when, momentarily disorientated, he lost his way” (The Black Tower, 1975).

James sometimes uses both terms in the same novel, as in these two examples from A Mind to Murder (1963), the second of her Adam Dalgliesh books: “Her patient would be far too disoriented to hear or understand” … “The woman was still weak and a little disorientated and sat holding tightly to her husband’s hand.”

As for the etymology, English borrowed the verb “disorient” in the mid-17th century from désorienter, a French verb meaning to turn from an eastward position, to cause to lose one’s bearings, or to embarrass.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “disorient” had similar meanings in English when it appeared in Elise, or, Innocencie Guilty: A New Romance (1655), John Jennings’s translation of a novel by Jean-Pierre Camus: “ ’Twas Philippin who was disoriented, but more Isabella.”

The OED, citing the lexicographer Samuel Johnson, says the longer verb “disorientate” showed up in the 1704 first edition of Lexicon Technicum, an encyclopedia of the arts and sciences by the English writer John Harris.

However, Oxford doesn’t provide a citation, and we couldn’t find one in searchable online versions of Johnson’s 1755 dictionary or the 1704, 1708, 1716, and 1725 editions of Lexicon Technicum.

In the 1734 fifth edition of Lexicon Technicum, updated by others 15 years after Harris’s death, “disorientated” is defined in astronomy as “turned from the East or some other of the Cardinal Points,” and “in a figurative Sense, for the disconcerting, or putting a Man out of his Way or Element, as if you discourse of Law to a Physician, and Physick to a Lawyer, they will all be disorientated.”

The description above of the figurative sense reads a lot like this earlier entry for “disorientated” in Cyclopædia, a 1728 encyclopedia of the arts and sciences by the English writer  Ephraim Chambers:

“The Word is most frequently us’d in a figurative Sense, for the Disconcerting, or putting a Man out of his Way, or Element. Speak of Law to a Physician, or of Physic to a Lawyer, and they will all be disorientated.” As far as we can tell, this 1728 example, which the OED cites, is the first appearance of “disorientated” in print.

If you’d like to read more, we wrote a post in 2012 about the verbs “orient” and “orientate.” Like “disorient” and “disorientate,” the shorter form is more common in the US and the longer one in the UK.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Doing hard time

Q: What’s the difference between “doing time” and “doing hard time”?

Both expressions mean serving a stretch in the slammer. “Doing time” means serving an unspecified term in prison, but “doing hard time” implies that the term is a long one for a serious crime.

The word “time” has had prison associations since the late 18th century. In the prison sense, “time” means “a term of imprisonment,” says the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives this as the earliest known example:

“The answer you gave to the convict who came to tell you his time was expired—‘Would to God my time was expired, too!’ ” (From a 1790 entry in the Historical Records of Australia, published in 1914.)

The verb phrase “to do time,” the OED says, was “originally Criminals’ slang” meaning “to spend time in prison for an offence.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from trial testimony reported in a mid-19th-century British newspaper:

“He continued, ‘I had nothing to do with the shawl robbery … nor Johnson’s—I was doing time (meaning, I was in prison).’ ” (Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Feb. 26, 1865. It’s not clear whether the parenthetical explanation was added by the witness or the reporter.)

The phrase “do time” has been used this way steadily ever since. The OED’s most recent example is from the Atlantic Monthly (March 2010): “A former member of NAMBLA [North American Man/Boy Love Association] … doing time at Limon [in Colorado] for sexual exploitation of a child.”

Finally we come to “hard time,” a noun phrase that the OED says is found “frequently in to do (also serve) hard time.” The dictionary says “hard time” originated as “U.S. slang” in the late 19th century and means “time spent in prison, esp. as part of a long sentence served for a serious crime.”

Oxford’s earliest example is from an Iowa newspaper, the Burlington Hawk-eye (Dec. 30, 1896): “Oscar Barrett produced five pantomimes this year, and any criminal doing hard time had an easier December than this man.”

Here’s an example that neatly illustrates how “doing time” and “doing hard time” differ: “Men and women who are doing time—some of them hard time for serious crimes” (from a Texas newspaper, the Paris News, March 10, 1989).

However, to “do time” doesn’t necessarily imply incarceration. As the OED says, it can mean “to spend a period of time in a specified situation or position (typically doing a job or task), esp. one regarded as obligatory but unpleasant.”

This sense, too, dates back to the late 19th century. Here is Oxford’s earliest known use: “Mr. Griffith’s leading character is a revivified mummy. … The women of the book, one of whom has also done time as a mummy, are superfluous.” (From a fiction supplement to a London weekly, The Academy, July 3, 1897.)

The dictionary’s latest example is from New York magazine (Sept. 6, 2004): “Did you do your time in two-bedroom apartments you shared with three actors, two magazine fact-checkers, and a crystal-meth-addled pastry chef?”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Memes, tropes, and notions

Q: Is there a distinction between a meme, a trope, and a notion? This came up during a discussion I had with a couple of English professors. We would appreciate your advice and have agreed to follow it.

A: This is the kind of question that can lead into the great Grimpen Mire. Vogue words—and “meme” is especially hot right now—tend to blur as they’re tossed around indiscriminately.

But these three words do have distinct meanings. Simply put, a “notion” exists in a mental form, like an idea or a desire. A “meme” exists in a more tangible form and is contagious, like a quirky fashion or a video clip that goes viral. Finally, a “trope” exists in a literary form, like a figure of speech or a thematic device.

The definitions in standard dictionaries are fairly straightforward. We’ll use those from Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online), along with examples of our own in italics.

  • notion: “A conception of or belief about something.” (That’s not my notion of an inexpensive lunch.) … “An impulse or desire, especially one of a whimsical kind.” (She had a notion to send him flowers.)
  • meme: “An element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.” (Robotic dogs were a cultural meme a few years ago.) … “An image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.” (Who ever thought that a funny cat photo would become a meme?)
  • trope: “A figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression.” (The author’s favorite trope is hyperbole.) … “A significant or recurrent theme; a motif.” (The play’s references to wills and inheritance serve as a trope.)

As for their etymologies, all these words are derived from Latin or Greek.

“Notion” was a direct borrowing from Latin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In classical Latin, nōtiōn- or nōtiō meant “concept, idea, legal or intellectual examination,” the OED says, and in post-classical Latin it also meant “knowledge, understanding.” The ultimate source is nōtus (known).

The word entered English in the late 14th century with religious and philosophical meanings that are now rare and have to do with incarnations of the Trinity or with operations in logic. In the 15th century, a more personal meaning emerged, and a “notion” came to mean a whim or an inclination to do something.

The OED’s earliest citation is from a set of mystery plays—that is, dramas depicting biblical events—known as the York Plays, dated sometime before 1450. In the passage, from Play 32 (The Remorse of Judas), Caiaphas rebukes Judas:

“Nowe be my nociens, myght I negh nere þe … schulde I lere þe / To lordis to speke curtaisely” (“Now I have a notion, might I come near thee … to teach thee to speak courteously to lords”).

This more recent example for that sense, from Rebecca West’s novel The Fountain Overflows (1957), will sound more familiar to modern ears: “She could not understand why they had got this silly notion of wearing coats and trousers in bed when nightshirts were so much easier to iron.”

Oxford says a new sense of the word emerged in the 16th century: “a general concept, category, or designation.” The earliest known use is from a Latin grammar, Rudimenta Puerorum in Artem Grammaticalem (2nd ed., 1531), by the Scottish grammarian John Vaus:

“I haue collekit als scortly as I ma, in manere of rude introductione, generale notionis of the aucht partis of orisone” (“I have collected as briefly as I may, as a sort of rough introduction, general notions of the eight parts of speech”).

Related meanings of “notion” followed: a belief, opinion, or theory (first recorded in 1603); an idea or concept (1607); and an inkling, suspicion, or hint (1698). As the OED notes, that last one is common in negative constructions, like “I had no notion,” “they haven’t the slightest notion,” “little notion did he have,” and so on.

Unlike “notion,” the noun “meme” is a modern invention. It was coined by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and first appeared in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). He adapted it, the OED says, from the ancient Greek noun μίμημα (mīmēma, something imitated), which comes from the verb μιμεῖσθαι (mīmeisthai, to imitate).

Here’s the OED citation from Dawkins’s book, in which a “meme” is an element of culture that’s passed along much like a gene:

“The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene.’ I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. … It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream.’ Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.”

A generation later, “meme” acquired its Internet meaning, which was first recorded in the late 1990s. The OED’s earliest example refers to an animation of a dancing baby: “The next thing you know, his friends have forwarded it on and it’s become a net meme.” (From a transcript of a CNN program, Science and Technology Week, Jan. 24, 1998.)

Finally we come to “trope,” the oldest of the three words. It was borrowed into Old English from Latin or Greek, apparently forgotten, and then reborrowed in the 16th century. As the OED explains, “trope” was “probably a borrowing from Latin” but “perhaps” came from the earlier Greek.

The Latin tropus (figure of speech) can be traced to the Greek noun τρόπος (tropos, turn, direction, or way), from the verb τρέπειν (trepein, to turn, direct, or change). The etymology makes sense if you think of a “trope” as a turn of phrase.

The English word first appeared in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a late 10th-century translation of a Latin work that was probably completed in 731 by the Venerable Bede. This is the OED’s citation:

“Boc de metrica arte, & oþere to þisse geþydde be scematibus & tropes boc” (“A book on the art of meter [poetry], to which is appended another book on figures and tropes”).

After that sighting, the word vanished for centuries, then was reborrowed into English in the time of Henry VIII. (As the OED says, “there is no continuity of use” from Old English to the 16th century.) Here’s the word’s reappearance:

“If ye be so sworne to the litteral sense in this matter, that ye will not in these wordes of Christe, Thys is my bodye, &c., admitte in so playne a speache anye troope.” (From William Tyndale’s The Souper [Supper] of the Lorde, 1533. His argument that the Eucharist should not be interpreted literally led to his death at the stake in 1536.)

Today “trope” also has technical meanings in music, astronomy, philosophy, and mathematics. But it’s still used in many disciplines as it was in Tyndale’s time, to mean figurative or metaphorical language.

The OED’s most recent use is by a specialist in Asian-American studies: “[George F.] Kennan’s writing … is replete with tropes and metaphors of disease … and health” (Jodi Kim’s Ends of Empire, 2010).

“Trope” is also used in cultural criticism to mean “a significant or recurrent theme” or “motif,” the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest example is from a book review: “Barthelme is funning with the eternal trope of fatherhood” (the Chicago Tribune, Dec. 14, 1975).

In science, by the way, the word elements “-trope,” “-tropic,” and “-tropism” are found in words that have to do with change, alteration, turning, revolving, and so on. Examples include “heliotrope” (a plant whose flowers bend toward the sun), “phototropic” (attracted toward light), “geotropism” (growth in response to gravity), and “hydrotropism” (growth directed toward moisture).

In fact, as we wrote on the blog in 2012, “tropism” is a word in itself. It’s a scientific term that means a turning, but it’s also used metaphorically in the sense of an attraction or an inclination toward something.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

How ‘tootsie’ became ‘toots’

Q: How come youse did a whole story on the term “darn tootin’ ” without letting us square guys know where “toots” comes from? I know you can toast your tootsies next to a nice warm fire, but how did feet become dames?

A: The slang use of “toots” to address a woman probably comes from the colloquial use of “tootsie” for a foot—a usage that began life in the mid-19th century as a grown-up’s imitation of baby talk.

Some standard dictionaries spell it “tootsie” (our preference) and others use “tootsy.” Either way, the plural is “tootsies.”

The earliest example we’ve found is from an 1842 article in Punch: “the small children have been rapidly undressed and put to bed with the wild notion that they will stay there, and will not walk calmly down stairs three or four hours afterwards in their night-gowns, with their little naked white tootsy-pootsies (the nursery patois for tiny feet) pattering on the cold floor-cloth.”

The passage is from “The Physiology of London Evening Parties,” a series of humorous sketches in Punch or the London Charivari, Vol. 2, January to June, 1842. Albert Richard Smith, the English author of the anonymous sketches, later published slightly revised versions under his own name in two collections of his work, The Wassail-Bowl (1843) and The Physiology of Evening Parties (1846).

Smith, an explorer as well as a writer, is also responsible for the first example we’ve seen of “tootsie” used to address a woman:

“ ‘Tootsy,’ said Mr. Gudge to his much better half, in the breakfast room, whilst he tied a shawl round his neck before the looking-glass, ‘Tootsy, where’s Sir F’s note?’ ” (from his novel The Struggles and Adventures of Christopher Tadpole at Home and Abroad, 1848).

The Oxford English Dictionary has later appearances of the word in both of those senses. It defines “tootsie” in the first sense as “a playful or endearing name for a child’s or a woman’s small foot.” It defines the second sense as “a woman, a girl; a sweetheart; occasionally applied to a male lover.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, spells the term “tootsy” in both senses, but notes that it also appears in print as “tootsie,” “tootsey-wootsey,” and “tootsie-wootsie.”

The dictionary explains that the word originally represented “a child’s pronunciation of foot.” Oxford’s earliest citation is from The Rose and the Ring (1855), William Makepeace Thackeray’s allegorical novel about royal intrigues in the fictional kingdoms of Paflagonia and Crim Tartary.

Here a maid is ousted from the royal household in Paflagonia. Stripped of her servant’s outfit and given the tattered clothes she once wore, minus a shoe, the maid laments: “As for the shoe, what was she to do with one poor little tootsey sandal?”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the second sense is from a letter written by the American poet Wallace Stevens to his mother on July 23, 1895: “I can be your own dearest tootsey wootsey.”

Here’s a somewhat earlier example we’ve found in which  “tootsie wootsie” is used for a woman: “Hic. Didn’t tush a drop, m’ dear. ’M only ’toxicated with joy at seeing m’ own (hic) darling ’ittle tootsie wootsie once more (hic).” From an item about a tippler in the “By the Way” column of the Harvard Lampoon, Feb. 23, 1891.

The use of the shortened form “toots” as a nickname for a girl showed up in the late 19th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is from Wynema: A Child of the Forest (1891), a novel by Sophia Alice Callahan:

“It would seem as yesterday if Robin were not such a tall, broad-shouldered fellow, really towering over us all; and I, a cross-grained, wrinkled spinster; and Toots putting on young lady’s airs—I suppose we shall have to call her Bessie, now.”

The use of the nickname for women showed up in the early 20th century, followed by its use for men (the restaurateur Toots Shor, the jazz musician Toots Thielemans, and so on).

The earliest feminine example we’ve seen is from “The First of the Cuties,” a short story by Philip Curtiss in the March 1920 issue of Everybody’s Magazine:

“Toots Fleming, in short, was the first of the cuties, the first of that long line of sisters who ever since have roused a feminine flutter all through the audience by skipping into the picture with the figure of twenty years and the dress of ten, with plump bare legs, with gingham dresses torn at the shoulder, with tomboy manners for winning the hearts of fabulous heroes and angel-child manners for softening the hearts of incredible villains.”

The term “toots” soon came to be used “as a familiar form of address” for a girl or woman, according to OED, which describes the usage as “slang (originally and chiefly U.S.)” and “probably abbreviation of tootsy.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from a 1936 query in the journal American Speech from a reader who wonders if the nickname “toots” is “the ancestor of the present mode of address in ‘O.K., toots!’, ‘Hello, toots!’ etc.” However, we found an earlier example in the title and lyrics of the 1934 song “Okay Toots,” by Walter Donaldson (music) and Gus Kahn (lyrics):

Okay Toots,
If you like me like I like you,
We know nobody new will do,
It’s okay Toots!

Okay Toots,
If you say yes, then I say yes,
And if you say no, then it’s no go,
It’s okay Toots!

The song was first recorded on Sept.  14, 1934, by Loretta Lee with George Hall and the Hotel Taft Orchestra. Eddie Cantor sang it in the film Kid Millions, which was released on Oct. 11, 1934.

Eric Partridge suggests in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (8th ed.) that this “toots” usage may have been inspired by the chorus of “Toot, Toot, Tootsie! (Goo’ Bye),” a 1922 song with lyrics and music by Gus Kahn, Ernie Erdman, and Dan Russo:

Toot, toot, Tootsie, Goo’ Bye!
Toot, toot, Tootsie, don’t cry,
The choo choo train that takes me,
Away from you no words can tell how sad it makes me,
Kiss me, Tootsie, and then,
Do it over again,

Watch for the mail, I’ll never fail,
If you don’t get a letter then you’ll know I’m in jail,
Tut, tut, Tootsie, don’t cry,
Toot, toot, Tootsie, Goo’ Bye!

The song was first recorded in 1922 by Al Jolson with Frank Crumit’s orchestra for Columbia Records. Jolson later sang it in The Jazz Singer (1927), the first feature-length movie with synchronized speech and music.

Getting back to your question, it’s not at all surprising to us that “tootsie,” a cutesy faux-infantile term for a foot, would inspire the use of “tootsie” and later “toots” as terms for a woman. This is similar to the evolution of such words as “baby,” “honey,” “pet,” “sweet,” “sugar,” and “treasure.”

[Update, Jan. 11, 2020. A reader of the blog has written to say, “How could your forget ‘In the Good Old Summertime’ (1902)?” Well, we’ve cited earlier examples of “tootsie wootsie,” but here goes: “You hold her hand and she holds yours, / And that’s a very good sign / That she’s your tootsie wootsie / In the good old summer time.”]

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Linguistics Pronunciation Usage Word origin

Ethos, logos, pathos

Q: A friend and I were recently discussing “ethos,” “logos,” and “pathos.” Having studied classical Greek, I asserted they should be pronounced as the ancients did: eth-ahs, lah-gahs, and pa-thahs. My friend said English has adopted the words so the commonly used pronunciations of eth-ohs, loh-gohs, and pay-thohs are now acceptable. Any help?

A: As you know, ἦθος (“ethos”), λόγος (“logos”), and πάθος (“pathos”) are in Aristotle’s ῥητορική (Rhetoric), a treatise on the art of persuasion. In the work, he uses “ethos” (character), “logos” (reason), and “pathos” (emotion) in describing the ways a speaker can appeal to an audience. (The classical Greek terms have several other meanings, which we’ll discuss later.)

When English adopted the terms in the 16th and 17th centuries, they began taking on new senses. Here are the usual English meanings now: “ethos,” the spirit of a person, community, culture, or era; “logos,” reason, the word of God, or Jesus in the Trinity; “pathos,” pity or sympathy as well as a quality or experience that evokes them.

So how, you ask, should an English speaker pronounce these Anglicized words?

In referring to the Rhetoric and other ancient texts, we’d use reconstructed classical Greek pronunciations (EH-thahs, LAH-gahs, PAH-thahs), though there’s some doubt as to how Aristotle and others actually pronounced the terms. But in their modern English senses, we’d use standard English pronunciations for “ethos,” “logos,” and “pathos.”

As it turns out, the 10 online standard dictionaries we regularly consult list a variety of acceptable English pronunciations that include the reconstructed ones:

  • EE-thohs, EE-thahs, EH-thohs, or EH-thahs;
  • LOH-gohs, LOH-gahs, or LAH-gahs;
  • PAY-thohs, PAY-thahs, PAY-thaws, PAH-thohs, or PAH-thahs.

(Our preferences would be EE-thohs, LOH-gohs, and PAY-thohs for the modern senses, though these aren’t terms we use every day in conversation.)

When English adopts a word from another language, the spelling, pronunciation, meaning, number, or function of the loanword often changes—if not at once, then over the years. This shouldn’t be surprising, since English itself changes over time. The Old English spoken by the Anglo-Saxons is barely recognizable now to speakers of modern English.

Similarly, the Attic dialect used by Aeschylus (circa 525-455 BC) differed from the Attic of Aristotle (384-322 BC), the Doric dialect of Pindar (c. 518-438 BC), the Aeolic of Sappho (c. 630-570 BC), and the Ionic of the eighth-century BC Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

You were probably taught a reconstructed generic Attic pronunciation of the fifth century BC. The reconstruction originated with Erasmus in the early 16th century and was updated by historical linguists in the 19th and 20th centuries. The linguists considered such things as the meter in poetry, the way animal sounds were written, the spelling of Greek loanwords in Latin, usage in medieval and modern Greek, and the prehistoric Indo-European roots of the language.

But Attic, the dialect of classical Greek spoken in the Athens area, wasn’t generic—it was alive and evolving. And to use a fifth-century BC Attic reconstruction for all classical Greek spoken from the eighth to the fourth centuries BC is like using a generic Boston pronunciation of the 19th century for the English spoken in Alabama, New York, Ohio, and Maine from the 18th to the 21st centuries.

As for the etymology, English borrowed “ethos” from the classical Latin ēthos, which borrowed it in turn from ancient Greek ἦθος, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Latin, the word meant character or the depiction of character. In Greek, it meant custom, usage, disposition, character, or the delineation of character in rhetoric.

When “ethos” first showed up in English in the late 17th century, the OED says, it referred to “character or characterization as revealed in action or its representation.” The first Oxford example is from Theatrum Poetarum (1675), by the English writer Edward Phillips:

“As for the Ethos … I shall only leave it to consideration whether the use of the Chorus … would not … advance then diminish the present.” Some scholars believe that the poet John Milton, an uncle who educated Phillips, contributed to the work, which is a list of major poets with critical commentary.

In the mid-19th century, according to the OED, “ethos” came to mean “the characteristic spirit of a people, community, culture, or era as manifested in its attitudes and aspirations; the prevailing character of an institution or system.”

The first citation is from Confessions of an Apostate, an 1842 novel by Anne Flinders: “ ‘A sentiment as true as it is beautiful,’ I replied, ‘like the “austere beauty of the Catholic Ethos,” which we now see in perfection.’ ”

English adopted “logos” in the late 16th century from λόγος in classical Greek,  where it meant word, speech, discourse, or reason. The OED’s first English citation uses it as “a title of the Second Person of the Trinity,” or Jesus:

“We cal him Logos, which some translate Word or Speech, and othersome Reason” (from A Woorke Concerning the Trewnesse of the Christian Religion, a 1587 translation by Philip Sidney and Arthur Golding of a work by the French Protestant writer Philippe de Mornay).

The OED says modern writers use the term “untranslated in historical expositions of ancient philosophical speculation, and in discussions of the doctrine of the Trinity in its philosophical aspects.”

English got “pathos” in the late 16th century from the Greek πάθος, which meant suffering, feeling, emotion, passion, or an emotional style or treatment. In English, it first meant “an expression or utterance that evokes sadness or sympathy,” a usage that Oxford describes as rare today.

The dictionary’s earliest English example is from The Shepheardes Calender (1579), the first major poetical work by the Elizabethan writer Edmund Spenser: “And with, A very Poeticall pathos.” (The original 1579 poem uses παθός, but a 1591 version published during Spenser’s lifetime uses “pathos.”)

In the mid-17th century, according to the OED, the term took on the modern sense of “a quality which evokes pity, sadness, or tenderness; the power of exciting pity; affecting character or influence.” The first citation is from “Of Dramatic Poesie,” a 1668 essay by John Dryden: “There is a certain gayety in their Comedies, and Pathos in their more serious Playes.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Usage Word origin Writing

Shrink, shrank, shrunk

Q: Is it OK to use “shrunk” as the past tense of “shrink,” as in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids?

A: Yes, it’s OK if you’re American, like that 1989 Disney film. However, British dictionaries are divided over the usage.

As we wrote in 2010, most standard American dictionaries recognize either “shrank” or “shrunk” as a legitimate past tense of “shrink.” So as far back as nine years ago, a sentence like “His trousers shrunk in the laundry” was widely accepted as standard in the US.

These were the recommended American forms: “shrink” as the present tense; “shrank” or “shrunk” as the past tense; “shrunk” or “shrunken” as the past participle (the form used in perfect tenses, requiring an auxiliary like “have” or “had”).

Today, acceptance of the past tense “shrunk” is even more pronounced, as we found in checking the 10 standard American and British dictionaries we usually consult.

All five of the American and three out of the five British dictionaries now accept “shrunk” as well as “shrank.” (One of those last three, Cambridge, qualified its acceptance by saying that “shrunk” is standard in the US but not in the UK.)

Only two holdouts insist on “shrank” alone as the past tense, the British dictionaries Longman and Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online). They accept “shrunk” solely as a past participle.

Despite the increasing respectability of the past tense “shrunk,” it’s apparently regarded by some as casual or informal.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says that while “shrunk” is “undoubtedly standard” in the past tense, “shrank” is the usual preference in written English. (As we’ll show later, “shrunk” is widely preferred in common usage, if not in edited writing.)

However, we see no reason to avoid “shrunk,” even in formal writing. The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says “shrunk” has been used this way since the 1300s. It apparently fell out of favor—at least in written English—sometime in the 19th century and became respectable again in the latter half of the 20th.

The fact that modern lexicographers have come around to accepting “shrunk” is not an indication that standards are slipping or that English is becoming degraded. On the contrary, this development echoes a pattern seen with other verbs of that kind. Here’s the story.

The verb “shrink” was first recorded around the year 1000, as scrincan in Old English. It was inherited from other Germanic languages, with cousins in Middle Dutch (schrinken), Swedish (skrynkato), and Norwegian (skrekka, skrøkka).

In Anglo-Saxon days “shrink” had two past-tense forms—“shrank” (scranc) in the singular and “shrunk” (scruncon) in the plural—along with the past participle “shrunken” (gescruncen). So originally (and we’ll use the modern spellings here), the past-tense vowel changed only when the verb shifted from singular to plural, as in “I shrank” vs. “we shrunk.”

But in the 14th century, the dictionary says, the originally plural past tense “shrunk” began appearing with a singular subject (as in “I shrunk,” “he shrunk”). The dictionary’s earliest example is dated circa 1374:

“Sche constreynede and schronk hir seluen lyche to þe comune mesure of men” (“She contracted and shrunk herself to the common measure of men”). From Geoffrey Chaucer’s translation of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae.

This use of “shrunk,” the OED says, went on to become “frequent in the 15th cent.,” and was “the normal past tense in the 18th cent.”

Dictionaries of the time agree. A New Dictionary of the English Language (William Kenrick, 1733) and A General Dictionary of the English Language (Thomas Sheridan, 1780) both prefer “shrunk” over “shrank” as the past tense. They use the same illustration—“I shrunk, or shrank”—treating “shrank” as a secondary variant.

The preference for “shrunk” persisted among some writers well into the 19th century, as these OED citations show:

“Wherever he went, the enemy shrunk before him” (Washington Irving, A History of New York, 1809) … “Isaac shrunk together, and was silent” (Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe, 1819) … “She shrunk back from his grasp” (Scott’s novel Kenilworth, 1821) … “Opinions, which he never shrunk from expressing” (Edward Peacock’s novel Narcissa Brendon, 1891).

But in the meantime “shrank” was also being used, and during the 19th century its popularity gradually revived in written English. Soon it came to be regarded as the better choice.

By the early 20th century, textbooks and usage guides were recommending “shrank” as the proper past-tense form. Henry Fowler, in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), said “shrunk” had become archaic. (He was wrong, as we now know. Far from being archaic, “shrunk” had stubbornly persisted in common use.)

Here a question arises. If “shrunk” was the normal past tense in the 18th century, why did commentators in the early 20th century suggest that “shrank” was better?

Apparently arbiters of the language felt that forms of “shrink”—the present, past, and perfect tenses—should conform with those of similar verbs:  “drink/drank/drunk,” “sink/sank/sunk,” “swim/swam/swum,” and so on. They felt that the legitimate past tenses should be spelled with “a,” the past participles with “u,” and the distinction preserved.

But they overlooked the fact that many similar verbs had adopted “u” in the past tense with no objections. These all belong to a class that in Old English had “i” as the present-tense vowel and had two past-tense vowels: “a” in the singular (“I shrank,” “he shrank”) and “u” in the plural (“we shrunk,” “they shrunk”).

Examples of verbs like this include “cling,” “spin,” “swing,” and “wring.” By the 18th century, they had abandoned the old past tenses spelled with “a” (“clang,” “span,” “swang,” “wrang”) and adopted “u” forms identical to their past participles (“clung,” “spun,” “swung,” “wrung”).

The linguist Harold B. Allen has described “shrink” as “typical” of that class—Old English verbs that “in moving toward a single form for past and participle have popularly used the vowel common to both” (The English Journal, February 1957).

Unlike those other verbs, however, “shrink” was arrested in the process. Instead of dropping its “a” form completely, it has kept both past tenses, “shrank” and “shrunk.” (The same is true of the verbs “spring” and “stink,” which have retained both of their old past tense forms, “sprang/sprung” and “stank/stunk.”)

As we mentioned above, “shrunk” is the past tense favored in common usage. More than 60 years ago, Allen wrote that although textbooks listed “shrank” as the proper past tense, “shrunk” was more popular.

“The findings of the fieldwork for The Linguistic Atlas of the Upper Midwest,” he wrote, “indicate that 86.5% of all informants responding to this item use shrunk as the preterit [past tense],” he said. And there was no evidence of a “small educated minority clinging to a favored shrank.

The preference for “shrunk,” he said, was “nearly the same in all three groups: 89% of the uneducated, 89% of the high school graduates, and 86% of the college graduates.” Though preferences were divided, he wrote, “the general dominance of shrunk is certain, despite the contrary statements of the textbooks.”

A final word about “shrunken,” which dictionaries still list alongside “shrunk” as a past participle. Today it’s “rarely employed in conjugation with the verb ‘to have,’ ” the OED says. There, too, “shrunk” has become the popular choice (as in “The trousers have shrunk”), and “shrunken” is seen mostly as a participial adjective (“the shrunken trousers”).

The same thing has happened with the verb “drink.” The usual past participle is now “drunk” (as in “he had drunk the poison”), while the old past participle “drunken” is now used only as an adjective.

But as for its past tense, “drink” has held on to “drank” in modern English, and a usage like “he drunk the poison” is not considered standard.

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