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English Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

‘Outshone’ or ‘outshined’?

Q: Is it “outshone” or “outshined”? Merriam-Webster says “outshone,” but wouldn’t “outshined” be better? What do you recommend?

A: Merriam-Webster, which is updated regularly online, says that either “outshone” or “outshined” can be the past tense and past participle of the verb “outshine.” Both variants are considered standard English. The last two print editions of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (the 10th and 11th) have similar entries.

As M-W explains, “When a main entry is followed by the word or and another spelling, the two spellings occur with equal or nearly equal frequency and can be considered equal variants. If two variants joined by or are out of alphabetical order [as is the case here], they remain equal variants. The one printed first is, however, slightly more common than the second.”

Most of the 10 standard dictionaries that we regularly consult list only “outshone” as the past tense and past participle. However, Webster’s New World and Dictionary.com (based on Random House Unabridged) agree with Merriam-Webster and include both “outshone” and “outshined.”

The verb “outshine,” which showed up in the late 16th century, can have either a literal meaning (to shine brighter) or a figurative one (to surpass).

The two senses are combined in this example, the earliest in the Oxford English Dictionary: “His zeale out shinde, the Papists taper lights” (from the English author George Whetstone’s 1585 biography of Francis Russell, second Earl of Bedford).

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the verb was formed within English by the addition of the prefix “out” to the much older verb “shine,” which dates back to Anglo-Saxon times.

As we say in a 2014 post, standard dictionaries generally accept either “shone” or “shined” as the past tense and past participle of “shine.” However, the dictionaries often note that “shone” is usual when the verb is intransitive and “shined” when it’s transitive.

(A verb is transitive when it needs an object to make sense: “He shined his shoes.” An intransitive verb makes sense without one: “The sun shone.”)

In the earlier post, we cite an American Heritage usage note: “By tradition, the past tense and past participle shone is used when the verb is intransitive and means ‘to emit light, be luminous’: The full moon shone over the field. The form shined, on the other hand, is normally used when the verb is transitive and means ‘to direct (a beam of light)’ or ‘to polish,’ as in He shined his flashlight down the dark staircase or The butler shined the silver.”

As for the etymology, the verb “shine” is Germanic in origin and first appeared in Old English in the early eighth century, spelled scynan, scine, scaan, and so on. The earliest citation in the OED is from a glossary of Latin and Old English that dates from around 725: “Ardebat, scaan.” (The Latin ardebat means burns, glows, or sparkles.)

The spelling of the past tense roughly evolved from scan and scean in Old English to scean, schon, shoon, etc., in Middle English, and finally to “shone” and “shined” in the 1500s, during the early Modern English period.

In this example from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (written in the 1590s), Hippolyta says: “Well shone, Moon. Truly, the moon shines with a good grace.”

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

Courting a honey or a heartache

Q: “Court” seems to be an incredibly adaptable word—a royal court, a tennis court, a court of law, courting a beau or a client, heartache or disaster. Where did it all begin?

A: All those senses of “court” (in law, romance, diplomacy, sports, etc.) ultimately come from cohors, classical Latin for an enclosed area—what we’d now call a courtyard.

As cohors evolved in Latin, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, “it came to stand for those assembled in such a yard—a crowd of attendants or company of soldiers; hence the meaning of cohort familiar today.”

“But both in its original sense and as ‘retinue’ the word took another and rather more disguised path into English,” Ayto writes.

While the English word retained “the underlying notion” of an enclosed area, he says, it added a judicial sense because of “an early association of Old French cort [a judicial tribunal] with Latin curia [a legal tribunal or sovereign’s assembly].”

The respect and attention that one offers at a judicial court led to the diplomatic, romantic, and summoning senses of the term, while the sports sense comes from the original meaning of cohors in Latin as an enclosed area.

When “court” first appeared in Middle English in the 12th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant a meeting of a ruler with his retinue as well as the place where such a meeting was held.

The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded, uses the term (spelled “curt” here) in the sense of “a formal assembly held by the sovereign at his residence” with “his councillors and great lords, for purposes of administration”:

“Þa he to Engle land com. þa was he under fangen mid micel wurtscipe. and to king bletcæd in Lundene on þe Sunnen dæi. be foren midwinter dæi and held  þær micel curt” (“When he came to England, he was received with great honor. He was consecrated King in London on the Sunday before Christmas Day, and then he held a great court there”).

The passage is from an 1154 entry in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describing the death of King Stephen, the arrival from France of Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Aquitaine, and his consecration in London as King Henry II.

The next Oxford example, which we’ve also expanded, uses the term in the sense of “the place where a sovereign (or other high dignitary) resides and holds state, attended by his retinue.” This comes from a parable in the Cotton Vespasian A. Homilies, dated at sometime before 1175:

“þat an rice king wes. strang and mihti. his land gélest wide and side. his folc was swiðe ærfeð-telle … and he nam him tó rede þat heom wolde ȝearceon anæ grate laðienge. and þider ȝeclepíen all his underþeód. þat hi bi éne féce to his curt come sceolde and sette ænne déȝie” (“there was a rich king who was strong and mighty; his land stretched far and wide; his people were numerous … and he decided to prepare a great feast and call all his subjects thither so that they should come at the same time to his court”).

The word took on its legal sense in the late 13th century when “court” came to mean “an assembly of judges or other persons legally appointed and acting as a tribunal to hear and determine any cause, civil, ecclesiastical, military, or naval.”

The first OED citation is from a treatise in Middle French that sets forth the laws of England (early legal works in England were in Latin or French): “en dreit de nous mesures et de nostre Curt” (“with regard to ourselves and our Court”). From Britton, 1292, a work whose origin and author are in dispute; some early sources say John le Breton, bishop of Hereford, wrote it at the direction of King Edward I.

The first Oxford example that’s written in Middle English is from a 1297 entry in The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, an account of early British history: “The king wolde, that in is court the ple solde be driue” (“The king willed that the plea be pursued in his court”).

In the early 16th century, “court” took on the sense of  “an enclosed quadrangular area, uncovered or covered, with a smooth level floor, in which tennis, rackets, or fives are played.” (In fives, an English sport, players use bare or gloved hands to hit a ball against the walls of a court with three or four sides.)

The first OED citation uses the term in reference to a court for lawn tennis: “Hen. Smith, for ceiling the great armoury house at Greenwich, the Friar’s wharf, the tennis court at Richmond, and other places, 200l.” From a March 1519 entry in King Henry VIII’s Book of Payments. At the time, the verb “ceil” meant to add a canopy.

In the late 16th century, the noun “court” took on the sense of “homage such as is offered at court,” specifically as “attention or courtship shown to one whose favour, affection, or interest is sought.” The earliest OED example uses the term in its diplomatic sense: “Him the Prince with gentle court did bord [address]” (from Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene, 1590).

The verb “court,” which showed up in the early 1500s, originally meant to live at a royal court or spend a lot of time there. But by the late 1500s it was being used in its romantic sense.

The first Oxford example, which we’ve expanded, is also from The Faerie Queene: “And in the midst thereof vpon the floure, / A louely beuy [bevy] of faire Ladies sate, / Courted of many a iolly Paramoure, / The which them did in modest wise amate.”

In the early 1600s, the use of the verb began expanding to include the seeking of things other than romance, such as power, friendship, publicity, or popularity: “Never would he have had the face to have courted the Crown Imperiall” (The Historie of the Holy Warre, 1639, by Thomas Fuller).

And by the mid-19th century, according to our searches, the verb broadened even more to include inviting or provoking something negative. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a book of homespun philosophy:

“Therefore, in the first, saints and martyrs have fulfilled their mission, / Conquering dangers, courting deaths, and triumphing in all” (Proverbial Philosophy, 1843, by Martin Farquhar Tupper).

The verb phrase “court disaster” showed up a dozen years later, according to our searches: “Gladwyn discouraged the enterprise, conceiving it, doubtless, as rash and perilous to court disaster” (History of American Conspiracies, 1863, by Orville J. Victor).

Over the years, many other descendants of the Latin cohors have appeared in English, including “courtier” (circa 1290), “courtesy” (before 1200), “courtly” (c. 1450), “courthouse” (1483), “cohort” (1489), “courting” (1530), “curtsy” (noun, 1513; verb, before 1556), “courtyard” (1552), “courtesan” (1549), “courtship” (1597), “pay [or make] one’s court” (1667), and “courtroom” (1677). (In a 2017 post, we discussed “courtesy” and “curtsy.”)

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

A ‘they’ by any other name

Q: You have defended the singular “they” when it applies to an unknown person of unknown gender. OK. But how about for a known person of unknown gender? A recent news article that said “they were fired” caused me to search back and forth to find who else was fired. A waste of time.

A: We have indeed defended the use of “they” in the singular for an unknown person—an individual usually represented by an indefinite pronoun (“someone,” “everybody,” “no one,” etc.). Some examples: “If anyone calls, they can reach me at home” … “Nobody expects their best friend to betray them” … “Everyone’s looking out for themselves.”

As we’ve said on the blog, this singular use of “they” and its forms (“them,” “their,” “themselves”) for an indefinite, unknown somebody-or-other is more than 700 years old.

You’re asking about a very different usage, one that we’ve also discussed. As we wrote in a later post, this singular “they” refers to a known person who doesn’t identify as either male or female and prefers “they” to “he” or “she.” Some examples: “Robin loves their new job as sales manager” … “Toby says they’ve become a vegetarian.”

This use of “they” for a known person who’s nonbinary and doesn’t conform to the usual gender distinctions is very recent, only about a decade old.

When we wrote about the nonbinary “they” three years ago, we noted that only one standard dictionary had recognized the usage. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language included (and still does) this definition within its entry for “they”: “Used as a singular personal pronoun for someone who does not identify as either male or female.”

American Heritage doesn’t label the usage as nonstandard but adds a cautionary note: “The recent use of singular they for a known person who identifies as neither male nor female remains controversial.”

Since then, a couple of other standard dictionaries have accepted the usage, but without reservation.

Merriam-Webster’s entry for “they” was updated in September 2019 to include this definition: “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.”

A British dictionary, Macmillan, now has a similar definition: “used as a singular pronoun by and about people who identify as non-binary.” Macmillan’s example: “The singer has come out as non-binary and asked to be addressed by the pronouns they/them.”

Neither dictionary has any kind of warning label or cautionary note. Other dictionaries, however, are more conservative on the subject, merely observing in usage notes that the nonbinary “they” is out there, but not including it among the standard definitions of “they.”

For instance, Dictionary.com (based on Random House Unabridged) says in a usage note that the use of “they” and its forms “to refer to a single clearly specified, known, or named person is uncommon and likely to be noticed and criticized. … Even so, use of they, their, and them is increasingly found in contexts where the antecedent is a gender-nonconforming individual or one who does not identify as male or female.”

And Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online) has this in a usage note: “In a more recent development, they is now being used to refer to specific individuals (as in Alex is bringing their laptop). Like the gender-neutral honorific Mx, the singular they is preferred by some individuals who identify as neither male nor female.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, added the binary use of “they” and its forms in an October 2019 update.

This is now among the OED’s definitions of “they”: “Used with reference to a person whose sense of personal identity does not correspond to conventional sex and gender distinctions, and who has typically asked to be referred to as they (rather than as he or she).”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a Twitter post (by @thebutchcaucus, July 11, 2009): “What about they/them/theirs? #genderqueer #pronouns.” Oxford also has two later citations:

“Asher thought they were the only nonbinary person at school until a couple weeks ago” (the Harvard-Westlake Chronicle, Los Angeles, Sept. 25, 2013).

“In 2016, they got a role on Orange Is the New Black as a wisecracking white supremacist” (from a profile of Asia Kate Dillon on the Cut, a blog published by New York magazine, June 3, 2019).

We agree with you that this usage can confuse a reader. When a writer uses “they” in an article, we’re sometimes left to wonder how many people are meant.

But a careful writer can overcome this problem. The use of “they” in that last OED citation (“they got a role”) is not confusing because it links the pronoun with a single role  And elsewhere in the article, the author, Gabriella Paiella, took pains to be clear (“they’re arguably Hollywood’s most famous nonbinary actor, one whose star turn came on an unlikely television series”).

As we noted in our nonbinary “they” post, “Clarity is just as important as sensitivity. Be sure to make clear when ‘they’ refers to only one person and when it refers to several people.” We also noted that “when ‘they’ is the subject of a verb, the verb is always plural, even in reference to a single person: ‘Robin says they are coming to the lunch meeting, so order them a sandwich.’ ”

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Complementary remarks

Q: I teach writing to foreign students and was asked a question that I just cannot answer. Both of these sentences are normal English: “I was happy being alone” … “I was happy to be alone.” But only the first of these is normal: “I became [or got] lonely being alone” … “I became [or got] lonely to be alone.” What’s wrong with that last sentence?

A: Your question has to do with adjectives and their complements—that is, the words or phrases that complete them. In this case, you’re attempting to complement the adjectives “happy” and “lonely” with two different phrases: one formed with a gerund or “-ing” participle (“being alone”), and the other with a “to” infinitive (“to be alone”).

As any native speaker of English would know immediately, the “happy” sentences work with both complements, but the “lonely” sentences don’t. “I got lonely to be alone” doesn’t sound like normal English.

This is because “lonely” is not among adjectives that can invariably be complemented by an infinitive. If you replace “lonely” with “afraid,” the original examples work: “I became [or got] afraid being alone” … “I became [or got] afraid to be alone.”

We wish we could tell you that there’s a predictable pattern here—that certain types of adjectives can always be complemented by both participles and infinitives, while other types are always restricted to one or the other.

Unfortunately, no clear pattern emerges. Different adjectives simply act differently in different contexts.

For instance, with another subject and another verb, those “lonely” sentences work with both complements: “It is lonely being alone” … “It is lonely to be alone.” (There “it” is a dummy subject; the real subject is the complement: “Being alone is lonely” … “To be alone is lonely.”)

While we can’t give you a rule about all this, we can make a few broad observations.

Dozens of evaluative adjectives (like “educational,” “interesting,” “lovely,” “pleasant,” etc.) can be used with either “to” infinitives or “-ing” participles if the subject is a dummy “it” and the verb is a form of “be” (like “is,” “was,” “might have been,” and so on). With adjectives like these, the complements are pretty much interchangeable: “It was lovely to see you” … “It was lovely seeing you.”

Many adjectives that modify a subject, and that have to do with the subject’s attitude or capabilities, are often complemented by infinitives. These include “able,” “afraid,” “anxious,” “bound,” “delighted,” “determined,” “eager,” “happy,” “hesitant,” “liable,” “likely,” “quick,” “reluctant,” and “unwilling.” (Example: “The pianist was delighted to perform.”)

Some of those adjectives can also be complemented by “-ing” participles if a preposition is added, like “about” (as in “delighted about performing”), or “in” (“quick in replying”).

Still other adjectives, ones that refer to the experiencing or doing of something rather than to the thing itself, can be complemented by “to” infinitives. In a sentence like “This piece is difficult to perform,” the adjective “difficult” refers more to the performing than to the piece. These adjectives include “boring,” “delicious,” “difficult,” “easy,” “enjoyable,” “hard,” “impossible,” “tough,” and “tiresome.”

Adjectives that are usually complemented by “-ing” participles are much less numerous than the other kind. Among them are “busy,” “pointless,” “useless,” “worth,” and “worthwhile.” For instance, we can say, “She’s busy eating,” but not “She’s busy to eat.

As for “busy,” notice what happens when we modify the adjective with “too”—both complements work: “She’s too busy eating” … “She’s too busy to eat.” Completely different meanings! This is because “too busy eating” implies a missing element—“… to do [something else].”

Some adjectives that are usually complemented by infinitives—like “absurd,” “annoying,” “awkward,” “fortunate,” “happy,” “logical,” “odd,” and “sad”—can be complemented with participles as well.

Here a point should be made. Sometimes the choice of adjective complement—infinitive or participle—makes no difference in meaning, especially if the subject is the dummy “it.” (Examples: “It’s exhausting to cook for twenty” … “It’s exhausting cooking for twenty.”)

But sometimes a different complement produces a different meaning. “He was happy to carry your suitcase” does not mean “He was happy carrying your suitcase.” Similarly, “I became afraid to be alone” is not the same as “I became afraid being alone.”

This is also true of verbs with these complements or objects. For instance, “I stopped to think” does not mean “I stopped thinking,” and “I remembered to call” does not mean “I remembered calling.” We’ve written several posts, most recently in 2019, about verbs that can have infinitives or gerunds or both as their objects or complements.

With verbs, too, linguists have found no clear pattern that could help a foreign student predict which types work with gerunds, or with infinitives, or with both. As we wrote in 2014, there are only broad outlines that don’t work reliably in all cases.

You can find more on this subject in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum (pp. 1246, 1259), and A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk et al. (pp. 1224, 1230-31, 1392-93).

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An etymological valentine

(Note: In observance of Valentine’s Day, we’re repeating a post that originally appeared on Feb. 23, 2012.)

Q: I wished a colleague happy Valentine’s Day earlier in the month and was told there is no apostrophe plus “s” in the name of the holiday. There is, isn’t there?

A: Yes, there is an apostrophe + “s” in “Valentine’s Day.” The longer form of the name for the holiday is “St. Valentine’s Day.”

And in case you’re wondering, the word “Valentine’s” in the name of the holiday is a possessive proper noun, while the word “valentines” (for the cards we get on Feb. 14) is a plural common noun.

“Valentine’s Day” has the possessive apostrophe because it’s a saint’s day. In Latin, Valentinus was the name of two early Italian saints, both of whom are commemorated on Feb. 14.

Published references in the Oxford English Dictionary indicate that the phrase “Valentine’s Day” was first recorded in about 1381 in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English poem The Parlement of Foules:

“For this was on seynt Volantynys day / Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.” (In Chaucer’s time, possessive apostrophes were not used.)

Chaucer’s lines would be translated this way in modern English: “For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day / When every bird comes here to choose his mate.” (The title means a parliament or assembly of fowls—that is, birds.)

As a common noun, “valentine” was first used to mean a lover, sweetheart, or special friend. This sense of the word was first recorded in writing in 1477, according to OED citations.

In February of that year, a young woman named Margery Brews wrote two love letters to her husband-to-be, John Paston, calling him “Voluntyn” (Valentine).

As rendered into modern English, one of the letters begins “Right reverend and well-beloved Valentine” and ends “By your Valentine.” (We’re quoting from The Paston Letters, edited by Norman Davis, 1963.)

In the mid-1500s, the OED says, the noun “valentine” was first used to mean “a folded paper inscribed with the name of a person to be drawn as a valentine.”

It wasn’t until the 19th century, adds Oxford, that “valentine” came to have its modern meaning: “a written or printed letter or missive, a card of dainty design with verses or other words, esp. of an amorous or sentimental nature, sent on St. Valentine’s day.”

Here’s the OED’s first citation, from Mary Russell Mitford’s book Our Village (1824), a collection of sketches: “A fine sheet of flourishing writing, something between a valentine and a sampler.”

This later example is from Albert R. Smith’s The Adventures of Mr. Ledbury and his Friend Jack Johnson (1844): “He had that morning received … a valentine, in a lady’s hand-writing, and perfectly anonymous.”

What could be more intriguing than that?

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All het up

Q: The other day I came across the phrase “all het up” and wondered if it’s dialect for “all heated up.” Is this worthy of an expansive look?

A: The colloquial expression “all het up,” meaning angry, upset, or worried, can be traced back to an old use of “het” as the past tense and past participle of the verb “heat.” As odd as this use of “het” for “heated” may seem now, similar forms are standard with some other verbs, like “meet” (“met”), “feed” (“fed”), and “lead” (“led”).

The past tense and past participle forms of “heat” have been spelled all sorts of ways since the verb first appeared in Old English as hǽtan, haten, hatten, and so on. In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the past was hǽtte or hætte, while the participle was gehǽt, gehǽted, or gehǽtt. In Middle English, spoken from roughly 1250 to 1500, the past was hatte, hette, het, etc., while the participle was hatte, hette, het, etc.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, includes het among the usual past tenses and participles of “heat” in Middle English, but adds that it was considered dialectal from the 19th century on. As the OED explains, “The past tense and participle underwent in Middle English various shortenings, some of which are still dialectal; the literary language now recognizes only heated.”

Old English inherited the verb “heat” from prehistoric Germanic, a language reconstructed by linguists. The earliest Oxford example is from the Épinal manuscript in The Épinal-Erfurt Glossary, a Latin-English glossary that the OED dates at sometime before 700: “Calentes, haetendae.” In Latin, calentes is a participle of caleo (to be hot). In Old English, haetendae means heated.

The earliest example in the OED for “het” used as the past tense of “heat” is from a medieval Scottish life of St. Thomas the Apostle: “[He] in þe fyre gert het þam wele” (“[He] in the great fire heated them well”). From Legends of the Saints in the Scottish Dialect of the Fourteenth Century, edited by William M. Metcalfe in 1896 for the Scottish Text Society.

The dictionary’s first example of “het” used as a participle is from a Middle English translation of a collection of spurious letters supposedly written by Aristotle to Alexander the Great:

“Hit ys cold and nedith to be het” (“It is cold and needs to be heated”). From Secret of Secrets, circa 1400, a translation of the Latin Secreta Secretorum. Scholars believe the work originated in Arabic in the 10th century and was translated into Latin in the 12th century. In Arabic, it’s known as Kitāb Sirr al-Asrā.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the terms “het,” “het up,” and “all het up” appeared as colloquial or dialectal adjectives meaning angry, upset, or excited. The earliest example we’ve found for “het” used alone in this sense is from a poem by James Russell Lowell:

“Don’t you git het: they thought the thing was planned; / They’ll cool off when they come to understand.”  From The Biglow Papers, Second Series, London, 1862. The OED has an abbreviated version from the 1867 American edition.

The first Oxford example of “het up” used adjectivally, which we’ll expand here, is from “A Walking Delegate” (1894), a short story by Rudyard Kipling: “You look consider’ble het up. Guess you’d better cramp her [a horse-drawn carriage] under them pines, an’ cool off a piece.” The story appeared first in the Century Magazine (December 1894) and later in Kipling’s collection The Day’s Work (1898).

The longer term you’re asking about, “all het up,” showed up in the early 20th century, Oxford says: “But you mustn’t get yourself all ‘het up’ before you take the plunge” (Letters From a Self-Made Merchant to His Son, a 1902 novel by George Horace Latimer).

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Not a man but felt this terror

Q: I have a question about the strange use of “but” in the following letter of Emerson to Carlyle: “Not a reading man but has a draft of a new Community in his waistcoat pocket.” I see no modern definition of “but” that fits here. Is the usage archaic?

A: Yes, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s use of “but” is archaic in that sentence, but the usage is still occasionally seen in contemporary historical novels.

The sentence is from a letter Emerson wrote to Thomas Carlyle on Oct. 30, 1840. In it, Emerson refers to the plans of American social reformers to set up utopian communities inspired by the ideas of the French social theorist Charles Fourier.

The passage is especially confusing because it has principal and subordinate clauses with elliptical, or missing, subjects. The “but” is being used to replace a missing pronoun (the subject) in the subordinate clause and to make the clause negative.

Here’s the sentence with all the missing or substitute parts in place: “There is not a reading man who has not a draft of a new Community in his waistcoat pocket.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “but” is being used here “with the pronominal subject or object of the subordinate clause unexpressed, so that but acts as a negative relative: that … not, who … not (e.g. Not a man but felt this terror, i.e. there was not a man who did not feel this terror, they all felt this terror). Now archaic and rare.”

The earliest OED example of the usage is from a medieval romance: “There be none othir there that knowe me, but wold be glad to wite me do wele” (“There are none there that know me who would not gladly expect me to act well”). From The Three Kings’ Sons, circa 1500. Frederick James Furnivall, who edited the manuscript in 1895 for the Early English Text Society, suggested that David Aubert, a French calligrapher for the Duke of Burgundy, may have been the author.

The most recent Oxford example for this use of “but” is from a 20th-century historical novel for children:

“There is scarce one among us but knows the fells as a man knows his own kale-garth” (“There is scarce one among us who doesn’t know the hills as a man knows his own cabbage garden”). From The Shield Ring, 1956, by Rosemary Sutcliff.

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English Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

‘Premier’ or ‘premiere’?

Q: Is it the “premier” or “premiere” episode of a TV series? I see it both ways in print. Which would you use?

A: “Premier” can be an adjective meaning first, best, or most important, as well as a noun for the leader of a national or regional government, according to standard dictionaries.

“Premiere,” with an “e” at the end, can be a noun for the first performance of a play, movie, opera, etc., or a verb meaning to give or have a first performance.

Only three of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult accept the use of “premiere” as an adjective meaning first.

Despite what the majority of these dictionaries say, “premiere” is often used adjectivally to describe the first episode of a TV series.

In fact, a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares terms in digitized books, indicates that “premiere episode” has increased in popularity over the last 50 years and is now significantly more common than “premier episode.” The “premiere” version is also overwhelmingly more popular in the News on the Web corpus, a database of articles since 2012 from online newspapers and magazines.

We suspect that the seven standard dictionaries that don’t include the usage will eventually add “premiere” as either an adjective or a noun used attributively—that is, adjectivally—to mean first.

Which would we use, “premier” or “premiere,” to describe the initial episode of a TV series? Neither. We’d use “first episode,” a usage that’s far more popular than either the “premier” or “premiere” versions, according to Ngram Viewer.

The adjective “first” has referred to an initial item since late Anglo-Saxon days.The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 12th-century section of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that describes the consecration of St. Ethelwold in 963 as bishop of Winchester:

“Sancte Dunstan him gehalgod to biscop on þe fyrste Sunnondæg of Aduent” (“Saint Dunstan [the Archbishop of Canterbury] consecrated him bishop on the first Sunday of Advent.”

As for “premier” and “premiere,” why does English have two spellings? Perhaps because 18th-century Francophiles tried to make an already French word (premier) seem even more French by using the feminine form (première).

The first of these words to show up in English was the adjective “premier.” The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says English borrowed it in the 15th century from Anglo Norman and Middle French, where the similarly spelled premier meant “first in a sequence or series.”

The OED defines the English adjective as “first in importance, rank, or position; chief, leading, foremost.” In the dictionary’s earliest citation, the adjective (here spelled “primier”) meant first in importance:

“Maisters Gower, Chauucer & Lydgate, Primier poetes of this nacion” (from The Active Policy of a Prince, a poem by George Ashby, believed written in 1470 or ’71. In the poem, Ashby offers advice to Edward, Prince of Wales).

In the 17th century, writers began using the adjective in the noun phrase “premier minister,” meaning the chief officer of an institution or the chief minister of a ruler. The earliest OED citation is from “The Kings Vows,” a 1670 poem by Andrew Marvell:

“Of my Pimp I will make my Minister Premier.” (In the poem, Charles I cheerfully recites some of his misdeeds. He was beheaded in 1649 on a charge of treason against England.)

When the noun “premier” appeared a few years later, it also referred to the chief officer of an institution or chief minister of a ruler. In the first Oxford example, it had the institutional sense:

“Mr. William Colvin late premier in the college of Edinburgh” (from a 1675 entry in a register of burials in the Greyfriars burying-ground in Edinburgh).

In the early 18th century, the noun came to mean a British prime minister or the chief minister of a self-governing British colony: “The Premier and his brother of All Souls called on me last week on their way to young Bromley’s” (from a June 23, 1726, letter by the Duke of Portland).

And in the 19th century, the term took on its wider modern sense of a prime minister of a national government or chief minister of a regional government: “Jiji Sanjo … is the son of an official who has been somewhat vaguely described as the Premier of Japan” (the Times, London, Oct. 13, 1871).

The adjective “premiere” showed up in the mid-18th century as a borrowing of première, the French feminine adjective for first. The OED says the “reason for the borrowing of the feminine form (alongside earlier premier adj.) is unclear.”

At the time, there was a vogue in London for all things French, and our guess, as we mentioned above, is that “premiere” looked Frenchier and thus tonier than “premier.”

The earliest Oxford citation for the adjective “premiere” is from The Life and Adventures of Sir Bartholomew Sapskull (1768), by William Donaldson: “The venerable dame of antiquity, who was recommended … to superintend my premiere actions, till I should grow into power to assist myself.”

In the mid-19th century, “premiere” took on the sense of “first in importance or position; foremost, leading; outstanding,” according to Oxford. The first example given is from Tom Burke of “Ours” (1844), a novel by Charles James Lever about an Irish exile who fights for France: “Ah, François, these Mamelukes were not of the ‘premiere force,’ after all. I have only been jesting all this time—see here.”

When the noun “premiere” appeared a couple of decades later (originally italicized and with a grave accent), it referred to a ballerina: “The dancer who has passed the chrysalis ballet-girl stage, and is now a full-fledged, butterfly première” (from the August 1867 issue of the Galaxy, a magazine later absorbed by the Atlantic Monthly).

The OED describes “premiere” here as a shortening of première danseuse, French for a leading female dancer, especially in a ballet company. The longer French term first appeared in English publications in the early 19th century, according to OED citations:

“The following performers have already been engaged. … For the Ballet … Madame Anatole, Premiere Danseuse at the Royal Academy of Music” (Times, London, Jan. 5, 1822). All but one of the six later citations italicize the phrase and use the accent in première.

The term “premiere” soon evolved in English to mean a first performance or showing of a play, film, musical composition, and so on: “The première of the Tzigane [a work by Maurice Ravel] was a very brilliant affair. Of course, the usual elegant audience … was in force” (from the Spirit of the Times, an American weekly, Nov. 24, 1877).

When the verb “premiere” showed up in the early 20th century, it meant  to make a first appearance in a play, film, opera, and so on. The earliest OED example refers to a first appearance in baseball: “Rogers Hornsby … premiered against the Philadelphia Nationals” (Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, April 12, 1927).

The verb soon also meant to present something for the first time. In this Oxford example, the setting of an opera has its debut: “His new setting of ‘Don Giovanni’ is to be premiered at the San Carlo of Naples (Musical Times, March 1, 1929).

[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 4, 2020, after a reader of the blog called our attention to the popularity of “premiere episode” in online searches.]

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