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English English language Expression Language Punctuation Style Usage Writing

When walk-ins walk in

Q: I am writing a standard operating procedure for my company (hotels) that describes, among other things, how employees should deal with “walk ins”— guests who “walk in” without a reservation. Are terms like “check in,” “check out,” and “walk in” hyphenated?

A: When compounds like those are used as verbs, they’re generally two separate, unhyphenated words. But as adjectives and nouns, they’re either hyphenated or a single word.

Here’s our advice on how to write those terms, based on preferences given in the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult. (Some dictionaries may follow the preferred spellings with lesser-used variants.)

Verbs (no hyphens):  “We’ll check in Friday and check out Monday, assuming they’ll let us walk in.”

Adjectives (hyphenated or one word): “The check-in clerk says checkout time is at noon, and they accept walk-in customers.”

Nouns (hyphenated or one word): “Our check-in was easy and so was the checkout, even though we were walk-ins.”

The verbs involved here are phrasal verbs, which are usually defined as a verb plus an adverb. The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.) gives “settle down,” “act up,” and “phase out” as examples. “A phrasal verb is not hyphenated,” the manual says, “even though its equivalent noun or adjective might be.”

The book illustrates this variability with the phrasal verbs “flare up” and “burn out.” Their equivalent adjectives and nouns are “flare-up” (hyphenated) and “burnout” (unhyphenated).

But as we wrote in 2009, the conventions of hyphenation change over time, and the tendency is for hyphens to disappear from familiar compounds. In 2019, we described the evolution of the verb “check out” as well as the noun and adjective “checkout.”

Many other compounds follow the “check out”/“checkout” pattern—the phrasal verb is two separate words but the adjective and noun are one. These include “break down,” “hold up,” “crack down,” “hand out,” “build up,” “back up,” “lay off,” “send off,” “send up” (to mock), and usually “close out.”

Many other compounds, for now at any rate, still follow the “check in”/“check-in” pattern—that is, the phrasal verb is two separate words but the adjective and noun are hyphenated. Some examples are “drop in,” “drive in,” “cave in,” “drop off,” “carry on,” “die off,” and usually “clean up.”

If you come across a compound that we haven’t mentioned, how can you tell whether the adjective and noun forms are hyphenated or one word? The easiest way is to check out the compound in an up-to-date dictionary.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Writing

From the horse’s mouth

Q: What is the dialect spoken in that quote from Kipling in your “All het up” post? In addition to “het up,” the speaker uses “cramp,” “her,” “them,” and “piece” in nonstandard ways.

A: In “A Walking Delegate,” an 1894 short story by Rudyard Kipling, horses speak a language that combines several regional American dialects.

The Deacon, one of the talking horses in the story, is quoted in the passage cited: “You look consider’ble het up. Guess you’d better cramp her under them pines, an’ cool off a piece.”

“Het up” here means heated up, “cramp” is to turn a wagon around sharply, “her” stands for “it,” while “them” means “these” or “those,” and “a piece” indicates a while, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

The story has many other regionalisms, including “dreffle” (dreadfully), “harr” (hair), “natchul” (naturally), “ner haow” (no how), “nigh” (near), “sociable” (a party), and “sperrity” (spirited).

In the Kipling allegory, one of the horses, Boney, tries to get the others to rise up against their human oppressors. The Deacon and other older horses keep the younger ones from falling under Boney’s sway.

The title of the story refers to a union official who visits locals to make sure that workplace rules and agreements are followed. Kipling didn’t much like unions, socialism, or democracy.

In Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Work (1955), the Cambridge historian Charles E. Carrington sees “A Walking Delegate” as a dialectal showpiece: “Though told as a horse story, it is more remarkable for the skilful use of several American dialects than for horse-lore.”

Kipling was living in Vermont when he wrote the story. He was married to a Vermonter, Carrie Balestier.

In Something of Myself, a memoir that was unfinished when Kipling died in 1936, he writes, “I tried to give something of the fun and flavour of those days in a story called ‘A Walking Delegate’ where all the characters are from horse-life.”

The story was a forerunner of another political allegory, Animal Farm (1945), by George Orwell. In Animal Farm, a group of farm animals rebel against a human farmer, but end up under the dictatorship of a pig named Napoleon.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Help bake, or help to bake?

Q: “I helped him bake cookies,” or “I helped him to bake cookies”? Which is right?

A: The short answer is that both are right. However, there are some occasions when the verb “help” is more likely to be followed by a “to” infinitive, and some by a “to”-less infinitive, though either construction would be correct.

When “help” itself is a “to” infinitive, for example, the following verb tends to be bare, or “to”-less.

As Jeremy Butterfield explains in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), English speakers have a “natural reluctance to allow the sequence to help + to-infinitive, that is, to repeat to. This reluctance means that the bare infinitive is usually chosen in such cases, but not always.”

For an early example of such avoidance, Butterfield cites this passage from Shakespeare’s Richard III (circa 1593): “The time will come when thou shalt wish for me / To help thee curse that poisonous bunchback’d toad.”

When the verb “help” appears without “to,” however, Shakespeare routinely follows it with a “to” infinitive, as in this example we’ve found from The Tempest (c. 1611): “Come, temperate nymphs, and help to celebrate / A contract of true love; be not too late.”

Style may also play a role, with “help” more likely to be followed by a “to” infinitive in some formal or literary writing. As Butterfield points out, “no doubt formality and literariness also have an influence.”

He gives this literary example, which we’ve expanded, from The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), a novel by Iris Murdoch: “Hattie decided against the new dress which would look out of place on such a dismal wet morning, but she allowed Pearl to help her to stack up her hair.”

And we’ve found this formal example in nonfiction: “English language learners need visual stimulus to help them to process and store the information that comes from words” (What Every Teacher Should Know About Media and Technology, 2003, by Donna Walker Tileston).

Aside from special cases like those, Butterfield says, the use of the bare infinitive after the verb “help” is “preferred in everyday written and spoken English.” We’d say it’s more common, not necessarily preferred, in everyday English. And we’ll repeat here that both usages are standard English.

As for the etymology, the verb “help” meant to aid or assist when it showed up in Anglo-Saxon times. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Pastoral Care (c. 897), King Ælfred’s Old English translation of a sixth-century treatise by Pope Gregory:

“He nyle gifan ðæt him God geaf, and helpan ðæs folces mid ðæm þe he his healp” (“He is not willing to give what God gave him, and help the people with his help from God”).

In the 12th century, writers began using “help” with an infinitive—it was a “to” infinitive at first. The OED includes two examples from around 1175:

“to seke gan, and þa deden helpen to buriene” (“to seek to go, and help to bury the dead”), from the Lambeth Homilies, a collection of Old English sermons.

“forr hemm itt hallp biforenn godd / to clennsenn hemm off sinne” (“for them, it helped to cleanse themselves of sin before God”), from the Ormulum, a book of biblical commentary.

In the 16th century, writers began using “help” with bare infinitives, as in these two Oxford examples:

“To helpe garnishe his mother tongue” (from a 1548 translation, overseen by Nicholas Udall, of Erasmus’s paraphrase, or retelling, of the New Testament in Latin).

“I wyll helpe synners turne to the [thee]” (from Goostly Psalmes and Spiritual Songs, 1535, Miles Coverdale’s translations of German hymns by Martin Luther and others).

If you’d like to read more, we’ve discussed infinitives several times on the blog, including a post in 2013 that explained why “to” isn’t part of the infinitive. It’s generally referred to as an “infinitive marker” or “infinitive particle.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Which virus is more deadly?

Q: Coronavirus is said to kill a larger percentage of those who catch it than the flu, but the flu is said to kill more people overall. Which disease is more deadly? The news media says coronavirus is deadlier. Is that an accepted technical usage?

A: As far as we can tell, the word “deadly” doesn’t have a technical sense that differs from its usual meaning.

We’ve found only one technical reference with an entry for the adjective. The Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary says it means “likely to cause or capable of causing death.”

That’s pretty much the same definition given in any standard dictionary. Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for example, defines the term in its medical sense as “tending to produce death: productive of death.”

So “deadly” can refer to either the overall number of people killed by a disease or the percentage of infected people who die of it. Since the term can be used both ways, we think writers should clearly indicate which sense is being used when comparing the deadliness of two diseases, such as coronavirus and influenza.

Without a vaccine and adequate public-health measures, coronavirus may turn out to be deadlier than the latest influenza strains in both ways. We assume you’ve seen the recent report by the COVID-19 Response Team at Imperial College in London.

Etymologically, “deadly” comes from adding -lic (an Anglo-Saxon version of the suffix “-ly”) to the Old English noun déad. The usage is ultimately derived from the reconstructed prehistoric root dheu- (to die), says The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

When “deadly” showed up in Old English, it meant “causing death, or fatal injury; mortal, fatal,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. The earliest OED citation, which uses deadlicne (the accusative, or objective, form of the adjective), is from a ninth-century translation of a Latin history:

“Forbræcon Romane heora aþas … and þær deadlicne sige geforan” (“The Romans broke those pleasant oaths … and carried out their deadly victory”). From an anonymous translation, circa 893, of Historiarum Adversum Paganos (History Against the Pagans), a fifth-century work by Paulus Orosius.

In the late 14th century, the sense of the adjective widened to include something “having the property or capacity of causing death or fatal injury,” according to the OED.

The first citation is from a Middle English sermon by John Wycliffe, written around 1380: “Dedli drynke, ȝif þei taken it … anoieþ hem not” (“Deadly drink, if they have taken it … knoweth them not”).

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When ‘drastically’ is too drastic

Q: I see “drastically” used in this way more and more: “We call on NYPD to drastically increase police visibility in Orthodox communities” (from a Dec. 27, 2019, tweet by the NYC Jewish Caucus). Doesn’t “drastic” have negative connotations? Wouldn’t “dramatically” or “significantly” be more accurate?

A: We agree that “drastically” is jarring in that tweet, which followed a series of anti-Semitic incidents. The adverb “drastically,” like the adjective “drastic,” is generally used in connection with measures that are extreme, severe, or harsh.

The adverb is commonly seen in reference to sharp cuts or steep reductions, rather than to buildups or increases (especially if they’re beneficial ones).

It’s also used in reference to extreme change, as in “drastically different” or “drastically altered.” Generally, though, the implication is that the change is a negative one, not a cause for celebration.

We do occasionally see news items online with phrases like “drastically improve,” “drastically higher,” “drastically raise,” even “drastically benefit.”

But examples like those are rare in major news outlets, where the English is edited—unless they’re in quotations. We agree with you that “significantly” or “dramatically” would be appropriate to describe an increase or buildup.

Most standard dictionaries don’t have separate entries for “drastically,” merely noting that it’s the adverbial form of “drastic.” One exception, Merriam-Webster, says the adverb means “in a drastic manner” and is synonymous with “severely” and “seriously.”

We’ll focus here on “drastic,” a word that in modern English, Merriam-Webster says, means “acting rapidly or violently,” or “extreme in effect or action,” synonymous with “severe.” (Some other dictionaries add “harsh” or “with harshness.”)

Originally, however, “drastic” had a much more specific meaning as a medical term. It was used for medicines that induced a sudden and violent “unloading of the bowels” (to use a phrase common to 18th- and 19th-century physicians).

In bygone days it was used by doctors both as an adjective (“drastic remedy,” “drastic purgative”), and as a noun for the medicine (“a drastic”).

The adjective came into English in the mid-17th century from a Greek word meaning active, δραστικός (drastikós). This is its original definition, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary: “Of medicines: Acting with force or violence, vigorous; esp. acting strongly upon the intestines.”

The OED’s earliest example, which we’ll expand for context, is from a description of a case of blindness supposedly cured by 10 to 12 hours of violent purging:

“Within three or four days after this single taking of the Drastick Medicine had done working, he began to recover some degree of Sight, and within a Fortnight … would discern Objects farther and clearer then most other Men.” The “drastick medicine” given was mercury, and not only the patient’s bowels were emptied but also his stomach, bladder, tear ducts, pores, and salivary glands. He’d been warned beforehand of the “torment of the Cure.”

(From Some Considerations Touching the Vsefulnesse of Experimental Naturall Philosophy, a treatise by the chemist Robert Boyle. Natural philosophy, the study of nature, was a precursor of modern science. The OED doesn’t give a precise date, but the earliest copy we’ve found was printed in 1663.)

The adjective “drastic” caught on and flourished in medical writing, and in the 18th century doctors also began using the word as a noun. A “drastic,” according to the OED, meant “a drastic medicine” or “a severe purgative.”

The earliest known use of the noun, Oxford says, is from the 1783 volume of an annual compendium, Medical Communications: “Large quantities of the pills … acting as a drastic.”

Searches of old newspaper databases show that both forms of “drastic”—noun and adjective—were common medical terms until the late 1800s, familiar not only to doctors but to laymen as well. This is to be expected, since some doctors considered purging a panacea and prescribed it for almost everything, particularly in the first decades of the 19th century.

Much of the credit for this—or rather the blame—is due to an Edinburgh physician, James Hamilton, author of Observations on the Utility and Administration of Purgative Medicines (1805). The book went into many editions in Britain and the US, and was translated into Italian, German, and French.

Hamilton’s methods were widely adopted, and his adherents believed that a violent emptying of the bowels could cure typhus, rabies, mental illnesses, fevers, skin diseases, menstrual irregularities, heart palpitations, sore throat, and bad breath, among other things.

We mention this long-discredited medical practice only to illustrate how commonplace “drastic” was in its original senses.

The noun “drastic” is uncommon today, and few standard dictionaries still include it. One exception is Merriam-Webster, which defines it as “a powerful medicinal agent; especially: a strong purgative.” You’ll also find it in the collaborative Wiktionary (“a powerful, fast-acting purgative medicine”).

But the adjective “drastic” is another story. By the early 19th century, the OED says, it had taken on a “transferred” meaning derived from the medical sense: “vigorously effective; violent.”

The dictionary’s earliest citations are from British writers who were political philosophers and economists:

“In consideration of their too extensive and too drastic efficacy” (Jeremy Bentham, Scotch Reform, 1808).

“Occasions … in which so drastic a measure would be fit to be taken into serious consideration” (John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 1848).

Around this same time the new adverb “drastically” emerged. Oxford’s definition: “in a drastic manner; with drastic remedies or applications; with effective severity.”

The earliest example we’ve found has no medical connection. It’s from a tongue-in-cheek comment on jurisprudence in foreign lands:

“In the East, where there are despots equal to our judges … they punish first offences, drastically it is true, but in a manner which still recommends itself to our secret prejudices” (The London Magazine, Nov. 1, 1827).

But at times in the 19th century, “drastically” was still associated with medical purges. Discussing cholera in a letter dated October 1849, a Manchester physician wrote of bile secretions that are “rendered drastically purgative instead of gently aperient” (Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal, November 1849).

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Tidbit or titbit?

Q: Why do Americans use “tidbit” for a word that we in the UK properly spell “titbit”?

A: Americans may spell it “tidbit” because that’s how the term was pronounced when it first appeared in English in the 17th century as “tyd bit.”

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the term may have originated as a combination of the adjective “tid” (playful, frolicsome, lively, etc.) and the noun “bit” (biting or a bite), though it says “the form tidbit is now chiefly North American.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the “titbit” spelling in the UK “probably” resulted from the “alteration of the first element after the second”—that is, the British turned “tid” into “tit” to make it rhyme with “bit.”

However, Oxford notes what it apparently considers a less likely explanation—that “titbit” was “perhaps” influenced by “tit” and “tittle” (terms for various small things).

No matter how the first part was spelled, the terms originally meant “a small piece of tasty food; a delicacy, a morsel,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest OED citation is from a collection of proverbs and phrases spoken in Gloucestershire, a county in southwestern England:

“A tyd bit, i.e. a speciall morsell reserved to eat at last.” From A Description of the Hundred of Berkeley in the County of Gloucester and of Its Inhabitants, 1639, by the antiquarian John Smyth. (The “Hundred of Berkeley” refers to a section of the county.)

The work was later edited by John Maclean and published in 1885 as The Berkeley Manuscripts. Maclean writes in his preface that Smyth finished the work on Dec. 21, 1639.

The OED says the term showed up as “tit bit” two years later: “A Man-servant … should goe into a Victualers service, because he hopeth for tit bits either of gift, or by stealth, and relicks more ordinary of his Masters Dishes.” From A Right Intention (1641), John Dawson’s translation of a Latin treatise by Jeremias Drexel.

The term, Oxford says, soon came to be used figuratively to describe “a person or thing likened to a delicacy or morsel,” as in this 1650 citation from a London weekly overseen by John Milton: “The Kirk longs much, and is like to miscarry for a Tid Bit of yong Tarquin” (Mercurius Politicus, No. 3, June 20-27).

In this figurative sense, the term was spelled “tidbit” as well as “titbit” by British writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, as in these expanded OED examples:

“Author. Now for a taste of Recitativo. My farce is an Oglio of tid-bits,” from Eurydice, A Farce, by Henry Fielding. (The play was withdrawn after two performances in 1737 because of hissing. It was published for the first time in Miscellanies, 1743, as Eurydice, A Farce: As it was d-mned at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.)

“And except on first nights or some other such occasion, or during the singing of the well-known tit-bits of any opera, there was an amount of chattering in the house which would have made the hair of a fanatico per la musica stand on end” (What I Remember, an 1887 memoir by Thomas Adolphus Trollope, the oldest brother of Anthony Trollope).

In the early 19th century, the term took on its modern sense of “a small and particularly interesting item of news, gossip, or information,” according to OED citations: “Another tit bit of domestic scandal” (Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, December 1809).

The use of the “titbit” spelling in the UK, especially in the news and gossip sense, may have been reinforced by the name of a mass-circulation British newspaper that specialized in easy-to-read human-interest stories.

As the OED explains, “Tit-Bits (later Titbits) was the name of a British weekly newspaper devoted to such items and is regarded as one of the progenitors of popular journalism. First published on 22 Oct. 1881, it ceased publication in 1984.”

Tit-Bits was the first general-interest publication to buy a humor piece by P. G. Wodehouse, one of our favorite writers. You can read the Nov. 24, 1900, piece, “Men Who Have Missed Their Own Weddings,” on Madame Eulalie, a website devoted to Wodehouse’s early works.

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Sticking in a knife with a smile

Q: I have recently heard two instances of someone prefacing a criticism by saying, “I am telling you this lovingly.” It sounds to me like sticking in a knife with a smile. It’s similar to prefacing a remark with “clearly,” an indication that things may not be all that clear. Any thoughts about this?

A: We haven’t yet noticed “lovingly” used to criticise with a smile. But like you, we’re bugged by deceptive preludes to faultfinding.

As you know, these introductory remarks are often followed by the word “but” and the critical statement. Some of the more common ones: “I don’t want to criticize, but …,” “I hate to be the one to tell you, but …,” “Don’t take this the wrong way, but …,” and “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but ….”

These “contrary-to-fact phrases” have been called “false fronts,” “wishwashers,” “but heads,” and “lying qualifiers,” according to the lexicographer Erin McKean, as we noted in a 2012 post.

McKean says the object of these opening remarks is “to preemptively deny a charge that has yet to be made, with a kind of ‘best offense is a good defense’ strategy” (Boston Globe, Nov. 14, 2010).

“This technique,” she notes, “has a distinguished relative in classical rhetoric: the device of procatalepsis, in which the speaker brings up and immediately refutes the anticipated objections of his or her hearer.”

Once you start looking for these deceptive introductions, McKean says, “you see them everywhere, and you see how much they reveal about the speaker. When someone says ‘It’s not about the money, but …,’ it’s almost always about the money. If you hear ‘It really doesn’t matter to me, but …,’ odds are it does matter, and quite a bit.”

“ ‘No offense, but …’ and ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but …’ are both warning flags, guaranteed to precede statements that are offensive, insulting, or both,” she adds. “ ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but …’ invariably signals the advent of breathtaking, blatant, write-in-to-Miss-Manners-style rudeness. (And when someone starts out by saying ‘Promise me you won’t get mad, but …’ you might as well go ahead and start getting mad.)”

McKean doesn’t mention the use of “clearly” at the beginning of a sentence, but she discusses a few similar sentence adverbs: “Someone who begins a sentence with ‘Confidentially’ is nearly always betraying a confidence; someone who starts out ‘Frankly,’ or ‘Honestly,’ ‘To be (completely) honest with you,’ or ‘Let me give it to you straight’ brings to mind Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quip: ‘The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.’ ”

We should also mention a 2013 post of ours about “Just sayin’,” an expression that follows a critical comment: “ ‘You might look for a new hair stylist. Just sayin’.”

Why do people use deceptive phrases in criticizing others? McKean suggests that “our real need for these phrases may be rooted in something closer to self-delusion. We’d all like to believe we aren’t being spiteful, nosy or less than forthcoming. To proclaim our innocence in this way is to assert that we are, indeed, innocent.”

However, we think that many of us—including the two of us—use these sneaky expressions simply because we don’t feel comfortable criticizing others, even when criticism may be warranted. Unfortunately, a sneaky criticism often stings more than one that’s plainspoken.

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Is the parrot willful or willing?

Q: I suppose you’re going to inform me that, as has happened with so many other words, the meaning of “willfully” now has a positive connotation. The Daily Kos recently cited a study showing that the African gray parrot “willfully helps other parrots out of what appears to be empathy.”

A: No, “willfully” hasn’t changed. The writer no doubt meant “willingly,” not “willfully.” The headline on that Jan. 14, 2020, article, “African gray parrots voluntarily show kindness to others,” is a clue.

In an article on the kindness, even altruism apparently shown by parrots, the appropriate adverb would have been “willingly,” a positive term meaning voluntarily or gladly, not “willfully,” a negative one meaning deliberately, obstinately, even maliciously.

Here’s a fuller excerpt from the article: “It’s been known for a few years that some other higher primates (especially orangutans) will voluntarily help others, especially if they think they’ll get something in return, and that doesn’t seem too surprising. But a nicely conceived test of the very intelligent African gray parrot shows that it willfully helps other parrots out of what appears to be empathy when presented with the opportunity.”

Most of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult include the two terms, without definitions, as adverbial forms of the adjectives “willful” and “willing.” In other words, “willfully” means in a willful manner and “willingly” in a willing manner.

Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online) is one of the few standard dictionaries to define the two adverbs. It uses “wilfully,” the British spelling, for the word Americans usually spell as “willfully.” Here are Lexico’s definitions and examples:

willingly: Readily; of one’s own free will. she went willingly.”

wilfully (US willfully): 1. With the intention of causing harm; deliberately. she denies four charges of wilfully neglecting a patient. 2. With a stubborn and determined intention to do as one wants, regardless of the consequences. he had wilfully ignored the evidence.”

The adverbs were derived from their corresponding adjectives. The first, “willing,” was recorded in compounds in the late 800s; the second, originally spelled “wilful,” is believed to have existed by about 1000, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, though there are no surviving examples in Old English writing.

As for the meaning of the adjectives, Merriam-Webster says in usage notes that “willing implies a readiness and eagerness to accede to or anticipate the wishes of another,” while “willful implies an obstinate determination to have one’s own way.”

Getting back to the adverbs, the older of the two, “willingly,” first appeared in writing in the 900s, spelled willendlice, according to the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

(The -líce suffix in Old English, precursor to the “-ly” ending we know today, was used to form adverbs out of adjectives. The modern spelling, “willingly,” evolved in the mid-1500s.)

The earliest Oxford citation for “willingly” is from a 10th-century Latin-Old English dictionary in which the Latin diligenter (diligently, conscientiously) is translated as willendlice.

A later Latin-English dictionary, this one from the 16th century, defines the Latin libenter (eagerly, cheerfully) as “wyllyngely, gladly.”

The OED, which defines “willingly” as “with a ready will, consentingly, without reluctance,” says the adverb can convey “various shades of meaning from ‘with acquiescence, submissively’ to ‘with pleasure, cheerfully, gladly’ or ‘wishfully, eagerly.’ ”

Most uses in modern English conform to the Oxford definition, as exemplified by this citation from a 19th-century novel:

“Often have I observed one … of the sisters willingly go without her dinner … in order that her portion might be reserved for Mr. Stallabras” (The Chaplain of the Fleet, 1881, by Walter Besant and James Rice).

And that’s still the chief use of the word today, though at times in the past it has had less altruistic meanings, even crossing into the negative senses of “willfully.” Those uses are now obsolete, the OED says.

The adverb often appears in the phrase “would willingly,” Oxford adds, which means “should like to,” while “would not willingly” means “would rather not.”

As for “willfully,” the dictionary says the word was first recorded around the year 1000, spelled wilfullíce in late Old English. It originally had senses similar to  “willingly”—voluntarily, of one’s own will—but those uses are obsolete, the dictionary says.

Today “willfully” has only two meanings, both negative. These are the OED definitions for those senses, which began to appear in the late 1300s and late 1500s, respectively:

(1) “Purposely, on purpose, by design, intentionally, deliberately. Chiefly, now always, in bad sense” and “occasionally implying ‘maliciously.’ ” (2) “In a self-willed manner, perversely, obstinately, stubbornly.” The two meanings are often hard to tell apart.

Here’s the earliest Oxford example for the purposely or deliberately sense, which we’ve expanded to add more context:

“Yf þat he wole take of it no cure, Whan þan it cometh, but wylfully it weyuen, Lo neyþer cas nor fortune hym deseyuen, But right his verray slouþe and wrecchednesse” (“If he will not take advantage of it when it comes, but willfully dismiss it, then neither chance nor fortune deceive him, but only his own sloth and wretchedness”). From Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, circa 1374.

And in the dictionary’s first example for the self-willed or obstinate sense, a hard-hearted mother is willfully intent on marrying her daughter to a rich creep:

“The mother … beyng determinately (least I shoulde say of a great Lady, wilfully) bent to marrie her to Demagoras.” From The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, Sir Philip Sidney, 1590.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Usage Writing

Now I am become Death

Q: I recently read a reference to J. Robert Oppenheimer’s comment about the first test of an atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I assume that “I am become” is an old usage. How would it be expressed in modern English?

A: That quotation illustrates an archaic English verb construction that’s now found chiefly in literary, poetic, or religious writings. This is the use of forms of “be” in place of “have” as an auxiliary verb in compound tenses: “The prince is [or was] arrived” instead of “The prince has [or had] arrived.”

The passage you ask about, “I am become Death,” is a present-perfect construction equivalent to “I have become Death.” (We’ll have more to say later about Oppenheimer and his quotation from the Bhagavad Gita.)

As we wrote on the blog in 2015, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has a well-known example of this usage: “We are met on a great battle-field.” Another familiar use is from the Bible: “He is risen” (King James Version, Matthew 28:6). And Mark Twain uses “I am grown old” in his Autobiography (in a passage first published serially in 1907). All of those are in the present-perfect tense.

Though usages like this were rare in Old English, they became quite frequent during the early Modern English period—roughly from the late 1400s to the mid-1600s, according to The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed., 1992), by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo.

The verbs affected were mostly intransitive (that is, without objects) and involved movement and change. The Oxford English Dictionary mentions “verbs of motion such as come, go, rise, set, fall, arrive, depart, grow, etc.”

The dictionary’s citations from the mid-1400s include “So may þat boy be fledde” (“That boy may well be fled”) and “In euell tyme ben oure enmyes entred” (“Our enemies are entered in evil times”).

In Modern English (mid-17th century onward), this auxiliary “be” faded from ordinary English and was largely replaced by “have.” So by Lincoln’s time, the auxiliary “be” was considered poetic or literary. You can see why if you look again at the examples above.

Lincoln used “we are met” to lend his speech a gravity and stateliness that wouldn’t be conveyed by the usual present-perfect (“we have met”). “He is risen” is nobler and more elevated than the usual present perfect (“He has risen”). And Twain’s poetic “I am grown old” is weightier and more solemn than the prosaic version (“I have grown old”).

Apart from matters of tone, the auxiliary “be,” especially in the present perfect, conveys a slightly different meaning than the auxiliary “have.” It emphasizes a state or condition that’s true in the present, not merely an act completed in the past.

As Oxford says, this use of “be” expresses “a condition or state attained at the time of speaking, rather than the action of reaching it, e.g. ‘the sun is set,’ ‘our guests are gone,’ ‘Babylon is fallen,’ ‘the children are all grown up.’ ”

Even today verbs are sometimes conjugated with “be” when they represent states or conditions. A modern speaker might easily say, “The kids were [vs. had] grown long before we retired,” or “By noon the workmen were [vs. had] gone,” or “Is [vs. has] she very much changed?”

In older English, those participles (“grown,” “gone,” “changed”) would have been recognized as verbs (“grow,” “go,” “change”) conjugated in the present perfect with the auxiliary “be.” Many such examples are interpreted as such in the OED. However, in current English they can also be analyzed as participial adjectives modifying a subject, with “be” as the principal verb.

In its entry for the verb “grow,” for example, Oxford has this explanation: “In early use always conjugated with be, and still so conjugated when a state or result is implied.” And in the case of “gone,” the dictionary says that its adjectival use “developed out of the perfect construction with be as auxiliary, reinterpreted as main verb with participial adjective.”

We can never write enough about the word “be.” As David Crystal says, “If we take its eight elements together—be, am, are, is, was, were, being, been—it turns out to be the most frequent item in English, after the” (The Story of Be, 2017).

And a word that’s in constant, heavy use for 1,500 years undergoes a lot of transformations. It’s entitled to be complicated, and no doubt further complications are still to come. To use an expression first recorded in the 1600s, miracles are not ceased.

As for Oppenheimer’s comment, various versions have appeared since he witnessed the atomic test at Alamogordo, NM, on July 16, 1945. You can hear his words in The Decision to Drop the Bomb, a 1965 NBC documentary:

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita: Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

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