English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Word origin Writing

How nasty is ‘mean-spirited’?

Q: I’ve always thought “mean-spirited” meant petty or selfish. Increasingly, I’ve seen it used to mean nasty. Is this an American usage?

A: The phrase “mean-spirited” is defined variously as malicious, small-minded, selfish, inconsiderate, and so on in standard American and British dictionaries.

We don’t see a significant difference in the way the dictionaries treat the phrase, though the adjective “mean” by itself tends to be nastier in the US references.

The 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult (five American and five British) define “mean” variously as selfish, petty, small-minded, unkind, unpleasant, spiteful, cruel, malicious, violent, offensive, nasty, troublesome, etc. US dictionaries are more likely to use the harsher definitions, though some UK dictionaries include them too.

An essay on Merriam-Webster’s website (“How ‘Mean’ Became Nasty”) notes that the nasty sense of “mean” has “become so widespread in American English” that it is “without question the most frequently used today.”

We suspect that the nastiness of “mean” in the US is influencing the way Americans use “mean-spirited.” However, the “nasty” sense of the phrase hasn’t yet made its way into definitions of “mean-spirited” in US dictionaries.

Interestingly, the selfish, nasty, and violent senses of “mean” all showed up around the same time in the 19th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. And all three appeared first in American English.

Etymologically, there are three distinct words spelled “mean” in English: (1) a verb with the sense of intend or signify; (2) an adjective or noun for a mathematical average as well as average people or things; (3) the adjective you’re asking about, the one with all those senses mentioned earlier.

We’ll limit ourselves here to “mean” #3. We’ll get to current usage in a while, but let’s look first at how the adjective arrived at its modern senses.

When the adjective “mean” first appeared in early Old English writing (spelled gemæne), it meant minor, lesser, or inferior, and was used to describe a minor rank in the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the statutes of a religious guild, or prayer group, in medieval Exeter:

“And se mæssepreost a singe twa mæssan … & ælc gemænes hades broður twegen salteras sealma” (“and let the mass priest sing two masses … and every brother of mean condition two psalters of psalms”). From Diplomatarium Anglicum Ævi Saxonici, a collection of charters dated from as far back as the 6th-century reign of King Æthelbert of Kent, edited by Benjamin Thorpe (1865).

An aphetic form of the adjective (that is, minus the first syllable) showed up later in Old English as mæne, and referred to things held in common or jointly. The first OED citation is from an Anglo-Saxon land charter:

“Swa forð andlangas þæs broces forð þæt hit cymð to hryxies mæne weig” (“so forth along that it comes to the island of rushes held in mean way”). From Charters of Burton Abbey, published by Peter Hayes Sawyer (1979).

In Middle English, the senses of inferior and common broadened, perhaps influenced by the disparaging use of average in “mean” #2 above, according to the OED. As a result, “mean” came to describe people of inferior social status, ability, or education, as well as things considered inferior, second-rate, or contemptible. Here are some Oxford examples:

“Þe grete … in þe gaiest wise, & menere men as þei miȝt” (“the great … in their most ornate fashion, and the mean [common] men as they might be”). From William of Palerne (circa 1350), an English translation of a French romance.

“Þe comyn lettre of Mathew is ful skars, for mene men myȝte vnderstonde” (“the Gospel of Matthew is one that mean [unlearned] men might scarcely understand”). From John Trevisa’s translation, dated sometime before 1387, of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, a Latin work of history and theology.

“ ‘Suffre hem lyue,’ he seyde, ‘and lete hem ete with hogges, / Or elles benes and bren ybaken togideres, / Or elles melke and mene ale’ ” (“ ‘Suffer them to live,’ he said, ‘and let them eat with hogs, / Or else beans and bran baked together, / Or else milk and mean [second-rate] beer’ ”). From Piers Plowman (circa 1378), by William Langland.

(In the last citation, which we’ve expanded, Piers is referring to shirkers who would rather sing and drink ale than plow. Beans and bran were fed to pigs, and poor people sometimes added beans to grain when not enough grain was available for baking bread.)

In the 17th century, according to the OED, the adjective turned even more negative and came to describe someone “lacking moral dignity, ignoble; small-minded.” The dictionary’s first citation, which we’ll expand here, warns that those in high positions are in danger of acting immorally and of despising the immorality of less important people:

“as a throne exposes those that sit on it to peculiar temptations to vice, so …. the sublimity of such a condition would make any soul, that is not very mean, despise many mean things, that too often prevail upon inferiour persons.” From Occasional Reflections Upon Several Subjects (1665), by the Anglo-Irish natural philosopher Robert Boyle.

As we’ve said above, the selfish, nasty, and vicious senses of “mean” all first appeared around the same time in 19th-century American English, according to OED citations.

The dictionary’s first example for the stingy or miserly sense is from the July 1840 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger. A letter from Salonica, Turkey (now Thessaloniki, Greece), says no one can live in the city without a Jewish agent: “And you may depend it is a trial to Christian patience: for ‘as mean as the Jews of Salonica’ is an Eastern proverb.”

The earliest OED example for the nasty sense appeared a year later: “One [girl] thought me real mean for uttering such super-diabolical sentiments.” From Short Patent Sermons (1841), by Dow, Jr., pseudonym of Elbridge G. Paige. The book is a collection of Paige’s columns for the Sunday Mercury in New York.

The first Oxford citation for the vicious sense refers to an uncontrollable horse: “He’s a monstrous mean horse, gentlemen.” From Georgia Scenes, Characters, Incidents, &c., in the First Half Century of the Republic (1835), by Augustus Baldwin Longstreet.

And here’s the dictionary’s earliest example in which “mean” is used for vicious people: “He [a cowboy] gets all-fired mean sometimes when he’s full.” From Saddle and Mocassin (1887), by Francis Francis Jr.

Getting back to the phrase “mean-spirited,” the OED’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded here, uses it to mean half-hearted—in this case, not fully committed to living a Christian life:

“Away then with that mean spirited Religion which thus lessens and confines our Happiness; let us unfold our Hands, and pluck them out of our Bosoms, and encourage our selves in a vigorous Pursuit of an excellent Piety.” From Practical Discourses Upon the Parables of Our Saviour (1694), by Francis Bragge, a vicar in Hertfordshire in southern England.

The next OED citation, which we’ve also expanded, uses “mean-spirited” in the sense of impudent or ill-mannered: “I mentioned to him one day that I was of the opinion he very seldom spoke the truth. What do you think he did? he kissed my hand! Impertinent, meanspirited wretch!” From a letter written on Jan. 3, 1825, by Jane Baillie Welsh to Thomas Carlyle. (They were married in 1826.)

The dictionary doesn’t have any examples for “mean-spirited” used in the sense you’re asking about (ungenerous, petty or selfish), but we’ve found many in searches of digitized books, including this one from the early 18th century:

“That these of Publick Employments should be of publick Spirits, it is a shame to be mean Spirited, and taken up with self interest.” From a sermon delivered Nov. 24, 1700, by John Hamilton, an Edinburgh clergyman.

The use of “mean-spirited” for nasty appears to have shown up in the late 20th century. The earliest example we’ve found refers to the news media:

“The watchdog role of the free press can often appear as mean-spirited. How do the government and public protect themselves from its excesses?” From “The Role of the Media in a Democracy,” an article by George A. Krimsky, a former AP editor, published in Issues of Democracy, a journal of the United States Information Agency, February 1997.

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Burgle or burglarize?

Q: What is the difference between “to burgle” and “to burglarize”? How do you account (if you can) for this unnecessary back—or rather forward—formation? Ignorance of the original? Or is a subtle difference implied between the unidentical twins?

A: Both “burgle” and “burglarize” are respectable, widely used verbs, and they’re recognized as such in all 10 of the standard American and British dictionaries we consult.

However, most people tend to look askance at one verb or the other. Though both are standard English in the US as well as the UK, preferences differ. Americans prefer “burglarize,” according to some dictionaries, while the British consider “burgle” the verb of choice and see “burglarize” as a North American term.

As Jeremy Butterfield writes in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), American English “seems to have mostly preferred burglarize.” But the slightly later “burgle,” he says, “is now the regular word in Britain (and in other English-speaking areas except in N. America).”

Both verbs are 19th-century derivations from “burglar.” The first to appear, “burglarize” (1840), was created with the verb-forming suffix “-ize.” The other, “burgle” (1861), was a back-formation (or shortening) of the original noun.

As means of creating verbs from other parts of speech, both the “-ize” suffix and the back-form are many centuries old. Nevertheless, critics of “burgle” complain that it’s clipped from “burglarize”—which isn’t even true—while opponents of “burglarize” complain about the suffix.

Both have completely clean rap sheets and don’t deserve the abuse, as their histories show. Though they were comparatively late to appear, they have roots in the 1500s when their forebears “burglary” and “burglar” first showed up in writing.

Those felonious nouns—one for the act itself and one for the person committing it—can be traced to medieval Anglo-Latin, where a burgator in British law was someone who committed burgaria. In the 1200s, those were the terms for “burglar” and “burglary” in legal language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

Before that, the words’ etymology is murky. “No corresponding words are known in continental Old French or medieval Latin,” the OED says.

But the dictionary suggests that “burglary” and “burglar”—along with the corresponding terms in Anglo-Latin and Anglo-French legal language—may have developed from “the first element of burgh-breche, the native English term for burglary.” (The Middle English burgh-breche came from the Old English burh-bryce, for breaking into an enclosure.)

The first English version to appear was “burglary” (1523), followed by “burglar” (1541).

The earliest use of “burglary,” according to our searches of historical databases, is in a legal dictionary written during the reign of Henry VIII, The Exposicions of Termys of Law of England and the Nature of the Writts (London, 1523), by John Rastell. Here is Rastell’s definition of the word:

“Burglary is when one breketh and enterith into a nother mannis howse in the nyght to the entet to stele goodis i which case though he bere away nothyng yet it is felony and for that he shalbe hangid / but the brekyng of an house in the day for suche entent is no felony.”

Rastell uses the word in the plural, spelled “burglaryes,” in a compilation of public acts entitled The Statutes Prohemium (2nd ed., 1527). He mentions “burglaryes of howsys and theyr receyuers,” and refers to robbing the dead as “burglaryes of men perishid or slayn.” It’s possible that the word appears in the first edition of this book, published in 1519, but we haven’t been able to find a copy to search.

As for “burglar,” it first appeared in another legal book (spelled “burglour”), according to the OED. This is the dictionary’s earliest example: “Burglours are properly such as felonously in ye tyme of peace breke any house, church, etc.” From The New Booke of Justyces of Peace (1541), by the judge and legal scholar Anthony Fitzherbert.

[Historical note: It’s interesting that Fitzherbert, writing in French a few decades earlier, had used the word burglers in La Graunde Abridgement, his 1514 compilation of British legal cases. (The OED has the citation: “Burglers sont ceux que entrent mesons ou eglises al entent de inbloier beins.”)

This was a time when a dialect known as “law French” was the official written language of the British legal system. It seems likely that Fitzherbert put into law French a word, “burglers,” that was already in use in English. As we’ve said, it’s been suggested that the Anglo-Latin and Anglo-French terms used in English law developed from burgh-breche, which the OED describes as “the native English term for burglary.” So it’s possible that “burglar” existed before “burglary,” at least in spoken English.]

The word was spelled “burgler” in several English works published later in the 16th and early 17th centuries. The modern spelling “burglar” first appeared in writing, as far as we can tell, in a 1579 edition of the Rastell legal dictionary we mentioned above.

Here’s the passage, found on the database Old English Books Online: “but if a seruant will conspire with other men to robbe his master, and to that intent hee openeth his masters dores, or windowes in the night for them, and they come into the house by that way, this is burglary in the straungers, and the seruant is a thefe but noe burglar.”

Finally we come to those 19th-century verbs, “burglarize” and “burgle.” The OED’s earliest examples are from the early 1870s, but older ones turn up in searches of historical databases.

The earliest use of “burglarize” that we’ve found is from a humorous article in an 1840 issue of the Sporting Review, a British monthly. In the scene, competing horsemen in a point-to-point race are held up at the locked gate of a churchyard:

“In this dilemma there were but two resources open to the infuriated stewards,—one to carry the key vi et armis; the other, to burglarize the cellar.” From “Steeple-Chasing in Ireland: A Sketch,” by an Irish author writing under the name Shamrock. (The Latin vi et armis means by trespass.)

The next sighting is from an American newspaper: “Ten of those do-nothing-honestly fellows that snooze and drink whisky during the day, and rob hen-roosts and burglarize during the night, were arrested by the police yesterday near the R street levee, and will be arraigned this morning as vagrants.” From the Sacramento Daily Union, June 29, 1854.

As for “burgle,” the earliest example we’ve found is American: “He is the same man who was telling about his cabin having been burgled, some years ago, of 75 ounces of gold.” From the Daily National Democrat (Marysville, Calif.), Jan. 15, 1861.

In the summer of 1867, the British weekly Public Opinion, as well as several Australian newspapers, ran a brief paragraph crediting an American paper for inventing “burgle.” Here’s the item in its entirety, probably supplied by an American or British news service:

“The New York World has coined a new verb—‘to burgle.’ It is derived from the noun ‘burglar’ or ‘burglary.’ We cannot regard it as a happy invention; but no doubt, as the English race on both sides of the Atlantic are fond of neologisms, it will be adopted by many.”

We’re not convinced that the New York World was the first to use the term, since it began publishing on July 17, 1860, and a California newspaper used “burgle” only a few months later. (We’ve been unable to search the World’s archives for its first use of the verb.) But it does seem likely that “burgle” originated in crime reporting.

You may have noticed that “burglarize” appeared first in Britain, and “burgle” first in America. Only later did “burglarize” come to be the American preference and “burgle” the British.

As we’ve said, they’re respectable verbs. What’s more, they’re useful. Consider some of the outrageous verbal phrases people used in earlier times: “burglarily breake” (1530s); “burghlarlie rob” (1581); “burglariously enter” (1603); “burglarly steal” (1664); “burglariously break” (1638); and even “burglariously steal, take, and carry away” (1788).

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Whomspun history

Q: I often see the use of “whomever” as an object in a subordinate clause like “whomever he chooses.” I can see the logic of this, but it feels awkward to me. Is it because I grew up surrounded by grammatical laxity that “whomever” seems like a neologism born of pedantry? Was it already established as correct English before my time?

A: If “whomever” seems awkward to you, its stuffier sidekick “whomsoever” must strike you as even more awkward. The roots of both pronouns, as well as of “whom” itself, go back to Anglo-Saxon times, though it looks as if all three may be on the way out.

In Old English, the language was much more inflected than it is now—that is, words changed their forms more often to show their functions. You can see this in some of the forms, or declensions, of hwa, the ancestor of “who,” “whom,” and “what.”

When used for a masculine or feminine noun, as we use “who” and “whom” today, the Old English forms were hwa (subject), hwam or hwæm (indirect object), and hwone or hwæne (direct object). When used for a neuter noun, as we use “what” today, the forms were hwæt (subject), hwam or hwæm (indirect object), and hwæt (direct object).

As for “whoever” and “whomever,” the two terms ultimately come from swa hwa swa, the Old English version of “whoso,” and swa hwam swaswa, the early Middle English rendering of “whomso.”

An Old English speaker would use swa hwa swa (literally “so who so”) much as we would use “whoever” and “whosoever.” And his Middle English-speaking descendants would use swa hwam swaswa (“so whom soso”) as we would use “whomever” and “whomsoever.”

Here’s an early “whoso” example that we’ve found in King Alfred’s Old English translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiae, a sixth-century Latin work by the Roman philosopher Boethius: “swa hwa swa wille dioplice spirigan mid inneweardan mode æfter ryhte” (“whoso would deeply search with inner mind after truth”).

And here’s a “whomso” citation in the Oxford English Dictionary from a 12th-century document in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: “Þæt hi mosten cesen of clerchades man swa hwam swaswa hi wolden to ercebiscop” (“that they could choose from the secular clerks whomso they wished as archbishop”).

“Whosoever” (hwase eauer) and “whoever” (hwa efre) also first appeared writing in the  12th century, while “whomever” (wom euer) showed up in the 14th century and “whomsoever” (whom-so-euyr) followed in the 15th.

The first OED citation for “whoever,” which we’ve expanded, is from an Old English sermon in the Lambeth Homilies (circa 1175):

“Hwa efre þenne ilokie wel þene sunne dei. oðer þa oðer halie daʒes þe mon beot in chirche to lokien swa þe sunne dei. beo heo dalneominde of heofene riches blisse” (“Whoever looks well on Sunday and on the other holy days that man must also be in church, then he shall participate in the heavenly kingdom’s bliss”).

The dictionary’s earliest example for “whomever” is from Arthour and Merlin (circa 1330): “Wom euer þat he hitt, Þe heued to þe chinne he slitt” (“Whomever he hit, he beheaded, to the chin he slit”). Arthurian legends can get gory at times.

So as you can see, “whomever” was indeed established in English before your time—quite a few centuries before.

As for the use of these terms today, you can find “whoso” and “whomso” in contemporary dictionaries, but they’re usually labeled “archaic,” while “whosoever” and “whomsoever” are generally described as formal versions of “whoever” and “whomever.”

“Who,” of course, is still one of the most common pronouns in English, but “whom” and company are falling out of favor, and many usage writers now accept the use of “who” and “whoever” for “whom,” “whomever,” and “whomsoever” in speech and informal writing.

As Jeremy Butterfield puts it in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “In practice, whom is in terminal decline and is increasingly replaced by who (or that), especially in conversational English, in which in most cases it would be inappropriately formal.”

Butterfield’s recommendation: “Despite exceptions, the best general rule is as follows: who will work perfectly well in conversation (except the most elevated kind) and in informal writing.” The main exception he notes is that “who” should not be used for “whom” right after a preposition.

Traditionally, as you know, “who” (like the Old English hwa) is a subject, and “whom” (like hwam) is an object. As Pat explains in Woe Is I, her grammar and usage book, “who does something (it’s a subject, like he), and whom has something done to it (it’s an object, like him).”

Pat recommends the traditional usage in formal writing, but she has a section in the new fourth edition of Woe Is I on how to be whom-less in conversation and informal writing:

A Cure for the Whom-Sick

Now for the good news. In almost all cases, you can use who instead of whom in conversation or in informal writing—personal letters, casual memos, emails, and texts.

Sure, it’s not a hundred percent correct, and I don’t recommend using it on formal occasions, but who is certainly less stuffy, especially at the beginning of a sentence or a clause: Who’s the letter from? Did I tell you who I saw at the movies? Who are you waiting to see? No matter who you invite, someone will be left out.

A note of caution: Who can sound grating if used for whom right after a preposition. You can get around this by putting who in front. From whom? becomes Who from? So when a colleague tells you he’s going on a Caribbean cruise and you ask, “Who with?” he’s more likely to question your discretion than your grammar.

[Note: The reader who sent us this question responded, “Your example involving a Caribbean cruise seems fraught with danger in these pan(dem)icky times. If a colleague were to tell me that, my first instinct would be to ask, ‘Who would dare?’ ”]

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A stare’s nest by Yeats’s window

Q: I’m curious about the use of “stare” in the W. B. Yeats poem “The Stare’s Nest by My Window.” I couldn’t find a meaning on Google that made sense, and my eyes gave out while staring at the tiny print of my compact OED.

A: The word “stare” in Yeats’s poem is an old term for a starling.

In the poem, Yeats calls on the honey bees building a hive in the crumbling masonry of Thoor Ballylee, the ancient tower he owned in County Galway, to build instead in an empty starling’s nest by his window.

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

The noun “stare” here is pronounced the same as the verb “stare.” In the poem, it’s rhymed with “there.”

In Old English, the bird was usually called a staer or a stærlinc, the predecessors of “stare” and “starling,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first to appear, “stare,” had two senses: (1) used by itself, it meant simply a starling; (2) accompanied by a descriptive term, it meant a specific species of starling or a bird resembling a starling.

The earliest Oxford citation for the first sense is from an eighth-century Latin-Old English glossary: “Sturnus, staer” (sturnus is Latin for “starling”). From The Corpus Glossary, MS 144, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

The first OED example for the second sense is from an eleventh-century manuscript at the Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp and the British Museum in London:

Turdella, se mare stær” (turdella is apparently a misspelling of turdela, a thrush in medieval Latin, while mare appears to be a misspelling of mere, Old English for pond, lake, or sea).

The dictionary’s earliest example for “starling” is from another Latin-Old English glossary: “Sturnus, stærlinc.” From Harley 107, an eleventh-century illuminated manuscript in the British Library.

Although the use of “stare” by itself for “starling” is considered archaic now, the usage does show up at times in poetry and literary prose, as you’ve noticed. The Yeats poem, part of the lyrical sequence “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” was written during the 1922-23 Irish Civil War that followed the Irish War of Independence.

As to the use of “stare” with a descriptive term for a specific starling, it also shows up once in a while, though now for only one bird. Saroglossa spiloptera, the spot-winged starling of southern Asia, is sometimes referred to as the “spotted-winged stare” or “spot-winged stare.”

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Independence ‘of’ or ‘from’?

Q: In an essay on teaching, Bertrand Russell says it’s hard for teachers to maintain their “independence of” the people who pay them. Shouldn’t that be “independence from” those people?

A: In that essay, “The Functions of a Teacher,” Russell uses the phrase “independence of” in a way that was common in the past but is less so today.

He argues that teachers need freedom to follow their intellectual impulses “but in the realm of the mind it is becoming more and more difficult to preserve independence of the great organised forces that control the livelihoods of men and women.”

(The essay appeared originally in the June 1940 issue of Harper’s magazine, and was reprinted in Unpopular Essays, 1950.)

In the past, the noun “independence” was used in such constructions with the prepositions “on,” “upon,” “of,” and “from.” Of those prepositions, “from” had apparently been the least common.

At least that’s what we assume from this comment in the Oxford English Dictionary’s “independence” entry, which hasn’t been fully updated since 1900: “Const. on, upon, of, rarely from.” Here are a few OED examples:

“The dignified clergy … pretended to a total independence on the State” (David Hume, The History of England, From the Invasion of Julius Cæsar to the Accession of Henry VII, 1761-62).

“A pretence of independence upon secular power” (Oliver Goldsmith, The History of England, From the Earliest Times to the Death of George II, 1771).

“Our habitual independence of conventional rules” (Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance, 1852).

We wouldn’t say Bertrand Russell’s use of “independence of” is wrong or even unusual, but it’s less common these days and modern readers might find it jarring or perhaps confusing.

Today, “independence from” would be the usual construction, as in this Merriam-Webster example: “She asserted her independence from her parents by getting her own apartment.”

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‘Buck naked’ or ‘butt naked’?

Q: Thanks for your recent post about “butt” and “buttock.” How about “butt naked” and “buck naked”? Everyone I’ve asked claims “buck naked” is correct, but that makes no sense to me.

A: The older term is “buck naked,” first recorded just before World War I. The variant “butt naked” appeared half a century later.

Both versions are widely used, and neither should be considered incorrect. In fact, “butt naked” may be the more popular term today, as we’ll show later. No doubt many people feel, like you, that it makes more sense than “buck naked.”

Most standard dictionaries label the two adjectives “informal,” though a few regard the “butt” version as “slang.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, labels them “colloquial,” meaning they’re more likely to be found in common speech than in formal English.

The dictionary gives them nearly identical definitions: “buck naked” is “completely without clothing; stark naked,” and “butt naked” is “completely naked, stark naked.” It says the two terms originated and are chiefly used in North America.

Over the years, etymologists and lexicographers have puzzled over the meaning of “buck” here. The OED suggests two possibilities:

It may be derived from the “buck” that means a male animal, like a deer or goat, a usage that dates back to Old English. Or it “may allude to the resemblance of the smooth and pale skin of the buttocks to buckskin.”

In a similar way, the dictionary points out, the word “buff” has been used since the 17th century as a colloquial term for a person’s bare skin (“in the buff” still means naked). The term “buff” originally referred to leather of a light brownish yellow called “buff-skin” or “buff leather.”

But the use of “buck” could have more sinister origins. It may perhaps allude to “the common practice of stripping slaves naked for inspection by potential buyers,” Oxford says.

In the 19th century, the dictionary notes, the noun “buck” was also a racial slur used for a male Native American, African-American, or Australian Aborigine.

However it developed, “buck naked” was first recorded in early 20th-century American newspapers. Keep in mind, though, that colloquial expressions are used in conversation long before they make it into print. This is the OED’s oldest published example:

“A negro Adam, buck naked and believing himself to be in the Garden of Eden, was tried. … After hearing the evidence, the case was turned over to an insanity commission.” (The Daily Times Enterprise, Thomasville, GA, Dec. 6, 1913.)

And we found this example in an anecdote, rendered in black dialect, explaining the meaning of the word “tact”:

“ ’Tother day I’m visitin’ in a house an’ I goes to the bath room an’ opens de door—taint locked—and dere in de tub sits a woman, buck naked. Right away quick I slams dat door and yells: ‘ ’Scuse me, SUH!’ Dat’s tact!” (The Coconino Sun, Flagstaff, AZ, Dec. 19, 1919.)

The newer “butt naked” appeared several decades later. The OED’s earliest example is presented as only a possible sighting:

“Leaping out to confront her bare-butt naked might lead to misunderstandings” (from Aaron Marc Stein’s 1959 novel Never Need an Enemy).

The dictionary’s first definite example is from the late 1960s: “You read a National Geographic and there is some far off native girl standing butt-naked for the cameraman” (Melvin Van Peebles’s 1968 novel A Bear for the FBI).

The Dictionary of American Regional English says that from 1966 to 1970 its field researchers recorded uses of “butt naked” in Arkansas and New York and “butt nekkid” in Michigan. However DARE doesn’t include the dated quotations.

The older term, “buck naked,” was more popular until recently. However, “butt naked” seems to be the more popular term today.

A recent search of the NOW Corpus, a database of 4.3 billion words in web-based newspapers and magazines from 2010 to the present, shows these results: “butt naked,” 314 examples; “buck naked,” 187.

A less up-to-date comparison of the two terms with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks usage in digitized books, has “buck naked” still ahead as of 2010, but shows “butt naked” closing the gap.

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

Working hard or hardly working?

Q: I’m curious about the use of “hard” and “hardly” in that old play on words, “Are you working hard or hardly working?” Do the two usages have the same derivation or are they from different sources?

A: In Old and Middle English, “hardly” was an adverb meaning energetically, forcefully, strenuously, or fiercely. And “hard,” which was an adverb as well as an adjective, had similar adverbial meanings.

But today in Modern English, as you know, “hardly” usually means scarcely, probably not, certainly not, or with great difficulty, while “hard” (a bare or flat adverb with no “-ly” ending) still has those Old and Middle English adverbial senses.

The meaning of “hardly” began changing in the 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, though some of its old senses still show up once in a while.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t explain why the meaning of “hardly” changed so dramatically. Our guess is that the “-ly” adverb evolved from emphasizing the energy needed to cope with a difficult situation to emphasizing the difficulty of the situation itself.

In Old English, the adverbs “hardly” and “hard” were heardlice and hearde (-lice and -e were adverbial endings). Both can be traced to hardu-, a root reconstructed from prehistoric Germanic, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. The ultimate source was apparently the Proto-Indo-European root kar- or ker- (hard).

The earliest OED citation for “hardly” is from an Old English translation of a Latin passage in which the fifth-century historian Paulus Orosius tells Romans that they were as hard as whetstone when Carthage was crushed, but had become as soft as malmstone (a flinty sandstone) under Christianity. In this excerpt, heardlice (that is, “hardly”) is used the way we now use the adverb “hard”:

“Hit biþ … geornlic þæt mon heardlice gnide þone hnescestan mealmstan æfter þæm þæt he þence þone soelestan hwetstan on to geræceanne” (“It is necessary that a man rub hardly if he intends to turn the softest malmstone into the best whetstone”). From an anonymous translation, circa 893, of Historiarum Adversum Paganos (History Against the Pagans), by Orosius.

The earliest OED example for the adverb “hard” is from Crist III, an anonymous Old English poem about the Last Judgment: “Nis ænig wundor hu him woruldmonna seo unclæne gecynd … hearde ondrede” (“It is not any wonder how hard he dreaded the unclean nature of man on earth”).

In the 16th century, English writers began using “hardly” to mean “to an insignificant degree; scarcely, barely; not quite; almost not at all,” according to the dictionary, which describes this as “now the usual sense.”

The first OED example is from Glasse of Truthe, an anonymous 1532 work supporting Henry VIII’s desire to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Scholars believe the king either wrote it or directed its writing. Here’s the relevant passage:

“Hit is hardelye possible for any man to endite [put into words] or conuey any worke of suche sorte, that no man shall fynde a faute therin specially captious folke & maligners.”

Thus the two adverbs went their separate ways. The OED says the Old English and Middle English senses of “hardly” (energetically, forcefully, strenuously, or fiercely) are now archaic, obsolete, or rare.

We’ll end with a rare sighting from Original Sin, a 1994 novel by P. D. James: “He was ashamed of the Ilford House and ashamed of himself for despising what had been so hardly won.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

How inclusive is ‘including’?

Q: I read this on “Four presidents have received the Nobel Peace Prize including Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.” Shouldn’t “include” refer to only some of the items on a list, not all of them?

A: When the verb “include” is used to mean “contain,” it usually refers to part of a whole, not all of it. And when the preposition “including” is used in that sense, it too usually refers to only part of something.

However, both the verb and the preposition are sometimes used for all the parts—a usage that’s been around for hundreds of years and may be closer to the Latin source of the words.

Most standard dictionaries say “include” (or “including”) refers to only part of a whole, but some say either word can refer to all the parts. Usage guides are similarly divided. As for us, we use “include” and “including” for part of something, not all of it.

Getting back to your question, that passage you quote (a subtitle in a Feb. 13, 2015, Smithsonian article commemorating Presidents’ Day) is unusual, but it’s not necessarily wrong.

Interestingly, the subtitle changed when the article was rewritten for a Feb. 19, 2020, post on Tween Tribune, a Smithsonian website for kids: “Four presidents have received the Nobel Peace Prize. They include Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama have also won.”

The rewrite conforms with the usual practice, but it’s clunkier. If we were writing the subtitle, we’d do it this way: “Four presidents have received the Nobel Peace Prize: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama.”

As for the etymology, English borrowed the verb “include” in the early 15th century from Anglo-Norman, but its ultimate source is the classical Latin verb includere (to enclose, confine, surround, and so on).

When the verb first appeared in late Middle English, it had the Latin sense (to surround). The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, describes a battle in which the Greeks surround Hector during the Trojan War:

“Cruelly þei gan hym to include … He myȝt nat eskape with þe lyf” (“Cruelly they began to surround him … he might not escape with his life”). From Troy Book (1412-20), an epic poem about the rise and fall of Troy by the English poet and monk John Lydgate.

In the mid-15th century, the verb took on the sense you’re asking about, referring to part of a whole and sometimes all of it. Here’s the OED definition: “To contain as part of a group, category, etc.; to have as any of a number of sections, members, constituent elements, etc. Sometimes also: to consist of (all of the parts making up the whole); to comprise.”

Oxford’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, refers to part of a whole: “If you list, take the moralité! / Profitable to every comunalté, / Whiche includithe in many sundry wise, / No man shuld, of high or low degré, / For no prerogatif his neyghburghe to dispise.” From “The Horse, the Goose, and the Sheep,” a short poem by Lydgate, believed written around 1440.

The dictionary has some ambiguous examples from the 16th and 17th centuries in which “include” may possibly imply all the parts of a whole. The first definite citation for that sense, which we’ve expanded, is from an 18th-century book about substances used as medical remedies:

“The Class of the Metals, according to these Characteristicks, includes only six Bodies, which are, 1. Gold. 2. Silver. 3. Copper. 4. Tin. 5. Iron. And 6. Lead.” From A History of the Materia Medica, 1751, by John Hill, an English physician and writer.

The preposition “including” showed up in the 17th century. Although the OED says it refers to “part of the whole group or category being considered,” the dictionary’s examples use the term for both part and all of a whole.

The earliest citation refers to part of a group: “Four servants died, including the cook.” From a letter written Dec. 4, 1638, and published in The English Factories in India (1914), by William Foster.

However, the next Oxford example refers to all members of a group: “Sixteen hundred Children, including Males and Females, put out to Methods of Industry” (the Spectator, Feb. 6, 1712).

Seven of the ten online standard dictionaries we regularly consult say “include” (or “including”) refers to part of a whole.

American Heritage, for example, defines “include” as “to contain or take in as a part, element, or member.” And Merriam-Webster Unabridged defines it as “to place, list, or rate as a part or component of a whole or of a larger group, class, or aggregate: included a sum for tips in his estimate of expenses.”

However,, based on the old Random House Unabridged, defines “include” more broadly, and has an example that lists all the parts of something: “to contain, as a whole does parts or any part or element: The package includes the computer, program, disks, and a manual.”

And Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, also defines “include” broadly, giving examples of its use for all as well as part of a whole:

“Comprise or contain as part of a whole: the price includes dinner, bed, and breakfast; other changes included the abolition of the death penalty.” In a usage note, Lexico explains why “include” can mean either all or part of something:

Include has a broader meaning than comprise. In the sentence the accommodation comprises 2 bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen, and living room, the word comprise implies that there is no accommodation other than that listed. Include can be used in this way too, but it is also used in a non-restrictive way, implying that there may be other things not specifically mentioned that are part of the same category, as in the price includes a special welcome pack.”

Even some standard dictionaries with the narrower definition of “include” have examples that suggest a broader usage. Macmillan, for example, defines “include” as “to contain someone or something as a part,” but has this example suggesting everything: “The price includes dinner, bed, and breakfast.”

And several dictionaries use “comprise”—which (as Lexico notes) implies all items listed—in defining “include.” Webster’s New World, for instance, defines “include” as  “to have as part of a whole; contain; comprise.”

Some usage guides insist that “include” should refer to only part of a whole, and recommend using such terms as “comprise” or “consist of” when referring to all the parts of something.

For example, the entry for “include” in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) says, “The word has traditionally introduced a nonexhaustive list but is now coming to be widely misused for consists of.”

However, some other usage guides disagree. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, for instance, cites two examples in which “include” is used with a complete list of items, and says, “There is nothing wrong with either of those examples.”

Merriam-Webster’s says critics of the usage “have somehow reasoned themselves into the notion that with include all of the components must not be mentioned, which has never been the case.”

M-W quotes Henry W. Fowler, perhaps the most influential usage commentator of the 20th century, as saying in the 1926 first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, “With include, there is no presumption (though it is often the fact) that all or even most of the components are mentioned.”

Jeremy Butterfield, editor of the fourth edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, cites the same passage. In practice, he says, “include” is generally used for part of a whole, but Fowler “did not maintain this absolute distinction: his wording allowed for the possibility that include covers all parts of the whole.”

Yes, a case can be made for using “include” for all parts of a whole, but we choose not to use it that way. Since “include” usually refers to part of something, it might be confusing to use it otherwise.

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

Running low on champagne

Q: Stress can weaken the immune system, while humor can strengthen it. So when friends call to ask how we’re coping with the coronavirus, I reply, “We’re running low on champagne, but otherwise we’re OK.” Now, why do I say “running low on” something that’s running out?

A: The verb phrase “to run low on” combines a usage from the late 16th century (“to run low,” meaning “to become scarce”) with one from the early 20th (“low on,” meaning “short of”).

The story begins in the 12th century when English adopted the adjective “low” (the opposite of “high”) from various Scandinavian languages. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary, with “low” spelled lah in early Middle English, is from a homily about Jesus at Cana in Galilee:

“Þær wass an bennkinnge lah” (“there was a low row of benches”). From the Ormulum, a collection of homilies written by an Augustinian monk who identifies himself as Orm in one place and Ormin in another.

In the 16th century, according to OED citations, writers began using the adjective to describe “a supply of something: almost exhausted; running out. Frequently in to run low.”

At first, the adjective referred to liquids, as in this example of wine running out: “For wyne wherof they spende Gooth lowe, and draweth fast vnto an ende.” From “The Fyftene Ioyes [Joys] of Maryage” (1509), an English translation of a work by the French writer Antoine de La Sale.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the verb phrase “to run low” also describes a diminishing supply of wine: “When that the wine, hath ronne full lowe, / Thou shalt be glad, to drinke the lyes [lees].” From A Pleasaunte Laborinth Called Churchyardes Chance (1580), a collection of verse by Thomas Churchyard.

And here’s a 17th-century monetary example: “It will bee a reasonable vsefull pawne at all times, when the current of his money falles out to run low.” From The Guls Horn-Booke (1609), a portrait of young men of fashion in London by the Elizabethan pamphleteer Thomas Dekker.

At the beginning of the 20th century,  the phrase “low on” appeared, meaning “short of, deficient in,” according to Oxford citations. Here’s the dictionary’s first example: “I’m low on coin … but I know where I can get plenty more to-morrow.” Confessions of a Criminal: True Stories of Dick Lane Told by Himself (1904).

The earliest example we’ve seen for the longer expression “to run low on” appeared a couple of years later: “If one knows that he is running low on water there is little danger to be apprehended.” Standard Mechanical Examinations on Locomotive Firing and Running (1906), edited by W. G. Wallace.

The OED’s only citation for the full expression appears within its entry for the phrase “to run low”: “Human beings began as nomads, upping sticks whenever they ran low on food or water.” The New Statesman (April 7, 2003).

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