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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

Let’s confer

Q: I saw a bio on a haiku website that says the subject “was conferred with a certificate for being one of the top 100 haiku poets in Europe.” Why does that use of “confer” sound wrong to me?

A: It sounds off-kilter because “confer” in the sense of to give or to present is a transitive verb (that is, it needs a direct object), and the proper object here is the thing given. You confer a certificate on someone or a certificate is conferred on someone.

The  verb “confer” has two very different meanings: (1) to give or present, which is the sense we’re talking about, and (2) to speak together, as in having a conference. The first is transitive and requires a direct object; the second is intransitive and never has an object.

This sentence illustrates both uses: “The trustees, after conferring on Monday, voted to confer three honorary degrees next May.”

Both senses of “confer” came into English in the 16th century and are derived from the same Latin verb, conferre, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The Latin verb, combining con– (together) and ferre (to bear or bring), also has two meanings: (1) to give or bestow, and (2) to bring together, join, gather, consult together, and so on.

When “confer” first came into English in the early 1500s, it had some meanings that have since disappeared—to collect, to comprise, to compare, and others. Today, the verb has only those two meanings mentioned above—to give, and to speak together.

The “confer” that you’re asking about is defined in the OED as “to give, grant, bestow, as a grace, or as the act of a qualified superior.” And there’s always an object—the gift or honor that’s being given.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1570 act of Parliament in England: “No Title to conferr or present by Lapse, shall accrue upon any Depryvation ipso facto” (Act 13 of the Acts of Parliament during the reign of Elizabeth I).

These are among the dictionary’s later examples, and we’ll underline the objects of the verb: “Sacraments containe and conferre grace” (before 1600); “honour thus conferr’d” (1633); “favour you are then conferring” (1716-17); “conferring degrees in all faculties” (1725); “title … which the king is pleased to confer” (1765-69); “benefits conferred” (1858); “degrees were then conferred” (1891).

And in these examples, an honor is conferred “on” or “upon” a recipient, and again we’ll underline the object: “Power conferred on them” (1651); “the favour he had conferred upon him” (1841); “the great benefits we confer on them” (1861).

Oxford notes the similar use of “bestow” in the sense of “to confer as a gift, present, give,” a usage that also dates from the 16th century. In this sense “bestow,” like “confer,” is transitive, and the object of the verb is the thing bestowed.

This is among the dictionary’s later examples: “He bestowed on him a pension of a hundred crowns a year.” From A Short History of the English People (1874), by John Richard Green.

The other “confer”—the one that does not take an object—is defined in the OED as “to converse, talk together.” In modern use, the dictionary says, the verb always implies “on an important subject, or on some stated question: to hold conference, take counsel, consult.”

The OED’s citations date from the mid-16th century and include this cozy domestic example from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (early 1590s): “They sit conferring by the Parler fire.” So in early use, to “confer” could mean simply to chat or gossip.

This 18th-century example illustrates the modern use of the verb: “A certain number … should meet, in order to confer upon the points in dispute.” From The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V (1769), by William Robertson.

That example raises a point we’d like to make. When you’re wondering whether a verb is transitive or intransitive—that is, whether it does or does not require an object—don’t be misled by prepositional phrases. In that example, “confer” is followed by a prepositional phrase, “upon the points in dispute.” But “points in dispute” is not the object of “confer.”

In fact, “confer” in that sentence has no object, and the prepositional phrase there could just as well be omitted—grammatically, it’s unnecessary.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Slang Usage Word origin Writing

What’s a mook?

Q: There’s a poolroom scene in the film Mean Streets that revolves around someone being called a “mook.” I can’t find the word in my dictionary. Where does it come from? Did Martin Scorsese invent it?

A: In that scene from Mean Streets, one character calls another a “mook” and nobody in the pool hall knows what it means. Jimmy, the target of the insult, is baffled: “A mook. I’m a mook,” he says. Pause. “What’s a mook?” Movie fans have wondered too.

But contrary to legend, Scorsese didn’t make it up. “Mook,” a term that’s more or less synonymous with “jerk” or “dope,” is at least 90 years old and may come from a 19th-century word for a donkey. Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say:

“The term was undoubtedly popularized both in the United States and elsewhere by its use in the film Mean Streets (1973), directed and co-written by Martin Scorsese. The fact that, in the context of the script, the word is unfamiliar to most of the protagonists has led viewers to believe (wrongly) that the word was coined there.”

The OED has examples of “mook” dating from 1930 and defines it this way: “An incompetent or stupid person; a contemptible person (esp. with reference to low social status).” Oxford labels it a “colloquial and derogatory” term found in American and Caribbean English.

The word is also found, with similar definitions, in leading slang dictionaries. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says a “mook” is “an ineffectual, foolish, or contemptible person.” And Green’s Dictionary of Slang describes it as “a general term of abuse, a foolish person.”

All three dictionaries cite a humor piece by S. J. Perelman for the earliest known example: “Even ordinary mooks like you and me have been stuffing their blotters and backs of envelopes in safe deposits for posterity.” From the Feb. 1, 1930, issue of Judge, a satirical weekly published in New York.

The OED’s later examples include one from the Yale Alumni Magazine: “This type of student, rigorously following a daily assignment schedule and graphing his grades on the wall, is a never common but somewhat frequent phenomenon. The ‘grind,’ ‘mook,’ or ‘weenie’ superficially seems to satisfy the demands of Yale, but in many ways he is not alive to the spirit of the place” (Jan. 21, 1958).

Oxford also cites Richard Allsopp’s Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage (1996), which spells the word as “mook” or “mouk” and defines it as “a gullible person (esp. a man); one who is easily fooled.” Allsopp says the word is found in Guyana, Tobago, and Trinidad.

As for its etymology, the OED says that “mook” is “of uncertain origin” but “perhaps” comes from “moke,” a 19th-century colloquialism that first meant a donkey and soon came to mean a dolt or a fool. (Random House also calls “mook” a probable alteration of “moke.”)

The donkey sense of “moke” first appeared in British slang. Oxford’s earliest example (spelled “moak”) is from a report on crime and policing that was presented to the House of Lords in 1839. The report, entitled Poverty, Mendicity and Crime, includes a glossary with this definition: “Moak, a donkey.” (The report was written by William Augustus Miles, who served on a royal commission that investigated the need for a rural constabulary in England.)

All of the OED’s subsequent donkey examples use the more common spelling “moke,” beginning with this one:

“They might live like gods, have infinite smokes, / Drink infinite rum, drive infinite mokes.” Slang words are italicized in the poem, written in June 1848 by the sculptor John Lucas Tupper. It was published anonymously in the literary journal Art and Poetry, London, March 1850.

Soon “moke” began appearing “in extended use,” as the OED says, to mean “a person who is stupid, awkward, or incompetent; a dolt, a fool.”

This new sense of “moke” was first recorded in writing, the dictionary says, by the artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti: “He has an irreconcilable grudge against a poor moke of a fellow called Archer Gurney.” From a letter Rossetti wrote on Nov. 25, 1855. (The “he” referred to is Tennyson.)

It’s interesting that those last two “moke” citations—one for a donkey and one for a fool—have a connection. Tupper and Rossetti were friends and members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, a group of young artists, poets, and writers who admired Italian art of the 1400s (the “Quattrocento”) and denounced Raphael and his followers.

It was the Pre-Raphaelites who founded the short-lived journal mentioned above, Art and Poetry, whose contributions were unsigned and often satirical. It’s easy to imagine the banter that must have gone on at editorial meetings. Perhaps the Pre-Raphaelites were responsible for the doltish development of “moke” and indirectly for its apparent successor, “mook.”

From the drawing rooms of 1850s London to the mean streets of New York’s Little Italy. Why not?

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

Black sheep

Q: You say the phrase “black sheep” has been used to mean a bad character since the 17th century. That might be true, but it’s only the result of an even earlier meaning. “Black sheep” is actually a very old weaving term. Black sheep were considered unlucky because you couldn’t dye the wool any other colors.

A: We haven’t found any evidence of “black sheep” used as a weaving term, either before or after the phrase came to mean a disreputable member of a group.

In fact, today the undyed wool of so-called “black sheep” (they actually come in various shades of black, brown, and gray) is prized for its beauty and its natural qualities.

However, in earlier times the difficulty of dyeing their wool may have contributed to the “disreputable” usage, along with a biblical reference to black sheep and a negative sense of “black” that dates from Anglo-Saxon days.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of “black sheep” meaning a bad character is from a 17th-century religious treatise about the conversion process in Congregational churches of New England:

“Cast out all the Prophane people among us, as drunkards, swearers, whores, lyers, which the Scripture brands for blacke sheepe, and condemnes them in a 100. places.” From The Sincere Convert (1640), by Thomas Shepard, an English-born minister of the First Church in Cambridge, MA, and of Harvard College.

We’ve seen several earlier examples of “black sheep” used negatively, though not quite so strongly. An anonymous satirical ballad believed written in the 16th century, for example, uses the term to attack mendicant friars.

Here’s the refrain: “The blacke shepe is a perylous beast; / Cuius contrarium falsum est.” (The Latin means “Which nobody can deny.”)

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the negative use of “black sheep” may originally have alluded to passages in English or German translations of Genesis in the 16th century.

It describes the usage as “perhaps originally with allusion to Genesis 30:32, where Jacob selects ‘all blacke shepe amonge the lambes’ ” (from Miles Coverdale’s 1535 English translation of the Bible), or perhaps after the German “alles, was schwartz ist vnter den lemmern” (from Martin Luther’s earliest draft of the passage in 1523), or “alle schwartze schafe [vnter den lemmern]” in Luther’s final 1545 German Bible. We added the bracketed German.

The passage from Genesis refers to Jacob’s offer to care for Laban’s flock of sheep if he can keep all the black and spotted lambs as payment. Laban accepts, apparently believing black sheep to be less valuable than white. The passage is translated differently in other versions of the Bible. The King James Version, for example, has it as “all the brown cattle among the sheep.” (“Cattle” was once a collective term for cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and other domestic animals.)

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (2d ed., 2013), by Christine Ammer, suggests that the use of “black sheep” for a disreputable person “is based on the idea that black sheep were less valuable than white ones because it was more difficult to dye their wool different colors.”

Writers have commented since classical times on the difficulty of dyeing the wool of black sheep (a more accurate description might be dark sheep).

The earliest remark we’ve seen on the subject is from Historiae Naturalis, an encyclopedic work by the first-century Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder: “lana ovis nigrae, cui nullus alius color incursaverit” (“black sheep whose wool will be dyed no other color”).

Pliny’s work was well known among English scholars. A 17th-century dictionary of English and Latin terms, for example, translates the passage above as “the wool of a black sheep mixed with no other colour” (A Copious Dictionary in Three Parts, 1678, by Francis Gouldman).

Among the various theories about how “black sheep” became a negative term, the pejorative use of the word “black” in English may have played a significant role.

As we’ve said, “black” has had negative connotations since Anglo-Saxon days, a usage that the OED describes as “widespread in other European languages, frequently in an antonymic relationship with senses of words meanings ‘white.’ ”

The dictionary says this usage “became particularly strong in the medieval Christian tradition” and would “proliferate in the early modern period … probably connected in part with negative cultural attitudes towards black people prevalent in the context of the Atlantic slave trade.”

As we say in a 2009 post (“The light and dark of language”), the word “black” may have come from Old Teutonic roots that originally meant scorched or charred or burned. A prehistoric Indo-European root has been reconstructed as bhleg (“burn”).

In Old English, the adjective “black” could mean “very evil or wicked; iniquitous; foul, hateful,” according to the dictionary. The earliest Oxford citation is from a scientific and theological treatise written by a Benedictine cleric in the late 10th century:

“Hig ne þicgeað þæs lambes flæsc þe soð Crist ys, ac þæs dracan þe wæs geseald þam blacan folce to mete, þæt ys þam synfullum” (“they [the faithless] don’t partake of the flesh of the lamb, the truth of Christ, but the Devil was given to provide for those black people that are sinners”). From the Enchiridion (Manual) of Byrhtferð, a monk and priest at  Ramsey Abbey in Huntingdonshire.

Finally, here’s a Middle English example, which we’ve expanded, that uses “black flocks” (“blake flokkes”) much as “black sheep” was later used:

“Whanne þe Romayns were a goo, þanne breke out blake flokkes of Scottes and of Pictes, as wormes brekep out of here holes aʒeinst þe hete of þe  sonne” (“When the Romans were gone, then the black flocks of Scotts and Picts broke out, as snakes break out of their holes anticipating the heat of the sun”). From Polychronicon, John Trevisa’s translation, written sometime before 1387, of a 14th-century Latin chronicle by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden.

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On the ‘ob-’ in ‘oblong’

Q: I studied Latin in school decades ago, but I don’t remember the prefix “ob-.” It came up in connection with the word “oblong.” In searching online, “ob-” has a lot of meanings, as is usual with Latin prefixes. Can you clarify how it’s used in referring to an oblong shape?

A: The word “oblong” comes from oblongus, classical Latin for elongated. It combines the prefix ob-, which has a couple of possible meanings here, and the adjective longus, or long. An ancient Roman would have used oblongus to describe something that’s greater in length than in width.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the ob- in oblongus is being used “perhaps in the sense of to or toward but also functioning as an intensive.” However, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “The exact force of the prefix in oblongus is unclear: there is no analogous word in Latin.”

As the OED explains, oblongus is an oddball in Latin, where ob- usually combines with verbs and their derivatives. It says the prefix “was rarely combined with an adjective (the chief example being oblongus).”

The prefix is also easy to miss, since its form can change to match the first letter of a combining word. It’s oc- before verbs and derivatives with c as the first letter, of- before f, and op- before p.

The prefix has many meanings in Latin, all of them seen in English. Here are a few: to or toward (as in oboedire, to listen to or obey); against (opponere, to oppose or be against); upon or down (obligare, to bind down); and as an intensifier (obdurare, to harden or persist).

When “oblong” appeared in English in the early 15th century, the OED says, it meant “elongated (usually as a deviation from an exact square or circular form); esp. rectangular with the adjacent sides unequal.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from an anonymous Middle English translation of Grande Chirurgie, a 14th-century medical treatise by the French surgeon Guy de Chauliac:

“Somtyme forsoþ it ocupieþ not bot o partie, and þan þingez semeþ of diuerse fourmez, lunarez, i. mone lich, fenestrate & oblonge” (“Sometimes forsooth it [a cataract] occupies not but a part, and then we see things in diverse forms—crescent-shaped, moonlike, fenestrated [with a window-like opening], & oblong”).

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English English language Etymology Expression Language News Usage Word origin Writing

What’s news?

Q: The word “news” looks plural but acts singular. Why is it singular? Was it ever plural?

A: Despite the “s” at the end, “news” is singular in modern English. That’s why we say “The news is good,” not “The news are good.”

Standard dictionaries all treat “news” as a mass (or uncountable) noun that’s used with a singular verb.

Merriam-Webster, for instance, labels the word “plural in form but singular in construction.” Cambridge calls it “an uncountable noun” that “takes a singular verb.” And according to Macmillan, “it is never used in the plural.”

The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.) says “news” and other mass nouns “look plural but are invariably singular.” Examples include “the news is good” and “good news is always welcome.”

But “news” wasn’t always regarded as invariably singular. We’re fans of the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, and we’ve noticed that he uses “news” sometimes as a plural and sometimes as a singular:

“The news was soon all about London” (The Eustace Diamonds, 1871); “when the news were first told to Lady Ushant” (The American Senator, 1875).

In fact, when “news” first appeared in the early 1400s, it was exclusively plural. And though the singular use became established only a century later, the plural use persisted in respectable English until well into the 19th century. Here’s the story.

Since early Old English, “new” has been used as both an adjective (meaning recent) and as a noun for a new person or thing (a usage that survives in expressions like “the shock of the new” and “off with the old, on with the new”).

This ancient word was inherited from other Germanic languages, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

But the “news” we’re talking about, as the dictionary explains, was “formed within English” and modeled after the French word nouvelles (new things).

Here’s how “news” is defined in the OED: “The report or account of recent (esp. important or interesting) events or occurrences, brought or coming to one as new information; new occurrences as a subject of report or talk; tidings.”

As we mentioned, the word was originally treated as a plural. The OED’s earliest plural example, a reference to “gracious and joyous newes,” is from an elaborately courtly letter written in 1417 to King Henry V by his Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The phrase cited has a distant plural antecedent.

However, these later OED citations more clearly demonstrate the plural use: “the newes of the seid Lord Malpertuis, which ben [be] these” (1489); “troubled with those newes” (1523); “These newes were sodainly [suddenly] spred” (1581); “these glad newes” (1621); “amazing News of Charles at once were spread” (1685); “all News that come hither” (1717); “news of your health are still worse” (1776); “There are bad news from Palermo” (1820); “There are never any news” (1846).

This plural use of “news,” the OED says, is “now archaic” and is found only in Indian English.

The dictionary includes this modern Indian example: “My news are good.” From Indian and British English, a 1979 handbook by Paroo Nihalani et al. (The same handbook is also cited for the use of “news” as a count noun meaning “a piece or item of news,” a usage the OED says is now found chiefly in Caribbean and Indian English. The quotation: “This is a good news.”)

It’s interesting that during much of the time that “news” appeared in the plural (as in “news are”), it was also appearing in the singular (“news is”), a usage that dates from the early 1500s and gradually became dominant.

The OED’s first citation for the singular use is from a letter written in 1532: “news occurraunt in theis partes sence my lait lettres hir is noon [none].” Published in Letters of the Cliffords (1992), edited by R. W. Hoyle.

The dictionary’s later examples of the singular construction include these: “ye newes therof was brought” (possibly 1566); “When Newes is printed” (1631); “there is no News” (1664); “The stocks are as the news is” (1711); “the news was fresh” (1785); “Was there any news?” (1828); “The next news was …” (1897). Singular examples continue up to the present.

Why has the singular usage emerged as standard while the plural has become archaic? This may be because, as the OED says, the singular use today has a wider meaning. Besides just “tidings” or accounts “brought or coming to one as new information,” it also means “now esp. such information as published or broadcast.”

This is particularly apparent in one of the dictionary’s later examples, from a book of political humor: “Most news about government sounds as if it were federally mandated” (Parliament of Whores, by P. J. O’Rourke, 1992).

Media-related uses of “news” proliferated in the 20th century. During World War I, according to OED citations, a usage emerged in which “a person, thing, or place regarded as worthy of discussion or of reporting by the media” was said to be “news.”

The first citation is from “The Village That Voted the Earth Was Flat,” a short story by Rudward Kipling published in 1917: “The great Baron Reuter himself … flashed that letter in full to the front, back, and both wings of this scene of our labours. For Huckley [the village] was News.”

And beginning in the early 1920s, people began using “the news” (the OED says “the” is usually included) to mean a newsreel or a news-related radio or television broadcast. Many familiar phrases emerged too, including these from the 1930s: “news coverage,” “news media,” and “news conference.”

Of course we can’t forget the “good news … bad news” formula, which is sometimes the setup for a joke. Oxford says it’s used in “expressing an unfortunate or undesirable downside to an otherwise welcome development or state of affairs.”

The OED’s examples begin in the 1950s, but last year the language researcher Stephen Goranson reported a much earlier example to the American Dialect Society’s mailing list. It appeared in a humorous anecdote, headlined “A Colloquy,” in the Nov. 3, 1871, issue of the New-Orleans-Republic:

Shortly after it became known that Hon. Thomas W. Conway … was attacked with yellow fever, one prominent citizen said to another whom he met:

“I have some good news to tell you.”

“What is it?” …

“It is that Conway … is very sick with yellow fever.”

The second party then said in rejoinder: “I have some bad news to tell you.”

“What is that?”

“It is that Dr. Holcombe is attending Conway, and he is going to get him well.”

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Lex education

Q: I recently received a list of the finalists in a wordplay contest for lexophiles. The winner: “Those who get too big for their pants will be totally exposed in the end.” So, what can you say about the term “lexophile”? I love a clever turn of aphasia.

A: That wordplay list, which has been making the rounds online, purports to be from an annual New York Times lexophile contest. As far as we know, the Times has never had such a contest. In fact, we couldn’t find the word “lexophile” in a search of the newspaper’s archive.

We also couldn’t find “lexophile” in the Oxford English Dictionary or any of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult. However, we did find it in two collaborative references, the often helpful Wiktionary and the idiosyncratic Urban Dictionary.

Wiktionary defines “lexophile” as “a lover of words, especially in word games, puzzles, anagrams, palindromes, etc.” The elements are Greek: “lex-” from λέξις (lexis, word), and “-phile” from ϕίλος (philos, loving).

One contributor to Urban Dictionary defines “lexophile” as “a lover of cryptic words,” while another defines “lexiphile” as “a word used to describe those that have a love for words.”

A more common noun for a word lover, “logophile,” is found in eight standard dictionaries as well as the OED, which is an etymological dictionary. The element “log-” is from the Greek λόγος (logos, word); both logos and lexis are derived from λέγειν (legein, to speak).

The earliest OED citation for “logophile” is from the Feb. 1, 1959, issue of the Sunday Times (London): “We are pretty sure that since all Sunday Times readers are natural and inveterate logophiles … he [the lexicographer R. W. Burchfield] will get some invaluable assistance.”

We’ve found an earlier example for “logophile” in a California newspaper, but the term was used to mean someone who loves to talk, not someone who loves words: “One who loves to talk, but does not carry it to the point of mania, is a logophile, pronounced: LOG-uh-file” (San Bernardino Sun, Jan. 17, 1951).

Interestingly, the noun logophile appeared in French in the mid-19th century with a similar voluble sense. Dictionnaire National ou Dictionnaire Universel de la Langue Française (1850), by Louis-Nicolas Bescherelle, defines a logophile as “Qui aime à parler, à faire de longs discours.”

Merriam-Webster says the first known use of “logophile” in English was in 1923, but it doesn’t include a citation. We haven’t been able to find any examples earlier than the mid-20th century.

As for your “clever turn of aphasia,” the less said the better.

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How a poke became a pocket

Q: I’ve read that a pocket was originally a small bag tied around the waist. Is this true?

A: Yes, etymologically “pocket” is a small bag. It originated as the diminutive of “poke,” an old term for a bag. And, yes, “pockets” were once tied around the outside of garments, not sewn in or on them.

The word “poke” showed up in English in the late 13th century, perhaps borrowed from or influenced by similar words in Anglo-Norman, Old French, or Old Dutch, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED notes a possible sighting from the early 13th century, but its first definite example is from an anonymous Middle English romance written at the end of the century: “Hise pokes fulle of mele an korn.” From The Lay of Havelok the Dane (1280-90), edited by Walter William Skeat in 1868 for the Early English Text Society.

The use of “poke” in this sense survives today in the expression “to buy pig in a poke” (to buy something sight unseen, as if in a bag), first recorded in a 16th-century book of proverbs: “Ye loue not to bye the pyg in the poke.” From A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue (1546), by John Heywood.

The diminutive form, “pocket,” appeared in Middle English writing in the 14th century, borrowed from the Anglo-Norman term for a little bag (spelled poket, pokete, or pochete). In English it originally had a similar sense (little bag), and was sometimes used as a measure of quantity in agriculture. In the 13th century, according to the OED, a “pocket” of wool was a quarter of a “sack,”

The first OED citation for “pocket” (which we’ll expand here) is from a list, dated 1350, of supplies used for maintaining the old London Bridge: “Also, in the Chapel there, in a pokete, 2500 of wyndounail [window nail], at 2s.6d the thousand, 6s.6d.” From Memorials of London and London Life (1868), edited by Henry Thomas Riley.

In the 15th century, the dictionary says, the noun “pocket” came to mean “any small bag or pouch worn on a person.” The earliest citation is from “The Mirror of the Periods of Man’s Life” (circa 1450), a hymn about the rivalry between virtue and vice for the soul of man:

“ ‘Apparaile þe propirli,’ quod Pride, ‘Loke þi pockettis passe þe lengist gise’ ” (“ ‘Apparel thee properly,’ quoth Pride. ‘Look that thy pockets surpass the latest style’ ”). Published in Hymns to the Virgin & Christ (1867), edited by Frederick James Furnivall for the Early English Text Society.

At first, tie-on pockets were worn outside the clothing of both men and women. But in the 16th century, the pockets began to be concealed, stitched into men’s clothes and worn under the skirts or petticoats of women’s clothes. Women could reach their pockets through slits hidden in the seams or pleats of their skirts.

We’ve found several references in the wardrobe accounts of Queen Elizabeth I for pockets sewn into the clothes of male servants.

In 1575, for example, “a litle blak a More” (an African) was made “a peire of gaskens” (similar to leggings but baggy at the top) with “pockettes of fustian.” And in 1578, the 3-year-old son of a servant was made “a gowne of carnacion satten” with “pockettes of fustian.” (We wrote about “fustian” in 2018.)

The fashion historian Rebecca Unsworth notes that “the fullness of sixteenth-century dress for both men and women gave ample opportunities for the inclusion and concealment of pocket bags without unsightly bulges.” But a century earlier, “the narrower medieval silhouette” would have “restricted the placement of pockets in clothing.”

By the same reasoning, Unsworth writes, the use of tie-on pockets under women’s dresses “fell out of fashion with the adoption of the slender profile and gauzy fabrics of neo-classical dress at the end of the eighteenth century.”

Her article, “Hands Deep in History: Pockets in Men and Women’s Dress in Western Europe, c. 1480–1630,” published in the journal Costume (September 2017), has many illustrations of the different pockets used with men’s and women’s clothing during the period.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has an online essay, “A History of Pockets,” that includes many illustrations of the various pockets used by men and women from the 17th to the late 19th century. Three images show a Lady Claphan doll from the 1690s in various stages of dress: fully clothed, in her shift, and in her under-petticoat with pockets tied around the waist.

In the 1790s, women began to wear tie-on pockets outside their dresses again, as in the 15th century, or they carried reticules, decorative bags hung over the arm. But in the 19th century, sewn-in pockets began replacing the tie-ons, which were easy prey for pickpockets.

We’ll end with a 19th-century nursery rhyme about a missing pocket:

Lucy Locket lost her pocket,
Kitty Fisher found it;
Not a penny was there in it,
Only ribbon round it.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Henchmen and minions

Q: Have the terms “henchmen” and “minions” always been pejorative, as they seem to be now?

A: No, when “henchmen” and “minions” first came into English, they weren’t pejorative.

In the 14th century, a “henchman” was a highly ranked attendant who waited on royalty or noblemen on ceremonial occasions. And in the 15th, a “minion” was the esteemed favorite of a monarch or other powerful patron.

Eventually, of course, both took on negative connotations in Modern English, “henchman” more so than “minion.”

Today a “henchman” is one who unquestioningly, even violently, acts on behalf of a perhaps corrupt master. And because a king’s “minion” was usually male, “minion” in early times was sometimes used contemptuously to imply a pampered sexual pet; it later came to mean a servile or fawning subordinate.

So both words have come a long way. Here’s a closer look at their histories.

Etymologically, “henchman” is “horseman” (the “hench” part comes from hengest, Old English for a male horse). Spelled “henxstman” in Middle English, it was first recorded in the English royal wardrobe accounts for 1377-80, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

A wardrobe item describes livery for one “Hans Wynsele, henxstman.” (Hans Wynsele was probably an attendant to King Edward III, whose reign was 1327-77, or his grandson King Richard II, 1377-99.)

However, since “henchman” is a native English word (Old English hengest + man), it probably was current before the late 1370s. As the OED says, the word was documented earlier in medieval Latin and Anglo-Norman forms that had been borrowed from English: Latin hengsmannus (1345-49), hengestmannus (1360), and Anglo-Norman henxtemen (plural, circa 1370).

The original “henchman,” the dictionary says, was “a high-ranking male servant with the role of attendant or page of honour to a monarch, nobleman, dignitary, etc., esp. one employed to accompany that person when riding in processions, progresses, marches, etc.”

Why would a ceremonial attendant have a title that implies a servant who tends horses?

“Although there appears to be no explicit evidence that the office of henchman involved duties relating to horses,” the OED explains, “the royal henchmen are listed as being under the command of the Master of the King’s Horse in the earliest documentary source for the word.”

The dictionary adds that “groom” and “marshal,” terms for two other “positions of honour in the royal household,” both originally denoted “servants employed to tend horses.”

The OED notes that early henchmen were apparently considered high-ranking servants, while those of the later 1400s and 1500s “were typically the sons of noblemen seeking an education in courtly manners.”

The office of royal “henchman” was abolished by Elizabeth I in the 1560s, but the title survived outside royal households. As the OED says, a “henchman” in later use meant “a liveried page or footman who walks alongside the horse of a Lord Mayor, sheriff, etc., in ceremonial processions.”

Pejorative senses of “henchman” began emerging in the 19th century, when it came to mean, in the OED’s words, “a devoted or zealous (male) political supporter, a partisan,” or “a person (usually a man) engaged by a politician to further his or her interests by corrupt or unscrupulous means.”

The earliest use of this sense, the OED says, was recorded in the Times (London) on April 3, 1835: “The moment the Government came into power they allied themselves with the most bitter enemies of those feelings; they placed their henchmen at the head of the state, and they crammed their Privy Council with them.”

An even more negative sense appeared in the US in the early 20th century, the dictionary says: “A male subordinate to a criminal or villain, esp. one who obeys his leader unquestioningly and is prepared to engage in violence or crime on his behalf; an accomplice, heavy, or sidekick.”

Oxford’s earliest example is from an American journal: “Strangely enough, Paul Kelly has no police record—he always delegates his duties to a henchman” (Public Opinion, Dec. 5, 1905).

The dictionary’s most recent example is from a British newspaper: “Demented supervillain The Joker … conducts his reign of terror flanked by trusty henchmen” (Lichfield Mercury, Aug. 4, 2016).

As for “minion,” it showed up later than “henchman” but took much less time to develop negative connotations.

It was first recorded in a 15th-century comic song satirizing the costumes of servants, who often were dressed better than their masters: “Off servyng men I wyll begyne … For they goo mynyon trym.”

The expression “go minion trim” in that song meant to dress like a minion, defined at that time, the OED says, as “a (usually male) favourite of a sovereign, prince, or other powerful person; a person who is dependent on a patron’s favour.”

The word was adopted from the Middle French mignon (darling). At the time “minion” entered English, mignon was used in France as a noun for “a king’s favourite,” as “a term of endearment,” and as an adjective meaning “pretty, delicate, graceful,” according to the dictionary’s etymological notes.

But as the OED says, the English “minion” could also be used for a simple “hanger-on.” So it’s not surprising that very soon “minion” became a pejorative word.

For example, in the 16th and 17th centuries it was sometimes used “with contemptuous suggestion of homosexual relations,” according to Oxford. Here are some examples:

“So are the hartes of our popishe protestauntes … hardened … in that they looke yea go backe agayne to theyr sodomiticall minion.” From The Hurte of Hering [Hearing] Masse, by the Protestant martyr John Bradford, written in the early 1550s.

“The king is loue-sick [lovesick] for his minion.” From Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II, written sometime before 1593. (Some historians have suggested that Edward II had a homosexual relationship with his “favorite,” Piers Gaveston, whom he made 1st Earl of Cornwall.)

As the OED says, in later use the connotation of “favored” disappeared and “minion” arrived at its modern meaning: “a follower or underling, esp. one who is servile or unimportant.”

Oxford has this late 19th-century example: “It is no wonder if he helps himself from the city treasury and allows his minions to do so.” From a description of a “city boss” in The American Commonwealth (1888), by James Bryce, a Scottish viscount who taught civil law at Oxford.

And this citation was recorded a century later in the British magazine Q (October 1987): “Our first glimpse is an overhead shot of him being shaved and manicured, joking genially with pressmen while his minions fawn around him.”

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On ‘capitulate’ and ‘recapitulate’

Q: As much as I dislike the overuse of the phrase, I had a “Wait, what?” moment this morning when I realized that “capitulate” means to yield, so “recapitulate” should mean to yield again, but it doesn’t. How did this happen?

A: When the two words showed up in mid-16th century writing, the usual meaning of “capitulate” was to draw up an agreement or a statement, and the usual sense of “recapitulate” was to summarize the main points of such an understanding.

The two verbs ultimately come from the classical Latin caput (head) and capitulum (little head). In medieval Latin, a capitulum could mean the heading on a major section or chapter of a document, as well as the chapter itself, while capitulare meant to arrange sections of text under separate headings. The Latin usage is the source of our word “chapter.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this early sense of “capitulate” as to “draw up articles of agreement; to propose terms; to treat, parley, negotiate; to stipulate; to come to terms, to agree. Now archaic.”

The first OED example is from a 16th-century translation of Thucyides’ history of the Peloponnesian War: “They determyned … to capitulate and conferre wyth them touchynge the estate of the cytie.” From Thomas Nicolls’s 1550 translation of the Greek historian’s account of the war between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BC.

The dictionary defines the early use of “recapitulate” this way: “To go through or repeat again, usually in a more concise manner; to go over the main points or substance of (an argument, statement, etc.); to summarize, restate briefly.” (A slightly earlier sense, primarily in reference to Jesus, was “to gather or bring together; to sum up or unite in one.”)

The first Oxford example of “recapitulate” in its summarize sense is from The Spider and the Flie, a 1556 allegorical poem by John Heywood about a clash between Protestant spiders and Roman Catholic flies:

“The flie (after a fewe woordes concerninge appeale) doeth brefely recapitulate theffect passed in the principall case.” Heywood, a devoted Catholic who supported the religious beliefs of Queen Mary, dedicated the 556-page illustrated poem to her.

In the early 17th century, “capitulate” came to mean to surrender, a not surprising evolution from its original sense of drawing up an agreement or negotiating terms. The first OED citation is from the official account, ordered by Queen Elizabeth I, of the trial and execution of Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex:

“Hee would not capitulate, but intreat, and made three petitions.” From A Declaration of the Practises & Treasons Attempted and Committed by Robert Late Earle of Essex and His Complices, Against Her Maiestie and Her Kingdoms (1601), by Francis Bacon. Lord Essex was a one-time favorite of Elizabeth and supporter of Bacon.

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