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

A precipitous drop for the better?

Q: I keep seeing “precipitous decline” used for a drop that’s beneficial. For example, “a precipitous decline in the deficit” during the Obama administration (Daily Kos), or “a precipitous decline in Covid-19 cases” in New York (USA Today). Isn’t a drop that’s “precipitous” supposed to be alarming or dangerous?

A: In our opinion, “precipitous” describes a decrease that’s both steep and negative. Like you, we’ve occasionally seen news stories that use “precipitous” in a positive way, but we think a better word for a beneficial decrease would be “dramatic” or “sharp” or “steep.”

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), edited by Jeremy Butterfield, is on our side. “The core, literal meaning of precipitous is ‘sheer like a precipice; dangerously high or steep,’ ” Fowler’s says. “Derived from this is a metaphor to describe a change for the worse in a situation or condition, i.e., meaning ‘dramatic.’ ”

Notions of disaster are built into the word. Etymologically, as we’ll explain, someone or something whose fall is “precipitous” has been thrown off a cliff.

Of course, a word’s etymological meanings don’t always survive into modern times or influence how it’s used now. But we think that even today, a “precipitous” fall implies a change for the worse, not for the better.

The word came into English in the early 1600s when it was borrowed from French (precipiteux), the Oxford English Dictionary says. The French adjective had two general senses—(1) rash, impetuous, abrupt, and (2) steep or vertical.

It was derived from the Latin adjective praeceps, meaning not only steep but also headlong. (The literal sense of the Latin word is “head first”; it’s formed from the prefix prae- for “before” and caput for “head.”)

The OED’s earliest written example of “precipitous” is from 1646, but we’ve found more than a dozen earlier ones, all used in the sense of impetuous, rash, ill-advised, overly hasty, and so on. A few of the early sightings, including the first one, imply danger as well as haste.

Here’s the oldest use we’ve found so far: “Mankind runneth head longe to sinne when it is forbidden him; For euen as a torrent or land-floud [flood] running a violent and precipitous course, and meeting with any stop by the way becomes the more furious, and with redoubled force makes selfe way, and beareth downe al before it.” From The First Part of a Treatise Concerning Policy, and Religion (1606), by Thomas Fitzherbert.

Here are a few more of the early uses we’ve found: “rash & precipitous censure” (1609); “an act of extreme impiety or precipitous arrogancie” (1612); “so precipitous & inconsiderate” (1620); “Folly, lightnesse, unadvisednesse, and a precipitous nature” (1622); “the precipitous nature of the Prince, and the ill offices he had done already” (1632); “not precipitous a whit to attempt any thing unadvisedly” (1632); “the assaultes of a most precipitous Death” (1632); “a precipitous torrent, which when it rages, over-flows the plaines” (1640); “their precipitous hastinesse” (1644).

A slightly earlier form of the word was “precipitious” (sometimes spelled “praecipitious”), which was borrowed from the classical Latin adjective praecipitium (precipice-like). Originally, in the early 1600s, “precipitious” had dual meanings, according to the OED: (1) “acting or done in excessive haste; rash, unthinking”; (2) “involving risk of sudden fall or ruin; dangerous, precarious.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from 1612, but we found an earlier one in a book about the sin of pride. The author warns against boasting of great bodily strength, because strength is slow in ascending to its height, “but the descent is precipitious” (The Arraignment of Pride, 1600, by William Gearing).

And in this 1613 example, “precipitious” seems to mean disastrous: “glory and honour to the victor, euer deare and honest to the winner, precipitious and shamefull to the looser” (Sir Antony Sherley His Relation of His Trauels Into Persia, 1613).

We’ve also found an early use of “precipitously,” the adverb derived from “precipitous.” This appeared in a 1619 translation, from Italian, of the life of the Florentine Carmelite nun Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi: “For sometimes the Diuell [Devil] strocke her ouer the head, sometymes he cast her downe precipitously.”

In fact, “precipice” itself once had twin meanings. In its earliest uses, the OED says, it meant (1) “a headlong fall or descent,” used mostly in a  figurative way for “a fall into a disastrous situation or condition” (1606), and (2) “a high and vertical or very steep rock face; a crag, a cliff” (1607).

However, we’ve found an earlier use from 1603, in which the word (spelled “praecipice”) is used figuratively to mean the brink of disaster: “the deere Lord and treasure of my thought … / To such a headlong praecipice is brought.” (From The Tragedie of Darivs [Darius], a drama in verse by the Scottish poet William Alexander, first Earl of Stirling.)

It’s no surprise that “precipice” meant disaster early on, since it had that meaning in the languages it came from.

It was borrowed into English partly from Middle French and partly from Latin. In Middle French in the 1500s, précipice meant danger or disaster as well as a steep place. And in classical Latin, the noun praecipitium meant both a “steep place” and a “fall or jump from a great height,” the OED says, while in post-classical Latin it also meant ruin or disaster.

A couple of other English words starting with “precip-” had ominous beginnings, “precipitation” and “precipitate.” Both come from the Latin verb praecipitare, meaning to cast down or throw headlong.

In the 1400s, “precipitation” was a form of murder or capital punishment; it meant throwing someone (or being thrown) from a great height. In the 1500s, it took on other meanings, like abruptness and rashness; the weather senses—rain, snow, and so on—came along in the late 1600s.

And in the 1500s, to “precipitate” someone meant to throw him over a cliff, while the participial adjective “precipitate” meant “hurled downwards, as over a precipice,” the OED says. (In the same century, the verb and adjective “precipitate” also had meanings related to haste, speed, and rashness, similar to the senses they still have today.)

So as you can see, English words descended from Latin and beginning with “precip-” have long had a dual sense, implying both a sheer vertical drop and a hasty, headlong fall. And “precipitous” has retained those dual connotations, which is why you found it jarring when used to describe a sharp change for the better.

But what do current dictionaries say? Is a “precipitous” decline necessarily a bad one?

In their entries for “precipitous,” all of the 10 standard dictionaries we usually consult include definitions like overly hasty, abrupt, or done without thought. And all but one of the dictionaries indicate either directly or indirectly that a “precipitous” change is also dangerous or bad.

Three British dictionaries are the most specific about the negativity of “precipitous.” In their definitions, Longman and Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online) include “dangerously high or steep,” and Lexico adds: “(of a change to a worse situation or condition) sudden and dramatic.” Collins says it can mean “very steep and often dangerous” as well as “sudden and unpleasant.”

Six of the remaining seven dictionaries say something “precipitous” resembles a “precipice,” which in addition to its literal meaning of a steep rock face or high cliff is described as a dangerous situation in the following definitions:

“a greatly hazardous situation, verging on disaster” (Webster’s New World); “the brink of a dangerous or disastrous situation” (American Heritage); “a dangerous situation that could lead to harm or failure” (Cambridge); “a situation of great peril” (Dictionary.com); “the brink of disaster” (Merriam-Webster and Merriam-Webster Unabridged). Collins, mentioned earlier, has a similar reference to “precipice.”

By the way, we sometimes see “precipitous” used to describe a steep rise (as opposed to a drop). Is this legit? Well, it’s a little odd but we haven’t found any evidence that it’s not acceptable in standard English.

Most dictionaries don’t address that question in their definitions, though their examples almost always describe falls, declines, drops, decreases, slides, and collapses. (Two examples to the contrary illustrate increases that are changes for the worse: “the precipitous cost increases at state universities,” in Longman, and “a precipitous increase in the number of marriages ending in divorce,” in Lexico.)

The definitions in only a couple of dictionaries specifically say that rises as well as falls can be “precipitous.”

Here’s Merriam-Webster, which seems to accept “precipitous” rises in only a literal (that is, geological) sense: “very steep, perpendicular, or overhanging in rise or fall” … “having a very steep ascent” (our underlining). All the examples given apply to a place or a geological feature. So clearly, you could justify saying that a street or slope or rock face had a “precipitous” ascent (or rose “precipitously”) to a great height.

Cambridge goes further and accepts figurative rises in its definition: “If a reduction or increase is precipitous, it is fast or great.” But no examples of precipitous increases are given.

A final word. For over 400 years, the adjectives “precipitous” and “precipitate” have been used to mean overly hasty or ill-considered. No one objected to this use of “precipitous” until the 1920s, so if you’ve heard such objections, ignore them. All ten standard dictionaries say “precipitous” and “precipitate” can be used synonymously.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Jiggs dinner

Q: I would be interested to know where the term “Jiggs dinner” comes from. I grew up in Newfoundland, where it referred to a boiled salt-beef dinner, though my family never used the term.

A: The expression “Jiggs dinner” comes from Bringing Up Father, a comic strip created by the cartoonist George McManus in the early 20th century. The strip, which ran from Jan. 12, 1913, to May 28, 2000, featured Jiggs and Maggie, an Irish-American couple. Jiggs’s favorite meal, corned beef and cabbage, became known as a “Jiggs dinner.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines the terms “Jiggs” and “Jiggs and Maggie” as “corned beef and cabbage,” and says the usage was popularized in the comic strip. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a Wisconsin newspaper: “ ‘Jiggs’—corned beef and cabbage” (Waukesha Freeman, Jan. 24, 1940).

However, we’ve found several earlier examples, such as a produce ad in a Colorado newspaper for “ ‘Jiggs’ Dinner Necessaries,” including “Cabbage, per lb., 5c,” “Parsnips, 4 lbs., 25c,” “Rutabagas, 8 lbs., 25c,” and “Carrots, 7 lbs., 25c” (Montrose Daily Press, Jan. 22, 1920).

The Canadian Encyclopedia website says “Jiggs’ dinner is a staple of outport (rural) Newfoundland cuisine. It is also called boiled, cooked or Sunday dinner, as it is usually served on Sunday.” It adds that “Jiggs” here “is a reference to the protagonist” of Bringing Up Father.

“Jiggs was an Irish immigrant living in America who regularly ate corned beef and cabbage, a precursor to the Newfoundland dish,” the dictionary says. “Much of the settlement in Newfoundland came from Irish immigration, so it is not surprising that so much of the food and culture has Celtic ancestry.”

The encyclopedia includes this recipe for Jiggs dinner with pease pudding, or porridge, on the side:

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

Notional agreement

Q: Is “one percent” singular or plural in this clause: “the students believed that only one percent of their faculty [was/were] conservative”? For what it’s worth, I believe it’s singular, but I’d like to hear your take.

A: “Percent” can be used with both singular and plural verbs. Generally, it takes a plural verb when followed by “of” plus a plural noun, and a singular verb when followed by “of” plus a singular noun. Example: “Sixty percent of the cookies were eaten, but only twenty percent of the milk was drunk.”

However, “percent” can go either way with a singular collective noun like “faculty.” A collective noun, as you know, takes a singular verb when you’re talking about the group as a unit, and a plural verb when you’re talking about the individuals in the group.

What’s at work here is the principle of notional agreement. This is how Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains the principle: “when the group is considered as a unit, the singular verb is used; when it is thought of as a collection of individuals, the plural verb is used.”

As you can imagine, there may be some wiggle room as to whether a collective noun is singular or plural. Getting back to your specific example, we agree with you. We’d use a singular verb with the adjective “conservative.” However, we’d use a plural verb with the noun “conservatives.”

So we’d write “the students believed that only one percent of their faculty was conservative” but “the students believed that only one percent of their faculty were conservatives.” In the first example, “faculty” is viewed as a unit; in the second, as individuals.

We’ve borrowed much of this from a post we wrote 10 years ago.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Linguistics Pronunciation Usage Writing

Something wicked this way comes

Q: We were reading Shakespeare, and wondered about the pronunciation of the final “-ed” in words like “beloved” and “blessed.” I just assumed that people in Elizabethan England spoke that way, but my partner thought it was merely a poetical device to fill out a metrical line. What do you say?

A: When the “-ed” suffix first appeared in Old English writing, according to scholars, it sounded much like the modern pronunciation of the last syllable in adjectives like “crooked,” “dogged,” and “wicked.”

In Old English, spoken from the mid-5th to the late 11th centuries, the “-ed” suffix was one of several endings used to form the past participle of verbs and to form adjectives from nouns. For example, the past participle of the verb hieran (to hear) was gehiered (heard). And the adjectival form of the noun hring (ring) was hringed.

The “-ed” syllable was still usually pronounced in Middle English, which was spoken from around 1150 to 1450, but writers occasionally dropped the “e” or replaced it with an apostrophe, an indication that the syllable was sometimes lost in speech. The Old English gehiered (heard), for instance, was variously hered, herrd, herd, etc., in Middle English writing.

It’s clear from the meter that Chaucer intended the “-ed” of “perced” (pierced) to be pronounced at the beginning of The Canterbury Tales (1387): “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote [its showers sweet] / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.”

As far as we can tell, the word “pierced” was two syllables in common speech as well as poetry when Chaucer was writing, but a one-syllable version showed up in writing (and probably speaking) by the mid-1500s.

Here’s an example, with the past participle written as “perst,” from “The Lover Describeth His Being Stricken With Sight of His Love,” a sonnet by Thomas Wyatt:

“The liuely sparkes, that issue from those eyes, / Against the which there vaileth [avails] no defence, / Haue perst my hart, and done it none offence” (Songes and Sonettes, 1557, a collection of works by Wyatt, Henry Howard, Nicholas Grimald, and various anonymous poets).

In the early Modern English period, when Shakespeare was writing, the “-ed” ending was often contracted in writing to “-d” or “-t,” indicating that this was the usual pronunciation. Here are a few examples from Shakespeare:

“O, never will I trust to speeches penn’d, / Nor to the motion of a schoolboy’s tongue” (Love’s Labour’s Lost, believed written in the mid-1590s).

“I remember the kissing of her batlet [butter paddle] and the cow’s dugs [uddders] that her pretty chopt hands had milked” (As You Like It, circa 1599). The adjective “chopped” here meant cracked or chapped.

“This would have seem’d a period / To such as love not sorrow” (King Lear, early 1600s).

However, writers in the early Modern English period tended to keep the full “-ed” ending in many words where the syllable is still heard now, as in these examples from Shakespeare:

“To cipher what is writ in learned books, / Will quote my loathsome trespass in my looks” (The Rape of Lucrece, 1594).

“And the stony-hearted villains know it well enough” (King Henry IV, Part I, late 1500s).

“O heaven, the vanity of wretched fools!” (Measure for Measure, early 1600s).

“Something wicked this way comes” (Macbeth, early 1600s).

Although people began dropping the “e” of “-ed” in writing and apparently pronunciation in early Modern English, the full syllable was still being written and pronounced in the 18th and 19th centuries in some words where it’s now lost.

In A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791), John Walker says the adjectives “crabbed,” “forked,” “flagged,” “flubbed,” “hooked,” “scabbed,” “snagged,” “tusked,” and others are “pronounced in two syllables.” An 1859 update of the dictionary, edited by Townsend Young, adds “hawked,” “scrubbed,” “tressed,” and a few more.

However, writers continued to drop the final syllable of “-ed” words despite the objections of lexicographers and pronunciation  guides. In the early 18th century, one of the sticklers, Jonathan Swift, condemned the loss of the final syllable in verbs written as “drudg’d,” “disturb’d,” “rebuk’d,” and “a thousand others, everywhere to be met with in Prose as well as Verse.”

In a 1712 letter to Robert, Earl of Oxford, Swift argued that “by leaving out a Vowel to save a Syllable, we form so jarring a Sound, and so difficult to utter, that I have often wondred how it could ever obtain.” Yes, “wondred” used to be a past tense of the verb “wonder,” which was originally wondrian in Old English and wondri or woundre in Middle English. Thus language changes.

Today, the “-ed” suffix is used in writing for the past tense and past participle of regular (or weak) verbs, for participial adjectives, and for adjectives derived from nouns. It’s usually not pronounced as a syllable, but there are some notable exceptions.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “this -ed is in most cases still retained in writing, although the pronunciation is now normally vowelless.” The dictionary says “-ed” is usually pronounced as either “d” (as in “robed”) or “t” (“reaped”). The “t” sound follows a voiceless consonant, one produced without the vocal cords.

The OED says the “full pronunciation” of “-ed” as a syllable (pronounced id) “regularly occurs in ordinary speech only in the endings -ted, -ded” (that is, after the letters “t” and “d” as in “hated” and “faded”).

“A few words, such as blessed, cursed, beloved, which are familiar chiefly in religious use, have escaped the general tendency to contraction when used as adjectives,” the OED says, adding that “the adjectival use of learned is distinguished by its pronunciation” as two syllables. Additional exceptions include the adjectives “aged,” “jagged,” “naked,” “ragged,” “wretched,” and others mentioned in this post.

As we said at the beginning, the suffix “-ed” was used in Old English  to form the past participle of verbs and to turn nouns into adjectives.

The past participle of a weak verb was formed by adding “-ed,” “-ad,” “-od,” or “-ud” to the stem. The past participle of a strong verb (now commonly called an irregular verb) was formed by changing the stressed vowel or by adding the suffix “-en.”

And as we said earlier, the use of “-ed” to turn nouns into adjectives has also been around since Anglo-Saxon times. Nevertheless, some language commentators objected to the usage in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Samuel Johnson, for example, apparently considered the usage new and was surprised to see it in these lines from “Ode on Spring” by Thomas Gray: “The insect youth are on the wing, / Eager to taste the honied spring.” Here’s Johnson’s comment:

“There has of late arisen a practice of giving to adjectives derived from substantives, the termination of participles; such as the cultured plain, the daisied bank, but I was sorry to see, in the lines of a scholar like Gray, the honied spring” (from Johnson’s Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, 1779-81).

We’ll end with a grumpy comment about the adjective “talented,” written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge on July 8, 1832. This is from Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1836), edited by Henry Nelson Coleridge, a frequent visitor to his uncle’s home:

“I regret to see that vile and barbarous vocable talented, stealing out of the newspapers into the leading reviews and most respectable publications of the day. … The formation of a participle passive from a noun is a licence that nothing but a very peculiar felicity can excuse. If mere convenience is to justify such attempts upon the idiom, you cannot stop till the language becomes, in the proper sense of the word, corrupt. Most of these pieces of slang come from America.” (The OED’s earliest examples for the adjective “talented” used to mean “possessing talent” come from British sources.)

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
Veterans Day

How Sin Buster got a Silver Star

[Note: We’re marking Veterans Day with an article that Stewart wrote more than 49 years ago as a war correspondent for United Press International.]

By STEWART KELLERMAN

FIREBASE RIFLE, Vietnam, June 2, 1971 (UPI) —  Jimmy Young, aka Sin Buster, was fast asleep in his foxhole, curled up on a camouflage poncho, when the first mortar round shook the orange earth around him.

The 36-year-old army captain rubbed his hazel eyes, buttoned his jungle fatigues, and stood up in dusty combat boots. In the light of the exploding mortars it would just be possible to make out the cross on his left lapel and the Bible bulging inside his right breast pocket.

“When you’re in a situation like that you don’t have a chance to pull out seven textbooks on morality to decide what to do,” said Chaplain Young, who prefers to be called Chap or Sin Buster.

The chaplain, who described the battle later to a reporter, did just about everything but pull a trigger to turn back a Communist attack against the US Army Engineers building Firebase Rifle on a mountaintop 15 miles southeast of Hue.

Young, a Methodist, won a Silver Star for his efforts, but he’s not so sure how churchmen back home will take to a man of God leading troops in battle.

“I feel I acted right,” he said, crossing his legs and puffing on a filter-tip cigarette. “My conscience is clear. If what I did was morally wrong then God will be my judge.”

Sin Buster used his hands, his eyes, and his face to accentuate his words. His closely cropped black hair was graying, but he still had a boyish grin.

“Why did I do it?” he asked. “I don’t know for sure. Maybe I can explain it by telling a story about when my daughter was two or three years old. I saw this rattlesnake near her and there wasn’t enough time to yell out. I did the only thing I could. I ran my lawnmower over it.”

Chap stumbled out of his foxhole just before midnight into a night lit up by explosions and tracer rounds. A soldier limped toward him, blood rushing from his face, back and arms.

“Over there,” the GI said, pointing to American bunkers 50 yards away. “They need help there. You better hurry.”

The chaplain put the wounded man on the ground beneath the protection of the steel bed of a five-ton truck and rushed off to help the others.

Communist gunners were firing mortars into the base and sappers were advancing up the mountainside, tossing grenades and satchel charges. Chap dived after the explosives and threw each of them back down the mountain. Some blew up only seconds after leaving his hands.

He hurried back and forth carrying wounded GIs to safety under the bed of the truck. He was about ready to drop from exhaustion himself, but before he had a chance to rest a soldier screamed out, “They’re in the bunkers, they’re in the bunkers.”

The chaplain ran back toward the bunkers. He picked up three GIs on the way and asked them to go with him from bunker to bunker to clear out the Communists. He told one soldier to crouch at the front of a bunker with an M-16 while he and another GI covered the back.

“Okay, let them have it,” Chap shouted, and the GI up front stuck his rifle inside and blasted away. A Communist hiding inside was blown apart. “You might say he had his whole day ruined,” Sin Buster said.

“Over there, over there, get him,” Chap shouted when a Communist carrying a grenade launcher stepped into the open. One of the soldiers cut the sapper down with a burst of automatic rifle fire.

The chaplain spotted two more Communists crawling on the ground near one of the bunkers. “Get them, get them,” he yelled out. And one of his men opened up with a machinegun.

Sin Buster helped the wounded US soldiers aboard medical helicopters when the fighting came to an end. One American was killed and 11 were wounded in the attack. The three GIs he led accounted for four of the seven Communists killed by the base’s defenders.

“I believe in the sacredness of human life,” Chap said. “I value human life highly. I guess that some of those people we killed might believe in God and go to church. But I’ve got to stick by my parishioners. I can’t help caring more about them than about the Communists. If somebody’s got to get it, I don’t want it to be one of my boys.”

Chap, who has been in the Army for three years, will be leaving Vietnam next month after one year in the war zone. His next assignment will be Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

“Don’t get the idea I’m some sort of Patton of the chaplain corps,” he said. “I believe war is totally immoral. I don’t see anything right about it. But a soldier’s job is to fight and my job is to have him do what he’s trained to do.”

Sin Buster tapped the Bible inside his right breast pocket, uncrossed his legs, and then crossed them again.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Margaret Thatcher’s bottom

Q: In an expression like “He has bottom,” what does “bottom” mean and where does it come from?

A: Your question about “bottom” reminds us of a 2012 post we wrote on “side.” Both are terms, mainly in British usage, for personal qualities or character traits, one positive and the other negative.  Someone with “side” is arrogant or stuck-up, while someone with “bottom” has courage and strength of character.

This use of “bottom” was first recorded in the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as  “physical resources, stamina, staying power; substance, strength of character, dependability.” The OED says the usage is “now colloquial and somewhat archaic.”

It’s also labeled “archaic” in the British dictionary Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries online), which describes this sense of “bottom” as a “mass noun” meaning “stamina or strength of character.” The example given: “whatever his faults, he possesses that old-fashioned quality—bottom.”

The term is found in only a couple of standard American dictionaries. Webster’s New World defines it as “endurance, stamina,” and Merriam-Webster Unabridged says it means “vigorous physical qualities combined with stamina,” “capacity to endure strain,” or “spirit.” The Unabridged adds that the term is “used especially of horses and dogs,” as in “a breed of dogs outstanding for bottom.”

Our guess is that in the US the word is more common in regional than in general usage. The Dictionary of American Regional English has examples dating from 1843 to 1968 in the West, the Great Plains, and the South, with the term applied to people as well as horses and dogs.

In Britain, where this sense of “bottom” originated, the usage first appeared in print as a sporting term in boxing, according to OED citations.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Capt. John Godfrey’s A Treatise Upon the Useful Science of Defence (1747), a book on swordplay that also includes observations on boxing and on famous boxers of the day. We’ll expand the OED citation to give more of the context:

“I have mentioned Strength and Art as the two Ingredients of a Boxer. But there is another, which is vastly necessary; that is, what we call a Bottom. We need not explain what it is as being a Term well understood. There are two things required to make this Bottom, that is, Wind and Spirit, or Heart, or wherever you can fix the Residence of Courage.”

The author mentions “bottom” in many such passages, as in these remarks about a fighter known as George (“The Barber”) Taylor: “if he had a true English Bottom (the best fitting Epithet for a Man of Spirit), he would carry all before him,” and “if he were unquestionable in his Bottom, he would be a Match for any Man.”

Godfrey also uses the word as an adjective, as when he describes two famous fighters as “the best Bottom Men of the modern Boxers.”

It’s interesting that Godfrey says the term was already “well understood” when he wrote his book. So it was certainly around earlier in speech, perhaps in relation to sports involving horses or dogs. Subsequent published examples in the OED refer mostly to horses and dogs, but also to people. Here are a few examples, extending into our own time:

“Although the savages held out and, as the phrase is, had better bottoms, yet, for a spurt, the Englishmen were more nimble and speedy” (a reference to the endurance of Native Americans, from Oliver Goldsmith’s An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, 1774).

“They … have their manes and tails cropped … under the supposition that it adds to their strength and bottom” (from a description of Barbary horses in the Penny Cyclopaedia, 1835).

“William Whitelaw … and Geoffrey Howe … had simply not had the bottom to take on Edward Heath. She [Margaret Thatcher] had had that bottom” (the Independent, Nov. 30, 1989).

“Both sides envisioned in their horses the qualities that had made their regions distinct—the brilliance of untamed southern speed, the resolve of northern ‘bottom,’ or stamina”  (John Eisenberg’s The Great Match Race: When North Met South in America’s First Sports Spectacle, 2006).

The term isn’t common today, in either British or American English. We suspect that Eisenberg used it in The Great Match Race (and in quotation marks) because he was writing about a contest that took place in 1823, when the usage was familiar. And we suspect that a reference to Margaret Thatcher’s “bottom” would evoke quite a different image today.

As you might think, “bottom” is among the oldest words in the language. Like its distant relative “deep,” it’s existed in writing since early Old English and was inherited from Germanic sources but goes back to prehistoric Proto-Indo-European.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says the ancient ancestors of “bottom” and “deep” were bhudh– and dheub-, “which already in Indo-European were doublets by inversion, referring to ‘bottom,’ ‘foundation,’ ‘depths.’ ” (Doublets are etymological twins, in this case with the consonant sounds inverted.)

“Bottom” in its original sense—the lowest part of something—first appeared in writing in a Latin-English manuscript known as the Third Cleopatra Glossary, which scholars say originated in the 700s. It was then spelled botm, which remained the usual spelling throughout the Old English period, the OED says.

Over the centuries it has had a great many meanings, which generally fall into three broard categories:

(1) The lowest part of something, whether a physical thing, a place, or a list or ranking or some kind. These uses of the word gave us the figurative phrase “rock bottom” (1866), as well as the buttocks sense of “bottom” (circa 1550). The OED says that last one is now considered “a euphemistic alternative to words such as arse, bum, butt, and numerous synonyms.”

(2) The deepest or most inner part of something, literally or figuratively. The expression “the bottom of one’s heart” (early 1400s) comes from these senses of the word, as do usages like “the bottom of the garden” (1715), referring to the furthest point.

(3) An underlying support, foundation, or base, physical or metaphorical. The use of “bottom” that we’re discussing here, meaning stamina, pluck, endurance, and so on (1747), falls within this category.

Another meaning of “bottom” that we should mention also falls into the third category. It’s a sense defined in the OED as “the fundamental character, essence, or reality.”

This meaning of the word has given us such expressions as “to get to the bottom of” (to investigate fully or find the truth of, 1683); “at bottom” (basically, late 1600s); and “to be at the bottom of” (to be the hidden source or instigator, usually referring to something you’d rather not be blamed for, 1550).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

On ‘willy-nilly’

Q: Your “willy-nilly” entry (from 2006) dates it at 1608. Mightn’t it come from Hamlet, which was written a few years earlier? From Act V, Scene 1: “If the man go to this water and drown himself, it is, will he nill he, he goes.” Just my 2 cents.

A: Thanks for drawing our attention to that 2006 post about “willy-nilly,” one of the oldest posts on our blog, and one in need of an update. So here goes.

As it turns out, early versions of “willy-nilly” showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, seven centuries before the usage appeared in Shakespeare. In Old English, forms of the verbs wyllan (to want something) and nyllan (to not want it) were combined in various expressions meaning “whether (one) will or not; willingly or unwillingly; voluntarily or compulsorily,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Although “willy-nilly” usually means haphazardly or carelessly today, that early sense (willingly or unwillingly, whether you like it or not) is included in all 10 of the standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

For example, Dictionary.com (based on the old Random House Unabridged) defines “willy-nilly” as (1) “in a disorganized or unplanned manner; sloppily” and (2) “whether one wishes to or not; willingly or unwillingly.”

The earliest Old English ancestor of “willy-nilly” in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, is “sam we willan sam we nyllan” (whether we wish to or wish not to). Here’s the citation from King Ælfred’s translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ, a sixth-century Latin work by the Roman philosopher Boethius:

“we sceolon beon nede geþafan, sam we willan sam we nyllan, þæt he sie se hehsta hrof eallra goda” (“We must grant, whether we wish to or not, that He is the crowning pinnacle of all things good”).

A shorter version, “wille we, nelle we” (willingly or unwillingly, one way or another) showed up a century later:

“forðan þe we synd synfulle and sceolan beon eadmode, wille we, nelle we” (“Therefore we are sinners and shall be humble, willingly or unwillingly”). From Lives of the Saints, believed written in the 990s by the Benedictine abbot Ælfric of Eynsham.

A reverse version of the expression, “nil we, wil we,” showed up a few hundred years later in Middle English:

“ded has vs wit-sett vr strete; nil we, wil we, we sal mete” (“Death surrounds us in all places; one way or another, we shall meet”). From Cursor Mundi, an anonymous poem composed before 1325 and possibly as early as 1300.

Shakespeare, who apparently liked the expression, used it at least twice—first in The Taming of the Shrew, believed written in the early 1590s,  and then in Hamlet, said to be written in the late 1590s or early 1600s.

In The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio tells Katherine that he’ll marry her, whether she wants to or not: “And, will you, nill you, I will marry you.”

In the passage from Hamlet that you mentioned, a gravedigger comments on whether Ophelia deserves a Christian burial after a suspicious drowning. The expression “will he nill he” isn’t in the First Quarto (1603), the earliest published version of the play, but it’s in the Second Quarto (1604-5) and the First Folio (1623.)

Here’s an expanded version from the Second Quarto of the gravedigger’s remarks: “if the man goe to this water & drowne himselfe, it is will he, nill he, he goes, marke you that, but if the water come to him, & drowne him, he drownes not himselfe.”

The earliest example in the OED for “willy-nilly” spelled the usual modern way (but minus the hyphen) is from Salmagundi, a 19th-century satirical periodical created and written by Washington Irving and others. Here’s an expanded version of the April 25, 1807, citation:

“Woe be to the patient that came under the benevolent hand of my aunt Charity; he was sure, willy nilly, to be drenched with a deluge of decoctions: and full many a time has my cousin Christopher borne a twinge of pain in silence, through fear of being condemned to suffer the martyrdom of her materia medica.”

We suspect that the “willy-nilly” spelling may have caught on because of its similarity to two other reduplicative usages, “wishy-washy” (1693) and “shilly-shally” (1700). As we’ve noted several times on the blog, reduplication is the complete or partial repetition of linguistic elements.

Interestingly, the OED’s entry for “willy-nilly,” which hasn’t been fully updated since 1926, cites an early 17th-century satirical play as the first written example of the expression: “Thou shalt trust mee spite of thy teeth, furnish me with some money, wille nille” (from A Trick to Catch the Old-One, 1608, by Thomas Middleton).

The Old English and Middle English passages that we’ve cited as early versions of “willy-nilly” are from the dictionary’s entries for the verb “will” and the archaic verb “nill.” We assume that the OED will eventually note the earlier usages in an updated “willy-nilly” entry.

As of now, the dictionary doesn’t have any examples of “willy-nilly” in the usual modern sense of haphazardly. As far as we can tell, the expression took on that meaning in the mid-19th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is from the English poet Edward FitzGerald’s 1859 translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

Into this Universe, and why not knowing,
Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

On Main St. and in the High St

Q: Any wisdom on why Americans say “on Main Street” and the British say “in the High Street” for, well, the main street in a town?

A: “High Street,” a chiefly British term for the main shopping road in a town or city, is much older than “Main Street,” its American counterpart.

(If you’re wondering why “Main St.” has a period in the title of this post and “High St” doesn’t, the first illustrates American usage and the second British usage.)

When the British term “high street” showed up in Anglo-Saxon days, it wasn’t the name of a specific street, but merely referred to “a main road, either in a town or city or constituting a principal connecting route,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The term “high” here meant chief, principal, or main.

The first OED example is from an Old English land charter that describes boundary markers in the village of Whittington in Worcestershire: “andlang sices þæt to þære hæhstræte, andlang stræte þæt in langan broc” (“along the stream to the high street, along the street with the long brook”). Published in Worcestershire Anglo-Saxon Charter-Bounds (1990), edited by Della Hooke.

Since “high street” was originally a descriptive term, it was often accompanied by a definite article and lowercased, as in “the high street.” In later use, the OED says, the term was capitalized as the name of “the main street of a town or city,” chiefly “the main shopping street.” And “in some (esp. British) towns, names of this type still retain the definite article.”

The term came to mean a specific road in Middle English. Oxford says it “is apparently earliest attested unambiguously with reference to a particular street in an English town (Oxford)” in this citation: “Þoruȝ al þe heiȝe strete” (“through all the high street”). From The Life of St. Edmund Rich (circa 1300), in The Early South-English Legendary (1887), edited by Carl Horstmann.

And here’s a late 14th-century citation from Piers Plowman, an allegorical poem by William Langland: “Riȝt as syȝte serueth a man to se þe heighe strete” (“right as sight serveth a man to see the high street”).

We’ve expanded this 20th-century example in the OED: “ ‘Maureen is sometimes quite coarse,’ said Marjorie to Jack over carré of lamb from the butcher in the High Street who delivered, and put frills on the cutlets.” From “Rode by All With Price,” a short story by Jane Gardam in London Tales (1983), a collection edited by Julian Evans.

As for “main street,” the earliest Oxford citation for the term is from an Italian-English dictionary published in London: “Rióne, a maine streete, a high way.” A Worlde of Words, or Most Copious, and Exact Dictionarie in Italian and English (1598), by John Florio.

Although the term first showed up in London, Oxford defines “main street” now as “the principal street of a town, esp. in North America. Frequently without article, and as a proper name”—thus capitalized.

The first American citation is from a 1687 entry in the diary of Samuel Sewall, a judge in Massachusetts: “At night a great Uproar and Lewd rout in the Main Street.” Sewall is better known as one of the nine judges at the 1692-93 Salem witch trials—the only one to apologize publicly for his role.

Americans continued using the definite article with “Main Street” in the 17th and 18th centuries, according to OED citations, but began dropping the article in the 19th century. Here’s a 20th-century example, which we’ve expanded, from The Bear, a short story in William Faulkner’s collection Go Down, Moses, and Other Stories (1942):

“Twenty years ago his father had ridden into Memphis as a member of Colonel Sartoris’ horse in Forrest’s command, up Main street and (the tale told) into the lobby of the Gayoso Hotel where the Yankee officers sat in the leather chairs spitting into the tall bright cuspidors and then out again, scot-free.”

As for “in the High Street” versus “on Main Street,” the preposition “in” is standard with such constructions in Britain, while “on” is standard in North America, according to Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.). The OED notes that “on” is also used with streets in British regional and Irish English.

In fact, “on” was sometimes used in the sense of “in” in Anglo-Saxon days, “almost to the elimination of the preposition in from West Saxon and the dialects influenced by it,” Oxford notes. And “in early southern Middle English,” according to the dictionary, “on still included the sphere of both ‘on’ and ‘in.’ ”

Since “on” has been encroaching on the territory of “in” since Old English and Middle English, it’s not at all surprising that in Modern English a British tea shop is “in the High Street” while an American coffee shop is “on Main Street.”  

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.