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English English language Etymology Expression Language Word origin

The “bert” in Albert, Herbert, Robert, etc.

Q: As a Robert, I’m curious about the “bert” in names like mine—say, Albert, Herbert, Hubert, Gilbert, Norbert, and, for that matter, Bertram.

A: The common theme in names like these, an element inherited from old Germanic languages, is “bright” or “shining.”

Going back even further, to the days before written language, the “bert” element in such names has been traced to a prehistoric Indo-European root reconstructed as bherəg.

As an adjective bherəg meant “bright” or “white” and as a verb it meant “shine,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

Ultimately, the “bert” in these names has the same source as the English words “bright” (beorht in Old English) and “birch” (birce in Old English, so named because it was a white tree).

The Old English beorht, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has cousins not only in Old High German (beraht) but also in Old Saxon and Middle High German (berht), Old Icelandic (bjartr), Old Swedish (barter), Old Danish (bert, bier), and Gothic (bairhts).

All are from “the same Indo-European base as Welsh berth (‘fair, beautiful, bright’),” the OED says.

The Old English beorht and Old High German beraht were used in personal masculine and feminine names, according to American Heritage, where they were often reduced to berht or bert.

Here are some these names and their meanings:

Robert, from Hrodebert (“bright fame”); Albert, from Adalbert (“bright noble”); Bertha, from Beratha (“the bright one”); Gilbert, from Giselberht (“bright hostage” or “bright pledge”); and Herbert, from Heriberht (“bright army”).

Also Cuthbert, which was formed in Old English as Cuthbeorht  (“brightly known”); Hubert (“bright mind”); Norbert (“bright north”); Bertram and Bertrand (“bright shield”); and Bertold (“bright ruler”).

Finally, here’s a little more about your own name, Robert.

Although it’s “ultimately of Germanic origin,” the OED says, it “was common in medieval France and subsequently in Britain.” The name wasn’t unknown in England before the Norman Conquest, but it became more popular afterward.

In 10th-century Britain, Oxford says, the name appeared occasionally in Latin and English documents, but it was used more frequently from the 11th century onward and was “at first apparently borne by people of continental, especially Norman, descent.”

In Old English, according to the dictionary, spellings included Rodbert, Rodbeard, Hrodberd, Rotbeard, Rotbert, Robert, and Roberd. Among the spellings in Middle English were Robart, Robert, Robertt, Roberte, Roberd, and Robard.

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

From A to &, et cetera

Q: What is the story of “&” and why is it replacing “and”?

A: The “&” character, or ampersand, is seen a lot these days in texting, email, and online writing, but the use of a special character for “and” isn’t a new phenomenon. English writers have been doing this since Anglo-Saxon days, a usage borrowed from the ancient Romans.

In his book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks (2013), Keith Houston writes that the Romans had two special characters for representing et, the Latin word for “and.” They used either ⁊, a symbol in a shorthand system known as notae Tironianae, or the ancestor of the ampersand, a symbol combining the e and t of et.

The Tironian system is said to have been developed by Tiro, a slave and secretary of the Roman statesman and scholar Cicero in the first century BC. After being freed, Tiro adopted Cicero’s praenomen and nomen, and called himself Marcus Tullius Tiro.

Houston says the earliest known recorded version of the ampersand was an et ligature, or compound character, scrawled on a wall in Pompeii by an unknown graffiti artist and preserved under volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

He cites the research of Jan Tschichold, author of Formenwandlungen der &-Zeichen (1953), which was translated from German to English in 1957 as The Ampersand: Its Origin and Development. An illustration that Houston based on Tschichold’s work shows the evolution of the ampersand over the years.

(Image #1 is from Pompeii, while the modern-looking #13 is from the Merovingian Latin of the eighth century.)

In Shady Characters, Houston describes how the ampersand competed with the Tironian ⁊ in the Middle Ages. “From its ignoble beginnings a century after Tiro’s scholarly et, the ampersand assumed its now-familiar shape with remarkable speed even as its rival remained immutable,” he writes.

“Whatever its origins, the scrappy ampersand would go on to usurp the Tironian et in a quite definitive manner,” he says, adding, “Tiro’s et showed the way but the ampersand was the real destination.”

Today, Houston writes, the Tironian character “survives in the wild only in Irish Gaelic, where it serves as an ‘and’ sign on old mailboxes and modern road signs,” while the ampersand “ultimately earned a permanent place in type cases and on keyboards.” (We added the links.)

Although the ampersand was common in medieval Latin manuscripts, including works written in Latin by Anglo-Saxon scholars, it took quite a while for the character to replace the Tironian et in English. In most of the Old English and Middle English manuscripts we’ve examined, the Tironian symbol is the usual short form for the various early versions of “and” (end, ond, ænd, ande, and so on).

A good example is the original manuscript of Beowulf, an epic poem that may have been written as early as 725. The anonymous author uses ond for “and” only a few times, but the Tironian symbol appears scores of times. However, modern transcriptions of the Old English in Beowulf often replace the “⁊” with ond or “&.” When the Tironian character does appear, it’s often written as the numeral “7.”

Here are the last few lines of the poem with the Tironian characters (or notes) intact: “cwædon þæt he wære wyruldcyning, / manna mildust ⁊ monðwærust / eodum liðost, ⁊ lofgeornost” (“Of all the world’s kings, they said, / he was the kindest and the gentlest of men, / the most gracious to his people and the most worthy of fame”).

Although you can find dozens of ampersands in transcriptions of Old English and Middle English manuscripts, an analysis of the original documents shows that most of the “&” characters were originally Tironian notes.

Dictionaries routinely transcribe the Tironian note as an ampersand in their citations from Old and Middle English. As the Oxford English Dictionary, the most influential and comprehensive etymological dictionary, says in an explanatory note, “In this dictionary the Old and Middle English Tironian note is usually printed as &.”

However, the ampersand does show up at times in early English. For example, it’s included in an Anglo-Saxon alphabet dating from the late 10th or early 11th century. A scribe added the alphabet to an early 9th-century copy of a Latin letter by the scholar, cleric, and poet Alcuin of York (British Library, Harley 208, fol. 87v).

The alphabet is in the upper margin of the image. It includes the 23 letters of the classical Latin alphabet (with a backward “b”) followed by the ampersand, the Tironian et, and four Anglo-Saxon runes: the wynn (ᚹ), the thorn (þ), the aesc (ᚫ), and an odd-looking eth (ð) that resembles a “y.” At the end of the alphabet, the scribe added the first words of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin (pater noster). The British Library’s digital viewer lets readers examine the image in more detail.

At the end of Harley 208, which includes copies of 91 letters by Alcuin and one by Charlemagne, the scribe wrote a line in Old English, “hwæt ic eall feala ealde sæge (“Listen, for I have heard many old sagas”), which is reminiscent of line 869 in Beowulf: “eal fela eald gesegena” (“all the many old sagas”). Is the scribe suggesting that the letters are ancient tales?

A similar alphabet appears in Byrhtferð’s Enchiridion, or handbook (1011), a wide-ranging compilation of information on such subjects as astronomy, mathematics, logic, grammar, and rhetoric. However, the alphabet in the Enchiridion (Ashmole Ms. 328, Bodleian Library, Oxford), differs somewhat from the one above—the æsc rune is replaced by an ae ligature at the end.

We’ve seen several other Old English alphabets arranged in similar order. In most of them, an ampersand follows the letter “z.”  Fred C. Robinson, a Yale philologist and Old English scholar, has said the “earliest of the abecedaria is probably” the one in Harley 208 (“Syntactical Glosses in Latin Manuscripts of Anglo-Saxon Provenance,” published in Speculum, A Journal of Medieval Studies, July 1973). An “abecedarium” (plural “abecedaria”) is an alphabet written in order.

We haven’t seen any examples of the ampersand used in Old English other than in alphabets. The earliest examples we’ve found for the ampersand in actual text are in Middle English. Here’s an example from The Knight’s Tale of the Hengwrt Chaucer, circa 1400, one of the earliest manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales:

The middle line in the image reads: “hir mercy & hir grace” (“her mercy & her grace”). Here’s an expanded version of the passage: “and but i have hir mercy & hir grace, / that i may seen hire atte leeste weye / i nam but deed; ther nis namoore to seye” (“And unless I have her mercy & her grace, / So I can at least see her some way, / I am as good as dead; there is no more to say”).

Middle English writers also used the ampersand in the term “&c,” short for “et cetera.” In a 1418 will, for example, “&c” was used to avoid repeating a name: “quirtayns [curtains] of worsted … in warde of Anneys Elyngton, and … a gowne of grene frese, in ward, &c” (from The Fifty Earliest English Wills in the Court of Probate, edited by Frederick James Furnivall, 1882).

Although literary writers didn’t ordinarily use a symbol for “and” in early Modern English, the ampersand showed up every once in a while. For example, the character slipped into this passage from The Shepheardes Calender (1579), Edmund Spenser’s first major poem: “The blossome, which my braunch of youth did beare, / With breathed sighes is blowne away, & blasted.”

And in the 1603 First Quarto of Hamlet, Shakespeare has Hamlet telling Horatio, “O the King doth wake to night, & takes his rouse [a full cup of wine, beer, etc.].” But “and” replaces the ampersand, and the “O” disappears, in the Second Quarto (1604) and the First Folio (1623).

As for today, we see nothing wrong with using an ampersand in casual writing (we often use “Pat & Stewart” to sign our emails), but we’d recommend “and” for formal writing and noteworthy informal writing.

Nevertheless, formal use of the ampersand is common today in company names, such as AT&T, Marks & Spencer, and Ben & Jerry’s. And some authors, notably H. W. Fowler in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), have used them regularly in formal writing.

Finally, we should mention that the term “ampersand” is relatively new. Although the “&” character dates back to classical times, the noun “ampersand” didn’t show up in writing until the 18th century.

The earliest OED example for “ampersand” with its modern spelling is from a travel book written in the late 18th century. Here’s an expanded version:

“At length, having tried all the historians from great A, to ampersand, he perceives there is no escaping from the puzzle, but by selecting his own facts, forming his own conclusions, and putting a little trust in his own reason and judgment” (from Gleanings Through Wales, Holland and Westphalia, 1795, by S. J. Pratt).

The expression “from A to ampersand” (meaning from the beginning to the end, or in every particular) is an old way of saying “from A to Z.” It was especially popular in the 19th century.

As we’ve noted, the ampersand followed the letter “z” in some old abecedaria, a practice going back to Anglo-Saxon days. And when children were taught that alphabet in the late Middle Ages, they would recite the letters from “A” to “&.”

In Promptorium Parvolorum (“Storehouse for Children”), a Middle English-to-Latin dictionary written around 1440, English letters that are words by themselves, including the ampersand, are treated specially in reciting the alphabet, according to The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories (1991), edited by Frederick C. Mish.

As Mish explains, when a single letter formed a word or syllable—like “I” (the personal pronoun) or the first “i” in “iris”—it was recited as “I per se, I.”  In other words, “I by itself, I.”

“The per se spellings were used especially for the letters that were themselves words,” Mish writes. “Because the alphabet was augmented by the sign &, which followed z, there were four of these: A per se, A; I per se, I; O per se, O, and & per se, and.”

Since he “&” character was spoken as “and,” children reciting the alphabet would refer to it as “and per se, and.” That expression, Mish says, became “in slightly altered and contracted form, the standard name for the character &.” In other words, “ampersand” originated as a corruption of “and per se, and.”

The two earliest citations for “ampersand” in the OED spell it “ampuse and” (1777) and “appersiand” (1785). Various other spellings continued to appear in the 1800s—“ampus-and” (1859), “Amperzand” (1869)—before the modern version became established.

We’ll end with “The Ampersand Sonnet,” the calligrapher A. J. Fairbank’s take on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 66. In this version of the sonnet, each “and” in Shakespeare’s original is replaced by a different style of ampersand:

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Dapping in Vietnam

Q: I’m writing a piece about the origins of the fist bump in sports. The conventional wisdom is that it evolved from the dap, the elaborate greeting used by black soldiers during the Vietnam War. While doing research, I found an old story by Stewart Kellerman that may be the first written use of the term. Do you know of an earlier one?

A: As far as we can tell, the use of “dap” for the black power greeting in Vietnam did indeed show up in print for the first time in Stewart’s article, written when he was a war correspondent for United Press International. It appeared in the April 25, 1971, issue of the Pittsburgh Press and other newspapers.

In the article, “Soul Session in Vietnam,” which we’ve reproduced on our blog, Stewart writes of being invited to spend an evening with a group of militant black soldiers in an all-black hooch, or barracks. A cardboard sign taped to a wall read: “Off limits / No rabbits allowed / This area for blacks and blacks only.”

During a rap session, the GIs told Stewart that “dap” came from dep, Vietnamese for beautiful. As far as we know, that’s the earliest written indication of the term’s etymology, though a few other suggestions have appeared since then. Here’s an excerpt from the article in which both “dap” and “dapping” are used:

The blacks arrived in groups of two or three during the night. When each got there he went around the hooch doing the dap (from “dep,” the Vietnamese word for beautiful) with all the others. The intricate dap is made up of dozens of steps ranging from tapping fists to slapping chests.

Blacks say the dap is mainly used to say hello, show friendship and express brotherhood. However, some of the most commonly used gestures (the dap varies from region to region) are symbols for cutting the throats of MPs and shooting  them in the head.

Spec. 4 Gary Terrell, 23, of Birmingham, Ala., said his superiors have tried to get him to cut his hair, take off his power band and stop dapping with the brothers.

“I tell them no,” he said. “You ain’t gonna take my soul away from me, you dig. So what happens? I got every rotten job the rabbits can think of.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the usage as “U.S slang (originally and chiefly in African-American usage),” and defines it as a “special handshake, typically involving slapping palms, bumping fists, or snapping fingers; chiefly as a mass noun in some dap or to give (a person) dap. Also give (a person) daps.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary, says “dap” is of uncertain origin, but may have come from the noun “tap” or “perhaps (as suggested in Green’s Dictionary of Slang)” from the verb “dab” (to pat or tap).

The earliest Oxford citation for the term is from the publication of Stewart’s article in the May 15, 1971, issue of the Afro-American (Baltimore), a few weeks after it originally appeared: “Blacks say the dap is mainly used to say hello, show friendship and express brotherhood.”

Green’s Dictionary defines “dap” as an African-American noun or verb for “a ritualistic handshake, differing from area to area, involving much slapping of palms, snapping of fingers, etc.”

The first Green’s example is from an entry in Black Jargon in White America (1972), by David Claerbaut: “dap n. a rather sophisticated or complicated hand greeting used by many black people.”

The American Heritage Historical Dictionary of American Slang defines the term as “any of various elaborate handshakes used esp. by young black men to express solidarity or enthusiasm.” It cites the same dictionary of black jargon mentioned in Green’s.

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Christmas fiction humor Writing

Letter From Barsetshire

[One of our favorite authors, the 20th-century British novelist Angela Thirkell, was not fond of Christmas. In observance of the holiday season, we’re reprinting an essay Pat wrote about her for the December-January issue of the Literary Review in London.]

GOOD GAD!

Patricia T. O’Conner

I’m always reminded of Angela Thirkell as Christmas casts its thick gloom (her word, not mine) upon a weary world. ‘No one has ever yet described with sufficient hatred and venom this Joyous and Festive Season,’ she once wrote. A rector in her Barsetshire novels privately regards the Second World War as ‘little but an intensification of Christmas’. And a mother of four grown sons with delightful families determines ‘to have mild influenza from the middle of December till after the New Year’.

How can you not love a novelist who sees licensed gluttony in the celebratory feasts, naked greed in the joyful faces of little children? These are sentiments that comfort and refresh. As long as we behave well, Thirkell seems to say, we’re free to think the worst of people.

I first read Thirkell in the 1980s as a staff editor at the New York Times Book Review. Publishers were starting to revive her novels in paperback and part of my job was to write a paperbacks column. The day a Thirkell (Pomfret Towers) landed on my desk, I was sucked in. Soon my husband was too. We are still obsessed. We have all twenty-nine of her Barsetshire novels, and whenever a certain longing reaches critical mass we read all twenty-nine again, straight though.

Her attraction is unmistakable but hard to explain to the uninitiated. Reading her, I feel like that lady in the old New Yorker cartoon. She looks up from her book, puts it down, leaves her chair in search of a pencil, returns to her chair, takes up the book and writes, ‘How true!’ in the margin. The characters and situations in these novels are often ridiculous, but they’re utterly true.

Born in 1890, Thirkell wrote thirty-three novels between the 1930s and her death in 1961, most of them set in Barsetshire, the fictional English county she borrowed from Trollope and updated for the 20th century. Many of her families are descended from Trollope’s, with names like Crawley, Gresham, Dale and Palliser (her bishop and bishopess are not Proudies, but they’re just as bad). Trollope’s towns and villages, plus some new ones, surround the county seat, Barchester, where the setting sun still glints on ‘the most beautiful cathedral spire in England’.

This genteel world was familiar territory to Thirkell, who grew up in a home full of art, music and books. Her father, John W Mackail, was a distinguished Scottish classicist and her maternal grandfather was the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. Rudyard Kipling was a cousin, as was Stanley Baldwin, and her parents’ and grandparents’ circle of friends included William Morris, J M Barrie (her godfather) and many prominent authors, scholars and artists.

Her love for Trollope, she once said, began in childhood when she was ill in bed and her mother read to her from his books. She had other literary loves as well, including Scott, Austen, Tennyson, Thackeray and, particularly, Dickens, because, she said, he made her laugh. But she found Russian novels so dull that ‘they make me squint’.

As for sex, her characters don’t have it – at least not on the page. But she sneaks it in through the back door. Public school boys who torment their teachers are ‘master-baiters’. Moviegoers flock to the Barchester Odeon to see their favourite star, Glamora Tudor, in steamy productions like Burning Flesh, Honka Tonka Bodyline, One Night in the Vatican and the astonishingly titled Legs Round Your Neck. (Glamora’s hunky leading men are invariably Americans, with names like Hash Gobbett, Hake Codman and Croke Scumper.)

Two of Thirkell’s funniest and most shrewdly drawn characters are a lesbian couple who appear in many of the novels and are at the centre of village social life. The dashing Miss Hampton, always in an elegantly tailored coat and skirt and carrying a long cigarette holder, writes pornographic novels with titles like Chariots of Desire (about the sex lives of lorry drivers) and Temptation at St Anthony’s (set in a boys’ school), a selection of the Banned Book of the Month Club. Always in search of fresh material, Miss Hampton grills new acquaintances about their occupations: ‘Much vice?’

She’s helped in her research by the plumper and messier Miss Bent, who dresses in shapeless frocks accessorised with strings of clanking beads. Miss Bent tells their new neighbour, a rear admiral, ‘I would like to pick your brains about the lower deck’, and boasts of a forthcoming book, ‘It will be strong meat. Can England take it?’ At the close of a drinks party, of which they host a great many, the two excuse themselves on the grounds that Miss Hampton was up late the previous night, finishing a book. Miss Bent explains, ‘Hampton does plunge so in bed when she is Writing.’

Gay men also appear, but they’re treated with less affection. While the two women are accepted matter-of-factly, nobody can stand Fritz Gissing, ‘a totally unworthy object’ who does petit point and ‘ought to be in the Army’. Then there’s Lionel Harvest, a conceited BBC announcer who ‘reads Coventry Patmore quite perfectly’ on the air. ‘Queer boy, Lionel,’ one mother comments. ‘I’d let my girls go out with him, but I don’t know that I’d let my boys.’

For the 21st-century reader, political incorrectness and racial insensitivity stick out all over. A recurring character is ‘the village idiot, a person without whom no village is complete’. A common theme is illegitimacy among the lower classes, who cheerfully produce ‘children of shame’ at regular intervals. And an offstage character is an African princeling, newly graduated from Balliol, who returns to Mngangaland and ritually slays scores of relations ‘to the tune of the Eton Boating Song, with an accompaniment of native drums’.

But Thirkell was a product of her time and her class. For her there are no sacred cows, barring those that win ribbons at the Barchester Agricultural. Despite her Argyll heritage, she satirises Scotland. A Scot visiting Barsetshire says his family seat, Aberdeathly, lies ‘on the slopes of Ben Gaunt, just above Loch Gloom, and about ten miles by road from Inverdreary’. Not even religion is out of bounds. One of her vicars is appointed the head of St Ælla’s Home for Stiff-Necked Clergy, named after a ‘rude Saxon swineherd’ who was martyred for refusing to feed and water his pigs during Lent.

Thirkell often uses crotchety old men to puncture literary and artistic pretensions. Notable among them is Lord Stoke, who still drives a dog cart in the 1950s, remembers the Army and Navy Stores when it ‘was the Army and Navy Stores’ and is immune to literature that postdates Dickens (Trollope, of course, doesn’t exist in Barsetshire). When a lady says over tea, ‘There is one of Thomas Hardy’s depressing little contes –’ Lord Stoke interrupts: ‘Thomas Who? Never heard of the feller. And what’s a cont? Never heard of one.’ When occasion arises, curmudgeonly types actually say ‘Pah!’ and ‘Bah!’ and ‘Tut, tut’ and ‘Good Gad!’

Thirkell delights in skewering her characters’ obsessions – Icelandic sagas, drains, Roman ruins, dubious Viking remains, 12th-century Provençal verse, birdwatching and the propagation of rare and hideous plants. Scholars, too, come in for their share of gentle mockery. They’re deep into critical studies of Fluvius Minucius, the analects of Procrastinator, or Hippocampus, a sixth-century bishop of Rhinoceros. One donnish young man is writing a book about the Reverend Thomas Bohun, a 17th-century canon of Barchester who wrote ‘a number of very erotic poems’, including To his Mistrefs, on feeing fundrie Worme-Caftes.

One of Thirkell’s charms is her tendency to divagate. She took an unusually long time to write a particular passage, she says, because it was composed ‘with frequent intervals to look out of the window and watch the workmen painting the house opposite a most revolting shade of shrimp-gamboge’.

Thirkell had no illusions that her books were Great Literature. She freely admitted that she wrote ‘nice’ middlebrow novels solely to make a living and educate her son, the youngest of three resulting from two disastrous marriages. ‘I expect to write the same book every year until I die,’ she said. But in the process she recorded, in real time, a social history of England in the mid-20th century and chronicled the seismic upheavals that forever changed a people, a landscape, a culture.

She often expressed great affection for her ‘Cloud-Cuckoo-Land’ and its inhabitants. In an introduction to a 1958 edition of Trollope’s Barchester Towers, she wrote, ‘I have loved Barsetshire now for more than fifty years. I should like to think that it waits for me somewhere, with all the old friends alive and as they were.’ As this grim year draws to a close, a year Thirkell would have called ‘too foully dispiriting,’ it’s time I booked a return ticket to Barsetshire.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Why ‘hoodwink’ means to deceive

Q: I was reading a Trollope novel (Lady Anna, 1871) and found this passage: “The Earl, however, was but a young man, likely to be taken by mere beauty; and it might be that the girl had been clever enough to hoodwink him.” Can “hoodwink” be that old? And how did it come to mean deceive?

A: The verb “hoodwink” is a lot older than that. It first appeared in the 16th century but has roots in the Old English words for “hood” and “wink,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Anglo-Saxon days, a hood (or hod) referred to a head covering, while wincian meant to close one’s eyes.

The OED’s earliest written example for “hood” is from the Epinal Glossary, which dates from some time before 700. An entry in the glossary gives the Latin and Old English words for a head covering: “Capitium, hood.”

The first Oxford citation for wincian, which we’ve expanded here, is from Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s late ninth-century translation of Liber Regulae Pastoralis, a sixth-century Latin treatise by Pope Gregory:

“Ac se þe agimeleasaþ ðæt he ðence, ærðæmðe he do, se stæpð forð mid ðam fotum & wincaþ mid ðæm eagum” (“But he who fails to think before acting, steps forth with his feet and winketh with [closes] his eyes”).

When the verb “hoodwink” showed up in 16th-century writing, it was used literally and meant to “cover the eyes with a hood or other covering so as to prevent vision; to blindfold,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s first citation is from an anonymous treatise on Roman Catholic masses celebrated privately: “Will you enforce women to hoodwink themselves in the church?” (from An Apologie of Priuate Masse, 1562).

In the early 17th century, “hoodwink” took on its modern figurative sense, which Oxford defines as to “blindfold mentally; to prevent (any one) from seeing the truth or fact; to ‘throw dust in the eyes’ of, deceive, humbug.”

The earliest example refers to people who deceive themselves: “Let not the faithlesse therefore hood-winck them-selues in the knowledge of nature” (from John Healey’s 1610 translation of Augustine’s The City of God, a fifth-century work entitled De Civitate Dei Contra Paganos in Latin).

Finally, here’s an OED example, which we’ve expanded, from An Essay on Waters (1756), by Charles Lucas, an Irish apothecary, physician, and politician:

“The public, though a many-headed monster, is as easily hood-winked, as if it had but one head or one eye. The multitude is as often, as sensibly, affected by artful falsehoods, as by plane truths, and frequently more so.”

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

One of the only

Q: Are you as upset as I am over the growing use of the meaningless phrase “one of the only”? I keep seeing it used by journalists and other professional writers! Do you know how it started? I’m guessing it was coined by an advertising copywriter trying to impart exclusivity to his client’s pedestrian product.

A: We’re sorry to disappoint you, but we see nothing wrong with “one of the only” followed by a plural noun. It’s not unusual and it’s not new either, since it’s more than 400 years old.

Perhaps you object because you think “the only” implies just one, but that’s not the case. In some constructions, “only” is used legitimately in a plural sense to mean very few.

For instance, if “only three people” know a secret, they’re “the only three people” who know it. And if Jack is among them, then he’s “one of the only three people” who know it. Nothing wrong there, either grammatically or logically.

Merriam-Webster Online, in its entry for “one of the only,” says it’s an idiom meaning “one of very few” or “one in a small class or category.”

The dictionary gives two examples: “That was one of the only times I ever saw my father cry” and “This is one of the only places in the world where the plant is found.”

M-W is the only standard dictionary with a separate entry for the phrase “one of the only.” But others include the plural sense of “only” in their definitions of the adjective (we’ve underlined the plural senses):

Cambridge: “We use only as an adjective to mean that there is just one or very few of something” … Dictionary.com: “being the single one or the relatively few of the kind” … Lexico: “Alone of its or their kind” … Webster’s New World: “alone of its or their kind; by itself or by themselves” … Macmillan: “used for showing that there are no other things or people of the same kind as the one or ones that you are mentioning” … Merriam-Webster Unabridged: “being one or more of which there exist no others of the same class or kind.”

As we mentioned, “one of the only” isn’t a recent construction. The earliest example we’ve found is from a book on exploration published in 1599:

“From thence passing many dayes trauell, I came vnto a prouince [province] called Casan, which is for good commodities, one of the onely prouinces vnder the Sunne.” From The Principal Nauigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation, by Richard Hakluyt. (The passage translates the Latin account of a Franciscan friar’s travels to the East. The friar, Odoric of Pordenone, dictated the memoir on his deathbed in 1330.)

And this example was recorded a few years later: “he was one of the only men that sought the ouerthrow of their Dominion.” From The Historie of Iustine (1606), George Wilkins’s translation of the Latin original by the Roman historian Marcus Junianus Justinus.

In old book and newspaper databases, we’ve found many other examples from every century since then. Here’s a smattering of examples, and as you’ll notice, “one of the only” is often followed by a number plus a plural noun:

“one of the onely three supposed to haue preached” (1633); “one of the only three honest, valuable men in England” (1770); “a piece of Roman architecture; one of the only pure pieces perhaps in England” (1772); “one of the only two genera which constitute this order” (1819); “one of the only four surviving patriots who signed the Declaration of Independence” (1820); “one of the only two candidates that have ever been seriously thought of” (1824); “one of the only two ships” (1825); “one of the only two persons on board” (1827); “one of the only three brethren who could preach to the natives” (1832).

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has no separate entry for “one of the only.” But the phrase appears in a few of the dictionary’s citations for other words and phrases.

This one is found in an OED entry for the noun “Clarisse,” the name of an order of nuns: “One of the only two nunneries of the Clarisses in Scotland existed at Aberdour” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 1879).

And the dictionary’s entry for “static” has this: “J. H. de Magellan, writing in 1779, said that he had seen a static barometer started by Sisson (one of the only two such instruments in Europe at the time).” From English Barometers 1680-1860 (2nd ed., 1977), by Nicholas Goodison.

In short, “one of the only” has been an established usage for centuries, in literary and scientific writing as well as everyday English.

No one, as far as we can tell, objects to the phrase without “the,” as in “one of only three dissenting voices” or “one of only four survivors.” But judging from comments on the Internet, many people are bothered by the phrase with the article, whether or not a number follows, as in “one of the only three dissenting voices” or “one of the only survivors.”

However, we see nothing wrong, grammatically or logically, with those constructions. If a litter of puppies includes two girls and eight boys, there’s nothing illogical in the sentence “We reserved one of the only two females.” In other words, “Of the only two females, we reserved one.”

Of course, without “the,” that sentence would still make sense (“We reserved one of only two females”). But “the” doesn’t make it wrong or illogical. In fact, we think “the only two” is more emphatic than “only two.” The presence of the article emphasizes the smallness (or fewness) of the number of girls in the litter.

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When an earring is an ear hanger

Q: While binging on The Bridge, I was surprised at how I could sometimes almost understand the dialogue in the Nordic TV series. So I signed up for a Swedish word-of-the-day, which leads to my question. Is there a term for words like “earring” and örhänge (ear hanger) that describe the same thing in different ways?

A: Two terms that have similar meanings in the same language, whether conceptually similar or not, are considered synonyms. Two terms that are semantically similar in different languages, whether similar in concept or not, are interlingual or bilingual synonyms.

So “earring” in English and örhänge in Swedish are interlingual synonyms. Interestingly, the term in two other Nordic languages, Norwegian and Danish, is ørering, which is conceptually similar to the English word. However, the term in another Nordic language, Icelandic, is conceptually different from all the others: eyrnalokkur (ear lure).

As it turns out, there were at least three different terms for an earring in Old English, and each was conceptually different: earpreon (ear pin), earspinl (ear spindle), and earhring (ear ring).

One could perhaps argue that the modern terms “earring,” örhänge, and ørering are conceptually “hyponyms” of the “hypernym” eyrnalokkur. A “hyponym” is a word whose meaning is included in the meaning of a more general word, a “hypernym” or “superordinate.” So “earring,” örhänge, or ørering might be seen as a specific typs of ear lure (or allurement) within the general term eyrnalokkur.

Of course many synonyms might better be described as near synonyms, since they’re “polysemous” (have multiple meanings) and not all the meanings coincide. For instance, “slip” and “trip” can be synonyms for an error, but they have other senses that aren’t alike.

In looking into your question, we came across a study by two researchers about the difficulty in programming computers to translate polysemous words: “Near-Synonymy and Lexical Choice,” by Philip Edmonds and Graeme Hirst (Computational Linguistics, June 2002). As they write, “Choosing the right word can be difficult for people, let alone present-day computer systems.”

We’ve written before about two linguistic relatives of hyponymy and hypernymy. In a 2009 post, we discuss “synecdoche” and “metonymy,” figures of speech in which one thing is used to represent another. In both of these rhetorical figures, the original term and the substitute are closely identified or associated with each other.

With, “synecdoche,” a part is used to represent the whole or vice versa. Examples commonly cited are the use of “hand” to mean a sailor and “the cavalry” to mean a single trooper. With “metonymy,” the substituted word is not a part (or an extension) of the original but something associated with it. Classic examples are “the crown” to represent the monarchy and “the sword” to represent military power.

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A lapidary opinion

Q: A column in the Washington Post refers to “the lapidary phrases of a Supreme Court opinion.” Is this an oddball use of the word?

A: The adjective “lapidary” can refer either to engraving on stone, especially stone monuments, or to writing that’s suitable for engraving on stone. However, that second sense is often used to describe writing that’s concise, precise, and elegant.

In the Washington Post column you cite, the editorial writer Charles Lane says, “If there is to be a right to die in the United States, democratic processes in the states and, possibly, Congress will establish its contours, not the lapidary phrases of a Supreme Court opinion.” In other words, the legalization of euthanasia won’t come from a well-written Supreme Court opinion.

In defining the adjective “lapidary,” nine of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult include such terms as “accurate,” “clever,” “concise,” “exact,” “elegant,” “precise,” “refined,” “short,” “simple,” and “well-written.” One dictionary, Macmillan, doesn’t have an entry for “lapidary” in either its US or UK editions.

Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online), defines this sense of “lapidary” as “elegant and concise, and therefore suitable for engraving on stone.” That is, appropriate for monumental writing, whether on granite or in print.

So the looser use of “lapidary” to describe writing that’s concise, precise, elegant, and so on is legitimate, but you’re probably not the only reader of the Post to be confused by it. For an Op-Ed piece, we’d use one or two of those dictionary terms above, depending on what we meant.

As for the word’s etymology, English borrowed “lapidary” from the classical Latin adjective lapidarius (of or relating to stone). In Latin, lapis and lapidis are the nominative singular and plural forms of the noun for stone.

When “lapidary” first appeared in English in the 14th century, it was a noun that had two meanings: (1) someone who cuts, polishes, or engraves precious stones, and (2) a treatise on precious stones. Sense #1 is standard today, but #2 is obsolete or historical, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s an expanded version of the earliest OED citation for the first sense: “with precious iemmes figured in binding of gold, and with werk of the lapidarie grauen” (“with precious gems set in gold binding, and engraved with the lapidary’s work”). From Ecclesiastes 45:13 in the Wycliffe Bible of 1382.

And this is the first Oxford citation for the second sense: “The fynest stones faire / That men reden [read of] in the lapidaire.” From Hous of Fame, a Middle English poem by Geoffrey Chaucer, circa 1384.

The dictionary defines the adjective “lapidary,” which showed up in the early 18th century, as “engraved on stone, esp. monumental stones,” or “characteristic of or suitable for monumental inscriptions.”

The dictionary’s earliest example uses the term to describe writing that’s fit to be engraved. The citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a note in the biography of the Rev. John Barwick, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London:

“See a farther Account of him in Dr. Gower’s two Sermons preach’d on Occasion of his Death, and in Dr. Jenkins’s Lapidary Verses prefix’d to those Sermons.” From Life of Dr. Barwick (1724), a biography written in Latin by Peter Barwick, the dean’s brother, and translated into English by Hilkiah Bedford.

The next Oxford example refers to an actual inscription engraved in stone that was found among the ruins of a Roman amphitheater: “These Words, A SOLO FECIT, expressed, in the Lapidary Stile, that it was built from its very Foundation.” From A Compleat History of the Ancient Amphitheatres (1730), Alexander Gordon’s translation of a work by the Italian art critic Francesco Scipione Maffei.

The OED’s most recent example is from the Feb. 18, 1899, issue of the Academy, a London magazine: “A stanza [which] has a lapidary dignity, as of some thing carved in stone.”

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A degenerate gambler?

Q: It seems that “degenerate” is now the only term that the media applies to a long-time gambler. In the past, the more common, almost stock, term was “inveterate,” or sometimes “unregenerate.”  Of course, many dedicated gamblers can be degenerates, but the prior terms seem more apropos.

A: Any of those adjectives—“degenerate,” “inveterate,” or “unregenerate”—could legitimately be used to describe a gambler. But we agree with you that someone who gambles habitually and perhaps addictively is best described as “inveterate” or “unregenerate.”

“Inveterate” means long-established or habitual, and “unregenerate” means unable or unwilling to change. When used to modify “gambler,” both suggest that the gambling is long-established, hard to stop, and so on. Those adjectives are largely meaningless if used alone: “He’s inveterate” … “He’s unregenerate.” An inveterate or unregenerate what?

Unlike those words, “degenerate,” which means debased or corrupt, is a character trait in itself. It can be used alone: “He’s degenerate.” When used to modify “gambler,” it describes an incidental characteristic of a gambler. In other words, “He’s a degenerate gambler” would mean “He’s not only a gambler, but also degenerate.”

A comparison of the three phrases in Google’s Ngram viewer shows that “inveterate gambler” is by far the most common. It gets about three times as many hits as the runner-up, “degenerate gambler.” Trailing distantly in last place is “unregenerate gambler,” which barely registers. (Probably because it’s not a very common word.)

Here are examples of each from newspapers:

“He had been invited to join the poker table of that inveterate gambler—and big-time cheat—King Farouk” (Wall Street Journal, June 19, 2015).

“Las Vegas shooter was a degenerate gambler” (New York Post headline, Oct. 2, 2017).

“Anyone who saw [Jackie] Robinson play has to laugh when Pete Rose, the unregenerate gambler, is held up as the paragon of hustle” (Washington Post, April 8, 2004).

All the adjectives are derived from Latin and came into English in the early 1500s.

We’ll start with “inveterate,” from the Latin adjective inveteratus (grown old, of long standing, chronic), derived from the verb veterare (to make old). Here the in- prefix is an intensifier.

The English term was first recorded in writing in 1528, when it meant “full of obstinate prejudice or hatred; embittered, malignant; virulent,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. That’s no longer a standard usage.

Later in the 1500s, “inveterate” acquired a new sense: “firmly established by long continuance; long-established; deep-rooted; obstinate,” uses the dictionary says now apply mostly to “things evil.” And a couple of centuries later it was also being used more mildly, to mean “settled or confirmed in habit, condition, or practice; habitual, hardened, obstinate.” Those are the common meanings today.

A few examples of both senses: “huyrmongyn [whoremongering] inveterat” (1563); “inueterate malice” (1597); “inveterate, sinfull Habits” (1692); “an inveterate prejudice” (1735); “inveterate sportsman” (1832); “an inveterate smoker” (1859).

By the way, the word “veteran” is related, since it’s derived from the Latin vetus (old, long-established, belonging to the past). As the OED says, the classical Latin veteranus was a noun for an experienced or mature person and an adjective meaning mature or experienced, with the adjective used “especially of troops.”

Consequently, “veteran” (both noun and adjective) had military meanings upon entering English in the 1500s. The noun (1509) originally meant “a person with long experience in military service or warfare,” the OED says, and the adjective (1548) meant “having long experience in military service or warfare.” The other meanings, involving maturity or long experience in general, came later.

Moving on to the other two adjectives, “degenerate” and “unregenerate,” they have in their genes the Latin gener-, from genus (race or kind).

To be “degenerate” in the early 1500s was to depart from some virtue or quality that one would be expected to have. The OED’s definition: “having lost the qualities proper to the race or kind; having declined from a higher to a lower type; hence, declined in character or qualities; debased, degraded.”

The adjective was first recorded in the phrase “degenerat & growen out of kynde” (1513).

A more current use of the word is illustrated in this later OED example, a reference to Roman Catholic bishops: “The degenerate representatives of a once noble institution” (The History of England From the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth, 1856, by James Anthony Froude).

And an example in Merriam-Webster Online—“a degenerate schemer”—illustrates what M-W calls an especially common definition: “having sunk to a lower and usually corrupt and vicious state.”

As for “unregenerate,” it didn’t come straight from the Romans but was formed within English. It was modeled on the earlier adjective “regenerate” (reborn, reformed), which the OED says did come from Latin and was first recorded around 1435.

When “unregenerate” was first noted in writing in 1561, it meant “not regenerate or reformed, spiritually or (now usually) morally or intellectually,” Oxford says.

The dictionary’s most recent citation: “A currency whose strength would be undiluted by unregenerate profligates and spendthrifts in Ireland and in Club Med” (Daily Telegraph, Nov. 17, 2010).

Both adjectives, “degenerate” and “unregenerate,” developed noun forms later in the same century—“degenerate” (a person who fits the description) in 1555, and “unregenerate” (ditto) in 1578. The first also became a verb in that century. To “degenerate” (1545) means, in a general sense, “to decline in character or qualities, become of a lower type,” Oxford says.

The Latin gener- and degener- have given English a tremendous number of words, all ultimately traceable to a prehistoric Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as genə– (to give birth or beget), according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

Derivatives of this root generally have to do with “aspects of procreation” as well as with “familial and tribal groups,” American Heritage says. Here are some of the better-known English offspring of this ancient root, many of which reflect phonic alterations over the centuries:

benign, cognate, congenial, congenital, engender, engine, gendarme, gender, gene, genealogy, general, generate, generation, generic, generous, genesis, genial, genital, genitive, genius, genre, genocide, genotype, gent, genteel, gentile, gentle, gentry, genuine, genus, germ, German, germane, germinate, gingerly, gonad, kin, kind, kindred, king, heterogeneous, impregnate, indigenous, ingenious, ingenuous, innate, jaunty, kindergarten, malign, miscegenation, nada, naive, nascent, natal, nation, native, nature, née, neonate, Noël, pregnant, progeny, puny, renaissance, wunderkind.

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