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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

The lying origins of ‘belie’

Q: I see usages like “His age belies his strength” when I think it should be “His strength belies his age.” But I’m a bit confused about this. What do you think?

A: The verb “belie” usually means to give a false impression (“His amiable smile belies his toughness”) or to prove false (“The fingerprints belie her claim to have been elsewhere”). All ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult include those two senses, though some add a slight variation or two.

So in answer to your question, one could say either “His strength belies [gives a false impression of] his age” or “His age belies [gives a false impression of] his strength.”

Of course “belie” can be misused. As Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) points out, it’s sometimes thought to mean disclose or reveal, “a sense almost antithetical” to giving a false impression. The usage guide gives this example of the misuse: a “soft drawl belied his Southern roots.”

As for its etymology, “belie” dates from Anglo-Saxon days, when it meant “to deceive (a person) by lying” or “to tell lies about, to slander or libel (a person),” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In Old English, the verb was written as beleogan, formed of the prefix be- (about) plus leogan (to lie or deceive). The earliest example in the OED, dating from the late 9th or early 10th century, uses belogene, the past participle:

“forþon þe we men syndon & beoþ ful oft belogene fram oþrum mannum” (“because we are men we are often belied [deceived] by other men”). From Bishop Wærferð of Worcester’s Old English translation of the Dialogues of Pope Gregory I, written in Latin over the late 6th and early 7th centuries.

In early Middle English, the verb (written as biliȝhe, beleiȝe, bilye, etc.) meant “to tell lies about; esp. to slander or libel, to calumniate,” the OED says. Here’s the dictionary’s earliest citation:

“Þe treowe is ofte mis trouwed & þe sakelese biloȝen … for wane of witnesse” (“the faithful are often mistrusted and the innocent belied [lied about] … for want of witness”). From Ancrene Riwle (Rule for Anchoresses), a guide for monastic women. The work survives in several manuscripts; the OED dates this one from the early 1200s or perhaps late 1100s.

In the 14th century, the expression “belie the truth” came to mean “misrepresent or pervert the truth,” as in this Oxford example: “Þei lede lordes with lesynges and bilyeth treuthe” (“they lead lords with lies and belie the truth”). From Piers Plowman (1378), by William Langland.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, labels all these early senses of “belie” as obsolete or rare.

Over the next few centuries, the lying sense of “belie” lessened and the verb took on its modern meanings of to give a false impression and to prove something false.

Here’s an early Oxford example of the false-impression sense: “It is a straunge thing how men bely themselues: euery one speakes well, and meanes naughtily” (from “Of Alehouses,” a 1600 essay by William Cornwallis, an English courtier and member of Parliament).

And this is an expanded OED example of the other sense, to prove something false: “A Neat, spruce, affecting Courtier, one that weares clothes well, and … cares not what Ladies fauor he belies” (from Ben Jonson’s description of Fastidius Briske, in the cast of characters of his satire Every Man Out of His Humor, 1600).

Finally, here are some modern examples from Merriam-Webster, a standard dictionary:

“Her gentleness belies her strength.”

“His manner and appearance belie his age.”

“The evidence belies their claims of innocence.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

No pants, let alone a jacket

Q: An article in the San Francisco Chronicle about takeout meals says, “now you can dig into the restaurant’s eight-course tasting menu without having to put on a jacket, let alone pants.” Shouldn’t “jacket” and “pants” be flipped?

A: Yes, we’d flip “jacket” and “pants” in that passage from the Chronicle (Feb. 16, 2021): “now you can dig into the restaurant’s eight-course tasting menu without having to put on pants, let alone a jacket.”

The phrase “let alone” is used here to emphasize something by contrasting it with something less likely. If you don’t have to wear pants, you’re less likely to dress up in a jacket.

Lexico, an online dictionary using the resources of Oxford University Press, says the usage indicates “that something is far less likely or suitable than something else already mentioned.” It gives this example: “he was incapable of leading a bowling team, let alone a country.”

Another online dictionary, Longman, says the phrase is “used after a negative statement to say that the next thing you mention is even more unlikely.” It cites this example: “The baby can’t even sit up yet, let alone walk!”

The phrase is usually used as a conjunction in “sentences with a negative construction or negative overtones,” where “its sense is close to ‘much less,’ ”  according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

Merriam-Webster cites a November 1914 letter in which Robert Frost says “I don’t feel justified in worrying, let alone complaining.”

You might also think of “let alone” as contrasting something relatively simple with something more difficult: “We can’t afford to rent, let alone buy” … “I wouldn’t trust him to drive a car, let alone pilot a plane” … “the disease can’t be treated, let alone cured.”

All ten standard dictionaries that we regularly consult say “let alone” is generally used negatively, or cite negative examples of the usage.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for the phrase “used colloquially with the sense ‘not to mention,’ ” is from the early 19th century:

“I didn’t hide, nor wouldn’t from any man living, let alone any woman.” From Tales of a Fashionable Life (1812), by Maria Edgeworth.

[Note: A 2012 post discusses the occasional use of the variant “leave alone” in British English, though it says “let alone” is the usual usage in both the US and the UK.]

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Are ‘vote’ and ‘veto’ related?

Q: The words “vote” and “veto” seem so similar, yet opposite. One involves the making of choices, the other the blocking of choices. Do these words have a common origin?

A: Despite their resemblance, “vote” and “veto” are not related etymologically, and they aren’t really opposites. They’re descended from different Latin verbs meaning, respectively, to vow (vovere) and to forbid (vetare).

We’ll start with “vote,” the older of the two words.

It first entered English as a noun in the 15th century, borrowed directly from votum, a Latin noun derived from the verb vovere. The classical Latin noun meant a vow or offering to a god, but in post-classical times it came to mean a choice or a decision.

In English, the noun “vote” has had its choosing or deciding senses from the start. (At various times in the past, both noun and verb have also had meanings related to vowing or pledging, but those are now obsolete.)

The earliest recorded meaning of the noun “vote,” dating from the mid-1400s, was a “formal statement of opinion by a member of a deliberative body on a matter under discussion,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s oldest citation, in Scots English, is from The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland (1458): “haifande wotis in the deliverance of causis” (“having votes in the deciding of causes”).

All the other meanings of the noun “vote”—a collective choice, an individual’s selection of a candidate, a decision by ballot or show of hands, and so on—developed steadily from the late 1400s onward.

The verb “vote” in the political sense emerged a century after the noun, and it also appeared first in Scots English. Here’s the OED definition: “to give or register a vote; to exercise the right of suffrage; to express a choice or preference by ballot or other approved means.” And this is the dictionary’s earliest example:

“swa that monsieur Desse … with the rest off capitainis and gentilmen woittit ilk ane for ther awyn part” (“so that Monsieur Dessé … with the other captains and gentlemen voted every one according to their duty”). From a Feb. 20, 1549, letter by the Scottish clergyman Alexander Gordon to Scotland’s Queen Dowager, Mary of Guise, mother of Mary, Queen of Scots.

(A final note on “vote” before we move on to “veto.” The defunct “vow” senses of “vote” have been replaced by the word “vow.” But old senses related to prayers and vows live on in the related words “devote,” “devotion,” “devoted,” and “devout.” The “de-” is not a negative prefix but means “from.”)

The word “veto,” meanwhile, still echoes what it meant to the Romans. In classical Latin, veto meant “I forbid”; it was the first-person singular present form of the verb vetare (to forbid). As the OED explains, veto was “the word by which the Roman tribunes of the people opposed measures of the Senate or actions of the magistrates.”

The Latin expression veto was borrowed directly into English as the noun “veto” in the 17th century. And the noun’s original English meaning hasn’t changed. This is the OED definition:

“A prohibition having as its object or result the prevention of an act; an instance of rejecting, banning, or blocking an action, proposal, etc. Also: the power to prevent or check action in this way.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from William Mure’s True Crucifixe (1629): “Hee who doth exalt Himselfe to raigne … Dare gainst this Law most impudently stand, And God’s great Veto boldly counter-mand.”

A more specific meaning of the noun soon emerged, and it too is still alive today—the rejection of a legislative or other political measure, as in a presidential “veto.”

The noun in this sense was first recorded in a sermon by a Church of England clergyman, Anthony Farindon, sometime before 1658: “There is a Law staring in our face, like a Tribune with his Veto, to forbid us.”

As for the verb “veto,” it was formed within English in the 18th century, simply by the conversion of the noun into a verb. It’s defined in the OED as “to put a veto on (a legislative or political measure); to stop or block by exercising a veto.”

Oxford’s earliest example: “Letters for degrees (including D.D. for Potter) read in Convocation, but vetoed by the Proctors because they had not been previously acquainted with the contents.” We’ve expanded the citation, from a 1706 letter by the antiquary and diarist Thomas Hearne.

Although “vote” and “veto” aren’t etymologically related, over time they’ve become political bedfellows.

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

Lie and lay: the flip side

Q: My English teacher in the ’60s taught me the difference between “I lie” and “I lay.” It now makes my blood curdle to hear people refer to “a lay down” or “the lay of the land.”

A: We’ve written several times on the blog about the verbs “lie” and “lay,” including a post in 2011. However, the nouns “lie” and “lay” are a different species altogether. In the usages you mention, they’re interchangeable.

Both “lie of the land” and “lay of the land” are correct noun phrases meaning how something lies or is laid. And both a “lay-down” and a “lie-down” are correct as nouns meaning a nap or a rest.

You don’t have to take our word for this. The Oxford English Dictionary says those expressions—both versions of them—represent legitimate uses of the nouns “lie” and “lay.”

We’ll discuss the longer expression first. “Lay of the land,” as we briefly mentioned in a 2006 post, is the more common version in American English, “lie of the land” in British English.

All five of the standard American dictionaries we regularly consult include “lay of the land”; two of them also list “lie of the land,” labeling it a British variant. The five standard British dictionaries we use all include both versions, with four of them labeling “lay of the land” an American usage.

In either form, this is a centuries-old idiom that can refer to the topography of a landscape (the literal sense) or to a condition or state of affairs (the figurative sense).

The “lie” in this expression, the OED says, means the “manner of lying; direction or position in which something lies; direction and amount of slope or inclination.” Used figuratively, the dictionary says, it means “the state, position, or aspect (of affairs, etc.).”

And the “lay” in the expression is defined as “the way, position, or direction in which something is laid or lies (esp. said of country),” or the “disposition or arrangement with respect to something.”

The dictionary’s earliest recorded example, from the late 17th century, shows the “lie” version (spelled “lye” here): “Nott to alter the proper lye of the Land.” (Minutes of a meeting in Hartford on April 4, 1697, allowing a “Sider house” to continue operating on town property as long as the land was not further altered. From the Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society.)

The expression doesn’t appear again until the mid-19th century—this time with “lay”—in a work of Henry David Thoreau: “I did not know the exact route myself, but steered by the lay of the land.” (From “The Allagash and East Branch,” an essay probably written before January 1858 and published posthumously in 1864 as part of The Maine Woods.)

In subsequent uses, both versions appear, according to OED citations:

“Washington, from the lie of the land, can hardly have been said to be centrical at any time” (a comment on the nation’s capital in Anthony Trollope’s North America, 1862).

“The frequent lay of the land in the tea districts … is alternate stretches of low land suitable for rice, and high land fitted for tea” (The Tea Industry in India, by an English planter, Samuel Baildon, 1882).

“The corn rows follow the lay of the land on the contour and the land is strip-farmed” (The Baltimore Sun, Sept. 8, 1943).

“To show the newcomer the lie of the land without confusing him with details” (The Story of Art, a history by Ernst Hans Gombrich, 1950).

Similarly, both “lay-down” and “lie-down” are legitimate nouns. The OED defines a “lay-down” as “an act of lying down, a rest,” and the equivalent of a “lie-down,” which in turn is defined as “a rest (on a bed, etc.).”

The dictionary’s earliest example is a “lie” version, from the mid-19th century: “I should be very glad of a lie down but cannot” (from a letter written Oct. 13, 1840,  by Harriett Mozley and published in Newman Family Letters, 1962, edited by Dorothea Mozley).

The earliest “lay” example is from the late 19th century: “Nothing but ‘dub’ fights by novices, with now and then a deliberate ‘lay down’ ” (National Police Gazette, May 26, 1897).

Here are examples of each, used in the sense of a brief nap:

“Yes, Aggie, you go an’ ’ave a lie-down, see, and you’ll be all right” (Four One-Act Plays, by St. John Ervine, 1928).

“What you want is a nice lay-down and a cupper tea” (Busman’s Honeymoon, a 1937 mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers).

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