English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

The went not taken

Q: In Little Women, the girls chide their friend Teddy for flirting, to which he replies that sensible girls “won’t let me send them ‘flowers and things,’ so what can I do? my feelings must have a went.” I haven’t seen “went” used as a noun before. Have you come across it?

A: The “went” that Teddy uses is an antiquated noun for a path or road. The word dates from the Middle Ages and wasn’t an everyday usage by the time Louisa May Alcott published Little Women in 1868. A more modern character might say, “My feelings must have an outlet.”

We’ve found only one current standard dictionary that still recognizes this use of “went.” Merriam-Webster Unabridged, an American dictionary, labels it a British noun for “a traveled way,” synonymous with “road, lane, alley, passage.”

However, we don’t know of any standard British dictionary that now includes the term. And the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says it’s obsolete except in dialect.

The OED defines a “went” as “a course, path, way, or passage,” and says the noun is related to the verb “wend.” Oxford’s earliest example for the noun, which we’ve expanded, is from a Middle English translation of Genesis:

“He knowned one ilc ſterre name, / He ſettes in ðe firmament, / Al abuten ðis walkne went” (“He alone knoweth the name of each star, / He sets in the firmament, / All across this vaulted way”). The passage, from around 1250, is cited in The Middle English Genesis and Exodus, edited by Olof Sigfrid Arngart (1968).

In the following century, Chaucer used the noun in a more literal way: “Hyt forthe went Dovne by a floury grene went Ful thikke of gras” (“It forth wended down by a flowery green path full thick with grass”). From The Book of the Duchesse, circa 1369. (Note that the first “went” in the Middle English passage means “wended” and the second means “path.” More on that later.)

Oxford notes that the noun “went” in this sense was sometimes used in reference to a crossroad. The dictionary cites 18th- and 19th-century examples in which “went,” used with a number, meant a point where several roads converged, as in a “three-went way” or a “four-went way.”

Though we’ve found some 20th-century examples of the noun “went,” it’s generally used historically—that is, in reference to times past—or as a curiosity. By Louisa May Alcott’s time it wasn’t in common use.

The word doesn’t appear in the dictionaries of John Kersey (1708), Nathan Bailey (1731), Samuel Johnson (1755), William Kenrick (1773), Thomas Sheridan (1780), Noah Webster (1806, 1828), or Joseph E. Worcester (1860).

As we mentioned, there’s a connection between the noun “went” and the quaint old verb “wend” (to turn, change direction, or go).

The story begins with “wend,” a word that may date as far back as the 700s in early Old English writing. Similar words are known in other Germanic languages, and the ultimate source, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, is a prehistoric Proto-Germanic verb that’s been reconstructed as wandjanan (to turn or twist).

As the OED explains, “The core sense of the Germanic base is evidently ‘to turn.’ ” However, in Old English the verb “wend” acquired an additional meaning not known in its Germanic cousins: “to go.” This development, the dictionary suggests, came about “probably via a sense ‘to turn in a particular direction in order to go.’ ”

Significantly, a past-tense form of “wend” was “went,” which isn’t an unusual pattern in English. The “-d” ending of the infinitive became “-t” in the past tense, as in pairs like “send/sent,” “bend/bent,” “lend/lent,” and “spend/spent.”

Meanwhile, the unrelated verb “go” had its own past tense in Old English: eode (sometimes spelled yode). But beginning in the 1400s that old past tense began to slip away and was gradually replaced by “went.” This was only natural, since “went” was already a familiar past tense to English speakers, who often used “wend” and “go” for the same thing.

Consequently, “wend” acquired a new past tense all its own: “wended.” The result, the OED says, was that in many writings of the 15th century and a bit later “it is often unclear whether a particular instance of went should be interpreted as the past tense of wend … or of go.”

The meaning of “wend” gradually changed too. It lost its more straightforward “go” senses (to move, proceed, etc.), which were transferred to “go.” But it kept the twisting and turning senses. Today “wend” and its modern past tense “wended,” Oxford says, “often imply an indirect or meandering course” as well as denoting “unhurried movement.”

And as for that old noun “went,” it has wended its way into history.

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English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Let’s you and him fight

Q: Would you please comment on a recent headline in The New York Times: “ ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ Review: Let’s You and Him Fight.” I like the “Him,” but not the grammar. Perhaps the writer meant “Let’s Let You and Him Fight”?

A: This is a joke—a rather old joke, in fact—on the “let’s” construction (short for “let us”). And it’s not supposed to be grammatically correct.

The normal construction, for a speaker offering to do something jointly, would be either “Let’s fight,” in which the participants are understood to be “me” and “you,” or “Let’s you and me fight,” in which the pronouns are added in apposition to “us” (more fully: “let us, you and me, fight”).

In the Times headline, the sentence begins with the contracted “let us,” but the writer then substitutes “him” for “me.” The joke is that the speaker declines the honor.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “let’s you and me (do something)” as an “irregular phrase” that’s colloquial in the US. Its citations date from the 1920s.

But we see nothing particularly irregular about it, and we’ve found numerous examples dating back to the mid-19th century in both American and British publications. To cite just a few:

1856: “let’s you and me make a bargain to try and get away” (from The Refugee: Or, The Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada, collected by the Boston abolitionist Benjamin Drew).

1858: “let’s you and me walk along the street together, and chat about this business” (The Young Duchess: Or, Memoirs of a Lady of Quality, a novel by George W. M. Reynolds, published in London).

1859: “let’s you and me be off” (Tighe Lyfford, a novel by Charles James Cannon, published in New York).

1862: “let’s you and me take a little country walk” (A Tangled Skein, a novel by Albany de Grenier Fonblanque, serialized in The St. James’s Magazine, London).

The construction was common enough to get the attention of textbook writers, who apparently regarded it as a normal English usage. Their only concern seemed to be that the proper pronoun case be used: “let’s you and me,” not “let’s you and I.”

Josephus Collett, in his Complete English Grammar (1891), parsed the phrase this way: “A common form of command or entreaty is expressed by an auxiliary verb followed by an infinitive—Let us (indirect object) go (to go, direct object); or, Let’s you and me go = Let us, you and me (appositive), go.”

In English Grammar and Composition for Higher Grades (1901), Gordon A. Southworth explained that only an object pronoun can be the object of a verb, then asked students to choose correctly here: “Let’s you and (I, me) bring the sleigh.” Similarly, Alfred M. Hitchcock, in his Composition and Rhetoric (1917), asked students to choose the correct pronoun here: “Let’s you and (me, I) go home.”

Publications for adults offered the same advice. In the business-writing column of the journal Correct English (April-May 1920), a reader questioned the correctness of a phrase spotted in a circular, “let’s you and I get together.” The editor replied: “ ‘let’s you and me get together’ is the correct form, the objective case being required after the verb let.”

Of course, there are other ways to say this: “let’s X,” “let us X,” “let you and me X,” even “let us X then, you and me.” (Poets are licensed to break the rules, as T. S. Eliot did in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky.”)

As we mentioned above, “let’s you and him fight” is an old joke.

It dates as least as far back as the early 1930s, when it was a catchphrase of J. Wellington Wimpy, a character in Elzie Segar’s “Thimble Theatre” comic strips, starring Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl.

Finally, for your viewing pleasure, “Let’s You and Him Fight” was the title of a Paramount Productions cartoon short featuring a boxing match between Popeye and Bluto, released in February 1934.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

Plead, pleaded, and pled

Q: You had a recent post about the use of “lead” for “led.” What about the use of “plead” for “pled”? I see that in print every once in a while.

A: The usual past tense and past participle for the verb “plead” is “pleaded.” That’s the only standard form in British English and the most popular one in American English.

All ten of the standard dictionaries we regularly consult (five American and five British) recognize “pleaded” as a past tense and past participle. All the American dictionaries also recognize “pled,” and three of them include “plead” (pronounced as “pled”).

However, some usage writers have complained since the mid-19th century about the use of “pled” and “plead” for the past and past participle of the verb “plead.”

In Vulgarisms & Other Errors of Speech (1869), Richard Meade Bache writes: “Plead, mispronounced pled, is frequently used for pleaded; as, ‘He plead (pled) guilty to the indictment.’ The sentence should be, ‘He pleaded guilty to the indictment.’ ” He gives “pleaded” as the only past and past participle.

In Dictionary of Errors (1905), Sherwin Cody offers this advice: “Say, ‘He pleaded guilty’ (not ‘pled’ or ‘plead’).” And in A Desk-Book of Errors in English (1906), Frank H. Vizetelly writes, “The spelling of pled for the past is not warranted, and is a colloquialism. Careful speakers use pleaded.”

As for now, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “Both pled (or plead) and pleaded are in good use in the US.” It adds that “pled” is “fully respectable” in American English “in spite of occasional backward-looking by a commentator or two.”

The online Merriam-Webster standard dictionary says in a usage note that “pleaded” is the more popular usage today, both inside and outside the courtroom:

“In legal use (such as ‘pleaded guilty,’ ‘pled guilty’), both forms are standard, though pleaded is used with greater frequency. In nonlegal use (such as ‘pleaded for help’), pleaded appears more commonly, though pled is also considered standard.”

As we’ve said, three US dictionaries (American Heritage, Merriam-Webster, and Webster’s New World) include “plead” as a variant past and past participle. Nevertheless, we’d avoid it, since the usage is unusual and could be confusing.

When the verb “plead” appeared in Middle English (borrowed from Anglo-Norman), it was spelled various ways, including plaide, plaidi, and pledde. The OED’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from The Owl and the Nightingale, a poem believed written in the late 12th or early 13th century:

“Þeȝ we ne bo at one acorde, / we m[a]ȝe bet mid fayre worde, / witute cheste, & bute fiȝte, / plaidi mid foȝe & mid riȝte” (“though we two are not in accord, we can plead better with fair word, without strife & fight, with togetherness & right”).

The past and past participle were also spelled in different ways in Middle English, including pladd, pladde, and pleyd. The “pled,” “pleaded,” and “plead” spellings appeared in early Modern English (the first two in the 1500s and the third in the 1600s).

Here are the earliest OED citations for the three spelling that are seen today:

“The canon law … which is dailie pleaded” (from a 1587 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, a collaborative history of England, Scotland, and Ireland).

“And with him to make part against her, came Many graue persons, that against her pled” (The Faerie Queene, 1596, by Edmund Spenser). We’ve expanded the citation.

“St. Augustine plead it in bar to Celer’s action of unkindnesse against him for not writing sooner” (The Alliance of Divine Offices, 1659, by Hamon L’Estrange). The passage is from a section comparing practices of the Church of England to those of the early Christian church.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Got your jabs?

Q: I’ve got both vaccinations now. Why do so many people refer to them as “jabs”? Is this something new?

A: No, the use of “jab” in reference to injections isn’t at all new. It’s more than a century old, dating from before World War I.

However, as we’ll show later, the Covid-19 pandemic has given the word “jab” (both the noun and the verb) a tremendous boost.

First, some etymology. You might say that “jab” means what it sounds or feels like. It developed as a variant of a late 15th-century word, spelled “job,” that was “apparently imitative of the sound or effect of a stab or prod,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The verb “job” used in this sense appeared in writing somewhat earlier than the noun, according to OED citations. In its earliest use, in 1499, the verb described what a bird does with its bill, but in the 1500s it was used more generally, Oxford says, meaning “to penetrate into, to stab, pierce, or prod at.”

Similarly, in the 1500s the old noun “job” meant “an abrupt stab with the point or end of something; a peck, a thrust, a jab,” the dictionary says. All these uses of “job,” verb and noun, are rare in modern English, Oxford says.

The modern “jab” emerged as a variant spelling of “job” in Scots English in the early 19th century. Oxford labels all uses of “jab”—verb and noun, then and now—as  “colloquial or dialect.”

The verb originally meant “to thrust with the end or point of something; to poke roughly; to stab,” the dictionary says, while the noun meant “an act of jabbing; an abrupt blow with something pointed, or (in Boxing slang) with the fist.”

The OED’s earliest examples for the verb and the noun are from the same source, John Jamieson’s Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1825): “To Jab, to prick sharply,” and “Jab, the act of pricking in this way” [i.e., sharply].

The use of “jab” in connection with injections was bound to come along, and it did, in the early 20th century. The noun was recorded first, as “slang (originally U.S.)” and meaning “an injection with a hypodermic needle,” the OED says.

In Oxford’s earliest example, the noun is a term in illicit drug use: “Jab, current amongst morphine and cocaine fiends. A hypodermic injection.” From A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang (1914), by Louis E. Jackson and C. R. Hellyer.

Here’s a later medical use of the noun: “The visitor must … take precautions and submit to a variety of jabs.” From a Liberia Supplement to The Times (London, April 17, 1973).

As for the verb “jab,” it’s defined this way in the OED: “to inject or inoculate (a person) with a hypodermic needle; to use (a hypodermic needle) to make an injection.”

Oxford’s first example of the verb in this sense is from a 1938 issue of the journal American Speech: “To jab, to take drugs hypodermically.”

And here’s a medical citation from a book of military slang: “Be jabbed, to be inoculated or vaccinated.” From A Dictionary of Forces’ Slang, 1939-1945, by Eric Partridge et al. (1st ed., 1948).

As we said above, the pandemic has given new life to the word—both noun and verb.

A search of the NOW (News on the Web) corpus shows that until late 2020, the use of  “jab” had held steady for decades at a quiet frequency of 2 to 3 appearances for every million words. All that changed when uses of “jab” rose sharply in November and December, then skyrocketed during each month of early 2021.

Currently, the NOW corpus figures for the month of April are almost double those for January, at more than 28 per million words—an enormous increase. There’s no question about what’s caused the surge; vaccines were approved at the end of 2020 and made available to the public in 2021. The rise in the use of “jab” has closely tracked these developments.

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