English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

On Fowler and his idiosyncrasy

Q:  Sir Ernest Gowers has written that the main reason for the popularity of Henry W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage is “the idiosyncrasy of the author.” My understanding is that “idiosyncrasy” is a quirk of personality, not personality as a whole.

A: Etymologically, “idiosyncrasy” refers to an individual’s overall makeup—a combination of physical and mental characteristics. However, it now usually means a peculiar trait of someone or, less commonly, something.

The etymological sense reflects the Greek origin of the usage. In Hellenistic Greek, spoken from roughly 300 BC to AD 300, the noun ἰδιοσυγκρασία (idiosugkrasia) meant an individual’s combination of personality, appearance, character, and so on.

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the usage comes from two ancient Greek terms:  ἴδιος (idios), “one’s own,” and σύγκρασις  (sugkrasis), “mixture.” (In Hellenistic Greek, σύγκρασις is a mixture of personal characteristics.)

Fowler favored the etymological sense of “idiosyncrasy.” In the 1926 first edition of Modern English Usage, he says “idiosyncrasy” should refer to overall character, not a single trait, and he defended its spelling with an “s” (not a “c”) at the end to reflect its etymology.

Gowers has a similar entry in his 1965 second edition of Fowler’s usage guide. The comment that got your attention is in the preface.

The last two editors of the usage guide, Robert Burchfield and Jeremy Butterworth, agree with Fowler on the spelling but don’t restrict the modern meaning to ancient etymology.

As Burchfield puts it in the 1996 third edition and Butterfield repeats in the 2015 fourth, “It is not suggested that everyone should be a walking etymologist, but simply that people should learn to spell correctly.”

All ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult define “idiosyncrasy” as an unusual characteristic or behavior of someone or something. However, four of them include the less common sense favored by Fowler: the overall makeup of a person or thing.

We’d add that the plural “idiosyncrasies” is often used in phrases describing idiosyncratic people or things (“his many idiosyncrasies,” “her iPad’s little idiosyncrasies”).

In fact Lexico, an online standard dictionary with content from Oxford University Press, says the term is “usually idiosyncrasies” when referring to “a mode of behavior or way of thought peculiar to an individual.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary, says English adopted “idiosyncrasy” in the early 17th century, either directly from Hellenistic Greek or by way of idiosyncrasie, which showed up in French in 1581.

In English, the word originally meant “peculiarity of physical or physiological constitution” or “an instance of this,” the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a medical treatise warning about the use of arsenic amulets to ward off plague:

“The idiosygcrasye or particular Natures (as Galen calleth them) are vnknown” (A Modest Defence of the Caueat Giuen [Caveat Given] to the Wearers of Impoisoned Amulets, as Preseruatiues [Protectives] From the Plague, 1604, by the English physician Francis Herring).

A few decades later, the term took on the sense Fowler preferred, which the OED defines as “the individuality of a person’s outlook, temperament, or behaviour; the distinctive nature of something.”

The first Oxford example is from a dictionary of English words derived from other languages: “Idiosyncrasie, the proper, or natural temper of any thing” (The New World of English Words, 1658, by Edward Phillips).

The term soon took on the usual modern sense, which the OED defines as “a way of thinking or a mode of behaviour limited to a particular person, people, or type of person.” The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a treatise attacking dogmatism:

“And I believe the Understanding has its Idiosyncrasies, as well as other faculties. Some men are made to superstition, others to frantick Enthusiasm; the former by the cold of a timorous heart, the latter by the heat of a temerarious brain: And there are natures, as fatally averse to either.” (The Vanity of Dogmatizing, 1661, by the English philosopher and clergyman Joseph Glanvill.)

We’ll end with the latest Oxford citation for this sense: “One idiosyncrasy of the tequila drinker is the desire to swill the last mouthful in the bottle and with it the Agave worm” (from The Mammoth Book of Cocktails, 2003, by Paul Martin).

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

The coast is clear

Q: We were wondering about “the coast is clear.” Smugglers? Invaders? As kids, we used it to mean “no adults around to say us nay.”

A: The expression dates from the seafaring days of the mid-1500s, when it literally meant the seashore is free of enemies. But the first written examples use the phrase metaphorically in much the same way you did as kids.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the literal usage refers to a seacoast being clear of “enemies who would dispute an attempt to land or embark.” When used figuratively in its various forms. it means “the way is open for an operation, event, etc.”

The earliest OED citation is from a pamphlet published in 1567 that warns the public against con men and tricksters. We’ll expand on the citation to provide context:

“Thus fedinge this old man with pleasaunt talke, vntyll they were one the toppe of the hyll, where these rufflares [rogues] mighte well beholde the coaste aboute them cleare. Quiclye stepes vnto this poore man, and taketh holde of his horse brydell, and leadeth him in to the wode, and demaundeth of him what and how much monye he had in his purse.” (From “A Caueat [Caveat] for Commen Cursetors,” by Thomas Harman. The obsolete noun “cursitor” meant a tramp or vagabond.)

We’ve found a couple of usages from the 1570s, including this one about the efforts of Eleanor of Aquitaine to secure the throne of England for her youngest son (King John):

“In the end winning al the nobilitie wholye vnto hir will, and seeing the coaste to be cleare on euery side.” (The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande, by Raphael Holinshead, 1577.)

Our searches of historical databases turned up many other 16th-century uses of the phrase and its variants: “the coast is [or was] clear,” “if the coast be clear,” “no sooner cleered was the Coast,” “seeing the coast cleare,” and so on. And like those already cited, the majority have nothing to do with the sea.

Here, on the other hand, are a couple of the literal ones, referring to actual landings or embarkations:

“perceyuing [perceiving] the coaste cleare … they [the Corinthians] tooke seas forthwith.” (From an English version, published in 1579, of Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes. The reference is to the coast of ancient Rhegium, now Reggio Calabria, Italy.)

“wee laded her [a ship] with all the speed we could, for as then the coast was cleare of Englishmen.” (Iohn Huighen van Linschoten, His Discours of Voyages Into ye Easte & West Indies, a memoir published by the Dutch trader Jan Huygen van Linschoten in London in 1598. The coast here is that of the island of Terceira in the Azores.)

The OED quotes Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755, in which “the coast is clear” is called “a proverbial expression” meaning “the danger is over, the enemies have marched off.”

Johnson provides two examples from literature: “seeing that the coast was cleare” (Sir Philip Sidney, circa 1580) and “when now the Coast was clear” (John Dryden, 1587). In both uses, the references are to spying, sneaking about, and slipping unseen from place to place, not to real seacoasts.

Though the phrase (along with its variations) has shown up in literal, seafaring uses since the 16th century, it has mostly appeared as a proverbial expression.

It seemed made to order for the Restoration comedies and amoral novels of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, with their bawdy rakes and loose women on the lookout for a chance to behave badly.

This, for example, is from The Art of Cuckoldom, or, The Intrigues of the City-wives, published anonymously in 1697: “One Evening at the end of the Week, the Ladies Maid came to his Lodging from her Mistress, to tell him, That the morrow Morning following, the Coast would be clear, for her Husband was to be out the whole Forenoon: And therefore she desired his Company.”

Some uses, though, are more comic than licentious. We’ll conclude with this passage from a translation done around 1700 of Cervantes’s Don Quixote:

“Here Sancho got up without speaking a Word, laid his Finger on his Lips, and with his Body bent, crept cautiously round the Room, lifting up the Hangings, and peeping in every Hole and Corner: At last, finding the Coast clear, he return’d to his Seat. Now, quoth he, Madam Dutchess, since I find there’s no Body here but our-selves, you shall e’en hear, without Fear or Favour, the Truth of the Story.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

‘Lukewarm’ and ‘lukecool’

Q: Why is there no antonym for ‘lukewarm’? There seem to be plenty of synonyms but I cannot find a commonly used antonym. Why not ‘lukecool’?

A: We’d use “coolish” if we wanted a single word for somewhat cool—that is, the opposite of “lukewarm” when it means somewhat warm.

As for “lukecool,” some creative English speakers are indeed using it as an antonym for “lukewarm,” though the usage hasn’t made it into any of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly check.

Urban Dictionary, a collaborative slang reference, has several “lukecool” entries, including a May 17, 2013, contribution defining it as “only slightly cold, flip-side of lukewarm.” The contributor offers an example: “The A/C system must need some freon, it is only lukecool in here.”

The word occasionally appears in formal writing and speech. For example, Harold Leventhal, a US Appeals Court judge for the District of Columbia, has observed that nonlawyers “are ‘lukecool,’ if not hostile, to lawyers” (from “The Lawyer in Government,” a speech delivered Oct. 15, 1971).

And the term appears twice in the March 1981 issue of the British journal Current Archaeology. This is from a report about archeologists’ reactions to a proposed reorganization of the British government’s oversight of ancient monuments and historic buildings:

“Although inevitably there are some who are strongly against, the basic division is between those who are luke-warm and those who perhaps can be described as ‘luke-cool.’ At a straw vote taken at the Council for British Archaeology on January 8th, 32 declared themselves to be luke-warm as against 14 who are luke-cool, and this sort of split seems to be fairly general.”

In English Lexicogenesis (2014), an analysis of word formation, the linguist D. Gary Miller notes that “some words do not exist despite an obvious need.” One of the gaps he mentions is “(*)lukecool in the face of lukewarm, a very old word in English.” The parenthetical asterisk indicates that “lukecool” is considered nonstandard.

“Nothing but tradition makes luke acceptable as a qualifier of warmth but not coolness,” Miller writes. “Since only tradition stands in the way of lukecool, there is no reason it could not become generally accepted if enough people started using it.”

Yes, the people who speak a language ultimately determine what’s acceptable. But we think Miller may be too dismissive of the long association of “luke” with “warm.”

In fact, “luke” by itself originally meant moderately warm, so “lukewarm” is etymologically a puffed-up, or pleonastic, version of “luke.” And “lukecool” is etymologically an oxymoron, or contradiction in terms. However, most English speakers today are probably unaware of the warmish origin of “luke,” and may believe it means something like “sort of.”

The OED’s earliest example for the adjective “luke,” which we’ve expanded, is from Laȝamon, or Layamon’s Brut, an imaginative chronicle of Britain written sometime before 1200. In this gory excerpt, the King of Media kills Bedivere, one of King Arthur’s knights, by driving a spear through his byrnie, or coat of mail:

“he heold on his honde; ænne gare swiðe stronge. / Þene gare he uorð strahte; mid strongen his maine. / and smat þene eorl Beduer; forn a þan breoste; / þat þa burne to-barst sone; biuoren and bihinde. / an-opened wes his breoste; þa blod com forð luke.” (“The spear he thrust forth with his strong might, and smote the Earl Bedivere in the breast, so that his byrnie soon burst, before and behind, and his breast was opened. The blood came forth luke.”)

Oxford says the Middle English term luke appears to be derived from hléow, an Old English adjective meaning warm, sunny, or sheltered. The Old English word is the source of lew, a Middle English adjective that meant lukewarm and later appeared in the phrase lew-warm, which survives in dialectal English.

As for the adjective “lukewarm,” it didn’t appear until the late 14th century. We found this example in a Middle English herbal, or treatise on the medicinal use of plants:

“Resayve iij sponefull of þe juis luke warme, and yf þou haue evil stomake hit opyneþ hit” (“Take three spoonfuls of the juice lukewarm, and if you have an upset stomach it empties it”). From the Lelamour Herbal (1373), compiled from various Latin and Middle English sources by the Hereford schoolmaster John Lelamour (Sloane MS 5, folios 13-57, British Library).

In the 16th century, according to the OED, the adjective took on the sense of “having little warmth or depth of feeling, lacking zeal, enthusiasm or ardour, indifferent.” The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a treatise by Thomas More:

“Like as god said in thapocalips vnto the churche of Loadice. Thou arte neyther hote nor cold but luke warme, I would thou were colde yt thou mighteste waxe warme.” From The Four Last Things, written around 1522 and published posthumously (More was convicted of treason and executed in 1535).

And in its indifferent sense, as you know, “lukewarm” has many antonyms, including “avid,” “eager,” “enthusiastic,” “excited,” “passionate,” and “wholehearted.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Not quite cricket?

Q: Is the sports term “cricket” related to the “cricket” that’s an insect? And what about “croquet”? It sounds like a cousin, if not a sibling.

A: The name for the game “cricket” and the insect “cricket” aren’t related, and “croquet” isn’t connected with either of them. That’s the short answer. Now, for the rest.

Since the bug got its name before the games, we’ll start with the entomological etymology of “cricket.” Not surprisingly, the insect got its name from the noise it makes.

As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, the noun “cricket,” first recorded in the Middle Ages, is “of imitative origin, reflecting the sounds made by the insects,” which is later described as “a characteristic chirruping sound” produced by the males.

“Cricket” came into Middle English in the late 13th or early 14th century, adopted from the Anglo-Norman criket and Old French criquet, the dictionary says. The creature had similar onomatopoeic names at the time in medieval Dutch (crekel, krekel, criekel).

The English word first appeared in a copy of a verse treatise used to teach English children French. The manuscript is written in the French spoken in 13th-century England, and has explanatory glosses, or notations, added in Middle English.

In Le traité de Walter de Bibbesworth sur la Langue Française, the word salemaundre is glossed as “criket” in this passage: “au four meint le salemaundre” (“in the oven many a salamander”). Bibbesworth died in 1270. The OED dates the passage and gloss at sometime before 1325.

In Anglo-Norman, a cricket was sometimes referred to as a salemaundre or salamandre, according to citations in the online Anglo-Norman Dictionary.

As the OED explains, the insect, which is attracted to warmth, was identified in Middle English with the mythical fire-loving salamander, “perhaps from the house cricket’s traditional association with the hearth.”

In fact, crickets and hearths often appear together in poetry and literature. Here’s an Oxford citation from Milton: “Far from all resort of mirth, / Save the Cricket on the hearth” (Il Penseroso, 1645).

And here’s one from Dickens, which we’ve expanded: “To have a Cricket on the Hearth, is the luckiest thing in all the world!” (from a novella, The Cricket on the Hearth, 1845).

As for the sporting noun, it came into English some 300 years after the name of the insect. But unfortunately its origin is unknown, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest finding, dated as possibly 1575, is a mention of “Kricket-staues” (“staves,” for the bats used in the game). In the work cited, an anonymous translation of Hendrik Niclaes’s Terra Pacis (Land of Peace), they’re listed among playthings like “Balles,” “Rackets,” and “Dyce.”

The dictionary’s earliest sighting with a definite date is from the Guild Merchant Book (1598), records of the borough of Guildford:

“John Denwick of Guldeford … one of the Queenes Majesties Coroners of the County of Surrey being of the age of fyfty and nyne yeares or there aboute … saith upon his oath that hee hath known the parcell of land … for the space of Fyfty years and more, and … saith that hee being a schollar in the Free schoole of Guldeford, hee and several of his fellowes did runne and play there at Creckett and other plaies.”

The first Oxford citation with the modern spelling appeared about a dozen years later: “a Cricket-staffe; or, the crooked staffe wherewith boyes play at Cricket” (A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, 1611, by Randle Cotgrave).

The OED defines the sport this way: “An outdoor game played on a large grass field with ball, bats, and two wickets, between teams of eleven players, the object of the game being to score more runs than the opposition.”

But this is added in an etymological note: “The character of the game denoted by the word has changed enormously over the centuries.”

The sport “developed in the south-east of England in the 16th and 17th centuries,” Oxford says, and by the end of the following century, “organized cricket was common, frequently with one or both sides fielding more than eleven players.”

In the 19th century, the OED adds, “it came to be viewed as the English national game and, subsequently, as an expression of English national identity or Englishness in general.”

At the same time, “cricket” colloquially came to mean “cricket played in the correct manner or proper spirit,” and consequently denoted “honourable dealings between opponents or rivals in any sphere,” or “fair play.”

Here’s the dictionary’s first example for “cricket” used outside the sport to mean dealing honorably: “We should be very much surprised if the Duke really thought that to dissolve [Parliament] would be ‘cricket’ ” (The Westminster Gazette, June 5, 1900).

As we said, the origin of the word is unknown. The OED rules out any etymological connection with the Middle French criquet (a piece of wood), or with the Old English crycc (a crutch or staff), or with a Middle Dutch regionalism, krik (crutch).

The only theory Oxford allows as a possibility is that the word may come from another 16th-century noun “cricket,” for a low wooden stool. The two nouns had a similar mix of spellings.

It could be that the wicket used in the game resembled a small stool. The dictionary notes that in “stool-ball,” an older game “somewhat resembling cricket” and dating from the 1400s, “the ‘stool’ was the wicket.” Alas, there’s no solid evidence for this as the etymology, but it does seem plausible.

Last but not least we arrive at “croquet,” the newcomer in the group. The game and the noun for it were first used in Ireland in the mid-19th century.

The word is “supposed to be” (as the OED says) derived from croquet, a dialectal term for a shepherd’s crook in Old Northern French, an ancestor of Anglo-Norman.

Historians of the game have said that in Brittany, 18th-century French peasants played the game under the name croquet. But there’s no documentary evidence for this; the word for the game apparently wasn’t used in France until the late 19th century.

Émile Littré’s Dictionnaire de la Langue Française (1886) describes croquet as an English word (“Angl. croquet”) for an English game: “Jeu anglais qui se joue avec un marteau, des boules et de petites arcades que l’on plante sur le terrain.” And the English word’s origin? Littré says it’s derived from a Norman term for a hook (“du normand croquet, crochet”).

Oxford’s definition of the sport is similar: “A game played upon a lawn, in which wooden balls are driven by means of wooden mallets through iron arches or ‘hoops’ fixed in the ground in a particular order.”

In the OED’s earliest citation, the game is described as played in County Meath, Ireland: “There is no game which has made such rapid strides in this county within a few years as croquet” (from The Field, a British sporting magazine, July 10, 1858).

The same magazine reported a few issues later (Nov. 27, 1858) that the game “was introduced into the North of Ireland some twelve years ago from a French convent.” As we said, the French use of croquet for the game in the 18th or early 19th centuries has not been confirmed.

The OED also notes that an anecdotal report, published in 1864, “stated that the game had been played under this name (though this is perhaps doubtful) near Dublin in 1834-5.” Who knows? As old documents continue to be digitized, earlier uses may come to light.

At any rate, the OED goes on to say this, unequivocally: “From Ireland the game and name were introduced into England in 1852, where between 1858 and 1872 croquet attained great popularity.” And the rest is history.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Tossing and turning

Q: Inspired by your discussion of “mix and match,” I wonder if you can comment on “toss and turn.” As the comedian Demetri Martin says, he often turns in his sleep, but he doesn’t toss stuff all over his bedroom.

A: Yes, the verb “toss” has many meanings and you can have a lot of fun with them. You can toss a baseball, a salad, a coin, a party, an old newspaper, your head, or your cookies. You can toss down a drink, toss around an idea, or toss off a blog post. You can be tossed off a horse, tossed out of a game, or tossed into the slammer.

When the verb first appeared in English in the early 16th century, it meant to be thrown about at sea by waves or wind, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from the diary of Sir Richard Guildford’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1506:

“Soone after midnyght the grete tempest byganne to swage [ease] and wex lasse [wax less]. Howbeit the wroughte sees tossyd and rolled vs ryght greuously.” Guildford, who served King Henry VII of England in many senior roles, died on Sept. 6, 1506, in Jerusalem. The diary, written by Guildford’s unnamed chaplain, was published in 1511.

By the end of the 16th century, the verb “toss” had most of its modern senses, including the one you’re asking about, which the OED defines as “to fling or jerk oneself about; to move about restlessly.” The dictionary’s first example is from a biblical passage: “I am euen ful with tossing to and fro vnto the dawning of the day” (Geneva Bible, 1560, Job 7:4).

But when “toss” and “turn” first appeared together, with the two words reversed, the verb phrase referred to turning and tossing hay, wool, grain, etc., to loosen it.

The first Oxford citation describes the shelling of “peason,” or field peas: “by turning & tossing, they shed as they lie” (Fiue Hundreth Points of Good Husbandry, 1573, by Thomas Tusser).

The earliest example we’ve found for “toss and turn” used in its modern sleepless sense is from an 18th-century travel journal kept by an Annapolis, MD, physician during a trip up the East Coast to New England:

“My rest was broken and interrupted, for the Teague [an obsolete nickname for an Irishman] made a hideous noise in coming to bed, and as he tossed and turned, kept still ejaculating either an ohon [an expression of grief] or sweet Jesus” (Itinerarium, 1744, by Alexander Hamilton).

The phrase appeared a few years later in the erotic novel popularly known as Fanny Hill: “after tossing and turning the greatest part of the night, and tormenting myself with the falsest notions and apprehensions of things, I fell, through mere fatigue, into a kind of delirious doze” (Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, 1749, by John Cleland).

Finally, here’s a transcript of the “toss and turn” routine that Demetri Martin tweeted on Feb 24, 2020:

When people don’t sleep well, they say they tossed and turned. And I’ve definitely had rough nights where I turned a lot in my sleep, know what I mean? But I’ve never slept so poorly that I ended up, like, lightly throwing things around the room. It’s four in the morning, and I’m like, “Oh, shit. I’m tossing. Stop it. The hell am I doing? Go to sleep, man. Stop it. You’re tossing. Stop it.” You wake up the next day and there’s this crap everywhere. I’m like, “Oh, my God. I slept very poorly. And why do I own so many beanbags? This is making it worse.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Writing

About ‘around’ and ‘surrounding’

Q: I hate the use of “around” or “surrounding” for “about” in sentences like these: (1) “There are a lot of concerns surrounding this announcement.” (2) “Do you have any questions around the change?” (3) “This discussion is centered around the new policy.” When did this start, and why do I hate it so much?

A: You’re not the only one who dislikes the usage. None of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult recognize the use of “surrounding” or “around” to mean “in reference to” or “concerned with”—the sense of “about” you mean.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary, includes “around” as a preposition meaning “in reference or relation to; concerning, about.” And we’ve found written examples for both “around” and “surrounding” used this way since the late 19th century.

Here’s an early “around” example from a religious treatise by an Anglican clergyman: “This is not a controversy around details or externals. It bears upon the heart of the Gospel” (Crux Christi: Being a Consideration of Some Aspects of the Doctrine of Atonement, 1892, by John Bennett).

And here’s an early “surrounding” example from an Oklahoma newspaper: “It will be remembered that the Wichita reservation was kept out of the controversy surrounding the opening of the lands of the Kickapoos and Comanches and Apaches” (The Guthrie Daily Leader, April 13, 1895).

The earliest OED citation for the “around” usage is from the May 1897 issue of Punch: “Essence of Parliament … Useful, but not precisely alluring, debate around Employers’ Liability Bill.”

The dictionary’s most recent example is from an article about migrants seeking asylum in Britain: “Her biblical reflections … are thought provoking, and will … act as a stimulus to further biblical enquiry around the themes of justice and hospitality” (The Church Times, Sept. 20, 2013).

Searches with Google’s Ngram viewer indicate that the use of “surrounding” and “around” in the sense of “about” increased sharply in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. But the usage is still relatively rare when “surrounding” and “around” phrases are compared with those using “about.”

We agree that “surrounding” and “around” seem out of place in your three examples. We’d use “about” in the first two: “There are a lot of concerns about this announcement” and “Do you have any questions about the change?”

However, we wouldn’t use “about” in the third example. We think “on” would be more to the point: “This discussion is centered on the new policy.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Taking a spin with Yeats

Q: I couldn’t find “perne” in the OED.  Did Yeats coin the word? It means something like to turn or gyrate. He uses both “perne” and “gyre” in “Byzantium.”

A: Yes, William Butler Yeats did coin the verb “perne,” which means to revolve or spin. The Oxford English Dictionary discusses it under the spelling “pern,” which is odd since Yeats never spelled the verb that way.

He first used the verb in 1920, but he didn’t exactly pull it out of thin air. He adapted it from an Irish dialectal noun, “pern,” meaning a spool or bobbin.

In fact, Yeats had used the Irish noun earlier in his poetry. Here it is in a poem about recollecting youth in old age: “He unpacks the loaded pern / Of all ’twas pain or joy to learn” (from an elegy eventually titled “Shepherd and Goatherd,” written in 1918 and collected in The Wild Swans at Coole, 1919).

No doubt aware that “the loaded pern” would be obscure to many readers, Yeats added a note at the end of the collection: “When I was a child at Sligo I could see above my grandfather’s trees a little column of smoke from ‘the pern mill,’ and was told that ‘pern’ was another name for the spool, as I was accustomed to call it, on which thread was wound.”

The poet soon appropriated this noun and transformed it into a verb that would evoke the motion of revolving or spinning. In his poetry, it conveys the vacillation of a conflicted soul. He uses the verb for the first time in “Demon and Beast” (written in 1920, published in Michael Robartes and the Dancer, 1921):

Though I had long perned in the gyre,
Between my hatred and desire,
I saw my freedom won
And all laugh in the sun.

The OED says that the verb was “adopted by W. B. Yeats from Irish dialect use.” The dictionary defines the verb as “to spin, revolve; to move with a winding or spiral motion.”

A better-known use of “perne” is from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” (written in 1926, first published in October Blast in 1927).

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.

By the way, the noun “gyre,” for a circle or spiral, also crops up frequently in Yeats’s poetry, as in these famous lines from “The Second Coming” (1919):

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

But getting back to “perne,” the OED notes that the Irish dialect noun that inspired it, “pern,” was in fact a variant of “pirn,” a Middle English noun for “a bobbin, spool, or reel.”

The old word “pirn” is now found in Scots dialect, the OED says, both as a noun and as a verb (meaning to weave, wind, or spin).

“Yeats does not seem to have been aware of the existence in Scots usage” of the noun and verb “pirn,” the dictionary says, “or he treated them as separate words, despite the obvious proximity in sense.”

And now a historical note about an even more obscure word spelled “perne,” a 16th-century verb that the OED labels “rare” and “now historical” (meaning that it’s now found only in references to times past).

The verb first meant “to turn (a garment)” and thus “to change (one’s opinion, adherence, etc.) frequently and insincerely,” Oxford says. It originated as a mocking reference to Andrew Perne, a noted turncoat.

Perne, who died in 1589, was master of Peterhouse College, Cambridge, and vice-chancellor of the university in the latter half of the 1500s. These were treacherous times for influential academics, but Perne managed to survive the violent and tumultuous times by skillfully shifting his political and religious views to suit the prevailing winds.

So this “perne,” unlike Yeats’s, is an eponym: a word inspired by a person or a person who inspired a word. We wrote posts about eponyms in 2010 and 2019.

The word (though in an adjectival form) was used to mock Andrew Perne even during his lifetime. This is the OED’s earliest sighting: “Who from their snares by sleight can slide, / In these so pernest tymes” (Epigrams and Sentences Spirituall in Vers, Thomas Drant’s 1568 translation of the works of Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth-century Archbishop of Constantinople).

This anonymous use (misspelled) appeared around the time of Perne’s death: “What Doctor Pearne? Why he is the notablest turnecoate in al this land … it is made a prouerb … that if one haue a coate or cloake that is turned, they saye it is Pearned.” (From a religious pamphlet, A Dialogue Concerning the Tyrannical Dealings of the Lord Bishops, circa 1589.)

Rare though it is today, the usage was fairly well known in the early 17th century. Among the OED’s citations is one from Randle Cotgrave’s A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), in which the phrase “retourner sa robbe” is defined as “to Pernize, or Apostatize it; to play the turne-coat.”

[Note: A reader writes on July 9, 2021, to say that the old word “pirn” is still used by weavers today. “This word is alive and well in the weaving world. A shuttle can hold a bobbin, which is flanged at both ends, or it can be made to use pirns, narrow tubes of cardboard or occasionally metal. Both serve the purpose of feeding weft thread across the warp, but pirns generally feed off the end while bobbins feed off the side. So many weaving terms have ancient roots; it’s always been fascinating to me.”]

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

Let’s be negative

Q: Your recent “Let’s you and him fight” article brings to mind another expression, “don’t let’s,” as in “Don’t let’s go to the movies.” Do you know the origin of that construction?

A: There are three ways of making the contraction of “let us” negative: “(1) let’s not,” (2) “don’t let’s,” and (3) “let’s don’t.”

As the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage explains, #1 is “widely used,” #2 is “chiefly found in British English,” and #3 is “typical of speech and casual writing” in American English.

Some language writers have criticized #3 as nonstandard because the “let’s” in “let’s don’t” cannot be read as a contraction of “let us” (it functions as a single word introducing a negative first-person plural imperative phrase, such as “let’s don’t go”).

Technically, according to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, “let and ’s have fused syntactically as well as phonologically, and are no longer analysable as verb + object: they form a single word that functions as marker of the 1st person inclusive imperative construction.”

So is the American usage legit? We say yes. It’s standard informal English in the US. The Oxford English Dictionary agrees, labeling it “U.S. colloquial.” A colloquial usage, the OED says, is “characteristic of or proper to ordinary conversation, as distinguished from formal or elevated language.”

As for the etymology, “let’s not” was the first of these negative usages to appear in English. The earliest example we’ve found is from Volpone, a satirical play by Ben Johnson that was first performed in 1605: “And, reuerend fathers, since we all can hope, Nought, but a sentence, let’s not now despaire it.”

The first example we’ve found for “don’t let’s” is from the mid-19th century: “Don’t let’s have any deception” (from The Love Match, an 1845 novel by the English author Henry Cockton).

The “let’s don’t” version appeared a decade later. The earliest OED example contracts it in an odd way: “A shabby trick! Let’s do n’t” (from Blondel, an 1854 play by George Edward Rice based on a legend about Richard the Lionheart and his minstrel, Blondel).

The first example we’ve found with the usual “let’s don’t” spelling is from an essay in an American magazine: “ ‘Now let’s don’t talk and be jolly,’ would give us no very high idea of the social qualities of the most respectable people” (“Thoughts About Talking,” by “A Lady of Augusta, Georgia,” Scott’s Monthly Magazine, February 1866).

The Merriam-Webster usage guide, in defending “let’s don’t,” cites this example of its use by “one of the most resolutely literary men” of the 20th century: “In all events, let’s don’t celebrate it until it has done something” (from a letter written Jan. 26, 1918, by the New Yorker critic and commentator Alexander Woollcott).

We’ll end by citing a less literary, more political source: “So our crowd said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and their crowd said, ‘Let’s don’t’ ” (from remarks by President Bill Clinton at a  Democratic National Committee luncheon on July 24, 1999, in Aspen, CO).

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

Cut and dried … or dry?

Q: I saw the expression “cut and dry” the other day on the legal scholar Jonathan Turley’s blog. I had always thought it was “cut and dried,” a distinction I learned by a correction in a high school biology paper—in 1961, as I recall. Any thoughts about this?

A: The expression as it first appeared in the mid-17th century was “cut and dried.” But the other version, “cut and dry,” was also used early on, and it’s not incorrect. Most standard dictionaries accept both forms, giving “cut and dry” as a variant or less common version.

To say that something is “cut and dried”—a decision, speech, proposal, etc.—means that it’s been decided or settled in advance. Some dictionaries add that it can mean clear and unambiguous.

The phrasal adjective is figurative, but it was adapted from a literal notion: herbs already harvested, dried, and prepared for sale in herbalists’ shops, “as contrasted,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, “with growing herbs.”

Thus, the dictionary defines the figurative “cut and dried (also cut and dry)” as “ready-made and void of freshness and spontaneity,” or “ready shaped according to a priori formal notions.” The phrase is used mostly in reference to “language, ideas, schemes or the like,” the OED adds.

The dictionary’s examples begin in the early 18th century, but in searches of historic databases we found earlier ones from the mid- to late 17th century. The oldest examples are preceded by “ready,” and some use “dried” (spelled various ways) while some use “dry.”

The two oldest we’ve found appear in the same pamphlet (note how the author is careful to define his meaning):

“I being informed of their Intentions or Determinations before, I made this Reply to them, I did know that it was ready cut and dryed; my meaning was, that it was ready done to their hands.” He repeats the expression later in italics: “I soberly answered, It was ready cut and dryed; that is, to speak after the smilitude, it was ready done to their hands.” From “The Cause of the Innocent Pleaded, His Accusers Pretended Charge Confvted,” by Samuel Bradley (1664).

We’ve found several more in pamphlets and books of the later 1600s:

“a Catholick Answer ready cut and dried to all Indictments drawn up against them” (“The Tragical History of Jetzer,” by Sir William Waller, 1679).

“those Informations, which they kept ready cut and dryed for service upon all occasions” (“An Exact and Faithful Narrative of the Horrid Conspiracy [etc.],” by Titus Oates; written April 1679, published 1680).

“the whole Scheme of the Project ready cut and dry’d” (“The Character of a Papist in Masquerade,” by Sir Roger L’Estrange, 1681).

“the Excuses which I had always ready cut and dry’d” (A Late Voyage to Constantinople, John Philips’s translation from the French of Guillaume-Joseph Grelot, 1683).

“presented unto the Council ready cut and dry” (The History of the Eucharist, John Walker’s translation from the French of Matthieu de L’Arroque, 1684).

The OED’s first citation is dated 1710: “Your Sermon was ready Cut and Dry’d” (Letter to Sacheverell, a poem by Joseph Addison, pseudonymously signed “J.B.”).

As we mentioned above, “cut and dried” is more common than “cut and dry,” a preference that’s demonstrated by a comparison on Google’s Ngram viewer.

Why does “cut and dry” persist? It may have been reinforced in the early 18th century, when smokers began referring to tobacco as “cut and dry.” As the OED says, “cut and dry” was a noun phrase used elliptically to mean “cut and dried tobacco.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the phrasal noun is from a letter written to Jonathan Swift by his good friend Dr. John Arbuthnot (Jan. 30, 1718). The OED quotes only a line of Arbuthnot’s letter, but we think his anecdote is entertaining enough to quote in its entirety:

I knew a pretty young Girl in a Country Village, who, over-fond of her own Praise, became a Property to a poor Rogue in the Parish, who was ignorant of all Things but Fawning. This Fellow us’d to wait on Mrs. Betty every Morning, and she being a Shopkeeper, his usual Salutation was, Lord love your Heart, Mrs. Betty, you be main handsome, will you give me a Pipe of Tobacco? Am I, Isaac? (answers Mrs. Betty) let me see your Box; and then she fills it. Thus Isaac extolls her out of a Quartern of Cut and Dry every Day she lives; and tho’ the young Woman is really handsome, she and her Beauty are become a By-word, and, all the Country round, she is call’d nothing but Isaac’s Best Virginia.”

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