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English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

In pursuit of the quick brown fox

Q: The New York Times has a game called Spelling Bee in which readers are given seven letters and asked to form words out of them. If you use all seven, the game calls it a “pangram.” From what I know, however, a pangram is a sentence that contains all 26 letters of the English alphabet.

A: A “pangram” is, as you say, a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet. The classic example is “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

Of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult, eight include “pangram” and their definitions are more or less the same—a sentence (some say “a short sentence” and some add “or verse”) containing all 26 letters.

A few of the dictionaries note that a perfect or ideal pangram uses each letter only once; however, that’s not essential to the definition. At any rate, we’ve never seen a pangram of only 26 letters that doesn’t resort to using names, abbreviations, bizarre words, or the like.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, agrees with the standard dictionaries. Its “pangram” definition: “A sentence or (occasionally) verse containing every letter of the alphabet.”

As the OED explains, the word was formed of the combining elements “pan-” (all) and “-gram” (letter).  Both come from ancient Greek.

No dictionary defines a “pangram” as a word made from all the letters one is given, but perhaps the Spelling Bee game was using the word in its etymological sense, a usage we haven’t seen before.

In North American Scrabble, using all seven of your tiles in a single turn earns you a “bingo,” a term presumably borrowed from that other game. The Times Spelling Bee game also uses “bingo,” but in a different way, as explained in a glossary. It also differentiates an ordinary “pangram” from a “perfect pangram.” But never mind.

As for its history, the word “pangram” was first recorded in 1860, according to OED citations. However, there were earlier forms—the noun “pangrammatist” (1739) and the adjective “pangrammatic” (1833)—so we’ll start with those.

A “pangrammatist” is just what you would expect. The OED definition is “a writer who uses every letter of the alphabet in a single sentence, line of verse, etc.; a composer of pangrams.”

As the dictionary says, “pangrammatist” was “a borrowing from Greek” with the addition of the English sufffix “-ist,” and was modeled after the 17th-century noun “anagrammatist” (for a writer of anagrams).

The earliest use cited is from “A Dissertation on the Life and Writings of Tryphiodorus,” an introductory essay in a translation of an epic poem by the Greek writer about the fall of Troy:

“There is yet another style of Writers which … may not improperly be called Pangrammatists. … It was not sufficient for them that their Poems consisted of the proper feet and measure, unless all the letters of the Alphabet were crowded into every single line of them.” (The Destruction of Troy, James Merrick’s 1739 translation of a work from the third or fourth century.)

The adjective form, “pangrammatic,” was next to come along. The word describes “a sentence, verse, etc.,” Oxford says, “that contains every letter of the alphabet.” Here’s the earliest use:

“Gessner gives half-a-dozen Pangrammatic lines, in Greek Hexameters and Jambics, at the beginning of his edition of ‘Heraclidis Allegoriæ Homericæ’ ” (The Christian Examiner and Church of Ireland Magazine, May 1833).

The noun “pangram” followed a few decades later. The plural forms are “pangrams” and (less commonly) “pangrammata.”

Oxford’s earliest example is from a collection of literary oddities, Gleanings for the Curious From the Harvest-Fields of Literature (1860), by Charles Carroll Bombaugh.

In the book, Bombaugh includes a chapter titled “Alphabetical Whims: Lipogrammata and Pangrammata,” giving this as an example of the latter: “John P. Brady, give me a black walnut box of quite a small size.”

The word in its usual plural form appears in this OED example from a British magazine: “The family of Grams is large. There are epigrams, anagrams, chronograms, monograms, lipograms, pangrams, and paragrams” (The Galaxy, June 1873).

And since we brought them up, here are definitions of those words and their earliest known dates: “epigram” (before 1552), a witty saying; “anagram” (1589), a word or phrase formed by rearranging the letters of another; “chronogram” (1623), a sentence or phrase in which certain letters, when capitalized, express a date in Roman numerals; “monogram” (1696), a design formed with letters; “lipogram” (1711), a composition that avoids using a certain letter; “paragram” (1711 or earlier), a sort of pun in which a letter or group of letters is altered to suggest another word.

We’ll conclude with a final OED citation for the word “pangram.” It appeared on July 23, 2001, in a Publishers Weekly review of Mark Dunn’s wordplay novel Ella Minnow Pea:

“It’s about a family living on an island that is also home to the original author of the pangram ‘The Quick Brown Fox Jumps over the Lazy Dog.’ ”

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Why a duck?

Q: How did the word “duck” acquire so many unrelated meanings?

A: Yes, there are lots of “duck” words and phrases. You can duck a bill collector, duck under a branch, duck out of a boring party, duck doing the dishes, duck a snowball, duck your head in a pond, and take to a new job like a duck takes to water.

As different as those uses of “duck” are, however, they’re not unrelated. Etymologists believe that all of them ultimately come from an obscure Old English verb meaning to plunge or dive.

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “A duck is a bird that ‘ducks’—as simple as that. It gets its name from its habit of diving down under the water.”

He says the noun “duck” appeared in Old English and is believed to come from an Anglo-Saxon verb meaning to dive, but “there is no actual record of an English verb duck until the 14th century.” Nevertheless, he writes, “it is generally assumed that an Old English verb *ducan did exist, which would have formed the basis of the noun duck.”

Ayto adds that the presumed Old English verb “came from a prehistoric West Germanic verb *dukjan, which also produced the German tauchen ‘dive.’ ” The asterisks here and in the previous paragraph indicate words that presumably existed but do not appear in surviving manuscripts.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the original noun as “a swimming bird of the genus Anas and kindred genera of the family Anatidæ, of which species are found all over the world.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from a corpus of Anglo-Saxon land charters:

“Andlang Osrices pulle þæt hit cymþ on ducan seaþe; of ducan seaþe þæt hit cymþ on Rischale” (“Along Osric’s creek one comes to the pond of ducks, and from the pond of ducks one comes to Rischale”). From an 867 charter in Codex Diplomaticus Aevi Saxonici, edited by John M. Kemble, 1848.

As for the verb, the OED says it originally meant “to plunge or dive, or suddenly go down under water, and emerge again; to dip the head rapidly under water.” The dictionary’s earliest written example, which we’ve expanded, is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem dated at sometime before 1325:

“He þat doukeþ ones þer doun / Comeþ neuer out of þat prisoun” (“He that ducketh down there once never cometh out of that prison”). The prison here is Hell. The citation is from the version of Cursor Mundi at Trinity College, Cambridge.

We’ve written on the blog about several other “duck” expressions, including a 2021 post on “get one’s ducks in a row“ and a post in 2011 on “duck and cover.”

Finally, we should mention that the use of “duck” for the tightly woven fabric in sails and outer clothing is apparently unrelated to that obscure old verb and its avian offspring.

The OED says English borrowed the fabric term in the 17th century from Dutch, where doeck means cloth, canvas, linen, and so on. The unrelated Dutch word for the bird is eend.

Although the fabric isn’t etymologically related to the waterfowl, it does repel rain “like water off a duck’s back,” an expression that showed up in the 19th century.

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A note to readers

An unedited version of a post was sent today to   some email, Facebook, and Twitter subscribers. The finished version of the post will appear tomorrow.

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English English language Etymology Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Thee bist purty, my love

Q: Why have the once ubiquitous terms “thee bist” and “thee bistnt” vanished from Wiltshire, Cornwall, and Dorset in England?

A: The dialectal use of “bist” and “bistnt” for “be” and “be not” hasn’t quite vanished in southwestern England, but it’s not as common as it used to be, probably because of the impact of radio, television, and universal education.

We’ve found quite a few 20th-century examples in newspapers from the West Country (an area roughly consisting of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and Bristol). Here are some of the sightings:

“Thee bist a bit vree ’n eazee wi thy remarks bissent?” (Wells Journal, Somerset, June 3, 1976).

“I’m glad thee bist come, he remarked to the first customer to arrive” (Gloucester Citizen, Gloucestershire, July 26 1949).

“Wot’s rekin thee bist up to?” (Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser, Nov. 29, 1947).

“Thee bist chicken, but thee b’yent d’yud an’ done vor yet a’while, thee zilly old chump” (Gloucester Journal, Jan. 20, 1940).

“Thee bistn’t any bloomin’ ornament vor a zure thing—bist any use?” (Western Gazette, Somerset, Oct. 6, 1933).

“What bist doin’, Targe? said another employee, Bist’nt gwain a do any work to-day?” (Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser, Aug. 05, 1944).

Interestingly, this dialectal usage has roots in Old English, where the verb “be” was bieonbian, or bion, and the second person singular (“you are”) could be written in various ways, including ðu arð (thou art) and ðu bist (thou be).

An Old English version of Matthew 6:9 in the Lindisfarne Gospels includes both ðu arð and ðu bist as variants, as well as two variant spellings of “heaven” (heofnum and heofnas):

Pater noster qui es in caelis: fader urer ðu arð ðu bist in heofnum in heofnas.” The manuscript was written in Latin around 700. A scribe added an interlinear Old English gloss, or translation, in the 900s.

Finally, here’s an early 20th-century example from Cotswold and Vale: or Glimpses of Past and Present in Gloucestershire (1904), by Henry Branch:

“Lookee, thee bist purty, my love; lookee, thee bist purty: thee hast dove’s eyes betwix thy locks; thy locks be like a flock o’ ship fur thickedness.”

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A questionable caticism

Q: I’ve heard that the expression “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” refers to cleaning a catfish, not skinning a cat. Is this true?

A: No, the expression is not about skinning catfish (though they are in fact cleaned by skinning, not scaling).

The “cat” here is indeed of the feline variety, but the phrase isn’t intended literally. It didn’t come from real people sitting around sharing tips about how to skin real cats.

Cats appear in many hyperbolic expressions—perhaps because they make for catchy language. We’ve written on our blog about a few other caticisms, including the “cat’s pajamas” (or “cat’s meow”), a “cat’s-paw,” “she is the cat’s mother,” “let the cat out of the bag,” and “cat got your tongue?” In fact, the word in some catty phrases is purely accidental, as with “catty (or kitty) corner.

But back to skinning cats. As you might imagine, a dead cat is not much use and there’s little value in its fur. So how did the notion of skinning one creep into a common English expression?

The story begins in the 17th century with another phrase, “to skin a flint,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says this was the first of several “hyperbolical phrases” about skinning things—a group of expressions that denoted exaggerated stinginess “or the willingness to go to extreme lengths to save or gain something.”

As the dictionary explains, “to skin a flint” was “a hyperbolical exemplification of avarice,” and “skinning a flint” was a figurative usage meaning “parsimonious saving.” A flint is a piece of hard stone used to make sparks, and of course it has no skin.

(A similar notion is found in the word “cheeseparing,” a 16th-century noun that meant a scrap pared from the rind of a cheese—something that’s useless or barely edible. Later, “cheeseparing” was used only figuratively, to mean economizing with small, stingy cuts.)

This is the OED’s earliest example of the “flint” phrase: “Jones was one Would Skinne a Flint, and eat him when h’had done” (from a satirical poem, The Legend of Captaine Jones, by David Lloyd, 1656).

Citations in the dictionary show that the “flint” version survived into the 20th century, as in this example from Poems (1917), by Edward Thomas: “For a farthing she’d skin a flint and spoil a knife / Worth sixpence skinning it.”

And, yes, this is where “skinflint” comes from, a late-17th-century noun defined in the OED as “a person who would ‘skin a flint’ to save or gain a thing, esp. money; a mean or avaricious person; a miser.”

In the 19th century, other versions of the “skin” phrase began appearing. A miser, seeing to get the last atom of use out of a useless thing, would “skin a louse” (1803), “skin a flea … for its hide or tallow” (1819), and finally “skin a cat.”

Here’s the earliest “cat” version in the OED: “I was … brought up amongst fellows would skin a cat” (from Davenport Dunn, 1859, by the Irish novelist Charles James Lever).

We found this parsimonious example in a travel guide: “A certain American once said, that to obtain money a Natalian would skin a cat” (South Africa: A Sketch Book, 1884, by James Stanley Little).

Meanwhile, the notion of skinning cats underwent a change in American usage. A new expression, “there is more than one way to skin a cat” (and variants) came to mean “there is more than one means of achieving a given aim,” the OED says.

This is the earliest example we’ve found: “At any rate, thought I, there’s more than one way to skin a cat” (from The New York Transcript, reprinted in The Indiana American, Brookville, Jan. 15, 1836).

The question here is whether the miserly expression “to skin a cat” was the direct source of “more than one way to skin a cat.” There’s no way to know for sure, but our guess is that the first one influenced the second.

We say this because similar proverbs of the “more than one way” variety—and all meaning that there are different means of accomplishing the same goal—existed before cats became part of the expression.

Perhaps the earliest such proverb was “there are more ways to the wood than one,” dating from the early 16th century. This version (we’ve also seen “more ways to the mill”) has appeared in published writing in every century since then, including our own.

Meanwhile, dogs began showing up in 17th-century versions of the expression, as in these examples (from our own searches as well as OED citations): “ther’s more wayes to kill a Dog then hanging of him” (1640); “there are more ways of killing a dog than choking him with butter” (1829); “there are more ways than one to kill a dog” (1835).

Lo and behold, cats also crept into the expression: “There is more than one way to kill a cat” (1833); “There’s more ways of killing a cat than hanging of her” (1843); “More ways of killing a cat than choking her with cream” (1855), and so on.

What we suspect is that the appearance of cats in those various “more than one way” expressions evoked that earlier phrase about extreme stinginess, with misers so cheap they would “skin a flint” or “skin a flea” or “skin a cat.”

It seems reasonable that the two “cat” expressions were conflated. And that might explain how “more than one way to skin a cat” appeared in the 1830s.

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Anent what nanny really meant

Q: As for your post about the use of “around” or “surrounding” instead of “about,” you didn’t mention another option: We can also use “anent.” No, please don’t! Just kidding.

A: Some usage writers consider “anent” archaic, but it isn’t quite as dead as the dodo. In fact, its use has increased a bit in recent years, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks usage in digitized books.

In an etymological note, Merriam-Webster says “anent” (which it defines as “about” or “concerning”) has roots in Anglo-Saxon times. It nearly died out by the 17th century, according to the dictionary, but was revived in the 19th century.

“Various usage commentators have decried ‘anent’ as ‘affected’ and ‘archaic,’ ” M-W says. “It is not archaic, however. Although ‘anent’ is rarely found in speech, plenty of examples of current use can be found in written sources. Dead words do occasionally rise from the grave, and ‘anent’ is one of them.”

OK, stuffy little “anent” is still alive, but we wouldn’t recommend using it, except playfully, as W. H. Auden does at the end of this post.

When “anent” first appeared, written in Old English as on efen or on efn (that is, “on even”), it meant “along, in line with; alongside, beside; even or level with,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

We’ve found a dramatic example in Beowulf, an epic poem that may date from as early as 725. In this passage near the end of the work, Beowulf, Lord of the Geats (medieval Geatland is Götaland in modern Sweden), lies dead alongside the body of a dragon he fought:

“dryhten geata, deaðbedde fæst, / wunaðwælreste wyrmes daedumm / him on efn ligeð ealdorgewinna” (“the Lord of the Geats lies fast on his deathbed, brought down by the dragon’s deed. And beside him is stretched out the slayer of men”).

The modern sense of “anent,” which the OED defines as “with reference to, in relation to; regarding, concerning, about,” first appeared in the Middle English of the mid-14th century.

The dictionary’s earliest example (with “anent” spelled “onentes”) is from The Lay Folks’ Catechism (1357), by John Gaytryge: “Wharefore, onentes [with reference to] the first of this sex thinges [these six things] … Thare falles un-to the faithe fourtene poyntes.”

The “anent” spelling showed up a few decades later, according to OED citations. In the dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, the term means “with” or “among”:

“Forsothe vnpitouse men seiden, thenkende anent hemselue not riȝt” (“Forsooth, pitiless men, thinking among themselves, but not right”). From the Wycliffe Bible of 1382, Wisdom of Solomon 2:1.

We’ll end with this playful use of “anent” from Auden’s Academic Graffiti (1972), a collection of clerihews, or whimsical four-line poems:

Oxbridge philosophers, to be cursory,
Are products of a middle-class nursery:
Their arguments are anent
What nanny really meant.

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Lisztomania and other manias

Q: I’ve read that in the 19th century people referred to the craze over the composer Franz Liszt as “Lisztomania.” Was “mania” really used in that manner at the time? It seems to me as if it might be something from a more modern vernacular.

A: Yes, “Lisztomania” was used in the 19th century for the craze over Franz Liszt (1811-86), but the Hungarian composer and pianist was a lot more popular in his day than the term that referred to his popularity.

The poet Heinrich Heine coined a German version of the word, Lisztomanie, in 1844, but as far as we can tell he used it only once in his writing and the term was rarely used by others during Liszt’s lifetime. In fact, most of the 19th-century examples we’ve seen are reprints of Heine’s original remark in collections of his  work.

Heine, the Paris correspondent for the German newspaper Allgemeine Zeitung, used Lisztomanie in an April 25, 1844, report on the Parisian concert season: “So dachte ich, so erklärte ich mir die Lisztomanie” (“So I thought, and so I explained Lisztomania to myself”).

But “Lisztomania” didn’t appear in English until seven years after Liszt’s death—when it was used in a translation of Heine’s comment.

The translation, the same as ours above, was published in The Salon: Or, Letters on Art, Music, Popular Life and Politics (1893), the fourth volume in Charles Godfrey’s translation of Heine’s works.

However, a two-word version of the English term did appear during Liszt’s lifetime, in a London magazine’s translation of that passage: “So thought I; so I explained to myself the Liszt mania” (The Monthly Musical Record, Jan. 1, 1875).

And the phrase “Liszt fever” appeared a couple of times in the late 19th century, including a reference to “Liszt fever in the Austrian capital” (from My Musical Recollections, 1896, by the German pianist and composer Wilhelm Kuhe).

“Lisztomania” showed up in print every once in a while in the 20th century, but it wasn’t seen much until the appearance of Lisztomania, a 1975 musical film written and directed by Ken Russell. The musical, featuring the rock star Roger Daltrey of The Who as Liszt, is based in part on on the composer’s affair with Marie Catherine Sophie, Comtesse d’Agoult. (Note: Ringo Starr appears in the film as the Pope.)

As for “mania” itself, English borrowed the noun from medieval Latin and ancient Greek terms for mental illness, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Its original meaning in English was “madness, particularly of a kind characterized by uncontrolled, excited, or aggressive behaviour.”

The earliest OED example contrasts mania with melancholy: “Þese passiouns beþ diuers: madnes þat hatte mania & madnes þat hatte malencolia” (“These passions are different: the madness that is called mania and the madness that is called melancholy”). From John Trevisa’s translation in the late 1300s of De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the Properties of Things), an encyclopedic Latin reference compiled in the mid-1200s by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus.

In the early 17th century, English writers began using “-mania” (originally spelled “-manie” or “-many”) as a combining form that referred to excessive or irrational desires or beliefs. The earliest OED example refers to “demonomany,” a now obsolete term for the belief in or worship of demons:

“I leaue vnto them that doe write of Demonomanie to philosophize vpon that matter.” From Noua Francia (New France), Pierre Erondelle’s 1609 translation of Marc Lescarbot’s Histoire de la Nouvelle-France, a book published that same year about the French exploration of North America.

A somewhat earlier OED citation mentions the French source of the term: “Who likes to be curious in these thinges, he may reade, if he will here of their practises, Bodinvs Dæmonomanie.” From Daemonologie (1597), by King James VI of Scotland (later James I of England). The citation refers to De la Démonomanie des Sorciers (Of the Demonomany of the Sorcerers), 1580, by the French jurist Jean Bodin. Both Bodin and King James wanted to prosecute those who practiced sorcery.

Here are a few other early examples of the combining form: “idolomany” (zealous idolatry, 1614); “nymphomania” (1708); “bibliomania” (a rage for collecting books, 1734); and “balloonomania” (a passion for balloons or ballooning, 1785).

Both the combining form “-mania” and the separate noun “mania” have been used over the years in compounds, as in these two terms for a craze over tulips: “tulipomania” (1710) and “tulip mania” (1839).

When used as a combining form, “-mania” has sometimes been preceded by a connecting vowel (“-o-”) and sometimes linked directly to a noun, as in these two terms for an obsession to write: “scribbleomania” (1815) and “scribblemania” (1813).

Getting back to your question, the OED notes the use of “-mania” in compounds with a proper name, but cites only one example, “Beatlemania” (1963), which was a much more common term when the Beatles were a craze than “Lisztomania” was when Franz Liszt was all the rage.

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A gentle reminder

Q: I work in an international school where the staff use the expression “gentle reminder” on an almost daily basis. I hadn’t heard the phrase before and it makes my toes curl. Did someone at the school coin it?

A: No, someone at your school didn’t coin “gentle reminder,” a phrase that always makes us brace ourselves for something unpleasant. We’ve found dozens of examples dating from the 1830s in Britain and the 1840s in the US.

In the earliest examples, the reminder is not so gentle, and the phrase is used humorously or ironically.

The oldest use we’ve found describes a fistfight: “He gave the blackguards a gentle reminder in the chops.” From The English Army in France: Being the Personal Narrative of an Officer (1830), by “J. J.” (pseudonym of John Gordon Smith, who served as a surgeon in a calvary regiment).

The novelist Charles Dickens also used “gentle reminder” ironically. Here are a few examples (the dates are for first appearances in serial form):

“gave his [donkey’s] jaw a sharp wrench, by way of gentle reminder” (Oliver Twist, April 1837) … “Newman took up one of the little glasses, and clinked it, twice or thrice, against the bottle, as a gentle reminder that he had not been helped yet” (Nicholas Nickleby, June 1839) … “jogging his arm as a gentle reminder” (David Copperfield, August 1850) …  “as a gentle reminder of which impropriety, the Queen gave him a tremendous box on the ear, and told him to go to the devil” (A Child’s History of England, June 1853).

As we’ve said, there’s no shortage of examples from the 1800s, in both British and American English. We’ve also found many examples of “tender reminder,” but there the usage is almost always literal—that is, the reminder is kindly and mild. “Gentle reminder” can go either way; it’s sometimes polite but often there’s nothing gentle about it.

The Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for “gentle reminder,” though there’s a definition of sorts hidden in the dictionary’s entry for the noun “nudge.” Used in a figurative way, the OED says, a “nudge” means “a gentle reminder; a prompt, a hint.”

The dictionary does have two examples of the phrase in entries for other words. For instance, this quotation in an entry for “neglect” shows the phrase expressed in a negative way:

“The car owner who neglects this vital element generally gets a none-too-gentle reminder in the form of stiff repair bills” (an advertisement in Life magazine, July 26, 1937).

And in this more recent British example in an entry for “gentle,” the adjective is used in reference to what the OED describes as “potentially negative” language, actions, and so on:

“The club would like to take this opportunity to send out a gentle reminder about the rules and procedures we have in place for the safety and wellbeing of all supporters” (The Birmingham Evening Mail, Sept. 16, 2017).

“Gentle,” according to OED citations, has been used to soften a perhaps unwelcome message since the early 1500s. Other examples include “by gentyll meanes” (perhaps 1529); “with gentyll entreatye” (1542); “a gentle hint” (1658); “gentle irony” (1951); and “gentle ribbing” (1998).

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True north, literal and figurative

Q: I am wondering about the origin of the phrase “true north.” When did it show up in English? And when did Christians begin using it metaphorically in referring to Jesus Christ as their “true North”?

A: As far as we can tell, the phrase “true north” was first used metaphorically in reference to Jesus in the 19th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a book for Christians who question their faith by a pastor who questioned his.

In Christianity and the Science of Manhood: A Book for Questioners (1873), Minot Judson Savage says Jesus “is the first great leader of history who, by the power of his personal love, has drawn thousands of men out of and away from their most fascinating passions, and their dearest sins.”

“He has discovered,” Savage adds, “the secret of the human heart, and so drawn it into magnetic sympathy with his own, that in all its variations and vibrations, it is ever settling nearer and nearer to his true north.”

In the preface, he says the book was “born of doubt and conflict.” It was published a year after he left the Congregational Church to become a Unitarian because he “found it impossible to rest in tradition” and “felt compelled to seek a reasonable basis on which to stand.” He was a well-known Unitarian preacher in New England in the late 19th century.

Despite that early example, the figurative use of “true north” in reference to Jesus was relatively rare until the late 20th century. And the phrase is still not common enough to be included in any of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult. It’s just defined literally as the geographic north as opposed to the magnetic north.

Nor is this figurative sense of “true north” found in the Oxford English Dictionary, the most comprehensive English etymological reference. It has only one definition for the term: “north determined by the earth’s axis of rotation (as opposed to magnetic north).”

The OED’s earliest citation is from a 16th-century mathematical treatise: “Of the Variacion of the Compas, from true Northe” (in The Elements of Geometrie of the Most Ancient Philosopher Euclide, 1570, by Henry Billingsley, a translation from the Greek of Euclid’s work).

We’ll end with a metaphorical example from Mere Christianity, a 1952 book by C. S. Lewis, based on radio broadcasts he made during World War II. Here’s how he describes two people undecided about God:

“Their free will is trembling inside them like the needle of a compass. But this is a needle that can choose. It can point to its true North; but it need not. Will the needle swing round, and settle, and point to God?”

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Categories
English English language Etymology Phrase origin Usage Writing

Do you know your onions?

Q: I know the onion has many layers, but how did it get into the phrase “know your onions”?

A: The expression “know one’s onions,” meaning to be very knowledgeable or experienced about something, showed up in American English in the early 20th century.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary describes a horse with lots of experience at pulling a letter carrier’s mail wagon, as the one in this photograph from the Smithsonian National Postal Museum:

The OED citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a poem in the February 1908 issue of The Postal Record, a monthly journal of the National Association of Letter Carriers. In the poem, O. S. White, a letter carrier in Wilkes-Barre, PA, describes his workday. After a bit of grumbling about the demands of the job, he gets to his horse Billy:

But, never mind; Billy knows his onions,
He is not troubled with corns or bunions.
He travels along at a good, fair gait;
Unless the roads are bad, he is never late.

The dictionary’s first human example is from “The University Tongue,” a short story by Altha Leah Bass in the March 1922  issue of Harper’s Magazine.

When Ruth, a first-year college student, returns home for the holiday season, her mother asks if she has a good English instructor. Ruth replies, “Mr. Roberts knows his onions, all right.” Later, Ruth’s father says that parents, as well as students, can “learn their onions.”

The OED, in an entry for “know,” describes “know one’s onions” as a humorous colloquial play on an older use of the verb in various expressions meaning “to have learnt everything necessary about” a subject or “to be well informed” about it.

The dictionary’s citations for the older usage date back to the 1500s, but the early ones are relatively obscure. Here are a few clearer ones that we’ve found: “he knows his flock” (1621), “he knows his catechism” (1723), “he knows his business” (1744), “she knows her letters” (1799), and “they know their trade” (1800).

As for “know one’s onions,” the OED says it’s one of an assortment of offbeat expressions “used in same sense, but with substitution of a comically inappropriate noun, esp. the name of a vegetable or other foodstuff.” It adds that among such comic variations, the earliest and most common is “know one’s onions.”

Later versions of the usage cited by the dictionary are “knows his oil” (1924), “knows his cucumbers” (1929), “knew my okra” (1976), and “knows his carrots”—as in “It’s where every DJ who knows his carrots goes to be seen for the summer holidays” (Muzik Magazine, July 1995).

Note: Some language junkies have suggested that the usage may have been inspired by the name of the English lexicographer Charles Talbut Onions, better known as C. T. Onions. But that seems unlikely. Onions was a relatively obscure editor at the Oxford English Dictionary when the phrase first appeared across the Atlantic.

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