English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Seamstresses, midwives, and gender

Q: At fashion shows, one who sews is invariably referred to as a “seamstress,” though men sometimes do the job. Similarly, one who helps a woman in childbirth is a “midwife” (feminine as in the French sage-femme), though some are men. Any thoughts?

A: The original term for someone who sews was “seamster” (spelled sæmestre, seamystre, semestr, etc., in Old English), and it referred to men as well as women for hundreds of years—until “seamstress” appeared in the 17th century.

As for “midwife,” it’s not a gendered term (unlike its French counterpart, sage-femme). When midwif appeared in Middle English, mid meant “with” and wif meant woman, as we note in a 2016 post. So etymologically “midwife” refers to someone (usually a woman, but not always) who is “with” a woman giving birth. We’ll have more to say about “midwife” later, but first a look at “seamstress.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “seamster” as “originally a designation of a woman, but in Old English already applicable to a man.” The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a will, dated around 995, in which a woman named Wynflæd beqeathes two female slaves to her granddaughter Eadgyfe:

“Hio becweđ Eadgyfe ane crencestræn and ane semestran” (“She bequeathes to Eadgyfe a weaver and a seamster”). From Codex Diplomaticus Aevi Saxonici (1839-48), edited by John Mitchell Kemble. The term semestran is the accusative (direct object) of seamystre, and crencestræn is the accusative of crencestre.

The first OED citation for “seamstress,” which we’ve expanded, is from a 1643 treatise about the early days of the English Civil War of 1642-51: “a great masse of money and plate, was brought into the Guild-Hall, the Semstresse brought in her silver Thimble, the Chamber maid her Bodkin, the Cook his Spoones” (Twelve Several Treatises, 1661, by James Howell, a supporter of Charles I and Charles II).

Several gender-free nouns have shown up over the years for someone who sews, including “tailor” (1297), “sewer” (1399), “needleworker” (1611), and “sewist” (1867). The dates are the first appearances in the OED.

“Tailor” and “needleworker” refer to someone who sews for business, while “sewist” usually means someone who sews as a hobby. We’ve seen “sewer” used both ways, though some people are reluctant to use it because it’s spelled the same as the conduit for sewage. We wrote a post a few years ago on “sewer” versus “sewist.”

The two of us generally use gender-free occupational nouns (“actor,” “author,” “editor,” etc.) for men and women. But the goal of language is communicating. And we’re willing to make exceptions if the people we’re communicating with expect a gendered term.

So in discussing the winner of the Academy Award for Best Actress, we’d use “actress,” and in talking about a female sewer (pronounced SOH-er) for a fashion show, we’d use “seamstress,” the usual term for a woman who sews professionally.

However, language changes, and these usages may soon go the way of “authoress” and “editrix.” We wrote a post in 2018 about the history of “stewardess” and other “-ess” words.

As for “midwife,” the noun first appeared around 1300 in Middle English as a compound of the Old English mid and wif. The earliest citation in the OED is from a Middle English life, or story, of St. Edmund the Confessor:

“Þe mide-wyues him wolden habbe i-bured, ac þe moder seide euere nay” (“The midwives would have buried him, but the mother said ever nay”). From The Early South-English Legendary (1887), edited by Carl Horstmann, a collection of the lives of saints and other church figures.

Although a “midwife” is usually a woman who helps women give birth, the term has also been used since at least the 17th century in reference to men. The OED says the men were originally referred to as “man-midwives” and “were called on to help female midwives only in cases of difficult births.”

The man-midwives were barber-surgeons who used surgical instruments like forceps “in a desperate attempt to save the life of the birthing woman,” Deanna Pilkenton and Mavis N. Schornon write in “Midwifery: A Career for Men in Nursing,” a February 2008 article on the website of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing.

The first OED citation for the term is from a play, The Whore of Babylon (1607), by the Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Dekker: “Why they are certaine men-midwiues, that neuer bring people to bed, but when they are sore in labour, that no body els can deliuer them.”

And here’s a description of a difficult 17th-century birth that we’ve found in Aristotle’s Masterpiece: Or, the Secrets of Generation, an anonymous 1694 sex manual:

“In case of Extremity, greater regard must be had than at other times; and first of all, the Situation of the Womb, and her posture of lying, must be cross the Bed, being held by such as have the strength to prevent her from slipping down, or moving her self in the operation of the Man-Midwife, or the Chyrurgeon [surgeon].”

The man-midwife of the 17th century, sometimes referred to as a “forceps man,” was “the predecessor of the obstetrician,” according to Pilkenton and Schornon:

“Female childbirth attendants, largely excluded from educational institutions (and thereby prohibited from using surgical instruments), would remain practicing empirical midwifery. Hence, midwifery and obstetrics would be divided along gender and philosophical lines for many years to come.”

Today, “women have overcome many barriers to practicing medicine and now make up a large proportion of obstetricians,” the authors say, but men now comprise only “a minuscule number” of midwives.

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

The four corners of the earth

Q: In regard to “the four corners of the earth,” how did our globe come to have four corners?

A: The expression “four corners of the earth” appeared in Anglo-Saxon times as “feowerum [four] foldan [of the earth] sceatum [corners]” and in Old English it meant the remotest areas of the world.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “the four corners, quarters, etc. (of the earth, heavens or world)” refers to “the remotest parts.” The dictionary defines the noun “corner” in such expressions as “an extremity or end of the earth; a region, quarter; a direction or quarter from which the wind blows.”

The OED doesn’t speculate on how “four corners” came to be used in this sense, but it notes that “the four corners (of a document)” refers to “the limits or scope of its contents,” while “within the four seas” has meant “within the boundaries of Great Britain,” and “of all four sides” is another way of saying “entirely, thoroughly.”

It’s possible that “four” here may have originated as a reference to the cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west) or to the four bodies of water surrounding Britain: the English Channel, the North Sea, the Irish Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean.

Interestingly, the earliest Oxford citation for the word “four” uses it in the Old English version of “four corners of the earth.” The expression comes up in a description of the Last Judgment in Crist III, an anonymous Old English religious poem that the dictionary dates at 878:

“Þonne from feowerum foldan sceatum, þam ytemestum eorþan rices, englas æbeorhte on efen blawað byman on brehtme” (“Then from the four corners of the earth, from the utmost of the earthly realm, angels all-bright shall blow trumpets together with one voice”).

The earliest Oxford citation that resembles the modern version of the expression is from Myles Coverdale’s 1535 late Middle English translation of the Bible, the first complete translation of the Old and New Testaments in English. Here’s the Old Testament passage cited:

“And he shal set vp a toke [send a token or sign] amonge the Gentiles, and gather together ye dispersed of Israel, yee and the outcastes of Iuda from the foure corners of ye worlde” (Isaiah, 11:12).

Coverdale also uses the expression in translating a New Testament passage: “And after that sawe I foure angels stode on ye foure corners of the earth, holdinge ye foure wyndes of ye earth, yt ye wyndes shulde not blowe on ye earth, nether on ye see, nether on eny tree” (Revelation 7:1).

By the way, the adjective “four” is missing from the earliest known Hebrew version of the Old Testament passage mentioned earlier. The website of the Jewish Museum in Jerusalem has an English translation of the passage from the Great Isaiah Scroll, a Dead Sea Scroll dated at roughly 350 to 100 BC:

“He will raise a signal for the nations and assemble the banished of Israel and gather the dispersed of Judah from the corners of the earth.” (The translators, Peter W. Flint and Eugene Ulrich, render the Hebrew כנפות הארץ as “corners of the earth.” You can examine the scroll and the English translation on the website.)

The word כנפות appears in various passages of the Hebrew Bible and has been translated as corners, wings, edges, borders, ends, extremities, and so on. Some scholars have translated the phrase in Isaiah as “ends of the earth,” an interpetation that makes sense to us.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Fact, fiction, or faction?

Q: I know it is relatively new, but please fill me in on the origins of the literary term “faction.”

A: The genre known as “faction,” which in its meaning and etymology is a blend of “fact” and “fiction,” apparently got its name in 1930.

The earliest use we’ve found is in Hugo Gernsback’s essay “Science Fiction vs. Science Faction,” published in the fall 1930 issue of Wonder Stories Quarterly, which he then owned.

In the text, Gernsback uses “faction” six times, italicizing it, and says he coined the word. Here’s how he introduces the term.

Jules Verne, he says, “knew how to use fact and combine it with fiction. In time to come, also, our authors will make a marked distinction between science fiction and science faction, if I may coin such a term.”

He later writes: “In sharp counter-distinction to science fiction, we also have science faction. By this term I mean science fiction in which there are so many scientific facts that the story, as far as the scientific part is concerned, is no longer fiction but becomes more or less a recounting of fact.”

The science fiction scholar Gary Westfahl has written that “Gernsback’s editorial could be read as the first manifesto on behalf of hard SF, in that Gernsback isolates, defines, and defends a type of SF where scientific accuracy is central” (from “ ‘The Closely Reasoned Technological Story’: The Critical History of Hard Science Fiction,” Science Fiction Studies, July 1993).

For the next 30 years, the term was confined to science fiction criticism, as far as we can tell. The earliest literary use of “faction” we’ve found outside science fiction is from The New York Times Book Review (April 2, 1961).

In this passage Lewis Nichols, writing the “In and Out of Books” column, reports on Ernest K. Gann’s upcoming project: “He’ll decide whether his investigations will go into fact or fiction, novel or documentary. At the present moment he’s thinking of trying something he calls ‘faction,’ which is a combo. He expects to give faction ‘a hell of a go,’ before perhaps settling for one part of it or the other.”

Later that same year, the usage appeared in an academic paper about the novels of James Joyce. After describing Ulysses and Finnegans Wake as “deeply autobiographical in their materials,” the author writes:

“The coincidence of ‘faction’ with fiction is, however, markedly high in all of Joyce’s writings” (from “James Joyce: Unfacts, Fiction, and Facts,” by William T. Noon, in PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association of America, June 1961).

A few years later, the term cropped up three times in a very different venue—a trade magazine The author apparently felt the context sufficiently explained the term. We’ll quote just one of the uses:

“Perhaps it is not faction, nor fiction, nor even fancy to believe in the near future we will have a German who gets up to put on his Italian suit, has ham for breakfast from the Netherlands, looks at his Luxembourg watch, kisses his Belgian wife goodbye amid the delightful aroma of French perfume, and then drives off to work in his English car … which is insured by an American insurance company!” (from “Insurance and the European Common Market: Faction, Fiction or Fancy?” by David L. Bickelhaupt, Journal of Risk and Insurance, March 1964).

Later in the 1960s, the term became somewhat more common in literary criticism. The two earliest uses cited in the Oxford English Dictionary are from the same year:

“This is the great work of faction of 1967—fiction based on fact, the novel form of our time” (a publisher’s note with Hugh Atkinson’s novel The Games) … “An Australian has tried his hand at writing a ‘faction’ (half fact, half fiction) novel” (The Courier-Mail, Brisbane, Dec. 30, 1967).

Those two 1967 citations illustrate each of the OED’s definitions—“faction” can mean the genre as a whole or a single work. The dictionary defines the word this way: “A literary and cinematic genre in which fictional narrative is developed from a basis of real events or characters; documentary fiction or drama; (also) a work in this genre.”

The OED, en etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the word was “formed within English, by blending” the nouns “fact” and “fiction.”

Standard dictionaries define the term similarly. Here’s American Heritage: “1. A form of literature or filmmaking that treats real people or events as if they were fictional or uses real people or events as essential elements in an otherwise fictional rendition. 2. A literary work or film that is a mix of fact and fiction.”

In 2017, we wrote about such phrases as “creative nonfiction,” “literary nonfiction,” and “narrative nonfiction.” In 2011, we discussed the word “fact,” and in 2008 we wrote about “fiction” and “nonfiction.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Bespoke burgers and running shoes

Q: I was driving in the Grand Rapids area the other day and noticed a sign for “bespoke homes.” I’d only heard “bespoke” used in British tailoring contexts and didn’t know it was imported. How long before we have bespoke hamburgers or bespoke Air Jordans?

A: Yes, the adjective “bespoke” is more common in the UK than in the US. And it usually refers to custom-made clothing. But the word is evolving—in American as well as British English. In fact, “bespoke burgers” and “bespoke running shoes” have already shown up in both the US and the UK.

Here are a few American examples we’ve found:

“Samsung’s Bespoke Appliances Bring Custom Color And Coordination To Your Home” (Forbes, May 13, 2021).

“How to Buy a Bespoke Shotgun. A custom-fitted shotgun is expensive, but if you can afford one, it will become a family legacy to be handed down from one generation to the next” (Outdoor Life, May 20, 2021).

“Bespoke Bathing: Say the words ‘carbon fiber’ and you’ve got an aficionado’s full attention. That’s no surprise, as this sleek material is used in supercars, aircraft and top-end sports equipment … and now tubs” (Brickell Magazine, Miami, Dec. 27, 2018).

“Decadent Dogs and Bespoke Burgers at Riley’s” (Hartford Courant, Nov. 17, 2014).

“Adidas Wants to Create Bespoke Running Shoes Using 3-D Printing” (Racked, Oct 7, 2015).

And now here are some British examples :

“Duchess of Cornwall shares her bespoke recipe for a Victoria Sponge—with a twist” (from a recipe for sponge cake in The Independent, Sept. 2, 2011).

“In recent years, there has been a growing trend in bespoke burgers, with themed restaurants cooking them to provide the ultimate laid-back dine out experience” (Somerset Live, a website covering news, entertainment and sports in Somerset, Dorset, and Wiltshire, Aug. 24, 2021).

“software experts dedicated to designing bespoke software for one-off applications” (Reading Evening Post, June 24, 1980).

“Adidas Futurecraft 3D Wants to Print You a Pair of Bespoke Running Shoes in Store” (an Oct. 7, 2015, post on the website ManyMiles).

“With over 40 models on display you’ll be sure to find a style to suit you. Standard Range and Bespoke.  Garden Sheds • Summer Houses • Gazebos • Garages • Greenhouses • Conservatories, etc.” (West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, June, 17, 1999).

All of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult define the adjective “bespoke” as meaning custom-made. Two of them, (American Heritage and say it refers especially to clothing, while two others (Collins and Longman) include websites and computer software along with clothes.

Most of the published examples the standard dictionaries provide describe clothing, but quite a few others suggest that the term has outgrown its apparel etymology.

Cambridge, for instance, cites “bespoke furniture” and Macmillan “bespoke software.” Merriam-Webster notes the online use of “a very bespoke approach” to high-end real estate.

Lexico, an online dictionary using the resources of Oxford University Press, has examples in both its US and UK editions for “bespoke kitchens,” “bespoke software systems,” “bespoke itineraries,” “bespoke leather sofas,” even “a bespoke craftsman boatbuilder.”

Though the use of “bespoke” for things other than clothing may seem odd to you, the earliest example for the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to a commissioned play—one ordered in advance—for a performance by a touring theatrical troupe:

“At length the bespoke Play was to be enacted” (A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke, 1755, an autobiography by the actress, playwright, and novelist). The book also uses “bespoke” as a verb meaning to commission: “the Gentleman bespoke a Play.”

As Merriam-Webster explains in an etymology note, “In the English language of yore, the verb bespeak had various meanings, including ‘to speak,’ ‘to accuse,’ and ‘to complain.’ In the 16th century, bespeak acquired another meaning—‘to order or arrange in advance.’

“It is from that sense that we get the adjective bespoke, referring to clothes and other things that are ordered before they are made,” M-W continues. “You are most likely to encounter this adjective in British contexts, such as the recent Reuters news story about a young pig in Northern England who was fitted with ‘bespoke miniature footwear’ (custom-made Wellington boots) to help it overcome a phobia of mud.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

When ‘only’ is apt to be dismal

Q: Recent weather stories have referred to catastrophic floods that “will only become more common” and heat waves “expected to only intensify in the years ahead.” What is “only” doing in those sentences?

A: Here “only” is an adverb meaning “inevitably,” and it’s often used in forecasting something bad. Those two examples are dismal forecasts, contrary to what one would wish, and at the same time seen as certainties.

Standard dictionaries define this use of the adverb in varying ways, but all imply both the certainty of the result and its contrary or negative nature.  In fact, some split their definitions of “only” to separate the two notions.

For instance, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says “only” here can have these meanings: “a. in the last analysis or final outcome; inevitably,” as in “actions that will only make things worse”; and “b. with the negative or unfortunate result,” as in “received a raise only to be laid off.”

And Merriam-Webster has these meanings: (1) “in the final outcome,” as in “will only make you sick”; or (2) “with nevertheless the final result,” as in “won the battles, only to lose the wars.”

The adverb is often used with verbs that are either modals (like “will,” “would,” “can, “could,” etc.) or are in the infinitive. Your examples illustrate each usage: “will only become more common” and “expected to only intensify.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical usage, discusses these adverbial uses of “only” among those that emphasize “the contrary nature of a consequence.”

In one such use, Oxford says, the adverb is “frequently” used with a modal verb or infinitive to mean “inevitably although contrary to intention or desire.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 17th-century sermon and shows “only” followed by an infinitive: “serving only to make a servant more disposed & more able too, as well for the plotting as the acting of villany” (from a collection, King Davids Vow for Reformation, by the Anglican clergyman George Hakewill, 1621).

And the OED’s next citation, from later in the century, has “only” plus a modal verb: “This unlimited power of doing anything with impunity, will only beget a confidence in kings of doing what they list” (from Justice Vindicated, by Roger Coke, 1660). Here the archaic verb “list” means wish, desire, or choose.

The dictionary’s most recent example, from a show-biz memoir, is in a description of Robert Redford: “He is very into incognito so he sports lots of scarves and mufflers and hats and shades, which only make him look more Redfordish” (You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, 1991, by Julia Phillips). In that sentence, “look” is an infinitive.

The other use of “only” that emphasizes “the contrary nature of a consequence” also originated in the early 17th century, according to the OED.

In this case, the adverb is “followed by a dependent infinitive clause” and means “with no other consequence or result than.” And that consequence is sometimes unexpected, surprising, or ironic.

This is the OED’s earliest citation: “He recouerd [recovered] … only to be made more miserable” (from The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania, a prose romance by Lady Mary Wroth, 1621).

We still use the adverb in that same way. This is the OED’s most recent example: “Cursing Rachel and Jeff for having stolen me away from the detention centre … only to bring me to this dungeon” (from By the Sea, a novel by Abdulrazak Gurnah, 2001).

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

Handsome is as handsome does

Q: Oliver Goldsmith uses “handsome is that handsome does” in The Vicar of Wakefield. Did he coin the usage, and is that the original wording of the expression “handsome is as handsome does”?

A: No, Goldsmith didn’t coin the usage. It was a familiar English proverb—though worded somewhat differently—more than a century before he used it in his 1766 novel.

Fred R. Shapiro, in The New Yale Book of Quotations (2021), notes that a version appeared in a 1659 collection of proverbs: “He is handsome that handsome doth.”

And the Oxford English Dictionary has another pre-Goldsmith example, from Philip Ayres’s Mythologia Ethica (1689): “Our English Proverb answers very aptly: He handsome is that handsome does.”

Since the expression was described in writing in the mid-17th century as proverbial, you can be sure that it was commonly used in speech well before that time.

In fact, the formula “X is as X does” was used in pithy sayings before the “handsome” variety came along, as in these two examples:

“But as the auncient adage is, goodly is he that goodly dooth” (A View of Sundry Examples, 1580, a collection of prose by Anthony Munday).

“By my troth, he is a proper man; but he is proper that proper doth” (The Shoemakers Holiday, 1600, a play by Thomas Dekker).

So the formula in various versions—with “goodly” and “proper,” as well as “handsome”—was in use well before Goldsmith’s time, though the “handsome” form is the one that survived. And Goldsmith wasn’t even the first novelist to use the “handsome” proverb in fiction.

This example comes from Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749): “I never thought as it was any Harm to say a young Man was handsome; but to be sure I shall never think him so any more now; for handsome is that handsome does.”

In context, the same message is conveyed in Goldsmith’s novel: deeds count for more than looks. Mrs. Primrose, the wife of Goldsmith’s vicar, has this reply for those who comment on the beauty of her children:

“Ay, neighbour, they are as heaven made them, handsome enough, if they be good enough; for handsome is that handsome does.”

The proverb is a play on words, contrasting two different senses of “handsome.” The adjective was used both (a) for a person who’s good-looking  and (b) for one who does the right thing. (We’ve written before about the interesting etymology of “handsome.”) So the gist is that a truly handsome person is one who acts handsomely.

The “that” in the original version of the expression (“He is handsome that handsome doth”) is a relative pronoun referring to the antecedent subject “he,” just as the relative “who” is used.  (As we’ve written before on the blog, both “that” and “who” can refer to people.)

By the 18th century, elliptical versions of the saying were appearing without the subject “he,” as in those passages from Fielding and Goldsmith. And the old saying continued to evolve, as proverbs generally do.

Versions with “who” or “as” in place of the relative “that”—“handsome is who [or as] handsome does”—began appearing in the early 19th century, according to our searches of old newspaper databases.

In the newer forms, “who” simply fills in for the old relative pronoun, but “as” plays a different role. The “as” in “handsome is as handsome does” is a conjunction meaning “in so far as,” “to the same extent as,” etc. These are the earliest published uses we’ve found:

“remembering, always, however much the opinion of the great may militate against the fact, that ‘handsome is who handsome does,’ and that even a nobleman may venture to walk Court, without being eternally disgraced” (from Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, London, Feb. 3, 1816).

“Handsome is, as handsome does; saith the proverb. That I hold to be a real live letter, or a real any-thing else, which is calculated to do real good” (Bombay Gazette, Nov. 28, 1821).

Numerous examples of the “as” version appeared through the 1820s and onward. American examples began cropping up in the 1840s, like this one: “ ‘Handsome is as handsome does,’ is a good old nursery ‘saw,’ and it applies most admirably to the case in point” (Richmond Enquirer, May 16, 1845).

Today that version—“handsome is as handsome does”—is the form most commonly used. In modern usage it has become an idiom—that is, the meaning of the words is no longer literal but understood.

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