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

To beg the question

Q: I notice with distressing regularity the misuse and cheapening of words and phrases. One expression that comes to mind is “beg the question.

A: Like it or not, “beg the question” has more meanings in modern English than the one it started out with.

Essentially, a 16th-century technical phrase with a very narrow definition became so widely used in general English that its original meaning was left behind. It now has so many meanings that it’s best avoided except in a treatise on logic.

Back in 1581, when “beg the question” was first recorded, it had a specific meaning in philosophy. It described a fallacy in logic that consists more or less of arguing in a circle—that is, basing an argument on premises that are unproven, or that simply restate the argument.

To illustrate, here’s an argument that “begs the question”: “My son is innocent because he’s a good boy and would never commit a crime.”

The argument to be proved is “My son is innocent,” but the premises on which it’s based—“because he’s a good boy and would never commit a crime”—also need to be proved; they merely state the argument in different terms. The premises of an argument should be indisputable, like “because he was in Toronto at the time, and someone else’s fingerprints are on the weapon.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the philosophical sense of “beg the question” as “to take for granted the matter in dispute, to assume without proof.”

The earliest known use, cited by the OED and other references, is from an account of the 1581 interrogation of Edmund Campion, a Jesuit priest who refused to accept Anglican doctrine despite being tortured on the rack:

“I say this is still to begge the question” (from a comment by an Anglican interrogator in A True Report of the Disputation or Rather Priuate Conference Had in the Tower of London, with Ed. Campion Iesuite). Campion, convicted of treason, was drawn and quartered.

Although the original sense of the expression is still alive, linguists and lexicographers say that it’s no longer the predominant meaning and hasn’t been since the mid-18th century.

Merriam-Webster, a standard dictionary, labels the original meaning “formal,” and says on its website that the expression “is only very rarely used this way.”

Today, nine of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult, both American and British, offer additional definitions like these: “raise a question or point that has not been dealt with”; “invite an obvious question”; “avoid the question”; “evade the issue”; “ignore a question by assuming it to be established or settled”; “avoid giving a direct answer by posing another question.”

All those differing uses of “beg the question”—especially the first two—are treated as standard English today and are found in even the most elevated writing and speech. Unless the expression is found in context, there’s no way to tell what it means.

So what happened to the original “beg the question”? You might say that it carried the seeds of its own destruction, because it didn’t use either “beg” or “question” in its ordinary meaning. The linguist Mark Liberman, writing on the Language Log, has called its history “a cavalcade of misleading translations.” Here’s the story.

The fallacy in logic here was first identified by Aristotle in the fourth century BC. He referred to it in several different works, calling it τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ αἰτεῖσθαι and τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ λαμβάνειν, ancient Greek for “asking at the beginning” and “assuming the initial thing.” In other words, using premises that assume at the outset the truth of what you’re trying to prove.

Many centuries later, in the 1100s, the Greek term was translated into medieval Latin as petitio principii, “a postulate (or a postulating) at the beginning.”

The Latin version began appearing in British manuscripts written in Latin in the 1300s, the OED says. And since the 1530s petitio principii has regularly appeared, often italicized, in English writing about philosophy and logic, where it’s so familiar that it’s sometimes called petitio for short.

A mid-16th-century writer defined it this way in a treatise on the mass: “Petitio principii, that is when a ma[n] wyl proue [prove] a thynge to be true, by the same thinge, or wyth an other, that is as doubtfull as that is, which is called into questio[n].” From A New Dialogue Wherin Is Conteyned the Examinatio[n] of the Messe (1548), by William Turner.

In the late 1500s, petitio principii was translated into English for wider audiences, people who weren’t educated at the elite universities and didn’t know Latin. Unfortunately, it was awkwardly rendered as “beg the question”—a puzzling usage that was doomed to confuse ordinary readers and was worse than no translation at all.

In the first place, “beg” was inappropriate. The classical Latin petitio might indeed have been translated as a begging or a pleading. But in medieval  Latin, the noun as used in logic meant “a postulate” or “a postulating”—that is, something taken for granted as a basis for reasoning.

In the second place, “question” was inappropriate. As used in logic, the Latin principii meant at the beginning or starting point (of an argument). It’s true that one meaning of “question” is something being argued, but that’s not what “question” means to most people.

Since the Middle Ages, “question” has more commonly meant a request for information, like a sentence ending with a question mark, not a statement being defended in an argument.

The linguist Carol Lynn Moder, who has written extensively on the history and development of “beg the question,” has shown that subtle shifts in the meaning of the phrase began to set in at the very beginning.

Even when using “beg the question” in its Aristotelian sense, Moder writes, 16th-century writers were shifting the sense of “beg” away from its postulating meaning: “Authors in this period regularly invoked the common ‘requesting alms’ meaning of beg to suggest the unseemly characteristics of those committing this fallacy.”

She cites these examples from 1579-80, even before “beg the question” became the usual form of the expression: “Alas, this is such a poore begginge of that in question” … “a shamefull petition or begging of that which is in question” … “a shamefull begging of that which is questioned.”

The “beg the question” wording, which first appeared in writing in 1581, had become the usual form of the expression by the mid-17th century, Moder says. And well into the 18th century, the expression was regularly used it in its narrow, logical sense—but this was soon to change.

In the mid-18th century, she writes, the expression began “to move out of its Aristotelian niche, appearing more widely in magazines, plays, travel writing and memoirs in contexts less clearly concerning logical disputations.”

Furthermore, Moder says, literacy spread, and as printed materials became more widely available the expression was read and interpreted by readers unfamiliar with formal logic.

From the mid-18th century onward, she adds, “beg the question” began acquiring meanings that had little or nothing to do with that Aristotelian fallacy.

This could have been predicted. If the parts of a formulaic expression don’t make sense together—like “beg” and “question”—people will find a sensible meaning for themselves. As far as we can tell, the expression now usually means to “raise a question that begs to be answered”—and it’s then followed by an actual question.

(Moder’s paper “Begging the Question: Chunking, Compositionality and Language Change” was first published in 2016 and later as a chapter in Formulaicity and Creativity in Language and Literature, 2018, edited by Ian MacKenzie and Martin A. Kayman.)

Incidentally, we were surprised to find that despite the wider definitions in standard dictionaries, the OED’s sole definition of “beg the question” is that original one: “to take for granted the matter in dispute, to assume without proof.”

The OED is behind the curve here. It has no citations later than 1870, a century and a half ago, and cites no examples of the wider uses that have existed from the mid-1600s onward.

The dictionary’s earliest citation, as we mentioned above, is the one from 1581. And this is the latest: “The vulgar equivalent for petitio principii is begging the question” (A Treatise on Logic, 1870, by Francis Bowen). We can only assume that the OED will eventually record the many other uses of the expression.

So how are modern speakers and writers supposed to use “beg the question”? Our advice is don’t; use either “raise the question” or “evade the issue,” depending on what you mean. As Mark Liberman says in that Language Log post:

“If you use the phrase to mean ‘raise the question,’ some pedants will silently dismiss you as a dunce, while others will complain loudly, thus distracting everyone else from whatever you wanted to say. If you complain about others’ ‘misuse,’ you come across as an annoying pedant. And if you use the phrase to mean ‘assume the conclusion,’ almost no one will understand you.

“My recommendation: Never use the phrase yourself … and cultivate an attitude of serene detachment in the face of its use by others.”

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A weighty look at gravitas

Q: What are your thoughts about “gravitas” and its overuse in recent election cycles?

A: This pompous word for “seriousness” or “solemnity” sounds ancient, but “gravitas” has only been an English word since the late 19th century. As you’ve noticed, though, it’s become ubiquitous lately.

In fact, “gravitas” has been worked to death. You might say that among certain classes of writers, “gravitas” carries a lot of weight. It seems especially popular in criticism (literary, artistic, etc.) as well as in writing about politics and culture.

A search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, shows that its use has shot up steeply since the mid-1980s, charting an almost vertical climb.

But there are signs that the word is showing some wear. In the last couple of years, the chart shows, its use has leveled off and may have peaked.

What’s more, writers have started giving it modifiers—“epic gravitas,” “monumental gravitas,” “enormous gravitas,” “great gravitas,” “tremendous gravitas”—as if mere “gravitas” alone is losing its cachet. Our suspicion is that “gravitas” will eventually sink of its own weight.

The word as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary means “weighty dignity; reverend seriousness; serious or solemn conduct or demeanour befitting a ceremony, an office, etc.; staidness.” But by the mid-20th century it was used more widely to mean “seriousness or sobriety (of conduct, bearing, speech, temperament, etc.); opposed to levity and gaiety.”

And it doesn’t always refer to people and their behavior. Here’s the current definition in Merriam-Webster: “high seriousness (as in a person’s bearing or in the treatment of a subject).”

As for its etymology, the noun was borrowed in the late 1800s from the Latin gravitas, which primarily meant weight in its physical sense, but was also used figuratively to mean weightiness or seriousness. The noun comes from the Latin adjective gravis (heavy, important).

It’s interesting that the word “gravity” itself, which came into English in 1509, first meant seriousness or solemnity. It was “introduced in figurative senses, corresponding generally to the English senses of the adjective [grave],” the OED says. “The primary physical sense of the Latin word came into English first in the 17th cent.”

Similarly, when “gravitas” first appeared in English writing in the late 19th century (usually italicized), it had the figurative rather than the literal meaning of its Latin ancestor.

Initially, English speakers may have used “gravitas” as a substitute for the serious meaning of “gravity,” which by then was commonly used in its scientific sense.

In its earliest uses, both American and British, “gravitas” referred to a character trait admired by the Romans.

The oldest use we’ve found is from a humorous poem: “The gravitas that marked a Roman / Methinks will never find a home in / Our versatile and jovial Harry” (from The Epitome, 1887, an annual publication by students at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA).

The next appeared in London: “He is a man exceptionally endowed with that gravitas which the Romans used so much to desiderate in character” (St James’s Gazette, March 18, 1897).

And this early 20th-century example is from an American magazine: “But many of these have what President Roosevelt has not—namely, that noble old Roman virtue, gravitas” (Current Literature, November 1904).

The OED’s earliest citation is mid-1920s British: “He never sheds a certain Roman gravitas” (The Manchester Guardian Weekly, Oct. 20, 1924).

And we found this example from that same year in an Australian newspaper’s eulogy for a headmaster: “When, indeed, did anyone … embody such gravitas, such dignity, such fortitude, such independence, such justice, such contempt for all that is unworthy and dishonourable? Temperamentally he was more an antique Roman than an Englishman” (The Morning Bulletin, Rockhampton, Queensland, Dec. 30, 1924).

Only since the mid-20th century has “gravitas” been applied to serious things and ideas rather than to people. These two OED citations illustrate the wider use of the term:

“A certain gravitas in the atmosphere of the Scottish universities” (The Spectator, May 30, 1958) … “Its leading articles, and even its news coverage, will have a superb Victorian gravitas” (The Times, London, Aug. 2, 1961).

The noun, which is almost never italicized today, is only the latest in a long list of English words derived from the Latin adjective gravis and its prehistoric source—an ancient Indo-European root reconstructed as gwerə– (heavy).

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (2nd ed.), by Calvert Watkins, says the root gwerə– produced not only the Latin gravis but also the Sanskrit element guru- (heavy, venerable), the Greek words βαρύς (barus, heavy) and βάρος (baros, weight), the Latin brutus (heavy, cumbersome), and the Celtic elements brig-o- (strength) and brig-a- (strife).

These eventually gave English the words “grief,” “grieve,” “gravid,” “guru,” “aggravate,” “aggrieve,” “baritone,” “barium,” “isobar,” “brio,” “brigade,” “brigand,” and “brigantine,” in addition to “gravity,” “gravitas,” and the adjective “grave.”

And by the way, the noun “grave,” for a burial place, has entirely different origins. Its prehistoric source is an Indo-European root reconstructed as ghrebh- (dig, bury, scratch), according to Watkins. Ancient Germanic descendants of this root ultimately gave English not only the noun “grave” but also “engrave,” “gravure,” “groove,” the adjective “graven,” and the verb “grub.”

Thus the two English words “grave,” both of which have an air or solemnity, came into the language from different directions.

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On ‘pent’ and ‘spent’

Q: I came across the following passage in the The New Yorker from a 1949 diary entry by Patricia Highsmith:  “I came home in a silent, pent fury.”  It made me wonder if “spent” and “pent” are related—a letting go and a holding in. Thoughts?

A: No, “spent,” the past tense and past participle of the verb “spend,” isn’t etymologically related to the adjective “pent” (more commonly “pent-up”), which originated as the past participle of the verb “pen” (to enclose or confine).

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says “spend” is ultimately derived from the classical Latin verb expendere (to weigh out or pay out). In Old English, it was aspendan (to spend, spend entirely, squander) or more frequently forspendan (to spend utterly, spend away, exhaust with spending).

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of an Anglo-Saxon version of “spend” is from the Old English Orosius, an anonymous ninth-century translation of a Latin history written in the fifth century. The citation is in the OED’s entry for the obsolete verb “aspend”:

“Hys gestréon béoð þus eall aspended” (“His wealth was thus all spent”). The manuscript is believed to have been written in the late 800s during the reign of King Alfred. The writer took many liberties in translating the Latin of Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII (History Against the Pagans in Seven Books), written in the early 400s by the Roman historian Paulus Orosius.

As for “pent,” Chambers describes it as a variant spelling of “penned,” the past participle of the verb “pen” (to confine someone or something). The verb, in turn, is derived from the noun “pen” (an enclosure), which is of uncertain origin but possibly Germanic.

The noun first appeared in Anglo-Saxon land charters, but it’s often hard to date the early examples because pen in Old English could mean an enclosure or a hill. The earliest OED example “positively identified” as an enclosure is from a 1227 copy of a 1061 land grant:

“Þonne adun onstream oð rean clif, þanon oð hæð pen suþewardne on þone holan stoc” (“then downstream to the cliff, thence to the heath pen and southward to the hollow place”). From Pre-Conquest Charter-Bounds of Devon and Cornwall (1994), by Della Hooke.

The verb “pen” apparently existed in Old English as pennian, but only a negative version has survived in writing, onpennian (to “open,” which etymologically is to un-pen).

The OED’s earliest onpennian example, which we’ve expanded, is from Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s late ninth-century translation of Liber Regulae Pastoralis, a sixth-century Latin treatise by Pope Gregory. The past participle onpennad is used here:

“Ðæt wæter, ðonne hit bið gepynd, hit miclað & uppað & fundað wið ðæs ðe hit ær from com, ðonne hit flowan ne mot ðider hit wolde. Ac gif sio pynding wierð onpennad, oððe sio wering wirð tobrocen, ðonne toflewð hit eall” (“The water, when it is dammed up and cannot flow where it wants, grows and rises and tries to go where it originally intended. But if the dam is opened, or the weir bursts, it all runs off”).

The dictionary’s first written citation for “pen” used as a verb meaning “to enclose, shut in, confine, or trap (a person or thing)” is in Middle English, from a sermon written sometime before 1200:

“Þe pit tineð his muð ouer þe man þe lið on fule synnen … gif ure ani is þus forswolgen and þus penned, clupe we to ure louerd ihesu crist” (“The pit closes its mouth over the man who lies down on foul sins … and if any of us are thus swallowed and penned, let us call upon Our Lord Jesus  Christ”). From Old English Homilies of the Twelfth Century (1873), edited by Richard Morris.

The OED’s earliest example for “pent” used as an adjective in the sense of “penned” is from a pseudo-Chaucerian text: “He nas nat alway in cloystre ypent” (“He was not always pent in a cloister”). From the Plowman’s Prologue, added to a 1542 edition of Chaucer’s works.

Finally, the dictionary’s first example for “pent-up” appeared a dozen years later: “Yea as a capon longe pent vp in the caue [cave] / Exiled haue I bene miserably.” From The Resurreccion of the Masse (1554), a collection of religious poems by Hughe Hilarie, thought by some scholars to be a pseudonym for John Bale, an English dramatist and Protestant polemicist.

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A prohibitive favorite

Q: I came across another editing miss at the NY Times. A few weeks before this month’s mayoral election, Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee, was described as “the prohibitive favorite.” I can’t imagine what “prohibitive” means here. Perhaps “presumptive” was intended.

A: Although “prohibitive” usually refers to something that prohibits or that costs too much, the adjective has a third sense in American English, where it’s also used to describe an overwhelming favorite in politics, sports, business, and so on.

Of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult, three of the five American dictionaries (American  Heritage, Merriam-Webster, and say “prohibitive” may refer to someone or something with a near-certain chance of winning.

Is the usage legit? We think so, since the three US dictionaries treat it as standard English. (So far, all five British and two American dictionaries list only the older and more common meanings of the word.)

The wording of the “prohibitive” entry in American Heritage suggests that the overwhelming sense may have evolved in a roundabout way from the prohibiting and costly senses:

“1. Prohibiting; forbidding: took prohibitive measures. 2. So high or burdensome as to discourage purchase or use: prohibitive prices. 3. So likely to win as to discourage competition: the prohibitive favorite to win the nomination.”

As far as we can tell, the overwhelming sense began appearing in American sportswriting in the late 19th century. The earliest examples we’ve found are from newspaper reports on horse races:

“Lucky Baldwin’s Los Angeles won the rich Pocahontas Stakes with some ease by half a length from Pee Weep. Los Angeles was a prohibitive favorite, and all the betting was on the place 5 to 1 against Pee Weep” (The Sun, New York, Aug. 26, 1888).

This example showed up a couple of months later: “In the next race, Banner Bearer was a prohibitive favorite, as he only had Haggin’s Prose as a competitor” (St. Paul Daily Globe, Oct. 11, 1888).

The usage increased sharply in the second half of the 20th century, though it seems to have fallen off a bit in recent years, according to a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books. Here are some recent examples:

“With a prohibitive favorite at No. 1 in the 2021 NBA draft, the real betting intrigue starts after Cade Cunningham” (Philadelphia Inquirer, July 27, 2021).

“The winner of the Democratic primary will be a prohibitive favorite to win, all else held equal” (, Jan. 24, 2018).

“The Wisconsin native came in as a prohibitive favorite and showed why, dusting the 25-car field in the $6,000-to-win event” (Chicago Tribune, Sept. 22, 2021).

“On the sitcom side, ‘Ted Lasso’ is considered the prohibitive [Emmy] favorite among fellow Outstanding Comedy Series nominees” (Yahoo News, Sept. 19, 2021).

“If Vegas posted odds on the next winner of the Kennedys’ Profiles in Courage award, [Gen. Mark] Milley would be a prohibitive favorite” (Boston Herald, Sept. 16, 2021).

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t include this sense of “prohibitive.” And it isn’t discussed in any of the usage manuals we’ve checked.

When the adjective showed up in Middle English in the early 15th century, it referred to something that prevents, forbids, restricts, and so on, according to the OED. The dictionary’s earliest examples use the term to describe medical preventatives.

A treatise on surgery, for example, says Hippocrates counsels that using three bandages to bind a fracture is “prohibitif or defensyf,” preventing movement and strengthening the area (Grande Chirurgie, an anonymous early 15th-century translation of Chirurgia Magna, 1363, a Latin work by the French physician Guy de Chauliac).

Another medical work cited by the OED says the herb rue is “prohibityue of cursez of humours [discharge of pus]” (Treatises of Fistula in Ano, circa 1425, by the English surgeon John Arderne). “Fistula in ano” is an old term for a painful lump between the spine and anus, caused by long periods on horseback. Today the ailment, now called a pilonidal cyst, is more likely to affect truck drivers than horseback riders.

In the early 19th century, “prohibitive” took on a new sense, one the OED describes as the most common now—too costly to pay, buy, or use. The dictionary’s first two citations refer to taxes:

“Hence the embargo, the Non-Intercourse Act, and the prohibitive duties” (The Times, London, Dec. 20, 1811) … “A tax whose effect will be prohibitive” (The American, Philadelphia, June 5, 1886).

The dictionary’s latest example for the costly sense of the adjective is from the Ottawa Citizen (March 13, 2005): “Working mothers are giving up on careers, either because the cost of child care proves prohibitive or because they can’t tune out the guilt.”

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So what’s on offer?

Q: A New Yorker review of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Crossroads, says a preacher’s teen-age son “covertly helps himself to a generous amount of gløgg, the potent Scandinavian drink on offer.” Why “on offer” instead of simply “offered”?

A: “On offer,” a phrase dating from the mid-19th century, is a fairly common expression in modern English. In the Oct. 4, 2021, review you cite, it identifies what’s being offered at a Christmas party.

The phrase originated in Britain, and is more common in British than in American English. But from our experience, it’s not uncommon in the US. And the author probably chose it for reasons of rhythm and style.

None of the five standard US dictionaries we regularly consult have entries for the phrase. Merriam-Webster merely notes, within its entry for the noun “offer,” that “on offer” is a “chiefly British” usage that means “being offered especially for sale.”

By contrast, all five of the standard British dictionaries we consult have entries for “on offer.” They all give similar definitions: available to be bought or used. And the examples they give are from commercial rather than social contexts:

“We were amazed at the range of products on offer” (Cambridge) … “country cottages on offer at bargain prices” (Collins) … “the number of permanent jobs on offer is relatively small” (Lexico) … “Activities on offer include sailing, rowing, and canoeing” (Longman) … “These are just some of the films on offer this week” (Macmillan).

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines “on offer” as “available or obtainable” and also “on sale” (that is, discounted). The noun “offer” as used in the phrase means “the condition of being offered,” the OED says.

The earliest uses of “on offer” that we’ve found in searches of old newspaper databases are from mid-19th-century crop and livestock reports. Here are the first few, all from issues of The Farmer’s Magazine, a British journal devoted to agricultural and rural affairs:

“Decidedly the best of this truly excellent breed [of Hereford cattle] were brought forward by Mr. Rowland of Creslow, who had on offer about 40” (January 1843) … “Not a single fresh head of stock was on offer from abroad” (January 1843) … “the above advance [in wheat prices] has been mostly supported, although the quantities on offer have been on a liberal scale” (June 1843).

We’ve also found the expression in issues of The Economist from that same decade: “the supply of hops on offer is more than adequate to meet the demand” (June 26, 1847). The phrase reappears in virtually all The Economist’s subsequent weekly crop and livestock reports of the 1840s.

The earliest example given in the OED is also from a market report: “Old wheat scarce and dear. Very little barley on offer” (The Daily News, London, Aug. 23, 1881).

And this is the OED’s most recent citation, from a very different sort of market: “They are urged to book ‘de-stressing’ treatments such as massage and reflexology, to drink the herbal teas on offer throughout the day [etc.]” (from Business Day, South Africa, Jan. 28, 2000).

While all of the OED’s examples are of a commercial nature, we’ve heard the phrase used at times in casual social situations, like that Christmas party in Franzen’s novel. You can call these figurative uses if you like.

And we’ve seen plenty of uses of “on offer” that are neither commercial nor social. These examples are from literary criticism:

“Immediately striking is the range of continuities and discontinuities on offer” (Americans on Fiction, 1776-1999, by Peter Rawlings, 2002) … “it is clear that Achilles is capitalizing on the erotic potential on offer in Vergil’s epic” (Latin Poetry in the Ancient Greek Novels, by Daniel Jolowicz, 2021).

And this one is from politics: “How happy are we with the current vision of political ‘reality’ on offer and the way the major political parties seem to see the future?” (Politics on the Couch: Citizenship and the Internal Life, by Andrew Samuels, 2018).

In fact, “on offer” is used in a wide variety of contexts when a writer wants an alternative to “offered.”

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‘I’m by way of being a doctor’

Q: I’ve noticed a construction in older British novels (Agatha Christie, for example) where a character says “I’m by way of being a doctor” instead of simply “I’m a doctor.” Can you tell us anything about this odd use of four unnecessary words?

A: This usage—“I’m by way of being” a doctor, a writer, an actor, etc.—is a mainly British colloquialism that isn’t seen or heard much these days.

In fact, we’ve found only five examples in a recent search of the British National Corpus, a database of written and spoken British English from the later part of the 20th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the use of the verb “to be” plus the compound preposition “by way of” plus a gerund has several senses: “to have as one’s particular role; to make a special point of doing something; to purport or be reputed to be or do something; (sometimes) spec. to be in the habit of doing the specified activity.”

The dictionary describes the usage as “colloquial (chiefly British)” and says it’s “now somewhat literary.” In fact, four of the five examples we found in the British National Corpus are from fiction.

In the passage you cited from Agatha Christie’s 1938 mystery Appointment With Death, the expression is used in the sense of “to have as one’s particular role.”

The BNC has this more recent example from Master of the Moor, a 1982 mystery by Ruth Rendell: “I’m by way of being a bit of an expert on the moor, you know.”

The linguist Anne-Katrin Blass has noted that “in most cases, the construction co-occurs with downtoners” (like “a bit”) or “other markers of tentativeness” (like “you know”).

“Thus, it might be claimed that the communicative purpose of using this phraseological unit in discourse is to signal a certain reluctance to commit oneself fully to the idea one is expressing,” she writes.  (“Textual Functions of Extended Lexical Units: A Case Study of Phrasal Constructions Built Around by way of,” a paper published in the ICAME Journal, April 2012.)

As you can see, Blass is reluctant to commit herself fully to this theory. And so are we. Although Ruth Rendell’s use of the construction is clearly tentative, Agatha Christie’s doesn’t seem to be.

[Note: A reader of the blog who’s by way of being a doctor wonders “whether the expression does not suggest modesty (or false modesty) or casualness, an attempt to lessen the impact of the announcement.”]

The earliest citation for the construction in the OED uses it “to make a special point of doing something”—in this case, introducing a young man to society: “The Colonel was by way of introducing him into the fashionable circles” (from The Inheritance, an 1824 novel by the Scottish writer Susan E. Ferrier).

The earliest example we’ve found for the expression used in the occupational sense you’re asking about is from a short story by Henry James: “Oh, you see I’m by way of being a barrister” (from part one of “An International Episode,” published in The Cornhill Magazine, London, December 1878 and January 1879).

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What’s ‘done’ doing here?

Q: In some Southern dialects, one hears the perfect tense expressed with “done” in place of the auxiliary “have.” Example: “We done ate” instead of “We have eaten.” And “done been” forms an emphatic remote perfect tense. Example: “We done been ate.” I have always assumed this is Gullah influence, but perhaps you can give further insight.

A: The word “done” has many roles in American regional English, especially in the South and South Midland, and among the Gullah of the coastal Southeast. However, lexicographers use different terms than yours to describe this regional usage.

The word “done” functions as an adverb, an auxiliary, or the infinitive “do” in expressions like the ones you’ve cited, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

However, the adverbial use is “not always clearly distinguishable” from the auxiliary usage, the dictionary explains.

DARE says “done” is being used adverbially “to emphasize the attainment of a state or completion of action” in this passage:

“Then she begun to sing again, working at the washtub, with that singing look in her face like she had done give up folks and all their foolishness and had done went on ahead of them, marching up the sky, singing.” From William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying (1930).

The dictionary says “done” is acting as the auxiliary “have” in this citation: “You just done made up your mind that you ain’t going to be no good to me.” From Richard Wright’s novel Lawd Today! (completed in 1935 and published posthumously in 1963).

And here’s a DARE example, which we’ve expanded, for “done” used in place of the bare (or “to”-less) infinitive “do” in Gullah, a creole language found among African-Americans of the Lowcountry of Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas:

“I come mighty nigh marryin him mysef one time. E use to beg me so, but I’m glad now I didn’ done it.” From the novel Scarlet Sister Mary (1928), by Julia Peterkin.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites an obsolete use of “done” as an auxiliary in Scottish English. The OED says the auxiliary “done” here is used periphrastically (by a combination of words) to add tense to a bare infinitive that would otherwise need to be inflected.

In this example, the OED says “done” is “a periphrastic auxiliary” that turns the bare infinitive “discuss” into a past participle: “As I afore, haue done discus” (“As I before have discussed”). From Tract Concernyng the Office and Dewtie of Kyngis, Spiritvall Pastoris, and Temporall Ivgis [Judges] (1556), by William Lauder.

And in this example, “done” turns the bare infinitive “invent” into a past participle: “And many other false abusion / The Paip hes done invent” (“And many another false abuse / The Pope has invented”). From a 1578 poem collected in John Graham Dalyell’s Scotish Poems of the 16th Century (1801).

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With a grain of salt

Q: Why “salt” when we “take something with a grain of salt”? Is the salt to counteract something sweet?

A: The use of “with a grain of salt” to mean with caution or skepticism first appeared in early 17th-century English as a translation of cum grano salis, a modern Latin expression coined a century earlier.

The earliest written example of cum grano salis that we’ve seen is in a Latin treatise by a French legal scholar who uses it to describe a clause attached to a gift:

“ex parte altera excedit quod intelligatis cum grano salis” (“on the other hand it exceeds what is understood with a grain of salt”). From Tractatus de Viribus Iuramenti (A Treatise on the Strength of the Oath), 1502, by Antonius de Petrucia (Antoine de Peyrusse).

And here’s another early sighting: “Sed caute & cum grano salis (utaiunt) legendus est, quia intricatus facile legenti errorem obijcit” (“It should be read cautiously and with a grain of salt, as they say, because it is easy to present an intricate error to the reader”). From Compendium Sive Breviarium (1514), a brief history of the Franks, by Johannes Trithemius, a German Benedictine abbot.

“Why salt?” you ask. Well, the reason for “salt” here is uncertain, but the earliest English example of the usage that we’ve found suggests that it comes from salting food to make it taste better:

“The terms of Divinitie are to be taken into the mouth, as the Canonists [canon lawyers] speak, cum grano salis, with a grain of salt, that is, wisely tasted, and understood: otherwise, they will not prove good nourishment.” From Experience, Historie, and Divinitiem (1642), by Richard Carpenter, a vicar of Poling in Sussex.

The first English example in the Oxford English Dictionary was recorded a few years later in a biblical commentary on Revelation 6:11. The commentator says Christian martyrs would undoubtedly be aware of those still to be martyred and speak to God for them, then adds, “But this is to be taken with a grain of salt.” From A Commentary or Exposition Upon All the Epistles and the Revelation of John the Divine (1647), by John Trapp, an Anglican theologian.

The first-century Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder, writing in classical Latin, uses a similar phrase literally for an ingredient in a recipe: addito salis grano (“with the addition of a grain of salt”).

In his encyclopedic, 37-volume Naturalis Historia, he describes a poison antidote found among the belongings of Mithridates VI, ruler of the Hellenistic Kingdom of Pontus, after his defeat by the Roman General Pompey in 66 BC:

“in sanctuariis Mithridatis, maximi regis, devicti Cn. Pompeius invenit in peculiari commentario ipsius manu conpositionem antidoti e II nucibus siccis, item ficis totidem et rutae foliis XX simul tritis, addito salis grano: ei, qui hoc ieiunus sumat, nullum venenum nociturum illo die. contra rabiosi quoque canis morsum a ieiuno homine commanducati inlitique praesenti remedio esse dicuntur.”

Translation: “After the defeat of that mighty monarch, Mithridates, Gnaeus Pompeius found in his private cabinet a recipe for an antidote in his own handwriting; it was to the following effect: Take two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue; pound them all together, with the addition of a grain of salt; if a person takes this mixture fasting, he will be proof against all poisons for that day.”

Was the salt added to the recipe to make the concoction more palatable? We think that’s possible, though you might take our explanation with a grain of salt.

Usage note: Although cum grano salis was originally translated as “with a grain of salt,” the usual expression now in British English is “with a pinch of salt,” a version that first appeared in the 19th century. Here’s an early example: “what men say of a lovely woman is generally to be taken with a pinch of salt!” From Puck (1870), a novel by Ouida, pseudonym of the English novelist Maria Louise Ramé.

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How first names became last names

Q: Just read your post about how families got their names. But you don’t mention a kind of name I’m curious about—a last name that’s the plural of a first name, like Williams and Roberts and Stevens.

A: Names like those belong to a type known as patronyms: surnames based on a father’s or male ancestor’s first name. But they didn’t originate as plurals.

A last name like Williams, for instance, can be traced to medieval times, when a first name might be followed by “son of William” or “William’s son.” Later, these descriptions became a single name: Williamson or Williams, which was not a plural but the genitive form “William’s” without the apostrophe. (The genitive case indicates close relationships, including possession.)

This accounts for many last names of the type you mention—“son of Robert” and “Robert’s son” became Robertson and Roberts; “son of Stephen” and “Stephen’s son” became Stephens, Stevens, Stephenson, Stevenson, and so on.

In their paper “The Production of Legal Identities Proper to States,” James C. Scott, John Tehranian, and Jeremy Mathias explain it this way:

“One ‘John,’ for example, might be distinguished from another by specifying his father’s name (‘William’s John’ or ‘John-William’s-son/Williamson’); by linking him to an occupation (‘John-the-miller,’ ‘John-the shepherd’); by locating him in the landscape (‘John-on-the-hill,’ ‘John-by-the-brook’); or by noting a personal characteristic (‘John-do-little’). The written records of the manor or the parish might actually bear notations of such by-names for the sake of clarity.” (Comparative Studies in Society and History, January 2002.)

We discussed names based on location—the most numerous type of English surname—in the post you mention. And we’ve also written about names based on occupation and on personal characteristics. But we haven’t written about patronyms until now.

Patronymic surnames, especially the kinds you ask about, can sound as if they had a first name hidden inside. In fact, some first names aren’t hidden at all but used intact for surnames, as with the last names Charles, Thomas, James, Henry, etc. Still other last names—Baldwin, Foulkes, Godwin, Osmond, Thurstan, and many more—were men’s first names long ago. As first names they’ve receded into history, but they survive today as last names.

It should be noted that in the medieval period, people with additional names were generally sons. Daughters usually had them only if there was a need for record-keeping purposes and so on—that is, if they were property owners, taxpayers, heirs, litigants, etc.

The practice of using fathers’ first names as children’s second names occurs in all European languages. In England, the practice began in early Old English, when patronyms were often formed with the genitive suffixes -ing or –en (denoting “from” or “descended from”) or with the Anglo-Saxon version of “son”: suna, sune, or sunu.

Stephen Wilson mentions many Old English examples in his book The Means of Naming: A Social and Cultural History of Personal Naming in Western Europe (1998). He notes, for instance, that Bosing as a second name meant “from Bosa”; Otten meant “from Odo (or Otto)”; and Hussan sunu meant “son of Hussan,” a name recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as far back as 603.

But in those days these were merely descriptive bynames (or secondary names) used to distinguish one Wulfstan or Ælfred from another. Scholars of onomastics, the study of naming, say the practice of giving people what would eventually become family names didn’t emerge in Britain until soon after the Norman Conquest.

And the first to have them were the Norman invaders.

“The earliest hereditary family names in England are recorded in some Norman families in the late 11th century,” according to The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland (2016), a four-volume, 2,992-page work that was 20 years in the making.

“By the middle of the 14th century almost everyone who was not a pauper had a byname or ‘surname’ of some sort, however impermanent,” write the authors, Patrick Hanks, Richard Coates, and Peter McClure. “The growth of hereditary surnaming took longer.”

While the Norman nobles usually derived their surnames from the names of their lands or baronial properties—either in England or back in Normandy—humbler families usually adopted second names from places, occupations, personal traits, fathers’ baptismal, or fathers’ pet names (shortened or altered forms, like Robb and Robin, for Robert).

Mothers’ names, too, were used to form second names, though less commonly. A matronym might be given, for instance, to honor a mother who died in childbirth or one who was socially or economically more important than the father. Occasionally a matronym was given to a child born out of wedlock or adopted.

Examples of matronymic surnames include Annis, derived from Agnes; Babb and Babbitt, from Barbara; Catlin and Gatling, from Catherine; Sisley, from Cecily; Jeeves, from Genevieve; Jowett, from Juliana; and Marriott, Merrit, and Marrit, all derived from Mariot, a medieval pet name for both Mary and Margery.

Then there are Mallet, Malin, Malkin, Mallinson, Malkinson, Maulson, Malleson, and more, all from pet names for Maud and Matilda, two extremely popular baptismal names for women in medieval Britain.

In addition, some surnames can be traced to either gender. Beaton and Beeton, for instance, came from pet names used for both Beatrice and Bartholomew. And Tibbs is from Tibbe, a pet name for both Isabel and Theobald.

But getting back to patronymic surnames, a great many can be traced to pet names, the shortened or altered forms we’ve been talking about. Medieval examples of men’s pet names include Cole (from Nicholas), Duke (Marmaduke), Judd (Jordan), Lar (Lawrence), Phipp (Philip), Sim (Simon), and Wat (Walter).

To existing pet names, diminutive suffixes like “-kin,” “-cock,” “-ot,” “-lot,” “-et,” “-let,” “-in,” “-lin,” and “-en” could be added to form even more pet names in medieval times. So a pet name like Tom could also take the form Tomelin or Tomkin; Lar could become Larkin; Sim could become Simmins or Simcock; Cole could become Colin; Wat could become Watkin. And all of those could be handed on as last names.

Combinations of all these elements—the names and pet names of fathers, an added “-son” or “-s,” diminutive suffixes, plus variant spellings—gave English a nearly endless supply of patronymic last names.

We’ll list some of these, but first a few caveats.

New research methods, based on documentary evidence from medieval records, have disproved or superseded many of the etymologies you’ll find online or in popular surname dictionaries. To date, the definitive source is The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland.

Peter McClure, the book’s chief etymologist, has written that the medieval pet forms of many first names “have still to be reliably established, notwithstanding the confidence with which dictionaries of personal names assert particular etymologies.”

Keep in mind that some modern pet names, like Hal and Bill and Bob, were unknown in Middle English. And different names sometimes had identical pet names, so the exact source of a patronymic surname may be impossible to pin down without a medieval document to verify a line of descent.

Another thing to keep in mind is that many surnames have alternative sources. For example, the surname Day can be traced to a pet name for both David and Ralph, but it’s also an occupational name traditionally associated with dairies. And Simonson is both a patronymic and a locative name (short for Simonstone, a hamlet in North Yorkshire).

So, with those warnings in mind, here are a few of the more common first names dating from Middle English (with their medieval pet name in parentheses), and the forms of them that have come down to us as modern surnames.

  • David (pet names Davy, Day, Dey, Dawe, Dawkin): David, Davidson, Davison, Davis, Davies, Day, Daykin, Dakin, Dakins, Dayson, Deason, Dawes, Dawson, Dawkin, Dawkins, McDaid, McDade, McDavitt, McDevitt.
  • Geoffrey, Jeffrey (pet names Geff, Jeff, Gep, Jep, Gipp, Jepp, Jebbe, Joppe, Job): Geoffries, Jeffries, Jefferson, Jeffers, Jepps, Jeffson, Jepson, Jephson, Jipson, Jebson, Jesson, Jobson, Jaffrey, Jeffcock, Jeffcott, Jephcott, Jeffers, Joplin, Joblin, Jobling, Jobbins.
  • Henry (pet names Hann, Hanke, Hanry, Hen, Hend, Hendy, Hancock, Henriot, Herriott, Henekin, Hankin, Harry): Henry, Henson, Henrys, Harry, Hanks, Harriott, Herriott, Harris, Harrison, Hancock, Handcock, Hancox, Hankins, Hankinson, Hawkin, Hawkins, Hawkinson, Hendrick, Hendricks, Hendry, Fitzhenry, Penry, Pendry, McHenry, McHendry.
  • Hugh (pet names Huget, Hugin, Hugun, Huchon, Hewet, Huet, Huget, Hewkin, Hewlett, Hudd, Howet, Howat, Hukin): Hughes, Hughson, Hewson, Hewett, Hewlett, Hewit, Hewitson, Howson, Howison, Howitt, Howlett, Howett, Hudd, Hudson, Huggins, Hugginson, Hutcheon, McCutcheon, Hutcheonson, Hutchins, Hutchings, Hutchinson, McHutchison, McQuillan, McQuilkin, Fitzhugh, Pugh.
  • John (pet names Jak, Jakke, Jake, Jeke, Jegge, Jen, Jenet, Jankin, Jenkin, Jonkin, Hann, Hancock, Hankin, Henks): Jones, Evans, Johns, Johnson, Jackson, Janks, Jenks, Jakins, Jeakins, Jenkins, Jenkinson, Jennings, Johncock, Hanks, Hankin, Hancock, Handcock, Hancox, Hanson, Fitzjohn. (The name John was handed down not just in pet names but in nicknames—that is, names based on a personal trait—like Littlejohn, Bonjohn, Grosjean, Prujean.)
  • Ralph (pet names Raff, Rauf, Raw, Rawle, Raul, Raulin, Rawkin, Day, Dey, Daw, Dakin, Daude, Dawlin, Dawkin, Haw, Hawkin): Ralphson, Rawes, Rawkin, Rawson, Rowson, Rawle, Rawlin, Rawlings, Rawlinson, Daud, Dawkin, Dawkins, Dawlin, Dawling, Dawson, Dawes, Hawes, Hawkin, Hawkins, Hawson, Howis.
  • Richard (pet names Deke, Dick, Dicken, Diccon, Rick, Rich, Hikke, Hikock, Hecock, Hiche, Higg): Richard, Richards, Richardson, Ricks, Rix, Rickard, Rickards, Rickett, Rickman, Rich, Ritchie, McRitchie, Ritson, Dickenson, Dickson, Dixon, Dix, Dickens, McDicken, Hitchen, Hitchins, Hitchings, Hitchinson, McHutchison, Hitchcock, Heacock, Hicks, Hickox, Hickey, Hickman, Hickson, Higgs, Higgins, Higginson, Higgitt.
  • Robert (pet names Robb, Dobb, Hobb, Hopp, Nobb, Robin, Robet, Rabb, Dobbin, Hoby, Hobin, Hobkin, Hoblin, Hopkin): Roberts, Robertson, Robarts, Robbins, Robinson, Robison, Robinet, Robnett, Rabson, Rapson, Robson, Rabb, Rabbitt, Dobb, Dabb, Dobbs, Dabbs, Dabson, Dabinett, Dobkin, Dobson, Dobbin, Hobb, Hobbes, Hobson, Hobbins, Hoblyn, Hopkins, Hopkinson, Hopson, Nobb, Knobbs, McRobb, McRoberts, McRobbie, Probert, Probyn.
  • Roger (pet names Rodge, Dodge, Hodge, Hodgkin, Roget, Rogerun): Rogers, Rogerson, Roget, Dodge, Dodgson, Hodge, Hodges, Hodgson, Hodgetts, Hodgkins, Hodgkinson, Hodgkiss, Hodgkison, Hotchkins, Hotchkiss, Fitzsimmons, Rosser, Prosser, Prodger.
  • Simon (pet names Sim, Sime, Simcock, Simkin): Simon, Simons, Simonson, Simson, Simpson, Simpkin, Simpkinson, Simcox, Simnett, Simms, Simmons, Simmonds, Symonds, Symondson.
  • Thomas (pet names Tam, Tamelin, Tom, Tomelin, Tomkin): Thomas, Thoms, Thomasson, Thompson, Thompkins, Tomkins, Tomkinson, Tomlin, Tomlins, Tomlinson, Thomsett, Thompset, Tamlyn, Tamblin, Tamblyn, Tamplin.
  • Walter (pet names Wat, Watte, Watkin): Walter, Walther, Walters, Wolters, Waters, Waterson, Watts, Watten, Watkin, Watkins, Watson, Watkinson, Fitzwalter, Fitzwater, McWalter, McWatt, McWatters, McQuaid, Gwatkin, Gautier (through the French form).
  • William (pet names Will, Wilke, Wilet, Wilot, Wilcok, Wilkin, Wilky): Williams, Williamson, Will, Wills, Willis, Wilson, Willett, Wilcock, Wilcox, Wilcockson, Willmott, Wilks, Wilkes, Wilken, Wilkie, Wilkins, Wilkinson, Wilkerson, Fitzwilliam, McWilliam, McWilliams, McQuilkin, Culkin, Gillam, Gwilliam.

As you can see, a small number of male first names formed great numbers of English surnames. In addition, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales had their own ways of forming patronymic surnames.

In Irish and Scottish Gaelic, mac is a common noun meaning “son,” and prefixed to a name, Mac or the clipped Mc signifies “son of” (e.g., MacDermot = “son of Dermot”). And in Irish Gaelic, is a common noun for “grandson.” But in names, the prefix (Anglicized outside of Irish as O’), stands for “descendant of.”

In Wales, the Welsh ap or ab (equivalent to “son”) was used to form patronymics. So ap, added to Hugh, resulted in ap Hugh, for “son of Hugh” (shortened to Pugh). This also accounts for Price (from ap Rhys); Bowen (ap Owen); Bevan (ap Evan, a form of John); Pritchard (ap Richard); Pumphrey (ap Humphrey); Parry (ap Harry), and others.

English nobles also sometimes used patronymic affixes other than “son.” Frequently they used “de” (a French nobiliary particle, a type we wrote about in 2010), or “fitz” (after the French fils, for “son”), creating names like Fitzgerald (“son of Gerald”), Fitzgibbon (from a pet form of Gilbert), Fitzpatrick, Fitzwarren, and so on.

Names are endlessly interesting. In a previous post we discussed names that include the old diminutive “-kin” (like Watkins, from Walter). And we’ve written about British names that don’t look like their pronunciations (as with Cholmondeley, pronounced “Chumley”), as well as those odd-looking surnames that begin with a double “f” (as in ffoulkes and ffolliott).

Finally, we’ve written about first names that are abbreviated in old documents (like Charles as “Chas” and Jonathan as “Jno.” or “Jno.”).

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