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English English language Etymology Language Linguistics Punctuation Usage Writing

Who invented the question mark?

Q: It’s Lent Madness time again, which reminds me of a saint contest a few years ago that pitted two deacons against each other: Alcuin of York vs. Ephrem of Edessa. I voted for Alcuin because he was identified as the inventor of the question mark (among more spiritual accomplishments). Are you familiar with him?

A: Alcuin, Charlemagne’s éminence grise, was quite a guy—scholar, poet, teacher, and cleric—but he didn’t invent what we now know as the question mark. More to the point, we’ve seen no evidence that he created its medieval ancestor, the punctus interrogativus, which didn’t look or act much like the modern question mark.

The punctus interrogativus, a squiggle rising diagonally from left to right above a point, appeared in the late eighth century in Carolingian miniscule, the Latin script used when Charlemagne (747-814) ruled much of Europe. Alcuin (735-804) oversaw Charlemagne’s palace school and scriptorium at Aachen in Francia from 782 to 793.

The evidence we’ve found indicates that Godescalc, a poet, scribe, and illuminator, was the first person to use the punctus interrogativus at the scriptorium, or copying room, in Aachen. Godescalc used it in producing an illuminated manuscript commissioned by Charlemagne in 781, the year before Alcuin arrived in Aachen.

The usage appeared in the Godescalc Gospel Lectionary (781-83), the first known manuscript produced at the scriptorium at Aachen. The manuscript is named after Godescalc because he refers to himself as the author in a poem at the end.

We found several examples of the punctus interrogativus in the first dozen or so pages of the manuscript at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Ms. NAL 1203), suggesting that Godescalc began using them in 781—before Alcuin’s arrival. In this example from folio 6v, the punctus interrogativus can be seen on the third line.

Sedsic eum volo manere donec venia[m] quid ad te?

(But so I want him to stay until I come, what is it to you?
Gospel of John, 21:22.)

(We’ll have more to say later about Godescalc’s symbolic use of gold letters on purple parchment.)

We’ve seen reports of possible earlier sightings of the punctus interrogativus in manuscripts from the scriptorium at Corbie Abbey to the southwest of Aachen, but we haven’t found any Corbie examples produced before the Godescalc Gospel Lectionary.

As the paleographer Malcolm B. Parkes explains in Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West (1993), the punctus interrogativus “seems to have spread rapidly from the court of Charlemagne to other centres,” reaching Corbie “at the end of the eighth or beginning of the ninth century.”

The punctus interrogativus was originally used in liturgical writing to tell reciters and singers when to raise their voices inquiringly and pause at the end of a question, according to paleographers, specialists in ancient writing.

Parkes says the punctus interrogativus was one of several symbols developed in the second half of the eighth century to fill the “need for adequate punctuation in liturgical texts.” Such texts were designed to be spoken or sung. A lectionary, like Godescalc’s, is a collection of liturgical readings.

The new system of symbols, called positurae, used a punctus versus to signal a pause at the end of a sententia, a punctus elevatus to signal an interior pause in a sententia, and a punctus interrogativus to signal a rising vocal inflection and pause at the end of an interrogatio.

(The punctus versus looked somewhat like a modern semicolon, while the punctus elevatus looked a bit like an upside-down semicolon.)

“In western manuscripts the positurae fulfilled the need for more accurate indication of the nature of the pauses required to elucidate the sense of the text when it was intoned or sung in the liturgy,” Parkes says in Pause and Effect.

The paleographer Albert Derolez has noted that the punctus interrogativus originated “in a neume or sign of musical notation, which indicated that the voice had to rise at the end of the sentence” (The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books, 2003).

And the musical historian Leo Treitler points out in With Voice and Pen (2007) that the upward stroke of the punctus interrogativus corresponds “to the inflection of the voice in questions.”

Although Alcuin wrote about the need for proper punctuation in copying ancient manuscripts, we haven’t found any writing of his that either mentions or uses the punctus interrogativus. He doesn’t use it, for example, in the interrogative passages we’ve read from Quaestiones in Genesim, a series of questions and answers about Genesis.

Alcuin favored a two-fold system of punctuation with distinctiones to mark pauses at the end of sententiis and subdistinctiones to mark interior pauses. In a letter written to Charlemagne in 799, Alcuin complained that scribes hadn’t been using them:

“punctorum vero distinctiones vel subdistinctiones licet ornatum faciant pulcherrimum in sententiis, tamen usus illorum propter rusticitatem paene recessit a scriptoribus” (“points for distinctions and subdistinctions make the most beautiful sentences, but their use has almost disappeared because of the rusticity of scribes”).

In fact, those “rustic” scribes began adding punctuation marks on their own initiative to Alcuin’s two-part system. Godescalc, as we’ve said, was apparently the first person at the Aachen scriptorium to use the punctus interrogativus.

In a poem at the end of the Godescalc Gospel Lectionary, he says Charlemagne commissioned the manuscript in the fall of 781.

Septenis cum aperit felix bis fascibus annum
Hoc opus eximium franchorum scribere Carlus
Rex plus egregia hildgarda cum conjuge iussit.

(As he happily opened the 14th year of his reign [Oct. 9, 781], King Charles of the Franks, with his wife Hildegard, commissioned the writing of this exceptional work.)

And in this excerpt from the poem, Godescalc mentions himself as the creator of the illuminated manuscript and suggests that he began working on it six months before Charlemagne commissioned it. Godescalc’s name appears at the end of the second line.

Ultimus hoc famulus studuit complere godescalc
Tempore vernali transcensis alpibus ipse.
Urbem romuleam voluit quo visere consul.

(The humblest servant Godescalc was diligently at work on this opus in the springtime, when the Consul himself [Charlemagne], having crossed the Alps, wished to visit the city of Romulus. [Charlemagne visited Rome in April 781.])

In 2011, a Cambridge manuscript specialist, James F. Coakley, reported finding ancient marks of interrogation in fifth-century biblical manuscripts written in Syriac, a Middle Eastern language. But paleographers believe that the punctus interrogativus, not the Syriac symbol, is the ancestor of our question mark.

The modern question mark, a grammatical device indicating the end of an interrogative sentence, evolved over hundreds of years from the Carolingian punctuation mark, which originated, as we’ve said, as a rhetorical device in liturgical writing to signal a rising vocal inflection and pause.

The earliest example we’ve seen for a punctuation mark that looks and acts like the modern question mark is from a book printed in Latin in the late 15th century by Aldus Manutius, an Italian scholar, educator, and publisher.

This image is from Pietro Bembo’s De Ætna, a Latin account of his ascent of Mount Etna with his father, Bernardo. The work, written as a dialogue between Bembus Pater (B. P.) and Bembus Filius (B. F.), was published around 1495 by Manutius’s Aldine Press. The question mark ends the last sentence.

[B. F.] Ego uero existimabam pater errauisse me sic etiam nimis diu. B. P. Non est ita: sed, ne nunc tandem erremus; perge de ignibus, ut proposuisti: uerum autem, quid tu haeres?

([B. F.] I thought my father was wrong for too long. B. P. It is not so: but let us not stray from the point; go on [continue telling me] about fire, as you intended, but what is keeping you?)

Getting back to  Godescalc, we’ll end with the opening lines of his poem, which describe the symbolism of the colors he uses in producing the manuscript.

Aurea purpureis pinguntur grammata scedis
Regna poli roseo pate sanguine facta tonantis.
Fulgida stelligeri promunt et gaudia caeli
Eloquiumque dei digno fulgore choruscans.
Splendida perpetuae promittit praemia vitae.

(Gold letters painted on purple pages reveal in rose-red blood the celestial kingdom and the joys of heaven. And the eloquence of God, shining brightly, promises the splendid reward of eternal life.)

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The battle for ‘Kyiv’

Q: Ukraine is dominating the news right now, and its capital, when written, is spelled “Kyiv.” But at one time the common spelling was “Kiev.” Any idea why the new spelling and how it happened so quickly?

A: This didn’t happen overnight. The change from a Russian-influenced spelling (“Kiev”) to a Ukrainian one (“Kyiv”) had been in the works for decades, though it didn’t begin appearing in American news articles until 2019.

Ukraine had been pushing for the spelling change since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when the country gained independence and declared Ukrainian its official state language. The government repudiated the use of “Kiev,” a Soviet-era spelling based on a Russian transliteration, in favor of “Kyiv,” the Ukrainian transliteration.

As you probably know, neither language, Ukrainian nor Russian, is written in the Latin alphabet that English uses. Both use Cyrillic scripts; the city’s name is Ки́їв in Ukrainian Cyrillic and Киев in Russian Cyrillic.

And the governments of Ukraine and Russia also have different ways of romanizing the name—that is, transliterating it into the Latin alphabet. It’s “Kyiv” in Ukraine, “Kiev” in Russia.

The difference seems small but it’s significant. Since English is the language of international diplomacy, the spelling that any particular country approves for government use—whether “Kiev,” “Kyiv, “Kiyev,” “Kyyiv,” or something else—is the one that appears in that country’s official correspondence with other governments. And the spelling matters for practical reasons too, as you’ll see.

Ukraine’s official adoption of the “Kyiv” spelling was made law in 1995. In 2006, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names approved “Kyiv” as the preferred spelling to be used within the federal government. The board said the change was requested by the U.S. State Department, which recommended “Kyiv” because it was the romanized spelling used in Ukraine.

But though the Board on Geographic Names officially approved “Kyiv” in 2006, it also allowed the conventional spelling “Kiev” as an alternative. That later changed.

On June 11, 2019, the board voted to disallow “Kiev,” announcing that “Kyiv” was “now the only name available for standard use within the United States (U.S.) Government.” Again, the board said it made the change on the recommendation of the State Department.

The panel added that its action would affect usage “inside and outside the United States, in particular on international flights and in airports around the world.”

It went on to say that “many international organizations, including the International Air Transport Association (IATA), refer specifically to official names in the database of the United States Board on Geographic Names.”

Later that same year, news organizations in the US and the UK began changing the way they spelled the name. As far as we can tell, The Associated Press was first to make the change, in August 2019, with NPR and the BBC, along with major American and British newspapers, soon to follow.

At the The New York Times, the change to “Kyiv” became effective in articles published after Nov. 18, 2019. The paper explained at the time that the policy reflected “the transliteration from Ukrainian, rather than Russian.”

Today the “Kyiv” spelling has become almost universal throughout Western news organizations. Most recent to adopt it is the French state-owned news agency Agence France-Presse in January 2022.

Now, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the pronunciation of “Kyiv” has been getting attention. The actual Ukrainian pronunciation, as heard in this YouTube video, eludes many westerners. It sounds more like KEEV than key-EV, according to a recent article in The Times.

NPR, which endorsed the new spelling in 2019, announced last month that it was also adopting a new on-air pronunciation. A similar one can now be heard on the BBC.

As for the name itself, it’s thought to come from “Kyi,” a personal name. The city, according to legend, was founded in the sixth century by a group of siblings and named for the oldest brother, Kyi. But that may be a folk etymology.

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We are met on a great battle-field

[Note: In observance of Presidents’ Day, we’re republishing a post that originally ran on Dec. 9, 2015.]

Q: Watching a recent rebroadcast of “The Civil War” on PBS, I was struck by this sentence in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “We are met on a great battle-field of that war.” Is “we are met” just a poetic usage? Or is something else going on?

A: “We are met” is a present-perfect construction, parallel to “we have met.” The usage dates back to the Middle Ages, but by Lincoln’s time it was considered archaic and poetic.

You can still hear it today, though the usage sounds unusual to modern ears because it combines “met” (the past participle of “meet”) with a form of “be” as the auxiliary verb instead of the usual “have.”

So, for instance, a speaker uses “we are met to honor him” in place of “we have met to honor him”—or, to use the simple present tense, “we meet to honor him.”

The poetic “we are met” gives the message a solemnity and gravity it wouldn’t otherwise convey.

Here “met” is used in the sense of “assembled” or “gathered” or “brought together.” And the auxiliary “be” is possible only when this sense of “met” is used intransitively—that is, without a direct object.

In its entry for “meet,” the Oxford English Dictionary notes that “in intransitive use the perfect tenses were freq. formed with the auxiliary be in Middle English and early modern English; subsequently this became archaic and poetic.”

The OED has citations from the 14th century onward, including this Middle English example from Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem “The Complaint of Mars” (circa 1385): “The grete joye that was betwix hem two, / When they be mette.”

This one is from Thomas Starkey’s A Dialogue Between Pole and Lupset, written sometime before 1538: “Seying that we be now here mete … accordyng to our promys.”

And here’s a poetic 19th-century use from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel The Virginians (1859): “The two gentlemen, with a few more friends, were met round General Lambert’s supper-table.”

Today, we’re more likely to encounter this usage on solemn occasions, as when people gather for religious worship or funeral eulogies.

Lincoln isn’t the only American politician to use “we are met” in elevated oratory. In 1965, in a speech before Congress in support of equal voting rights, President Lyndon B. Johnson said:

“There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans—we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.”

A somewhat similar use of “met” with the “be” auxiliary is also antiquated today. This is the expression “to be well met,” first recorded in the 15th century and meaning to be welcome or well received.

This is the source of the old expression “hail fellow well met,” which evolved in the late 16th century from the slightly earlier phrase “hail, fellow!”

“Hail, fellow!” was a friendly greeting of the 1500s that was also used adjectivally, the OED says, to mean “on such terms, or using such freedom with another, as to accost him with ‘hail, fellow!’ ”

We’ll quote 19th-century examples of the shorter as well as the longer adjectival phrases, courtesy of the OED:

“He crossed the room to her … with something of a hail-fellow bearing.” (From Thomas Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, 1886.)

“He was popular … though not in any hail-fellow-well-met kind of way.” (From H. Rider Haggard’s novel Colonel Quaritch, V.C., 1888.)

We’ll close with a more contemporary example we found in a letter to the editor of the Bergen (N.J.) Record in 2012:

“The most exciting thing about the Republican National Convention was the hurricane. … Where is the enthusiasm, the fire they need to capture the voters? Where is the ‘Hail fellow, well met’? This convention was a snore fest.”

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Tracking the ‘daily double’

Q: I’m guessing you’re familiar with the “Daily Double” feature on the game show Jeopardy! It’s catchy and alliterative, but I find the usage jarring, since it scarcely resembles the “daily double” I know from my misspent days at the horse races.

A: The “Daily Double” is popular with viewers of Jeopardy! and, as you say, the name is catchy and alliterative. Our guess is that the show’s producers aren’t bothered one whit that their use of the expression bears little resemblance to the original horse-racing term.

In the game, contestants who hit a “Daily Double” can bet part or all of their accumulated winnings and—they hope—collect double their wager. But at the track, a  “daily double” is a single bet that picks the winners of two separate races.

So the Jeopardy! use of “daily double” isn’t historically authentic. But seriously, if McDonald’s can name a two-patty cheeseburger the “Daily Double” (basically a “McDouble” with different toppings), then why can’t Jeopardy! make use of the term too? At least the game show usage involves betting, so it preserves some of the original wagering sense.

The noun “daily double” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, as “a single bet placed on the winners of two (often consecutive) races in a single day’s racing; (also) the two races designated as eligible for such a bet.” It’s a “chiefly Horse Racing” usage, the OED says.

The dictionary’s examples of “daily double” begin in the 1930s, but we’ve found earlier uses of the phrase. Searches of old newspaper databases show that it first appeared as a turf expression in late 19th-century Britain, where it cropped up in newspaper ads placed by tipsters, bookmakers, and “commission agents” (those who place bets on behalf of clients).

The earliest example we’ve found is from an ad in The Sporting Life (London, March 13, 1899). A turf insider offered to telegraph tips to clients for a fee, including “two-horse wires (a daily double, magnificent value).”

Unfortunately, the precise meaning of “daily double” isn’t spelled out in early uses. No doubt it was commonly known among bettors before it showed up in print.

The term continued to appear in turn-of-the-century British newspapers, in articles by sports writers as well as in ads placed by bookies and tipsters:

“Chief interest centres in the Liverpool Cup today, for which I think FOUNDLING will go close. For my daily double I shall couple the following” (The Daily Mirror, London, July 22, 1904) … “Suggested daily doubles” (The Sporting Chronicle, Lancashire, Oct. 22, 1904) … “All sportsmen should remit a sovereign for week’s Daily Double” (Dublin Daily Express, April 1, 1905).

And this ad, placed by a well-known commission agent, was trumpeted in Ireland and England: “ARTHUR COCKBURN IN MARVELLOUS FORM [headline] His daily Three-horse Wires are simply Invincible. Every Wire indicates his Daily Double and also Special One-horse Selection” (in both The Belfast Telegraph and The Leeds Mercury, Aug. 30, 1909).

The meaning of daily double” is clear in this later example, where a prognosticator boasted after the fact that “I selected four winners in Dutch Toy, Plum, and Vertigo, whilst daily double was Plum and Vertigo” (The Daily Herald, London, Sept. 13, 1920). So three of his tips were for individual winners and the fourth was for a “daily double,” a single bet picking two winners.

And here’s another example, from a bookmaker’s ad promising unlimited payouts: “No doubt, in common with most backers, you fancy your daily double. Have you ever seen your selections winning at multiplied odds totalling hundreds to one and been paid at the rate of some ridiculous limit?” (Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, London, Feb. 9, 1924).

The OED’s earliest examples for “daily double” begin in 1930, when England officially approved the use of the bet on the government-regulated apparatus known as the totalizator. (Invented in the 19th century, the totalizator was a mechanical device for recording bets and total amounts wagered. The noun came into English in 1879, adopted from the term for the same device in French, totalisateur, 1870.)

The first OED citation for “daily double” is a heading in The Times (London, Sept. 25, 1930): “Totalisator Daily Double.”

A news item later that week in an Australian newspaper explained how the “daily double” worked: “DAILY DOUBLE ON TOTE: The English [Racetrack] Betting Board of Control has instituted a daily double on the tote. The first day it was tried no backer was lucky enough to pick the winner of the two selected races. … According to rule, the pool was equally divided between those who named the winner of either race. Fifty backers participated in the pool, sixteen naming Last of the Estelles, winner of the first race, with a loser, and thirty-four Story Teller, who won the second race, with a loser” (The Queensland Times, Nov. 1, 1930).

According to newspaper accounts of the time, the first official “tote daily doubles” in England were run at Leicester and Brighton on Sept. 22, 1930, and at additional tracks on subsequent days and weeks.

The term “daily double” crossed the Atlantic—officially, at least—the following year. The OED’s earliest North American example is from a Canadian newspaper: “The ‘daily double’ system of betting was inaugurated for the first time on this continent at Victoria Park this afternoon” (The Manitoba Free Press, Winnipeg, May 21, 1931).

The earliest example we’ve seen in a US newspaper is from later that year. After describing the long-shot winners of the third and fifth races at Agua Caliente, Mexico, the article goes on: “Had someone thought to play the combination as a ‘daily double,’ he would have won $4678.80, the highest price ever paid on a $2 ticket” (Imperial Valley Press, El Centro, Calif., Aug. 19, 1931).

Soon afterward, according to Oxford citations, “double” was used in the US as short for “daily double.” Here’s the dictionary’s first example: “Only two men … held tickets on the double, which is governed somewhat along the lines of a parley bet” (New York Times, Sept. 15, 1931).

And as this later OED example shows, the usage also appears in British English: “David Nicholson and Peter Scudamore … brought off a 285-1 double on a day of shocks and spills at Windsor” (The Sporting Life, March 8, 1983).

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‘On the TV’ vs. ‘on TV’

Q: “We watched the game on the TV” sounds non-standard, while “We listened to the game on the radio” sounds perfectly fine. Why does “the” seem wrong when applied to TV, but OK when applied to radio?

A: The use of the definite article in fixed expressions like those is arbitrary and idiomatic. For example, you can listen “to the radio” or “on the radio,” but you communicate “by radio” and work “in radio.”

As Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum explain in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, “A number of fixed expressions require the definite article. In such cases, it is largely arbitrary that the definite article is required rather than a bare noun (and often both are possible).”

Huddleston and Pullum note the use of “the definite article in expressions concerned with devices and institutions for the transfer of information, even though it is the activity or action that is relevant rather than the device used on a particular occasion.”

They cite “listened to the radio” and “spoke to her on the telephone,” where the definite article is necessary, but note that “the article is optional” in “watch something on (the) television” and not used in “watch (some) television.”

Searches with the News on the Web corpus, which tracks newspapers and magazines on the Internet, indicate that “on television” (91,933 hits) is much more popular than “on the television” (9,635). Nevertheless, dictionaries consider both versions standard English.

The wording of  Merriam-Webster’s entry for the usage, “on (the) television,” indicates that the article is optional.

M-W defines the expression as “broadcast by television” or “being shown by television or in a television program.”

The dictionary includes these examples: “What is on the television tonight?” and “There’s nothing (I want to watch) on television right now.”

The authors of A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Randolph Quirk et al., say the definite article is used in expressions like “the newsthe radiothe televisionthe paper(s)the press, etc., referring to aspects of mass communication.” But they add that “with television or TV, there is also the possibility that the article will be omitted.”

Quirk includes these among his examples: “Did you hear the ten o’clock news?” …  “What’s on the radio this evening?” … “What’s on (the) TV this evening?”

As we said at the beginning, the use of “the” in such expressions is idiomatic and arbitrary. Like you, we find “on TV” more natural than “on the TV,” but both versions are standard.

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Did great-granddad coin ‘bloviate’?

Q: My great-grandfather, Paul Jones, created the word “bloviate.” He was a magazine publisher in Topeka, KS.

A: Your ancestor had a long and impressive life, but it wasn’t long enough for him to have created the word “bloviate,” which appeared in print 18 years before he was born.

The earliest example we’ve seen appeared in an Ohio newspaper in the late 1830s and referred to the oratory of William Allen, a US congressman, senator, and governor from the state:

“We commend the fol’owing to the rapt perusal of all who ever had the high honor and exquisite pleasure of hearing Mr. Wm. Allen bloviate in the Court-House of this county, or on the stump in any of our highly favored precincts” (from The Scioto Gazette, March 8, 1838).

The passage was brought to our attention by Ken Liss, who comments about etymology, among other things, on his website and Twitter.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of “bloviate,” which we’ve expanded, is from the Oct. 14, 1845, issue of The Huron Reflector in Norwalk, OH:

“Peter P. Low, Esq., will with open throat reiterate the slang of the resolution passed by the County Convention, and bloviate about the farmers being taxed upon the full value of their farms, while bankers are released from taxation.”

Your great-grandfather, the lawyer, publisher, and civil-rights activist Paul Jones, was born in a log cabin in 1856 “of slave parentage,” according to his obituary in The Call, an African-American weekly newspaper in Kansas City, MO. The obituary says he died on March 7, 1952, in Topeka at the age of 96.

A Dec. 19, 1902, article in The Plaindealer, an African-American weekly in Topeka, says Jones was born in Culpepper, VA, and moved with his family to Chicago at the age of nine.

He attended Northwestern University and was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1880, according to the Plaindealer. He then practiced law in Chicago, Kansas City, MO, and Kansas City, KS.

A 1948 article in The Journal of Negro History says Jones was active in Kansas politics and worked to help African-Americans who migrated from the south.

On retiring, the article says, “he began the editing of the Paul Jones Monthly, a magazine which he continued to publish until ill health forced his retirement in 1942.”

“Today, at 93, although he is now partly blind, deaf, and cannot smell, his mind is as active and alert as when a much younger man,” the article continues. “As he sits on his porch in Topeka and regales his listeners with interesting stories of his past, it is apparent that he has led a very active life.”

(From “Benjamin, or ‘Pap,’ Singleton and His Followers,” by Roy Garvin, The Journal of Negro History, January 1948.) Singleton (1809-1900) escaped slavery in Tennessee, became a civil-rights activist, and established African-American settlements in Kansas.

In a 2006 post, which we recently updated, we note that the OED defines “bloviate” as “to talk at length, esp. using inflated or empty rhetoric; to speechify or ‘sound off.’ ”

In an etymology note, the dictionary says “bloviate” probably was a combination of the verb “blow” with the “-viate” ending of words like “deviate” and “abbreviate.”

The word was a favorite of President Warren G. Harding, who was a native of Ohio and something of a bloviator. The journalist and cultural critic H. L. Mencken couldn’t stand Harding’s writing and described it this way:

It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash. (From a 1921 article in The Baltimore Evening Sun entitled “Gamalielese.” Gamaliel was Harding’s middle name.)

[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 15, 2022.]

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What’s normal about a ‘normal school’?

Q: Have you any idea what’s “normal” in terms like “normal school” and “normal college” and “normal department”?

A: Many of today’s American universities got their start in the 19th century as “normal schools” or “normal colleges”—that is, teacher training schools intended to standardize requirements and raise the quality of teachers in public education.

Earlier in the century, a similar usage developed in British higher education, where an institution specifically for training teachers was a “normal school” and a large university’s department of education was its “normal department.”

Later on, the adjective was dropped as the “normals” grew more comprehensive and did more than train teachers.

For instance, the Normal School of Design, founded in 1837 to set standards for art and design education, was renamed the Royal College of Art in 1896.

And in the US, the California State Normal School, founded in 1880 to train teachers, eventually became UCLA, the University of California, Los Angeles.

How did the word “normal” relate to the training of teachers in those days? The use can be traced to the classical Latin norma (a model, standard, or pattern). We’ll show later how this notion made its way into French educational terminology and then into English.

The educational sense of “normal” is defined this way in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Of, relating to, or intended for the training of teachers, esp. in Continental Europe and North America.”

This sense of the adjective “normal,” the OED says, is found “chiefly” in the phrase “normal school” and is “now historical”—that is, used in references to the past.

The dictionary adds this note: “In North America, normal schools were for training primary school teachers. In Continental Europe, different normal schools also trained teachers at secondary and tertiary levels.”

(A clarification: Many “normal colleges” in the US had both short- and long-term programs. They offered not only teaching certificates, qualifying people to teach in elementary schools, but bachelor’s degrees enabling them to teach high school as well.)

The educational use of “normal,” as well as the phrase “normal school,” was adopted from late 18th-century French, where an école normale (first recorded in 1793) was a school for the training of teachers. Here the adjective normale meant “which serves as a model,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest English example—for this use of “normal” and for “normal school”—is from an anonymous English author who had lived in France in the 1790s: “At the opening of the Normal schools” (A Residence in France, 1797, by an “English Lady”).

Oxford notes that France’s first école normale “was set up by decree in 1794, and later became dedicated to training teachers for secondary education and thus (from 1845) called the Ecole Normale Supérieure.”

The dictionary’s next English citation is from a letter written on Aug. 29, 1826, by a Scottish clergyman visiting Copenhagen: “Colonel Abrahamson … has been with us all this afternoon, and has shewn us the Normal School” (The Life and Letters of Christopher Anderson, written by Hugh Anderson in 1853).

The earliest use we’ve found for the term in the US is from 1839, the year that the first such school opened in America. This is from a proclamation issued on April, 12, 1839, by the Massachusetts Board of Education:

“The Board of Education hereby give notice, that one Normal School, for the qualification of Female Teachers, is to be established at Lexington, in the county of Middlesex; and another, for the qualification of both Males and Females, is to be established at Barre, in the county of Worcester.” (From The Common School Journal, Boston, April 15, 1839. The journal was edited by Horace  Mann, who signed the proclamation as a member of the state board and who was later a US congressman.)

The Lexington Normal School opened first, on July 3, 1839 (it’s now Framingham State University). Among the school’s first graduating class was Mann’s niece Rebecca Mann Pennell Dean, who went on to teach at Antioch College in 1853, making her the nation’s first female college professor.

As a later citation from the OED shows, American educators commonly used variations like “normal college” and “normal university.” This is from legislation recorded in the Illinois House Journal (1857):

“Senate bill for ‘An act for the establishment and maintenance of a normal university’ was taken up. … There shall be established in said university … a normal college for the education of teachers of common schools.”

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Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

When ‘nubile’ became sexy

Q: Could you comment on the near-complete transition in meaning for “nubile,” from marriageable to young and hot?

A: Yes, the adjective “nubile” meant marriageable when it showed up in English in the 17th century, but the transition to sexy may not be as near-complete as you think.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “nubile” ultimately comes from the classical Latin nubilis (suitable for marriage), a derivative of the verb nubere (to marry).

The dictionary says the English adjective, as well as its Latin ancestor, originally referred to a girl or young woman “of an age or condition suitable for marriage.” The lexicographer John Ayto notes in his Dictionary of Word Origins that nubere has also given English “connubial” and “nuptial,” a word we wrote about recently.

The OED’s earliest “nubile” citation, which we’ve expanded, refers to a marriage between a 9-year-old niece of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, and the 15-year-old son of James Hamilton, 2nd Marquess of Hamilton:

“And seing that Buckinghams neece was not yet nubile in yeares, and that before the mariage should be confirmed a way might be found out to annull it, vnto which he [Hamilton] was forced by deceitfull importunity, therfore he yeelded vnto the kings desire of the match.” From The Forerunner of Revenge (1626), a pamphlet by George Eglisham that says King James I, prodded by Buckingham, pressured a reluctant Hamilton into agreeing to the marriage.

Like you, we don’t see much of the marriageable sense of “nubile” these days, but five of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult still include that meaning.

Here, for instance, is the entry for “nubile” in Merriam-Webster: “1. of marriageable condition or age (nubile young women); 2. sexually attractive—used of a young woman (a nubile starlet).”

The sensual meaning of “nubile” appeared in the mid-20th century. The OED defines it this way: “Chiefly of a girl or young woman, or a personal attribute: sexually attractive.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from Dangling Man, a 1944 novel by Saul Bellow: “She no longer fought against me but, with her long hair reaching nearly to the floor and her round, nubile thighs bare, lay in my lap.”

We’ll end with an OED example that uses “nubile” to describe Marilyn Monroe: “A woman so sensitive and alive, so nubile as flesh and evanescent as a wisp of vapour” (from Marilyn: A Biography, 1973, by Norman Mailer).

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