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English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

Clause encounters

Q: In retirement, I’m pursuing my interest in grammar. Right now, I’m studying noun clauses, but I can’t figure out the function of these wh-ever question clauses: “Whoever you ask, you get the same answer” … “Whatever you do, don’t lose this key” … “Whoever calls, he must be admitted” … “He’s an honest man, whoever his friends might be.” I’d appreciate any guidance you might give me.

A: These are not, as you suggest, “wh-ever question clauses.” They’re adverbial clauses—more specifically, subordinate clauses that modify a main clause.

This type of clause can begin with a pronoun (like “whoever,” “whatever,” “whichever”) or an adverb (“wherever,” “whenever”). But no matter whether it begins with a pronoun or an adverb, the clause functions as an adverb that modifies a verb or adjective.

When “whoever” is used to introduce a modifying subordinate clause, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it means “if any one at all; whether one person or another; no matter who.” And in similar use, “whatever” means “no matter what” or “notwithstanding anything that.”

So in your four examples, the modifying clauses are the equivalent of “no matter whom you ask,” “no matter what you do,” “no matter who calls,” and “no matter who his friends are.”

The same is true of the other “wh-” words: “whichever,” “wherever,” “whenever.” When they introduce a subordinate clause that modifies a main clause, they’re the equivalent of “no matter which,” “no matter where,” “no matter when.” And their function is adverbial.

Of the four clauses in your examples, three modify verbs: “get,” “lose,” and “admit.” They indicate the manner in which, or the condition under which, some action should or should not be performed. The fourth modifies an adjective (“honest”). It indicates how honest a person is.

Another indication that these are adverbial clauses is that you could substitute a simple adverb (like “regardless,” “nevertheless,” “nonetheless,” “notwithstanding,” etc.) in grammatically similar sentences.

The “wh-ever” words can introduce a modifying clause that’s the grammatical equivalent of these:

(1) A conditional clause (typically beginning with “if” or “unless”): “If you ask anyone, you’ll get the same answer”

(2) A concessive clause (beginning with “though,” “although,” “even though,” “even if,” etc.): “Even though you ask everyone, you’ll get the same answer.”

(3) A disjunctive clause (often constructed with “whether … or”): “Whether you ask politely or not, you’ll get the same answer.”)

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

A singular journey

Q: I grew up with the understanding that “singular” as a descriptor of human behavior was closest in meaning to “strange” or “weird.”  But nearly all such usage of “singular” I’ve encountered in contemporary writing seems closest in meaning to “unique.”  Whichizzit, pray tell?

A: As a grammatical term, “singular” is a noun and adjective used in reference to a single entity, as opposed to “plural.” But in ordinary usage, “singular” is an adjective meaning remarkable, uncommon, out of the ordinary, or—as you’ve found—unique. And this wider usage appeared in English before the grammatical sense.

Both uses of “singular”—the grammatical meaning and the sense of remarkable or unique—ultimately come from the Latin singularis (alone of its kind). And both English senses were common in Latin. Here’s the story.

When the adjective “singular” first appeared in early 14th-century English writing, it had a range of meanings characterized by singleness, unity, separateness, individuality, or being out of the ordinary, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Many of these early meanings are now rare or obsolete, like alone, apart, solitary, separate, individual, sole, exclusive, and private.

But the general meanings of “singular” that are still around today also developed in the first half of the 14th century, such as remarkable, extraordinary, unique, unusual, uncommon, rare, and special. The University of Michigan’s Middle English Dictionary cites several such uses.

For instance, in the Psalter of Richard Rolle of Hampole, written sometime before 1340, the devil is described as “the wild best [beast] that is of syngulere cruelte [cruelty],” and a godly woman is said to be “in synguler ioy [joy]” of Christ.

The dictionary also cites some later 14th-century examples of “singular” in these senses. We like this one, which uses the phrase “singularly singular” in describing the phenomenon of the rainbow:

“Þe reyne bowe … is in many manere wise dyuers [diverse], and singulerliche singuler.”  From On the Properties of Things, John Trevisa’s translation, sometime before 1398, of De Proprietatibus Rerum, an encyclopedic Latin work by Bartholomaeus Anglicus.

(The adverb “singularly,” by the way, also dates from before 1340 in the writings of Richard Rolle of Hampole. But early on it meant solely.  John Trevisa was apparently the first to use it in the sense of unusually or especially.)

In the late 1300s, “singular” began appearing in its grammatical sense, defined this way in the OED: “Denoting or expressing one person or thing. … Opposed to plural.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from John Trevisa’s translation, dated sometime before 1387, of Polychronicon, a Latin chronicle written by Ranulf Higden earlier in the 14th century:

“Kynges þat regnede þere after hym … were i-cleped Antiochi, and everiche in þe singuler nombre was i-cleped Anthiochus” (“Kings that reigned there after him … were called Antiochi, and each in the singular number was called Antiochus”). We’ve expanded the quotation for context.

In Old English, spoken from roughly 450 to 1150, the adjective anfeald (literally “onefold”) meant “simple,” “plain,” and “uncomplicated,” as well as “singular” in the grammatical sense.

(Oxford notes that the “Latin singularis appears in the grammatical sense from the time of Varro onwards.” Marcus Terentius Varro, author of De Lingua Latina [On the Latin Language], lived from 116 to 26 BC.)

The adjective “singular” also has technical meanings in logic (dating from the 17th century) and in mathematics (19th century).

As for the noun “singular,” it’s mostly used today in its grammatical sense, defined in the OED as “the singular number; a word in its singular form.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is again from John Trevisa’s translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum in the late 1390s. This passage is about the forms of the Latin word porrum (leek), a noun that’s irregular in gender:

Porrum is hoc Porrum [leek, neuter] in þe singuler & hii porri [leeks, masculine] in þe plurel.”

In medieval times, as you can see, Trevisa was a singularly prolific translator.

[Note: This post was updated on June 19, 2022.]

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Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Why is a coward called a ‘chicken’?

Q: Why do we call a cowardly person a “chicken”? And when did the usage first turn up? Also, what about “chicken-hearted” and “chicken-livered”?

A: The cowardly sense of the noun “chicken” ultimately comes from the use of “hen” for a fainthearted person, contrasted with “cock” (rooster) for a dominant person.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for “hen” in its timorous sense is from the York Mystery Plays, a series of 48 religious works that the OED dates at sometime before 1450.

We’ve expanded the citation, which uses the compound noun “hen-heart” for a coward: “Be pe deuyllis nese, ze ar doggydly diseasid / A! henne-harte! ill happe mot ȝou hente” (“By the devil’s nose, you’re accursed and diseased, / Ah, hen-heart, evil fate has taken hold of you”).

The adjective “hen-hearted” appeared in the early 16th century. The first OED citation is from a political poem that describes English courtiers during the reign of Henry VIII as timid cuckolds:

“They kepe them in theyr holdes. Lyke henherted cokoldes” (Why Come Ye Nat to Courte, a poem by John Skelton that Oxford dates at sometime before 1529).

In the early 17th century, the noun “hen” appeared by itself in the sense of “a cowardly, timid, or spineless person; (also) anyone who adopts a subservient role, often explicitly contrasted with cock,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest OED citation for both “hen” and “cock” in those contrasting senses is from More Knaues [Knaves] Yet? The Knaues of Spades and Diamonds, a satirical tract by Samuel Rowlands, printed around 1613:

“It saues thy head from many a bloudy knocke, / To play the Hen and let thy wife turne Cocke.”

This sharp contrast between rooster and hen may have helped popularize the figurative use of “chicken” when it showed up in its cowardly sense. Like “hen,” the fearful “chicken” originally appeared in a compound with “heart.” This is the first Oxford citation:

“Such Chicken-heartes (and yet great quarrellers).” From Blurt, Master-Constable (1602), an Elizabethan comedy that the dictionary attributes to Thomas Dekker, though some scholars consider Thomas Middleton the author.

“Chicken” in its fearful sense soon appeared by itself in this OED example from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, produced in 1611:

“Forthwith they flye Chickens, the way which they stopt [swooped] Eagles.” The passage describes fleeing soldiers as chickens who once swooped like eagles.

The adjective “chicken-hearted” showed up nearly two decades later in an English translation of a satirical poem that the Latin author Juvenal wrote in the second century AD:

“As red hayre [hair] on a man is a signe of trechery, what tis in a woman, let the sweet musique of rime inspire vs [us]; a soft hayre chicken-hearted; a harsh hayre churlish natur’d; a flaxen hayre foolish brain’d” (from a funeral oration in A Iustification [Justification] of a Strange Action of Nero, a 1629 translation by George Chapman).

The adjective “chicken-livered,” meaning cowardly or timid, appeared in the early 19th century in this OED citation:

“I am resolved, and they will find me no chicken livered fellow” (from the March 31, 1804, issue of The Corrector, a semi-weekly newspaper in New York City).

The dictionary notes that two similar adjectives with the same meaning, “pigeon-livered” and “pigeon-hearted,” showed up in the early 17th century:

  • “But I am pidgion liuerd, and lack gall / To make oppression bitter” (from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written sometime around 1600).
  • “I never saw such Pigeon-hearted people” (The Pilgrim, a comedy by John Fletcher, written sometime before his death in 1625).

The phrasal verb “chicken out” appeared in the 20th century. The first OED example is from a Utah newspaper:

“The Irish outfit was highly ballyhooed at the beginning of the football season, with the result that logical competition ‘chickened out’ ” (Salt Lake Telegram, Feb. 19, 1931).

You didn’t ask about the word “chicken” itself, but the noun meant a young chicken when it showed up in Old English as cicenciken, and so on.

The earliest OED example is from the West Saxon Gospels: “Swa seo henn hyre cicenu” (“As a hen gathers her chickens”) Matthew 23:37.

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