English English language Etymology Expression Language Linguistics Pronunciation Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

I can’t believe it’s not margerine!

Q: Why is “margarine” pronounced as if it were spelled “margerine”? The letter “g” is almost always hard when followed by an “a” and soft when followed by an “e.”

A: You’re right in thinking that the letter combination “ga” normally produces a hard “g,” as in the name “Margaret,” while the combination “ge” usually produces a soft “g,” as in “Margery.” In fact, “margarine” was originally pronounced with a hard “g,” as you’d suppose from its spelling.

It’s spelled with “ga” because the word was coined in the early 19th century in French, where margarine has a hard “g.” And when the word first entered English in the mid-19th century, it had the same hard “g” sound that it has in French.

Only later, in the early 20th century, did the original English pronunciation begin to shift. Today the letter is soft, like the “g” in “gin,” a development the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says was probably influenced by “words like margin and such alterations in pronunciation as those of Margaret and Margie.”

We’ll have more on the pronunciation later. First, a little history of this word, which didn’t originally refer to something you’d put on your pancakes. It got its start in French as a chemical term, margarine. The butter substitute wasn’t invented until many decades later.

The word was coined in 1813 by the French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul. In experimenting with animal fats, he synthesized what he believed to be a previously unknown fatty substance, which he’d extracted from soap made of pork lard.

He gave this substance the chemical name margarine, a term soon adopted into English chemistry as “margarin” or “margarine.” And three years later, in 1816, Chevreul gave the name acide margarique (“margaric acid”) to the fatty acid he thought it came from.

Why those names? As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the substance had “the appearance of mother-of-pearl,” so Chevreul adapted the name from the ancient Greek word for “pearl,” μαργαρίτης (margarites).

Keep in mind that in the first half of the 19th century, the words margarine, “margarin” and “margarine” were French and English chemical terms, not the names of edibles. The butter substitute wasn’t yet invented. The same is true of oléomargarine, a later French chemical term.

What the inventors of oléomargarine—Théophile-Jules Pelouze (a pharmaceutical scientist) and Félix Henri Boudet (a pharmacist)—synthesized in 1838 was a fatty solid derived from olive oil. They believed it to contain the same substances that Chevreul had synthesized from animal fats—margarine and another called oléine. By the late 1830s, these scientific terms were “olein” and “margarin” or “margarine” in English.

Pelouze and Boudet believed their discovery could have applications in the soap and candle industries. In fact, the terms “margarine candles” and “margarine soap” began appearing in English in the 1840s.

Although they discovered it in 1838, the new substance wasn’t given the name oléomargarine until 1854, when the French chemist Pierre Eugène Marcellin Berthelot chose that name because of its supposed constituents, oléine and margarine. (Incidentally, the French oléine and English “olein” are derived from the Latin word for “oil,” eleum.)

Finally we come to the edible, spreadable butter substitute. Its invention in 1869 was inspired by a butter shortage in France and a contest sponsored by Napoleon III, who offered a prize to anyone who could develop an artificial butter.

The winner was yet another French chemist, Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, who described his invention in the original 1869 patent as “comme le beurre” (“like butter”), according to the Oxford English Dictionary. He said its chemical constituents included the oléine and margarine identified by Chevreul more than half a century earlier.

In a later patent, filed in 1874, Mège-Mouriès added skimmed cow’s milk to the mixture, so it “a la même composition que le beurre” (“has the same composition as butter”), the OED says.

And based on its supposed ingredients, oléine and margarine, he formally gave his invention both a scientific and a general name: “L’oléomargarine, nommé vulgairement margarine” (“Oleomargarine, commonly called margarine”).

So the French word margarine didn’t specifically mean artificial butter until 60 years after the term was coined in chemistry.

Though Mège-Mouriès didn’t officially name his invention until 1874, two English nouns for it, “margarine” and “oleomargarine,” jumped the gun slightly—no doubt borrowed from his formula.

The OED’s earliest citation for “margarine” to mean artificial butter is from an American patent  issued in 1873: “When it is cold … it constitutes … a greasy matter of very good taste, and which may replace the butter in the kitchen, where it is employed under the name of ‘margarine.’ ”

The dictionary’s earliest example of “oleomargarine” in the buttery sense is from Scientific American (Oct. 18, 1873): “The manufacture of artificial butter by the ‘Oleomargarine Manufacturing Company.’ ”

The names “margarine” and “oleomargarine” have meant the kitchen product ever since. But we can’t overlook the short forms: “oleo” and “marge.” These are Oxford’s oldest examples:

“There is one firm in London which is able to turn out from ten to twenty tons of this valuable oleo per week” (Daily News, London, Dec. 11, 1884) … “Potatoes and marge, marge and potatoes” (James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, 1922).

Notice that “marge” as a short form developed after the English “margarine” had largely shifted to a soft “g,” a development that was noticed—and condemned as a mispronunciation—at the turn of the century.

The soft “g” pronunciation wasn’t accepted by lexicographers until 1913, when it was included, though as a lesser variant, in the Phonetic Dictionary of the English Language, by Hermann Michaelis and Daniel Jones.

But soon after, the pronunciations switched places in the opinion of phoneticians. In An English Pronouncing Dictionary (1917), Daniel Jones listed the preferred pronunciation is /dʒə/ (soft “g”), with /ɡə/ (hard “g”) as a less frequent variant.

The older pronunciation, according to the OED,  “became rare in the second half of the 20th cent.” Now for a historic footnote:

The French terms oléomargarine and margarine were based on a scientific misunderstanding, according to the OED. “As subsequent research showed that neither the margarine of Chevreul, nor the oléomargarine of Berthelot, were definite chemical compounds,” the dictionary says, “these names are no longer in chemical use.”

But though defunct in scientific use, they live on in the names used today for the butter substitute.

[Note: On Sept. 21, 2022, a reader writes to say, “ ‘Margarine’ has hard ‘g’ in winter and a soft ‘g’ in summer.”]

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English English language Etymology Expression food Language Usage Word origin Writing

On claret, hock, and sack

Q: I often see “claret,” “hock,” and “sack” used in British novels for what I take to mean red wine, white wine, and sherry. Where do these terms come from?

A: The word “claret” now refers to a French red wine, especially one from Bordeaux, while “hock” is a German white wine, especially one from the Rhineland. “Sack” is a historical term for a sweet white wine that was once imported from Spain.

Here’s the intoxicating story.

When English borrowed “claret” from Old French in the 15th century, it didn’t mean red wine. The term referred to “wines of yellowish or light red colour, as distinguished alike from ‘red wine’ and ‘white wine,’ ” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary cites a passage in French showing that in the late 14th century vin claret meant something other than red wine. Here we’ve expanded and translated the passage:

“et puis ils aportent de très bone cervoise et des bons vins; c’est a savoir vin claret, vermaille et blanc” (“and then they bring very good cervoise [beer] and good wines, namely claret, red, and white wine”). From La Manière de Langage Qui Enseigne à Parler et à Écrire le Français (circa 1396), a handbook intended to help the English improve their French.

The dictionary’s first example of “claret” in English is from Promptorium Parvulorum (c. 1440), an English-to-Latin dictionary: “Claret or cleret as wyne, semiclarus.” (In Latin, semiclarus means half-bright or half-clear.)

The OED’s first English example that clearly shows “claret” as a wine other than red or white is from Colyn Blowbols Testament (c. 1500), an anonymous poem about a drunkard: “Rede wyn, the claret, and the white.”

Oxford says that since about 1600 “claret” has meant a red wine, adding that it’s “now applied to the red wines imported from Bordeaux, generally mixed with Benicarlo or some full-bodied French wine.”

The dictionary’s earliest definite example of “claret” meaning a red wine, which we’ve expanded, is from the early 1700s:

“To be sold an entire Parcel of New French Prize Clarets … being of the Growth of Lafitt, Margouze, and La Tour” (The London Gazette, May 22, 1707).

We found this earlier example in an Oct. 17, 1634, letter by the British historian James Howell:

“As in France, so in all other Wine countries the white is called the female, and the claret or red wine is called the male, because it commonly hath more sulpher, body and heat in’t.” From Epistolæ Ho-Elianæ (“Letters of Howell”), Vol. 2, published in 1747.

As for “hock,” it’s a shortening of “hockamore,” an Anglicized form of Hochheimer, a Rhine wine from Hochheim am Main in Germany, the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is for the shorter term:

“Nay, truly, he had as good a study of books, I’ll say that for him, good old authors, Sack and Claret, Rhenish and old Hock” (from Juliana, a 1671 tragicomedy by John Crowne). The passage refers to a proud cardinal who collected wines instead of books, and who “would not stoop to pray.”

The dictionary’s first example of the now-obsolete term “hockamore” is from Epsom Wells (1673), a comedy by Thomas Shadwell: “I am very well, and drink much Hockamore.”

Finally, “sack” refers to a sweet wine imported from Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries. The earliest example in the OED is from a 1531 Act of Parliament during the reign of Henry VIII, setting retail prices for imported sweet wines:

“It is further enacted … that no Malmeseis Romeneis Sakkes [Malmseys, Rumneys, Sacks] nor other swete Wynes … shalbe rateiled aboue .xij. d. the galon.”

The dictionary adds that “sack” was also used “with words indicating the place of production or exportation,” as in “Malaga sack,” “Canary sack,” and “Sherris sack.” (Málaga is a Spanish province and the Canary Islands a Spanish region in the Atlantic. “Sherris” is a transliteration of “Jerez,” a city in southwestern Spain and the Spanish word for “sherry.”)

As for the etymology, the OED says the term “sack” is derived from vin sec, French for “dry wine,” though it notes that “some difficulty therefore arises from the fact that sack in English … was often described as a sweet wine.”

Julian Jeffs, who has written books on sherry and other wines, has suggested that “sack” is derived from sacar, Spanish for to “draw out,” and saca, the wine extracted from a solera, a tiered cask for blending different vintages.

In his book Sherry (2014), Jeffs notes that wine exports were referred to as sacas in the minutes of the Jerez town council for 1435. However, he doesn’t cite any English evidence connecting sacar and “sack,” and we haven’t seen such evidence.

Was the “sack” of the 16th and 17th centuries similar to the fortified wine that we now know as sherry?

Jeffs says it’s “difficult to say exactly what Elizabethan sack wines were like,” but he adds that “they were certainly fortified.” As evidence, he cites a passage from Chaucer about the power of sack.

We’ll end instead with Falstaff’s praise of sack in this prose passage from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2

A good sherris sack hath a two-fold
operation in it. It ascends me into the brain;
dries me there all the foolish and dull and curdy
vapours which environ it; makes it apprehensive,
quick, forgetive, full of nimble fiery and
delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the
voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes
excellent wit. The second property of your
excellent sherris is, the warming of the blood;
which, before cold and settled, left the liver
white and pale, which is the badge of pusillanimity
and cowardice; but the sherris warms it and makes
it course from the inwards to the parts extreme:
it illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives
warning to all the rest of this little kingdom,
man, to arm; and then the vital commoners and
inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain,
the heart, who, great and puffed up with this
retinue, doth any deed of courage; and this valour
comes of sherris. So that skill in the weapon is
nothing without sack, for that sets it a-work; and
learning a mere hoard of gold kept by a devil, till
sack commences it and sets it in act and use.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

On ‘bottom,’ a fundamental thing

Q: I am researching a book on le vice anglais and have become interested in when the word “bottom” came to mean the buttocks. Some dictionaries say the late 18th century, but an anecdote in Boswell’s Life of Johnson implies the word had that meaning by the 1780s.

A: Yes, that anecdote indicates that “bottom” had the sense of buttocks in the 18th century, which isn’t surprising since it had been used that way since the 16th century.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “bottom” meaning “the buttocks, the posterior; (also) the anus” is from a 16th-century margin note in The Prose Brut Chronicle of England, a Middle English manuscript from the first half of the 15th century.

The OED says the term is written two ways in the manuscript (Harley 4827 at the British Library). It’s “erses” (arses) in the main text and “botumes” (bottoms) in this later marginal comment:

“Englishmen fyrst chaunghed there Aparell contrary to the old orders and women folowed wt foxe tayles to hyde there botumes.” The dictionary estimates the date of the marginal note with “botumes” at around 1550.

The next Oxford citation for “bottom” used in the buttocks sense is from a satirical poem about Scottish Presbyterians: “Like aples in the Lake of Sodom, / Like beautie clapped in the bodom” (Mock Poem, or, Whiggs Supplication, a manuscript copy written sometime before 1680, by the Scottish satirist Samuel Colvil).

The original sense of “bottom” as the lower part of something dates back to Anglo-Saxon days. The first OED citation is from a Latin-Old English glossary: “Fundum, fætes botm” (Cleopatra Glossaries, Cotton Cleopatra A. III, a 10th-century manuscript at the British Library). Fundum is Latin for “bottom”; “fætes botm” is Old English for “bottom of a cup.”

Finally, we should let our readers share that April 20, 1781, anecdote you mentioned from The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791). In the biography, James Boswell describes the drawing-room tittering that results when Johnson refers to a woman’s sensible character by saying, “the woman had a bottom of good sense.” Here’s Boswell on Johnson’s reaction:

His pride could not bear that any expression of his should excite ridicule, when he did not intend it; he therefore resolved to assume and exercise despotick power, glanced sternly around, and called out in a strong tone, ‘Where’s the merriment?’ Then collecting himself, and looking aweful, to make us feel how he could impose restraint, and as it were searching his mind for a still more ludicrous word, he slowly pronounced, ‘I say the woman was fundamentally sensible;’ as if he had said, hear this now, and laugh if you dare. We all sat composed as at a funeral.

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English language Etymology Expression Language Linguistics Pronunciation Spelling Usage Word origin Writing


Q: As a mathematician, I’m bothered by the inefficiency of transliterating the Greek letter ϕ as “ph.” Since it’s one letter in Greek, and we have “f,” which makes the same sound, why do we use two letters for it?

A: The letter ϕ (phi) in ancient Greek, spelled “ph” in many English words of Greek origin, didn’t originally have an “f” sound.

The ϕ sounded like the aspirated “p” in “pot,” as opposed to the ancient Greek π (pi), which sounded like the unaspirated “p” in “spot.” (An aspirated letter is pronounced with the sound of a breath.)

When the ancient Romans borrowed words from Greek, they transliterated the ϕ with the digraph ph to differentiate it from the unaspirated p in Latin. (A digraph is a pair of letters representing one sound.)

However, the pronunciations of both the Greek ϕ and the Latin ph evolved during the first few centuries AD and came to sound like the English fricative “f.” (A fricative is a consonant produced by the friction of forcing air through a narrow space.)

In Vox Graeca (1968), a guide to ancient Greek pronunciation, the Cambridge philologist W. Sidney Allen says “the first clear evidence for a fricative pronunciation of ϕ comes from 1 c. A.D. in Pompeiian spellings such as Dafne ( = Δάφνη).” He adds that “from the 2 c. A.D. the representation of ϕ by Latin f becomes common.”

In Old English, spoken from roughly the mid-5th century to the late 11th, the “ph” digraph in words of Greek origin that the Anglo-Saxons borrowed from Latin was sometimes transliterated as f and sometimes as ph.

In an anonymous Old English version of a Latin history, for example, “philosopher” is filosofum in one place and  philosophe in another:

  • “Gesetton him to ladteowe Demoste[n]on þone filosofum” (“They appointed as their leader Demosthenes the philosopher”).
  • “Philippus … wæs Thebanum to gisle geseald, Paminunde, þæm strongan cyninge & þæm gelæredestan philosophe” (“Philip … was given as a hostage to the Theban Paminunde, that strong king and learned philosopher”).

The passages are from the Old English Orosius, a loose translation in the late 9th or early 10th century of Historiarum Adversum Pagano Libri VII (“Seven Books of History Against the Pagans”), a 5th-century chronicle by Paulus Orosius. Modern scholars doubt an attribution of the translation to King Ælfred.

The linguists Thomas Pyles and John Algeo say Old English had “somewhat more than 500 in all” loanwords from Latin, including those of Greek origin. Some loanwords came directly from Latin and others indirectly from Celtic or Germanic terms. (The Origins and Development of the English Language, 4th ed., 1993.)

However, the majority of Greek words in English appeared after the Norman Conquest of the 11th century and the adoption of Anglo-Norman as the language of the aristocracy in England.

“From the Middle English period on, Latin and French are the immediate sources of most loanwords ultimately Greek,” Pyles and Algeo write.

In Middle English (roughly 1150 to 1450), the “f” sound in words of Greek origin was sometimes represented with an “f” and sometimes with a “ph” digraph. So “philosopher” was spelled variously felesophre, filosofre, filosophre, fylosofre, phelesophrephilesofre, philisofre, and so on. Yes, spelling was a mess in Middle English.

In the late 15th century, as Middle English was giving way to early Modern English, the printing press arrived in England and helped standardize spelling, including the use of “ph” for the “f” sound in words from Greek.

As it turns out, some Romance languages derived from Latin (such as Spanish and Italian) preferred “f” in these words, while  others (notably French) chose “ph.”

Getting back to your question, the use of the “ph” digraph here may be less efficient than using “f,” but we find it more interesting. The usage preserves a fascinating chapter in the history of English.

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English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

‘Got a screwdriver?’ … ‘I do.’

Q: If I ask a question like “Have you got a screwdriver?” and someone answers, “I do,” it sets my teeth on edge. I extrapolate that to mean “I do got.” Is that answer incorrect, or is it just me?

A: The use of “I do” in reply to “have you got” is a normal and correct construction in English. There is no “rule” against this common usage.

What’s thrown you off is the idiomatic verb construction “have got.” Both the Oxford English Dictionary and The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language say “have got” here means “have” (in the sense of own or possess). Oxford calls it a “specialized” usage while the Cambridge Grammar calls it an informal idiom.

So in the type of question you mention, “have got” and “have” are interchangeable. And whether it’s worded “Have you got a screwdriver?” or “Do you have a screwdriver?” the question has several grammatically correct replies, including (1) “Yes I have” and (2) “Yes I do.”

Both of those are elliptical replies, in which the verb is stranded at the end. They might be expanded as “Yes I have [or have got] a screwdriver” and “Yes I do have a screwdriver.”

So as you can see, the “do” in reply #2 is elliptical for “do have,” not “do got.” As the Cambridge Grammar explains, the “got” in the idiomatic “have got” cannot be stranded at the end of a sentence. This means that in an elliptical construction with a verb at the end, an auxiliary like “have” or “do” is used.

Keep in mind that “have you got” is an idiom to begin with, so it’s not unexpected that the common reply—“Yes I do,” or “No I don’t”—should be idiomatic too.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) says that in answer to a “have you got” question, the “do” reply is a familiar feature of both British and American English. Fowler’s, edited by Jeremy Butterfield, offers this analysis:

“Question: Have you got a spare room? Answer: Yes, we do. This apparently illogical use of do, replacing have as the auxiliary verb, arises because the question implicitly being answered is ‘Do you have a spare room?’ It is a common pattern in AmE and causes less surprise to British visitors than formerly, since it has also become a feature of BrE.”

In ordinary usage, rather than in the idiom, “have got” is the present perfect tense of the verb “get,” with “have” as the auxiliary (as in “I have got infected”). But in the idiom we’re discussing, the OED says, “have got” functions as the present-tense equivalent of “have.”

And “have” in the idiomatic “have got” is the main verb (not an auxiliary). So both grammatically and semantically, “I have got” = “I have.” In fact, the question  “Have you got a screwdriver?” could be rephrased more formally as “Have you a screwdriver?”

(We might add that many speakers find a sentence like “Have you a screwdriver?” to be excessively formal. Americans in particular seem to prefer questions phrased with “do” when there’s a direct object: “Do you have a screwdriver?”)

You might wonder why English speakers started using the idiomatic “have got” in the first place. After all, the simple “have” performed that function for hundreds of years, and still does.

As we said in a 2014 post, there are two theories about the likely origins of this usage, which dates back to Elizabethan times.

One is that the verb “have” began losing its sense of possession because of its increasing use as an auxiliary. Thus “got” was added as an informal prop.

The other theory is that “got” was originally inserted because of the tendency to use contracted forms of the verb “have.” So if a sentence like “I’ve a cat” felt unnatural or abrupt, one could use “I’ve got a cat” instead.

We should mention another familiar idiomatic use of “have got”—the one that means “must.” Here too, the “got” is not essential to the meaning. “I have got to leave” = “I have to leave” = “I must leave.”

And again, a “do” reply to this variety of “have got” question is perfectly acceptable: “Have you got to leave?” … “I do.”

The “have got” that indicates obligation or necessity is followed by a “to” infinitive, like “to leave.” (The other “have got” idiom, the one indicating possession, is followed by a direct object, like “a screwdriver.”) We wrote about this usage in 2010.

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