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

Better half (the whole story)

Q: I’m curious about “better halves.” When did the term come to mean spouses?

A: When “better half” appeared in the mid-16th century, it meant “the larger portion of something” or “more than half,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED citation is from a religious treatise defending the Roman Catholic Church against criticism by the Church of England:

“it woulde well lacke the better halfe of jx. yeres [nine years].” From A Return of Untruths (1566), by the Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Stapleton, responding to a treatise by John Jewel, the Church of England’s Bishop of Salisbury.

The usual sense now, which the OED defines as “a person’s husband, wife, or (in later use) partner,” appeared in the late 16th century.

The first citation is from The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, a pastoral romance by Sir Philip Sidney, published posthumously in 1590, four years after the author’s death:

“My deare, my better halfe (said hee) I finde I must now leaue thee” (the dying Argalus is speaking here to his wife Parthenia).

The dictionary doesn’t have any citations for plural versions of “better half.” The earliest examples we’ve found in searches of digitized books are from the 18th century. Here are two of them:

  • “ ‘I am happy to acknowledge, that, though we have no gods to occupy a mansion professedly built for them, yet we have secured their better halves, for we have goddesses to whom we all most willingly bow down.’ ” From Evelina (1778), by the English novelist Fanny Burney. (Lord Orville is speaking to Captain Mirvan.)
  • “I trust the example of our better halfs will tempt the ladies all to emulate those virtues which have made us for ever renounce the follies of fashion, and devote our future lives to that only real comfort which heaven has bestowed on mortals—virtuous, mutual, wedded love.” From The Ton; or Follies of Fashion (1788), a comic play by the Scottish author Eglantine Wallace. (Lord Raymond is speaking to Lady Raymond.)

In case you’re wondering, both “better halfs” and “better halves” were common in the late 18th century, but “better halves” has been the usual plural for the last two centuries,  according to a comparison with Google’s Ngram Viewer.

The OED says the phrase “better half” has had two other senses, “a close and intimate friend” (1596) and “a person’s soul” (1629), but the first is now rare and the second obsolete.

We should add that in the spousal sense, “better half” is often used affectionately or in a semi-humorous way.

Finally, here are a few other alternatives for “husband” or “wife,” and the dates of their earliest OED citations: “spouse” (before 1200), “partner” (1577), “helpmate” (1815), and “ball and chain” (1921).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

‘Shot for a Jerry spy’

Q: In a novel I’m reading, a character in London during World War II says to himself, “Can’t fix anything if I get shot for a Jerry spy.” I recognise this use of “for” (being British myself), but it  seems an old-fashioned, RAF-blokes-with-mustaches construction. What can you tell us about it?

A: We don’t believe that use of “for” in The Coldest War, a 2012 novel by Ian Tregillis, is all that uncommon now in American or British English, though it’s usually seen in the phrases “taken for” and “mistaken for,” where the preposition “for” means “as” or “as being” or “to be.”

Here are a few recent examples from the news media in the US and the UK:

“Two deputies will be suspended and a Florida sheriff has apologized after a visually impaired man was arrested last month when his walking cane was mistaken for a gun” (NBC News, Nov. 9, 2022).

“Why I Keep Getting Mistaken for a Conservative” (headline of an article by the American culture writer and novelist Kat Rosenfield in National Review, Oct. 27, 2022).

“No one likes to feel like they’ve been taken for a fool, least of all financial markets” (The New Statesman, Oct. 12, 2022).

“As a humanist who writes about the impact of digital technology on our lives, I am often mistaken for a futurist” (The Guardian, Sept. 4, 2022).

And here’s a “shot for” example from Fredy Neptune, a 1999 novel in verse by the Australian poet Les Murray:
“But I was thinking more about being shot for a spy, if I protested or explained myself.” (The novel is about the adventures and misadventures of Fred Boettcher, an Australian of German parentage.)

The Oxford English Dictionary says “for” here means “in the character of,” “in the light of,” or “as equivalent to,” and adds that “as or as being may generally be substituted.” The preposition used in this sense first appeared in Old English and is similar to terms in Old Frisian and Old Saxon.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from the epic poem Beowulf, which may have been written as early as 725:

“Me men sægde Þæt þu ðe for sunu wolde hereri[n]c habban” (“Men say to me that you wish to have this hero for a son”). Wealhtheow, the Danish queen, is speaking to her husband, King Hrothgar, about Beowulf, who is sitting between the king’s two sons, Hrethric and Hrothmund, at a banquet.

And here’s an expanded OED example from the 18th century: “You’ll be hanged for a Pirate, and the particulars examined afterwards” (The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, 1719, by Daniel Defoe).

We’ll end with this arboreal OED example from The Silverado Squatters (1883), Robert Louis Stevenson’s memoir about his honeymoon with Fanny Vandegrift in Napa Valley, California:

“The oak is no baby; even the madrona, upon these spurs of Mount Saint Helena, comes to a fine bulk and ranks with forest trees—but the pines look down upon the rest for underwood.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Are you stumped?

Q: What is the origin of the term “stump” in the political sense? (X stumps for Candidate Y; Z gives a stump speech.)

A: The short answer is that the political sense of “stump” comes from using the base of a large felled tree as a platform for speaking.

For the long answer, we’ll have to go back a few hundred years, when the noun “stump” originally referred to the remaining part of a severed human limb, not that of a fallen tree.

The term is derived from similar words in other Germanic languages meaning mutilated, blunt, or dull. In Middle English, it originally meant “the part remaining of an amputated or broken-off limb or portion of the body,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from an Arthurian alliterative poem in which a knight’s arm, cut off in battle, is miraculously restored:

“Þan Ioseph … bad þat mon knele, þe arm helede a-ȝeyn hol to þe stompe” (“then Joseph … bade the man kneel; the arm healed again whole to the stump”). From Joseph of Arimathie (circa 1350), edited in 1871 by Walter William Skeat.

The dictionary notes the use of the term in the expression “fight to the stumps,” which it describes as “apparently an allusion” to a 17th-century English ballad:

“For when his leggs were smitten of, he fought vpon his stumpes.” From “The Ballad of Chevy Chase” (c. 1650), published in 1889 in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, edited by Francis J. Child.

In the 15th century, the OED says, the noun “stump” came to mean the “portion of the trunk of a felled tree that remains fixed in the ground; also, a standing tree-trunk from which the upper part and the branches have been cut or broken off.”

The dictionary’s first example is from Promptorium Parvulorum (c. 1440), an English-Latin dictionary: “Stumpe, of a tree hewyn don, surcus.” We’re unfamiliar with surcus, but we assume it’s a rare Latin term for “stump” and related to the diminutive surculus (“twig”).

Getting back to your question, the OED says the political sense of “stump” comes from the use of the term for the base of “a large felled tree used as a stand or platform for a speaker.”

The earliest citation is from a 1775 Tory song, printed as a broadside, that mocked George Washington’s July 3 arrival at the Cambridge common to take formal command of the Continental Army: “Upon a stump he placed himself Great Washington did he.”

The OED’s earliest citation for the phrase “stump speech” is from a Sept. 8, 1820, letter by a Scottish traveller in the US. Here’s an expanded version of the citation:

“The harangues are called stump-speeches, from the practice of candidates mounting the stumps of trees, and there addressing themselves to the people” (Letters From America, Containing Observations on the Climate and Agriculture of the Western States, 1822, by James Flint).

We were amused by this earlier example we found in the Georgia Historic Newspapers database:

“And I would urge him, should he again attempt stump speeches, to avoid addressing the people as ‘gentlemen of the jury’ ” (Georgia Journal, Milledgeville, Aug. 1, 1810).

By the early 18th century, the noun “stump” was being used loosely to mean “a place or an occasion of political oratory,” the dictionary says. The first example is from an 1816 debate in Congress:

“I [a Virginian member] think his [a South Carolinian’s] arguments are better calculated for what is called on this side of the river [the Potomac] stump, than for this Committee” (The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States, 1853).

The OED adds that the term was used in expressions like “to go on the stump” and “to take the stump,” in the sense of “to go about the country making political speeches, whether as a candidate or as the advocate of a cause.”

Here’s an example we’ve found from the mid-19th century that includes the expression “take to the stump” as well as the noun “stump” used attributively, or adjectivally:

“Why didn’t you ever take to the stump? You’d make a famous stump orator!” From Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), by Harriet Beecher Stowe. (Here Alfred St. Clare is speaking to his twin brother Augustine, the father of Eva and a brief owner of Tom.)

As for the verb “stump,” it meant to stumble over an obstacle when it showed up in The Owl and the Nightingale, an anonymous poem written in the late 12th or early 13th century:

“Ne beoþ heo nouht alle forlore þat stumpeþ at þe fleysses more” (“They [women] are not at all lost if they stump [stumble] over a root of the flesh [lust]”).

And at the beginning of 17th century, the OED says, the verb came to mean “to walk clumsily, heavily, or noisily, as if one had a wooden leg.” The first citation is from a satirical poem:

“Some [dames] in their pantophels [high-heeled slippers] too stately stompe” (Tom Tel-Troths Message, 1600, by John Lane).

In the 19th century, Oxford says, the verb took on the sense of “to make stump speeches” or “to travel over (a district) making stump speeches.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Peter Pilgrim, an 1838 novel by the American writer Robert Montgomery Bird: “I stumped through my district, and my fellow-citizens sent me to Congress!”

Over the years, the word “stump” has taken on various other senses as a noun or verb, including the “stump” of a pencil, eraser, etc. worn down by use (1516); one of the “stumps,” or upright sticks, that form a wicket in cricket (1730); to be “stumped” (baffled, 1807), and “up a stump” (puzzled, 1829).

[Note: This post was updated on June 2, 2023.]

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Language Linguistics Usage Word origin Writing

Whenever Harry met Sally

Q: It seems to be getting more and more common lately, particularly among younger English speakers, to use “whenever” in place of “when,” as in this example: “Whenever I got up this morning, it was still dark outside.” Is this a developing usage? Is it valid?

A: You could use “when” or “whenever” in that sentence, but the meaning would change. “When I got up this morning, it was still dark outside” indicates that you got up once and it was dark. “Whenever I got up this morning, it was still dark outside” suggests you got up more than once and it was dark each time.

In standard English, “when” here is a conjunction meaning “at the time that” something happens or “as soon as” something happens, while “whenever” is a conjunction meaning “every time that” something happens.

We should note that “whenever” is also used as an adverb meaning “at whatever time” (as in “At about 6, or whenever I got up this morning, it was still dark outside”).

But in various English dialects, “whenever” is often used as a conjunction in the sense of plain old “when.” As the Dictionary of American Regional English explains, in parts of the US (the South, South Midland, and western Pennsylvania) as well as in Scotland and Ireland, “whenever” is used dialectally “in contexts where when would be expected.”

Used in reference to “a single punctual event,” the dictionary says, this dialectal “whenever” means “at the same time that” or “as soon as” the event occurred.

DARE’s earliest American example for the regional “whenever” cites the “as soon as” usage: “The Pennsylvanians use the word whenever to signify ‘as soon as.’ Thus it will be said that, ‘whenever the carriage came, the lady got in’ ” (“The Dialects of Our Country,” by the Rev. N. C. Burt, Appletons’ Journal, November 1878).

The dictionary’s next example is from Virginia: “Whenever … As soon as; ‘He will go whenever he gets ready’ ” (Word Book of Virginia Folk-Speech, 1912, by Bennett Wood Green).

And here’s a citation from the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee: “Whenever … When. ‘What did they do with you whenever you killed that man some two or three years ago?’ ” (a 1939 field report in the Joseph Sargent Hall Collection in the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University).

The linguists Michael B. Montgomery and John M. Kirk use the term “punctual whenever” in referring to “the subordinating conjunction whenever, especially when used for a onetime, momentary event.”

In a paper, “ ‘My Mother, Whenever She Passed Away, She Had Pneumonia’: The History and Functions of Whenever,” the linguists cite “eighteenth-century Ulster migrants mainly of Scottish heritage as the most likely trans-Atlantic source” of the usage in America (Journal of English Linguistics, September 2001).

Montgomery (University of South Carolina) and Kirk (Queen’s University, Belfast) add that “the available evidence indicates remarkably little difference in how whenever is used today in Ulster English and Appalachian English, two historically related varieties.”

The sentence used in the paper’s title is from a speaker in Tennessee; it was reported at the Mid-America Linguistics Conference at the University of Oklahoma in 1978.

Interestingly, the usage was first recorded in England, not Scotland or Northern Ireland. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an English translation, published in London in the mid-17th century, of a French satirical novel:

“He gave me a good supper last night when ever I came within his doors” (The Comical History of Francion, 1655, an anonymous translation of Charles Sorel’s  L’Histoire Comique de Francion, 1623).

The next OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a list of Scotticisms: “We will go to our dinner whenever the clock strikes two, when translated into English, means, We shall go to dinner when the clock strikes two” (from a letter to The Monthly Magazine; or British Register, London, May 1, 1800).

As you can see, the use of “whenever” in the sense of “when” has been around for hundreds of years. We’ve seen no evidence that it’s more common now than in the past, but it’s possible that the regional usage may be heard more widely because of modern travel and communications.

[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 5, 2023.]

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

What’s up, man?

Q: We’ve read that the use of “man” by dudes referring to each other comes from the Jazz Era, when Black musicians called each other “man” as a reaction to the belittling “boy.” However, we’re thinking that “hey, man” and such must come from way  before the 20th century.

A: You’re right in thinking that this use of “man” to address someone appeared in English long before the Jazz Age of the 1920s and ’30s. In fact, the usage dates back to Anglo-Saxon days, though its sense has evolved over the years.

When the usage first appeared in Old English, it was “used to address a person (usually a man, but sometimes a woman or child) emphatically to indicate contempt, impatience, exhortation, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from the “Vercelli Homilies,” 23 prose homilies in the Vercelli Book, an anthology of prose and poetry probably collected in the late 10th century but originating earlier:

“cwæð sanctus ysodorus, geþence nu ðu, man, & ongyt gif ðu sylf þe nelt alysan þa hwile þe ðu miht” (“Saint Isidore said, ‘Now think, man, and consider if you don’t want to release yourself [from a sinful life] while you can”).

Although that original contemptuous, impatient, or exhorting sense of “man” is still around (“Hurry up, man,” “Knock it off, man,” and so on), the OED describes it as “somewhat archaic.”

In the 16th century, the dictionary says, “man” took on the sense you’re asking about: “Used to address a person (in many varieties of English, irrespective of sex) parenthetically without emphasis to indicate familiarity, amicability, or equality between the speaker and the person addressed.”

In the first Oxford example, a countrywoman uses the term in speaking of her lover: “ ‘Fow wo’, quod scho, ‘Quhair will ȝe, man?’ ” (“ ‘Oh, woe,’ quoth she, ‘Where will ye, man?’ ”). From “In Secreit Place,” a poem written in the early 1500s by the Scottish author William Dunbar.

In the next OED citation, a Puritan critic of the Anglican hierarchy uses the term to address Thomas Cooper, Bishop of Winchester, a defender of the hierarchy, during a war of pamphlets known as the Marprelate Controversy:

“Heere be non but frends man.” From “Hay Any Work for Cooper” (1588), by Martin Marprelate, the anonymous author or authors of seven tracts satirizing Anglican leaders. (The title of this tract, a pun on Bishop Cooper’s name, is an old London street cry by coopers, craftsmen who repair wooden casks made of staves and hoops.)

And here’s an example we found in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, believed written in the early to mid-1590s: “Why, man, what is the matter?”

In the early 19th century, the OED says, English speakers began using “man” as a colloquial interjection “to express surprise, delight, disbelief, amazement, etc. (freq. in oh man!), or to give force to the statement which it introduces. man alive!

The first OED citation for this use is from the New England writer John Neal’s 1823 novel Errata: “Man!—Man!—I had a heart like a well—into it, every living creature might have dipped.”

The dictionary notes that the use of “man” to address someone with familiarity was also heard, “esp. in 20th cent., in Caribbean English and among African Americans.” It adds that the use of “man” as an interjection was once heard “chiefly among African Americans and [in] South African [English].”

In the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Jonathan E. Lighter says the contemporary use of “man” to address someone is perceived as US slang because of its “association with the speech of jazz and swing musicians” and later “rock and roll enthusiasts,” but it’s a “semantically weakened offshoot” of the original Anglo-Saxon usage.

Clarence Major, editor of Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang (1994), includes a related sense: the use of “man” by African-Americans as “a form of address carrying respect and authority” and used by “black males to counteract the degrading effects of being addressed by whites as ‘boy.’ ”

In A Jazz Lexicon (1964), Robert S. Gold includes the same sense of “man,” describing it as “current esp. among Negro jazzmen since c. 1920, among white jazzmen as well since c. 1940.”

The earliest example Gold cites is from the August 1933 issue of the music magazine Metronome: “Trum’s greeting was in the Negro dialect he usually employed: ‘Man! How is you?’ ” (“Trum” is apparently the saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, who was of white and Cherokee ancestry.)

And that’s the story, man.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.