English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

‘Which, yeah. Whatever.’

Q: Have you noticed that “which” is now being used as a conjunction, as in “The Fed raised interest rates again, which I’m not sure if it’s a good idea”? And no, I don’t mean “which I’m not sure is a good idea,” a usage you referred to in a recent post.

A: The use of “which” as a conjunction has been around a lot longer than you think, but only one of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult has an entry for it.

Merriam-Webster says the conjunction is “an introductory particle” used “before a word or phrase that is a reaction to or commentary on the previous clause.” The usage is labeled “informal” (used in speech and casual writing, though not nonstandard).

M-W has an example similar to yours: “This morning we have the monthly jobs report, which who knows if it will meet or beat expectations.”

In that example, “which” precedes a clause. In M-W’s other two examples, it precedes a word or a phrase that stands in for a clause:

“I have a very big reputation in Vancouver for being a sore loser, which, fair enough.”

“The remains had initially been misidentified as those of an ‘enormous, possibly human-eating eagle,’ which … yikes.”

The dictionary says the first known use of “which” in this sense dates back to 1723. It doesn’t cite a source, but M-W may be referring to “Mary the Cook-Maid’s Letter to Dr. Sheridan,” a 1723 poem by Jonathan Swift. Here’s an excerpt:

And now, whereby I find you would fain make an excuse.
Because my master one day, in anger, call’d you goose:
Which, and I am sure I have been his servant four years since October,
And he never call’d me worse than sweetheart, drunk or sober.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological reference, says this “which” is “used in anacoluthic [syntactically inconsistent] sentences as a connective or introductory particle with no antecedent.”

The OED describes the usage as “chiefly English regional, U.S. regional, and nonstandard.” As for us, we’d consider the usage nonstandard until a few other standard dictionaries join M-W and accept it as informal.

Oxford dates this iffy usage from the early 15th century, much earlier than Merriam-Webster’s first dating of “which” used as a conjunction.

The first OED citation is from The History of the Holy Grail (circa 1410), by the English poet Henry Lovelich. In this passage, the blind Mordreins asks Josephes to advise him where to retire:

“I wolde that ȝe wolden Conseillen Me Where I myht ben In place preve, Awey from this peple here that scholen ben trowbled In diuers Manere, whiche that were gret Noysaunce to Me Amonges hem thanne forto be.”

(“I would that ye would counsel me where I might be in a place of privacy, away from these people here that shall be troubled in diverse manner, which that were a great annoyance to me among them for to be.”)

The most recent Oxford citation is from The Ground Beneath Her Feet, a 1999 novel by Salman Rushdie:

“If this is your wish Mr. Standish which I’m offering no opinion then so be it, it’s your call. You change your mind you come and see me.”

In a related entry, the OED discusses a similar, more recent colloquial use of “which” to introduce “a comment, exclamation, etc., in response or reaction to a preceding statement.”

The Oxford citations for this usage resemble some of the M-W examples mentioned earlier.

The earliest OED citation  is from an Aug. 23, 2004, entry on The Food Whore, a now-defunct website: “He wasn’t happy with me. Which, yeah. Whatever.”

The most recent example is a July 31, 2021, comment on Twitter:  “People always talk about how attractive Charlotte is (which, fair point) but Nancy … sigh.”

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

Was ‘it don’t’ once good English?

Q: I just finished Little Women, where the use of “don’t” for “does not” is the rule, even in the mouths of educated people. Any comment?

A: In the original text of Little Women, which Louisa May Alcott published in two parts (1868 and 1869), “does not” is contracted as “don’t” as well as “doesn’t,” but “don’t” is used more often, as in this comment from Jo to Mrs. March: “It was an abominable thing, and she don’t deserve to be forgiven.”

As it turns out, “don’t” was the usual contraction of “does not” for more than two centuries, but Little Women was written when the usage was shifting, and many a “don’t” was changed to “doesn’t” in later editions.

As Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary explains in a usage note, “Don’t is the earliest attested contraction of does not and until about 1900 was the standard spoken form in the U.S. (it survived as spoken standard longer in British English).”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage adds that the use of “don’t” for “does not” had “unimpeachable status” from the 17th century through the 19th.

However, we should point out that some prominent 19th-century writers were hesitant to use “don’t” as an all-purpose contraction, as we’ll show later.

The M-W usage guide’s earliest written example of “don’t” used as a contraction of “does not” is from Man of Mode, or, Sir Fopling Flutter (1676), a Restoration comedy by George Etherege:

Old Bellair: No matter for that; go, bid her dance no more, it don’t become her, it don’t become her. Tell her I say so.”

But we’ve found several earlier appearances, including this one from a sermon by William Bridge, an independent minister in England:

“If there be a stamp set upon silver, or gold, the mettal remains as it was before: But if a stamp be set upon brasse, it don’t make it silver” (The Works  of William Bridge, Sometime Fellow of Emanuel Colledge in Cambridge; Now Preacher of the Word of God at Yarmouth, 1649).

We’ve seen quite a few examples from the 18th and 19th centuries in which respected writers use “don’t” as a contraction of “does not,” including these:

“I hope so too, but if it don’t, it must be the Lords doing, and it will be marvellous in our Eyes” (A Dialogue Between a Dissenter and the Observator, 1703, by Daniel Defoe).

“Well then, said the Gentleman, I can’t answer for her Negligence, if she don’t; but she will send a Letter to you, Mrs. Jervis” (Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded, 1740, by Samuel Richardson).

“But never mind;—‘God save the king!’ and kings! / For if he don’t, I doubt if men will longer—” (Don Juan, Canto VIII, 1823, by Lord Byron).

“ ‘You needn’t be afraid of him, Jack.’ And the Colonel gave a look, as much as to say, ‘Indeed, he don’t look as if I need’ ” (The History of Henry Esmond, 1852, by William Makepeace Thackeray).

“I like to hear you speak well of your commanding officer; I daresay he don’t deserve it, but still it does you credit” (W. S. Gilbert’s libretto of HMS Pinafore, 1878).

However, some writers were apparently hesitant to use “don’t” as a contraction of “do not.” In Pride and Prejudice, for example, Jane Austen occasionally contracts “do not” as “don’t” in dialogue, but never contracts “does not.”

As for “doesn’t,” M-W Usage says the contraction first appeared in print in the early 19th century, and cites this example from The Fudge Family in Paris (1818), a verse satire by Thomas Moore:

“ ‘This must be the music,’ said he, ‘of the spears, / For I’m curst if each note of it doesn’t run thro’ one!’ ” (The passage refers to the piercing notes of opera music.)

We’ve found several earlier examples, though, including this one from The Dramatic History of Master Edward (1743), by George Alexander Stevens: “Yes; but who reads them for you? your landlord, doesn’t he?”

Although Merriam-Webster online says “don’t” was the standard spoken contraction of “does not” until the 20th century, some well-known 19th-century writers did indeed use “doesn’t” in dialogue. Here are a few examples:

“If you don’t rejoice at it, if it doesn’t make you happy, if you don’t encourage me, I shall break my heart” (Barchester Towers, 1857, by Anthony Trollope).

“ ‘Mr. Dick is a sort of distant connexion of mine—it doesn’t matter how; I needn’t enter into that” (David Copperfield, 1850, by Charles Dickens).

“It doesn’t affect the fate of the nation, so don’t wail, Beth,” Jo says about selling her hair for $25 (Little Women, First Part, 1868).

In the second half of the 19th century, some language writers, especially in the US, began attacking the use of “don’t” as a contraction of “does not” and favoring “doesn’t” instead, according to the linguist Karl W. Dykema.

Dykema cites many of these criticisms in his paper “An Example of Prescriptive Linguistic Change: ‘Don’t’ to ‘Doesn’t’ ” (The English Journal, September 1947). Here are a few:

“I am piteously entreated, by more than one correspondent, to say that ‘he don’t’ is bad English, and therefore I say it. But ‘he don’t’ for ‘he doesn’t’ is, I suspect, an example rather of phonetic degradation than of ignorance or defiance of grammar” (Everyday English, 1880, by Richard Grant White).

Don’t. Everybody knows that don’t is a contraction of do not, and that doesn’t is a contraction of does not; and yet nearly everybody is guilty of using don’t when he should use doesn’t” (The Verbalist, 1881, by Alfred Ayers).

Don’t for doesn’t, or does not. Even so scholarly a divine as the Rev. Dr. Bellows, of New York, employs the vulgarism four times in an article in the ‘Independent’ ” (Words: Their Use and Abuse, 1892, by William Mathews).

Dykema blames prescriptivist American grammarians of the late 19th century for the loss of “don’t” as an all-purpose negative contraction:

“The moral, I hope, is clear: We have through enormous effort accomplished something utterly useless. We have cast out from the standard language a construction which fulfilled the primary function of language—communication—with efficiency and propriety.”

Finally, why did “don’t” become a contraction for “does not” in the first place? The story begins in the 17th century, at a time when all forms of the verb “do” were unsettled, to say the least.

For one thing, “does” and “doth”—both spelled in a variety of ways—were competing for prominence, as M-W Usage points out.

For another, some writers used the bare (or uninflected) “do” as the third person singular. The usage guide cites Samuel Pepys, writing in 1664: “the Duke of York do give himself up to business,” and “it seems he [the king] do not.”

M-W suggests that the use of the uninflected “do” for “does,” as in the Pepys citations, may have influenced the use of “don’t” as a contracted “does not.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

When usage goes out the window*

Q: How did “defenestrate,” a word for throwing someone out the window, become a word for forcing someone out of a job?

A: Most of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult define “defenestrate” literally as to throw someone out a window and figuratively as to remove someone from a position of authority.

The figurative use of a word for throwing someone out a window isn’t all that surprising. We throw people under the bus and to the wolves, we throw our hats in the ring, throw good money after bad, and throw monkey wrenches into the machinery.

The literal usage, which comes from fenestra, Latin for “window,” first appeared in the early 17th century as a noun, “defenestration,” and an adjective, “defenestrated,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

As the OED explains, the usage can be traced to “an incident in which, on the 23rd of May 1618, a group of Protestant Bohemian protestors threw two Catholic imperial officials and their secretary out of a window in Prague Castle, thus helping to precipitate the Thirty Years’ War.”

As it turned out, the two imperial regents, Jaroslav Martinic and Vilém Slavata, as well as their secretary, Philip Fabricius, survived. Martinic later said they fell 30 cubits (45 feet) into a dry moat.

The OED’s earliest citation for “defenestration” was recorded the following year. The noun appears in notes recorded at a meeting in London on Sept. 10, 1619, at which officials discussed a letter about the Prague incident that had been written to King James I of England on June 16, 1618:

“the Bohemians wrote a letter unto his Matie wherein they gave him an accompte [account] … of the defenestration of the Counsailours” (from Letters and Other Documents Illustrating the Relations Between England and Germany, 1868, by Samuel R. Gardiner).

The first OED citation for the adjective “defenestrated” is from a letter written about the incident by Sir Henry Wotton on Nov. 22, 1620, referring to “two of the defenestrated men” (The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, 1907, by L. P. Smith).

However, we’ve found a slightly earlier example in a margin note on a Nov. 18, 1620, letter Wotton wrote on the same subject: “Both defenestrated at Prague, and their messenger, a kind of notary, likewise banished.”

When the verb showed up in the early 20th century in an article about Bohemia, it apparently referred to the incident in Prague and other defenestrations:

“You may still see the windows through which were thrown town councillors and others, ‘defenestrated’ with truly Slav impartiality” (“Bohemia—a New Country for the Artist,” by Val C. Princep, The Magazine of Art, January 1904).

The OED says the verb soon took on a colloquial sense: “to dismiss, discard, or dispose of (a person or thing); esp. to remove (a person) from a position of power or authority.”

The first example for this figurative usage comes from a medical journal and refers to spurning vaccination: “This does not mean the whole theory of vaccines must be defenestrated” (Medicine and Surgery, December 1917).

In the next citation, a group of Italian workers oust their bosses: “They defenestrate the manager, expropriate the owners, and go on producing the goods just the same” (The Freeman, April 14, 1920).

And we found this more recent example about British politics: “The defenestration of Boris Johnson had little to do with morality. At its core, it was about revenge” (National Review, July 13, 2022).

Although the usage is generally figurative these days, it’s still sometimes used literally, as in this headline: “Putin Critic Tycoon Pavel Antov Defenestrated in New Delhi” (Jewish Press, Dec. 27, 2022). Antov died after a suspicious fall from a third-floor window of a luxury hotel.

A final note: One of the dictionaries we consult, Collins, includes this definition of “defenestrate” in computing: “to stop using the Windows operating system.”

* We borrowed the title of this post from a Feb. 11, 2019, headline by our friend Merrill Perlman in her Language Corner column in the Columbia Journalism Review

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

A riot in the garden

Q: I asked ChatGPT to create a Midjourney prompt for an image with many flowers. The prompt, or text phrase, asked for “a riot of flowers.” When did a “riot” come to mean many things as well as a violent disturbance?

A: The noun “riot” has meant an extraordinary profusion, often of brilliant colors, for more than three centuries.

That sense of the term, first recorded in the early 18th century, refers to “an impressively large or varied display of something, esp. a vivid display of colour,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s first citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a treatise on art that discusses the story of Hercules at the crossroads as a possible subject for a painting:

“Such a Confusion, Oppugnancy [conflict], and Riot of Colours, as wou’d to any judicious Eye appear absolutely intolerable” (from A Notion of the Historical Draught or Tablature of the Judgment of Hercules, 1713, by Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury).

The next OED citation, also expanded, is from an essay that compares the “ghost-like” white (or opium) poppy to the “fuller-blooded” red poppy:

“A riot of scarlet on gold, the red poppy of our native fields tosses heavy tresses with gipsy abandon” (from “White Poppy,” in Pagan Papers, 1894, an essay collection by Kenneth Grahame).

When “riot’ first appeared in early Middle English in the 12th century, it meant “waywardness” or “contrariness,” a sense that’s now obsolete or rare, the OED says.

The first Oxford example is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women, written sometime before 1200. This passage describes someone who’s guilty of the sin of contumacy, or stubborness:

“fet hwa se is anewil i þing þet ha haueð undernume to donne, beo hit god, beo hit uuel, þet na wisure read ne mei bringen hire ut of hire riote” (“she is so obstinate at whatever thing she has undertaken to do—be it good, be it evil—that no wiser counsel can bring her out of her riot [waywardness].”

In the early 14th century, the OED says, “riot” came to mean “an instance or course of riotous living; esp. an act of noisy, wanton revelry; a riotous or unruly feast or revel.”

The first Oxford example is from The Seven Sages of Rome (circa 1330), a Middle English collection of stories concerning Florentin, son of the Roman Emperor Diocletian:

“He scholde nowt in Rome bilaue, For Burgeis, maiden, oþer knaue Miȝte him in som riot sette Þat al his lore he scholde lette” (“He should not stay in Rome because a burgher, maiden or other knave might lead him into some riot that should make him forsake all his learning”).

In the early 15th century, according to OED citations, “riot” took on its usual modern sense of “a violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd; an outbreak of violent civil disorder or lawlessness.”

The first Oxford example for this use of “riot,” which we’ve expanded, is from a 1433 entry in the Rolls of Parliament during the reign of King Henry VI:

“in eschuyng of Riotes, Excesses, mysgovernances and disobeissances ayenst the Kynges astate.” (Two earlier Oxford examples for this usage have a somewhat different meaning.)

Oxford explains that the sense of “riot” as an impressive display was “originally an extended use” of the riotous living usage, but it’s “now often interpreted in the light of” the violent disturbance sense.

In other words, an expression like “a riot of colors” now suggests the wildness of both—riotous living as well as riotous violence.

Finally, here’s a recent example of the usage from a headline in Sky & Telescope magazine about the James Webb Space Telescope (Nov. 18, 2022):


And this is the image:

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