English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Writing

On jays and jaywalkers

Q: I assume the “jay” in “jaywalk” is derived from the bird so named, though I have never seen a jay cross a street, properly or otherwise. How did “jay” plus “walk” come to mean crossing a street unlawfully?

A: The “jay” of “jaywalk” can be traced to the common name of the Eurasian jay (Garrulus glandarius), but the word “jay” itself was originally a surname when it appeared in Middle English in the late 12th century.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the English surname, which ultimately comes from gaius, Late Latin for a jay, is “probably echoic of the bird’s harsh warning cry and supposedly influenced by Latin Gaius, a common Roman proper name.”

The English surname is spelled “iai” in the earliest example we’ve found: “Peter le iai.” From an 1195 entry in the Exchequer’s Pipe Rolls, or financial records, for Cambridgeshire;  cited in A Dictionary of English Surnames (3d ed., 1991), by P. H. Reaney and R. M. Wilson.

(The letter “j” didn’t become established in English until the 17th century, though it had been used earlier in place of “i” at the end of a numeral.)

In early 14th-century writing, the Middle English term was used for the Eurasian jay, a noisy and colorful bird common in Britain. The bird’s genus name (Garrulus) is Latin for garrulous; its species name (glandarius) refers to the acorns eaten or buried by the jay.

The OED’s earliest avian citation for “jay,” which we’ve expanded, is from the Harley Lyrics, a collection of religious and secular lyrics dated sometime before 1350. In this passage a jolly woman is compared to the garrulous jay:

“heo is dereworþe in day / graciouse stout ant gay / ientil iolyf so þe iay” (“She is precious in the day / gracious stately and gay / gentle jolly as the jay”).

Over the next few centuries, the use of the term “jay” widened to include many other noisy and colorful birds, such as the grey jay, green jay, Canada jay, blue jay, and so on.

Meanwhile, the OED says, figurative uses came along, and the term took on such senses as “an impertinent chatterer,” “a showy or flashy woman,” “a person absurdly dressed,” and “a stupid or silly person.”

The sense of stupid or silly, the dictionary adds, ultimately led to the use of “jay” in “jaywalker,” originally a rustic who didn’t know the proper way to cross a street. However, it took four centuries for that usage to arrive.

The first Oxford citation for “jay” used to mean a silly or stupid person is from A Goodly Garlande or Chapelet of Laurell (1523), a poem by John Skelton. In this excerpt, it refers to people who complain about things they can’t change:

“For the gyse [guise, or fashion] now adays / Of sum iangelyng iays [jangling, or babbling, jays] / Is to discommende / What they cannot amende.”

In the late 19th century, the noun “jay” came to mean “a stupid, gullible, or contemptible fellow; (also) a rustic; greenhorn” in the US, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, edited by Jonathan Lighter.

The first Random House citation is a pun on the name of the financier Jay Gould, who tried to corner the market in gold: “They said he was a Jay. If he was such a Jay how did he get all the Gould?” (From Stump Speaker, 1884, by Hughey Dougherty.)

In the early 20th century, the terms “jay driver” and “jay walker” appeared in reference to people who drove on the wrong side of a street or walked on the wrong side of a sidewalk, according to a standard dictionary, Merriam-Webster.

M-W cites examples from Midwestern newspapers for both usages. Here’s an example from an article, headlined “The Jay Driver,” in the Junction City (KS) Union, June 28, 1905:

“Stop at the corner of any well traveled street in the business part of the city and see how many know how to drive—that is to keep to the right hand side of the street—and you will be astonished at the number who don’t know that this is the right way to do or who are careless in regard to the matter.”

And here’s a pedestrian example from an article, entitled “Now the ‘Jay Walker,’ ” in the Kansas City (MO) Star, Oct. 20, 1905: “Much annoyance would be obviated if people when meeting others going in the opposite direction would keep to the right and avoid collisions and being called a ‘jay walker.’ ”

Merriam-Webster adds that it’s “unclear why jaywalker shifted its meaning and survived for more than a hundred years now, while jay-driver languishes in obscurity.”

The OED says “jaywalker” now means “a pedestrian who crosses a street without regard to traffic regulations.” The dictionary’s first citation for this sense, which we’ve expanded, is from the June 1917 issue of Harper’s Magazine:

“The Bostonian, supposedly sesquipedalian of speech, has reduced ‘a pedestrian who crosses streets in disregard of traffic signals’ to the compact jaywalker.”

However, we’ve found this earlier example for “jaywalking” used similarly in the Abilene (TX) Daily Reporter, July 13, 1914:

“Down in Ft. Worth the city authorities have been working on a new traffic law for some time and have at last concluded their labors and on next Saturday the new law will become effective. What is known as jaywalking, crossing streets anywhere, will be prohibited.”

As for the verb “jaywalk,” the earliest example we’ve seen for it used in the sense of crossing a street improperly is from the Dec. 25, 1913, issue of Motor World, a trade magazine:

“Efforts to regulate the pedestrian in Peoria, Ill.—one of the first efforts of the sort in this country—failed miserably. When last week the wise and solemn city fathers considered a new ordinance, which, among other things, provided that ‘any pedestrian crossing street intersections at other than right angles to the sidewalks’ would be declared violating the law, they promptly eliminated the provision. The Peoria pedestrian, therefore, is free to ‘jaywalk’ to his heart’s content.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

Every man and every woman

Q: When you use “every” multiple times in a sentence, do the subjects still take a singular verb? For example, “Every man and every woman is/are entitled to fair pay.” The singular seems right, but can you help me understand why?

A: You can use either a singular or a plural verb when “every” appears one or more times in a compound subject joined by “and,” but the singular usage is more common.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, “When every modifies two or more nouns joined by and, there is mixed usage, at least, in part, because of the rule that compound subjects joined by and are both grammatically and notionally plural.”

However, “every,” the usage guide adds, “tends to emphasize each noun separately,” and “our evidence shows that the singular verb is more common.”

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), edited by Jeremy Butterfield, agrees that when “every modifies two or more nouns joined by and, the verb should, technically, be plural, according to the notion that compound subjects conjoined by and are plural.”

But “the more common pattern is for the verb to be singular,” Fowler’s says. “The principle at work presumably is that the verb agrees in number with the last stated subject.”

An example from Fowler’s: “Every shot, every colour, every prop, and every costume tells its own story” (Oxford English Corpus, 2001).

We’ll add that a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares phrases in digitized books, indicates that the singular usage is much more common.

(Ngram Viewer doesn’t compare phrases longer than five words, so one “every” modifies two nouns in our searches: “every man and woman is” versus “every man and woman are.”)

As for the history of the usage, Merriam-Webster’s says “the possibility of nouns joined by and being considered individually and thus taking a singular verb has been recognized as early as Lowth 1762.”

We found this passage in A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762), by Robert Lowth: “But sometimes, after an enumeration of particulars thus connected, the Verb follows in the Singular Number; and is understood as applied to each of the preceding terms.”

The use of singular verbs with “every” compounds was well established long before Lowth’s grammar book. Here’s an example from the late 17th century:

“So every man and every woman is to seek God for themselves; for he hath promised to be found of them that seek, him in uprightness of heart” (Truth Held Forth and Maintained According to the Testimony of the Holy Prophets, Christ and His Apostles Recorded in the Holy Scriptures, 1695, by Thomas Mall).

And here’s a much earlier plural example from a treatise by an English Roman Catholic priest who became an anti-Catholic writer:

“By popish doctrine every man and every woman of lawfull yeeres, are bound vnder paine of damnation, to the said confession” (from Thomas Bels Motiues Concerning Romish Faith and Religion, 1593, by Thomas Bell).

We’ll end with recent examples of the singular and plural usages from the Irish novelist John Banville and the Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan:

“As Nietzsche said, every man and every woman is an artist when he or she sleeps—we make up worlds” (Banville, speaking at the Dalkey Book Festival, June 18, 2022).

“Every man and every woman are their own Rosebud, and the web can’t hide it” (O’Hagan, writing in The Guardian, June 17, 2017).

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

A double-edged sword

Q: How did the expression “double-edged sword” come to mean something that has both positive and negative results?

A: The expression ultimately comes from the use of “two-edged sword” in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin versions of the Bible to mean something very sharp, like a weapon or piercing words.

Here are a few examples we’ve found for “two-edged sword” in Hebrew (חרב פיפיות), Greek (μαχαιρας διστομου), and Latin (gladio ancipiti) from the Old and New Testaments:

• “רוממות אל בגרונם וחרב פיפיות בידם” (“Praise of God in their mouths and a two-edged sword in their hand”). From the 10th-century Aleppo Codex of the Hebrew Bible, Psalms 149:6 (thought to have originated around 1000 BCE).

• “υστερον μεντοι πικροτερον χολης ευρησεις και ηκονημενον μαλλον μαχαιρας διστομου” (“Later however you will find her [an immoral woman] more bitter than gall and sharper than a two-edged sword”). From the Septuagint, Proverbs 5:4, believed translated in the second century BCE.

• “vivus est enim Dei sermo et efficax et penetrabilior omni gladio ancipiti” (“for the word of God is living and powerful and more penetrating than any two-edged sword”). From the Vulgate, Epistle to the Hebrews 4:12, dating from the late fourth and early fifth centuries of the Common Era.

(The medieval Jewish scholar Rashi [1040-1105] interprets Psalm 149:6 figuratively in the first example above: “With paeans to God in their throats, and these same are like two-edged swords in their hands.” Rashi’s Commentary on the Psalms, 2004, translated by Mayer I. Gruber.)

Why is the expression “two-edged sword” used in the Bible to describe the word of God? Perhaps because the Hebrew noun for “edge” here, פה, can also mean “mouth,” among other things.

The plural of פה is פיות (“edges” or “mouths”) and the construct state, or genitive, is פיפיות (“of edges” or “of mouths”). So חרב פיפיות (“a sword of edges,” usually translated as “two-edged sword”) could also mean “a sword of mouths”—that is, a source of sharp words.

Similarly, when the phrase “two-edged sword” first appeared in English, it was used to describe the word of God. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from Hebrews 4:12 in William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the New Testament:

“For the worde of god is quycke and myghty in operacion and sharper then eny two edged swearde.”

As far as we can tell, the sense of “two-edged sword” as something with both good and bad consequences appeared a few decades later.

The earliest example we’ve found is from an English translation of a Latin sermon about the Apocalypse by the Swiss pastor, reformer, and theologian Heinrich Bullinger (1504-75):

“For a sharpe two edged sworde commeth out of the Lordes mouth. This swearde is the worde of God … And it is two edged, sharpe and pearsing, as well as in the heart of the Godly unto saluation, as well as in the heartes of the wycked to payne and condemnation.” (From A Hundred Sermons Vpo[n] the Apocalips of Iesu Christe, 1561, John Daus’s translation of Bullinger’s sermons.)

Getting back to “double-edged sword,” the usual wording now, the expression is used literally for an actual weapon in the earliest example we’ve found:

“And in their mouths let be the actes of God the mighty Lord / And in their hands let them beare a double edged sword” (Psalms 149:6, The Whole Books of Psalmes, 1581, by Thomas Sternhold, John Hopkins, and others).

The first example we’ve found with the phrase used figuratively in its good-bad sense is from a sermon that says the Gospel has both “the power of God to salvation” and “the power of God to confusion”:

“It is a double-edged Sword, and giues, vel vitamvel vinditam, either instruction, or destruction” (from A Divine Herball Together With a Forrest of Thornes in Five Sermons, 1616, by the English clergyman Thomas Adams).

As for the ultimate origin of the “good/bad” sense of “double-edged sword,” suggests that it “seems to be based on an idea that a sword with two edges poses a danger of bouncing back and cutting its own wielder.” However, we’ve seen no evidence to support this idea.

We’ve also seen no evidence that the English expression is ultimately derived from the Arabic term for a two-edged sword, سلاح ذو حدين, as suggested by the collaborative dictionary Wiktionary.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

Why ‘beggar’ isn’t spelled ‘begger’

Q: Is there any particular reason that “beggar” is spelled with an “-ar” suffix instead of an “-er” or an “-or”?

A: The word “beggar” used to be spelled with an “-er” suffix. That was the usual spelling for centuries after the word was first recorded in Middle English in the late 12th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary says, “the spelling in -ar has been occasional from 14th cent.,” but the “-er” suffix was still “the usual form in 15-17th cent., as an ordinary agent-noun.”

An agent noun, one denoting the performer of an action (like “painter” or “actor”), usually ends in “-er” or “-or,” but the suffix “-ar” may appear in words influenced by their Latin or French forms.

As the OED explains, English agent nouns with an “-ar” suffix generally “show a remodelling or replacement of an earlier form in -er from Old French -ier, either after Latin (compare e.g. bursar n.medlar n., or mortar n.1), or after a corresponding French form in –aire (compare e.g. vicar n. and vicary n.1).”

Interestingly, the earliest Oxford example for the usage doesn’t end in “-er,” “-ar,” or “-or.” In the citation, a beggares is a woman who begs:

“Hit is beggares rihte uorte beren bagge on bac” (“It is right [for the] beggaress to carry a bag on [her] back”). From Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women, written sometime before 1200.

The dictionary’s next example ends in an “-ere” suffix: “Þu wenest I beo a beggere” (“You think I am a beggar”). From King Horn, an anonymous Middle English romance written sometime before 1300.

And here’s an “-er” example from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “nedi and begger there shal not be among ȝow” (“there shall not be a needy man or a beggar among you”). Deuteronomy 15:4.

The earliest OED citation with the modern spelling “beggar” appeared in the late 14th century: “And now me bus [I must], as a beggar, my bred for to thigge [beg].” From an anonymous Middle English translation, dated sometime before 1400, of the Italian writer Guido delle Colonna’s Latin Historia Destructionis Troiae.

Despite that early appearance of “beggar,” the old form “begger” continued to be seen for hundreds of years.

Oxford has this biblical example, which we’ve expanded, from the King James Version of 1611: “And there was a certaine begger named Lazarus, which was layde at his gate full of sores” (Luke 16:20).

And here’s an expanded OED citation from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, believed written around the same time: “They will not giue a doit [a trivial sum] to relieue a lame Begger.” The reference is to an old Dutch copper coin, the duit.

Similar nouns ending in “-ar” today, besides “beggar,” “bursar,” and “vicar,” include “scholar,” “registrar,” “liar,” “burglar,” and “friar.”

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