English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Why a ‘beef’ is a complaint 

Q: How did the word “beef” come to mean a complaint?

A: The use of “beef” in the sense of a complaint or a grievance first appeared in American English as a verb in the late 19th century and as a noun at the beginning of the 20th century.

However, the source of the usage dates back to the early 18th century when to cry “beef” in British criminal slang meant to raise an alarm, with “beef” used as rhyming slang for “thief.”

The British lexicographer Jonathon Green, author of the three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang, traces the usage back to an anonymous 18th-century British dictionary of underworld slang:

“BEEF, to alarm, as To cry Beef upon us; they have discover’d us, and are in Pursuit of us” (A New Canting Dictionary, 1725). The term “cant” refers to the slang used by London’s criminals to conceal illicit activities.

In the early 19th century, “beef” came to be a short, rhyming way of saying “stop thief,” as in this example cited in Green’s:

“BEEF: stop thief! to beef a person, is to raise a hue and cry after him, in order to get him stopped” (A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language, 1812, by James Hardy Vaux).

Two decades later, the expressions “stop thief” and “hot beef” were apparently confused by a police officer in this Green’s citation about the arrest of a street urchin in London:

“The policeman would not swear that the boy did not cry ‘Hot beef’ and that he might not have mistaken it for a cry of ‘Stop thief’ ” (The Morning Post, Oct. 4, 1832).

The policeman arrested the boy for shouting “stop thief” as a joke. However, the boy was released by a magistrate after testifying that he had been selling roast beef on the street and shouted “hot beef” to attract customers.

Reports of the incident in several newspapers led to the use of “hot beef” as rhyming slang for “stop thief”—on the street as well as at the theater. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example is theatrical:

“There is a regular run over the stage crying ‘Hot beef! hot beef!’ (instead of ‘Stop thief!’).” From London Labour and the London Poor (1861), by Henry Mayhew.

The slang use of “beef” and “hot beef” for “stop thief” apparently paved the way for the usage you ask about—“beef” in the sense of a complaint or a grievance.

The earliest OED citation for “beef” as a verb meaning to complain is from The (New York) World, May 13, 1888: “He’ll beef an’ kick like a steer an’ let on he won’t never wear ’em.”

The first OED example for the noun is from Fables in Slang (1900) by the American humorist George Ade: “He made a Horrible Beef because he couldn’t get Loaf Sugar for his Coffee.”

The OED says Middle English borrowed the word “beef” from the Old French boef. The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from Kyng Alisaunder, a medieval romance about the life of Alexander the Great:

“To mete was greithed beef and motoun, / Bredes, briddes, and venysoun” (“To feed [them] were prepared beef and mutton, roast meats, birds, and venison”).

By the way, we published a post in 2007 on how English originally got many of its meat terms. Here’s an excerpt:

Many of our words for barnyard animals are of Anglo-Saxon origin: “calf,” “cow,” “ox,” “pig,” “hog,” “swine,” and “sheep.” But many of the words for the meat that comes from those animals are of French Norman origin: “veal,” “beef,” “pork,” and “mutton.”

No big surprise here, of course, since Anglo-Saxon peasants raised farm animals for the Norman aristocracy that ruled them. In Ivanhoe, set in the 12th century, Sir Walter Scott’s Saxons see livestock in light of farming and husbandry while his Normans see it as something to go on a platter.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

How ‘chintz’ became ‘chintzy’

Q: I assume “chintzy” (gaudy, cheap, trashy) is derived from “chintz” (the multicolored cotton fabric). But chintz isn’t necessarily gaudy, cheap, or trashy. How did “chintzy” get its negative sense?

A: You’re right that the adjective “chintzy” comes from the name of the usually glazed printed cotton fabric known as “chintz,” which isn’t particularly inexpensive or garish.

The adjective got its negative sense in the mid-19th century when British textile factories were making cheap imitations of the original handmade chintz from India.

English borrowed the noun “chintz” in the early 17th century from Hindi, where छींट (chint) referred to the fabric. The Indian term comes from चित्र (chitra), Sanskrit for bright, spotted or variegated.

The earliest English example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a list of trade goods in a collection of stories by sailors about their travels:

“Callicoes white and coloured” and “Pintados [floral cottons], Chints and Chadors.” From Purchas His Pilgrimage (1614), stories collected by the Anglican clergyman Samuel Purchas.

(Interestingly, the mention of “Cublai Can” and his palace at “Xamdu” in a 1625 edition of Purchas His Pilgrimage inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan,” according to the website of the British Library.)

The next OED citation for “chintz” is from an entry for Sept. 5, 1663, in The Diary of Samuel Pepys: “Bought my wife a Chinke; that is, a paynted Indian Callico for to line her new Study.”

The first Oxford example with the modern “chintz” spelling appeared about a century later: “Japan wares, calicoes, chintz, muslins, silks” (from The History of America, 1783, by the Scottish historian William Robertson).

The adjective “chintzy” began appearing in the 19th century, according to the dictionary’s citations.

The OED defines it as “decorated or covered with chintz; suggestive of a pattern in chintz.” And in extended use, the dictionary says, it means “suburban, unfashionable, petit-bourgeois, cheap; mean, stingy.”

The earliest Oxford citation for “chintzy” is from a Sept. 18, 1851, letter by George Eliot, pen name of Mary Ann Evans, to her half-sister Fanny Evans Houghton.

In this expanded version of the citation, Eliot is apparently using “chintzy” in the extended sense of unfashionable when she asks Fanny to choose a fabric for her:

“I should like a muslin with a more prevailing hue. The quality of the spotted one is the best, but the effect is chintzy and would be unbecoming. The one with the reddish flowers would have a better effect but the quality is not so good. I am sure you can judge what I want. If among the new ones, Bailey has a muslin with flounces, having a certain tone of colour not yellow or pink—in fact such an one as I know you would like—pray choose. I want poor old Mrs. West to make it while I am here, so I shall be glad to have it soon. Do not be anxious about it as it can be exchanged if unsuitable.”

So how did “chintzy,” an adjective derived from “chintz,” a luxurious hand-painted or hand-printed fabric from India, get this negative sense?

Sarah Fee, editor of Cloth That Changed the World: The Art and Fashion of Indian Chintz (2020), says “chintzy” appeared at a time when “Britain’s factories had flooded world markets with cheap imitations of chintz.”

Fee, a senior curator of fashion and textiles at the Royal Ontario Museum, says the industrial imitations made the fabric “widely available to the masses, disassociating any original connotation of luxury.”

She made her comments on websites of the BBC and ROM. Here’s  an image from the BBC page of a palampore (a wall or bed hanging) made in southeast India for the Western market, around 1720-1740:

Finally, we should mention that “cheetah,” the name of the large, spotted cat, comes from चीता (chita), Hindi for the cat, and चित्र (chitra), Sanskrit for bright, spotted or variegated.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

Is this ‘which’ dead?

Q: I’m curious about this use of “which” in a US Supreme Court opinion from April 30, 1934: “Upon the submission of the cause the appellant made a motion to amend its assignments of error, which motion is now granted.”  I assume “which” is used here to avoid ambiguity. Why isn’t it used that way now?

A: Yes, the relative adjective “which” is being used in that opinion (Dayton Power & Light Co. v. Public Utilities Commission of Ohio) to avoid ambiguity. Although the usage isn’t seen much these days, it does show up at times.

This more recent example is from an April 7, 2020, resolution by the Louisville, CO, City Council on holding electronic hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic under rules set by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment:

“Whereas, also on March 25, 2020, the CDPHE issued an Amended Public Health Order 20-24 Implementing Stay at Home Requirements, which Order has since been updated twice.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says “which” here is a “relative adjective, introducing a clause and modifying a noun referring to (and esp.) summing up the details of the antecedent in the preceding clause or sentence.”

The usage dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, when “which” (spelled huælchuelchwilc, etc.) was originally part of a prepositional phase that modified a noun.

The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a forged writ composed in the 12th century that purports to be King Edward the Confessor’s recognition of gifts by Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and Lady Godgifu (Godiva) to build a monastery in Coventry in the 11th century:

“For uræ Drihten on larspelle þuss cweþ, Gestrynaþ eow sylfum mid ælmesdædum madme hord on heofonan and wunnunge mid ænglum. For hwilcæ neodlicum þingan icc cyþe eow eallum þæt icc ann mid fulre unne þæt þa ilce gyfe þæt Leofric eorl 7 Godgyfu habbað gegiuen Criste.”

(“For our Lord says in the Gospel, ‘Enrich yourselves with almsgiving, gain a treasure in heaven and a home with the angels.’ For which matter, it is necessary that I make known to you all that I confirm with full consent the gift that Earl Leofric and Godiva have given to Christ in the same way.”)

The OED’s first citation for “which” used similarly by itself, as in your example, is from Confessio Amantis (The Lover’s Confession, circa 1390), a Middle English poem by John Gower. Here’s an expanded version:

“So sit it wel to taken hiede / And forto loke on every side, / Er that thou falle in homicide, / Which Senne is now so general, / That it welnyh stant overal, / In holi cherche and elles where.”

(“So it is well to take heed / And to look on every side, / Ere that you descend to homicide, / Which sin is now so general, / That it well nigh stands over all, / In holy church and elsewhere.”)

We don’t know why this usage is seen less often now, but English speakers have other ways to clarify a sentence like the one you cite.

Here, for example, is a somewhat less lawyerly phrasing of that Supreme Court opinion: “The motion of the appellant to amend its assignments of error is now granted.”

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On ‘cul de sac’ and ‘dead end’

Q: I’m curious if/when “dead end” replaced “cul de sac” as a street with an entrance but no outlet. Is this traditionally an American usage?

A: No, “dead end” is not an Americanized version of “cul-de-sac.” In the US as well as the UK, either term can refer to a street that’s closed at one end.

When the two expressions first appeared in English, “dead end” was a plumbing term for the closed end of a pipe, while “cul-de-sac” was an anatomical term for a pouch branching off a hollow organ like an intestine. Each term later developed the sense of a street with no outlet.

English borrowed the oldest of the two terms, “cul de sac,” from French, where it meant “bottom of a sack” literally and “street without exit” figuratively.

The English usage first appeared in an 18th-century medical treatise, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In this passage, it describes an abnormal pouch, or diverticulum, near where the colon joins the abdominal wall:

“An Infundibuliform [funnel-shaped] Cul de Sac or Thimble-like cavity” (from “Miscellaneous Remarks on the Intestines,” by Alexander Monro, in Medical Essays and Observations, 1738).

In the early 19th century, the term took on the sense of “a street, lane, or passage closed at one end, a blind alley; a place having no outlet except by the entrance,” the OED says.

However, the earliest OED example uses the term figuratively in describing the difficulty of sending a diplomatic letter by courier from Palermo:

“This is such a cul de sac that it would (be) ridiculous to attempt sending you any news. Perhaps, indeed, from Malta you might receive it as fresh from hence as any other place” (from a letter written May 10, 1800, by Sir Arthur Paget to Sir Charles Whitworth, and published in The Paget Papers, 1896, edited by Sir Augustus Paget).

The first Oxford citation for the street sense is from an April 19, 1828, entry in The Journal of Sir Walter Scott (1941), edited by John Guthrie Tate: “Coming home, an Irish coachman drove us into a cul de sac, near Battersea Bridge.”

(Although cul de sac can still mean a dead-end street in French, the more common terms are impasse and voie sans issue.)

The expression “dead end” showed up two decades later, in the mid-19th century. The OED defines it as “a closed end of a water-pipe, passage, etc., through which there is no way.”

The earliest examples we’ve found are in an 1851 report to the General Board of Health in London on the sewers, drains, and water supples of Halifax in Yorkshire.

The term is used here in a description of a drain: “No. 6 a branches from No. 6 at the upper end of the bridge, and passes by the churchyard, where it terminates in a dead end.”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries “dead end” developed several figurative senses, such as a policy, plan, or road that leads nowhere.

The earliest figurative example we’ve seen is from an anonymous 1874 pamphlet, “A Voice From the Signal Box: or Railway Accidents and Their Causes,” by “a Signalman.”

The author suggests that the trains of engine drivers who ignore signals at dangerous junctions should be forced “into a dead end, blocked up with ballast, and interlocked with the main line signals.”

The earliest roadway example we’ve found refers to the end of a road: “Franklin street from Washington avenue south to dead end” (from a March 27, 1901, Philadelphia ordinance to repave several roads).

Finally, “dead end” here refers to an entire road: “Cannon Street is a dead end—it don’t lead nowhere” (from “An Eddy of War,” a short story by Charles Vickers and Ernest Swinton in Blackwood’s Magazine, April 1907).

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