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

The first exclamation point!

Q: You wrote recently about the increasing use of exclamation points. When did this overused punctuation mark first appear and who was responsible for it?

A: The exclamation point or exclamation mark first appeared in Medieval Latin in the 14th century, but its parentage is somewhat uncertain.

It was originally called a puncto exclamativus (exclamation point) or puncto admirativus (admiration point), according to the British paleographer Malcolm B. Parkes.

In Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (1993), Parkes notes that the Italian poet Iacopo Alpoleio da Urbisaglia claimed in 1360 to have invented the exclamation point:

“ego vero videns quod exclamativa vel admirativa clausula aliter soleat quam continuus vel interrogativus sermo enunciari, consuevi tales clausulas in fine notare per punctum planum et coma eidem puncto lateraliter superpositum.”

(“Indeed, seeing that the exclamatory or admirative clausula was otherwise accustomed to be enunciated in the same way as continuing or interrogative discourse, I acquired the habit of pointing the end of such clausulae by means of a clear punctus, and a coma placed to the side above that same punctus.”)

The translation is by Parkes, who found the citation in “Di un Ars Punctandi Erroneamente Attribuita a Francesco Petrarca” (“On a Punctuation Erroneously Attributed to Petrarch”), a 1909 paper by Franceso Novati for the Istituto Lombardo di Scienze e Lettere.

The passage cited by Novati is from “De Ratione Punctandi Secundum Magistrum Iacopum Alpoleium de Urbesalia in Forma Epistole ad Soctorem Quendam Salutatum” (“On the Method of Punctuation According to the Teacher James Alpoleius de Urbasalia in the Form of an Epistle to a Certain Teacher Salutatum”).

The first actual example of an exclamation point in Pause and Effect is from De Nobilitate Legum et Medicinae (“On the Nobility of Laws and Medicine”), a 1399 treatise by that “certain teacher” mentioned above, Coluccio Salutati, a Florentine scholar and statesman. The slanting exclamation point can be seen here, just after the word precor near the end of the second line:

This is the relevant passage in clearer Latin, with our English translation. It begins with the last three words of the first line:

“Ego temet et alios medicos obteso et rogo. repondete michi precor!” (“I am afraid and entreat you and other doctors, answer me, I pray!”).

As for the English terminology, the Oxford English Dictionary says the “punctuation mark (!) indicating an exclamation” was originally referred to as a “note of exclamation” or “note of admiration.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation uses both: “A note of Exclamation or Admiration, thus noted!” (from The Mysterie of Rhetorique Unvail’d, 1656, by the Anglican clergyman John Smith).

As far as we can tell, the term “exclamation point” first appeared in the early 18th century in a work by a British grammarian, classicist, and mathematician:

“! Exclamation-point is us’d in admiring, applauding, bewailing, &c.” (English Grammar Reformd Into a Small Compass and Easy Method for the Readier Learning and Better Understanding, 1737, by Solomon Lowe).

The term “exclamation mark” appeared a century later. The earliest example we’ve seen is from A Third Book for Reading and Spelling With Simple Rules and Instructions for Avoiding Common Errors (1837), by the American educator Samuel Worcester:

“How long do you stop at a comma? – at a semicolon? – at a colon? – at a period? – at an interrogation mark? – at an exclamation mark?”

The OED’s first example for “exclamation mark” is from A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), by the English lexicographer and grammarian Henry W. Fowler:

“Excessive use of exclamation marks is, like that of italics, one of the things that betray the uneducated or unpractised writer.”

In other words, the overuse of exclamation points that you mention in your question and that we discuss in our 2023 post is apparently nothing new.

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 Language Usage Word origin Writing

Wordle fancies: ‘bezel’ vs. ‘bevel’

Q: I recently encountered the word “bezel” while playing Wordle. When I looked it up, several definitions mentioned the word “bevel,” which I’m more familiar with. Do these two words come from similar places, or did they evolve separately to mean similar things?

A: We’ve seen no evidence that “bezel” and “bevel” are etymologically related. Although the two words have somewhat similar meanings, they’re believed to come from different Old French terms.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “bezel” is derived from the “Old French *besel, *bezel, in modern French biseaubizeau,” while it says “bevel” apparently comes from the “Old French *bevel, not found, but implied in the modern French beveaubeauveaubeuveau.”

(An asterisk in the OED “indicates a word or form not actually found, but of which the existence is inferred.”)

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says “bezel” ultimately comes from the Proto-Indo-European root dwo- (two), while “bevel” ultimately comes from bat- (yawning), a presumed Latin prefix of unknown prehistoric origin.

(Proto-Indo-European, a prehistoric language reconstructed by linguists, is the ancestor of most European and some Asian languages.)

The OED says the noun “bezel” has three meanings: (1) “A slope, or a sloping edge or face: esp. that of a chisel or other cutting tool,” (2) “The oblique sides or faces of a cut gem,” and (3) “The groove and projecting flange or lip by which the crystal of a watch or the stone of a jewel is retained in its setting.”

The dictionary defines the noun “bevel” as “a slope from the right angle, an obtuse angle; a slope from the horizontal or vertical; a surface or part so sloping.” It defines the verb “bevel” as “to cut away or otherwise bring to a slope.”

A possible source of confusion may be a suggestion in the OED that readers compare “bezel” with the obsolete use of “bevel” to mean “a staggering blow.” We compared them and didn’t see a connection

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

Bookworms, in etymology & entomology

Q: In Danger Calling, a 1931 mystery by Patricia Wentworth, it’s said that an obsessive bibliophile “will turn into one of those long, flat, grey unpleasant insects which live in the bindings of old books.” Are those insects the source of the word “bookworm”?

A: Yes, “bookworm” originated by joining “book” with “worm” used in its early sense of an insect that eats holes in the binding and paper of old manuscripts.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “worm” here as “the larva of an insect; a maggot, grub, or caterpillar, esp. one that feeds on and destroys flesh, fruit, leaves, cereals, textile fabrics, and the like” and used “with defining term prefixed, as book, canker, case,” etc.

The dictionary’s first citation for this sense of “worm” alone is from an Anglo-Saxon riddle about a book-eating moððe, or moth, a word that originally referred to the destructive larvae of various insects.

Here’s an expanded version of the dictionary’s excerpt from “Riddle 47” in the Exeter Book, an Old English manuscript believed to date from the 10th century. It’s followed by our translation:

Moððe word fræt. Me þæt þuhte wrætlicu wyrd, þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn, þæt se wyrm forswealg wera gied sumes, þeof in þystro, þrymfæstne cwide ond þæs strangan staþol. Stælgiest ne wæs wihte þy gleawra, þe he þam wordum swealg.

(A moth ate words. When I discovered this wonder, it seemed to me a remarkable fate, that the worm, a thief in the night, had eaten the words of a man, a brilliant saying and the deep thought behind it. Though the thieving stranger swallowed the words, it was no whit the wiser.)

One possible answer to the riddle could be “bookworm,” but an answer isn’t given in the surviving manuscripts, and we haven’t seen any recorded examples of an Old English version of “bookworm.”

When “bookworm” first appeared in English writing in the mid-16th century, it was a negative term for an indiscriminate reader whose face was always in a book, much as we’d now regard a smartphone addict.

The OED’s earliest example, which we’ve cut in some spots and expanded in others, is from The Praise of Folie, Thomas Chaloner’s 1549 translation of the 1509 Latin essay by Erasmus:

“those that take upon theim to write cunnyngly to the judgement of a fewe” suffer “many travailes, and beatyng of theyr braines” so “they maie have theyr writyng allowed at one or two of these blereied [blear-eyed] bokewormes hands.”

The OED’s next citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a letter by the Cambridge scholar Gabriel Harvey to the English poet Edmund Spenser.

In this passage, Harvey attacks Sir James Croft, a member of Queen Elizabeth I’s Privy Council, for being overly devoted to books and liquor, among other things:

“a morning book-worm, an afternoon malt-worm, a right juggler, as full of his sleights, wiles, fetches, casts of legerdemain, toys to mock apes withal, odd shifts and knavish practices as his skin can hold” (from Three Proper and Witty Familiar Letters, 1580, published anonymously, apparently by Harvey).

The use of the term for “any of various insects that damage books; spec. a maggot that is said to burrow through the paper and boards” appeared in the mid-17th century, according to OED citations.

As the dictionary explains, “A number of insects damage books in various ways, but the only ones that actually bore through the paper are the larvae of wood-boring beetles.”

The first Oxford example for “bookworm” used in reference to insects is from a satirical book about the manners of the English:

Book-worme is of all Creatures the longest lived.” From Ζωοτομ́iα; or, Observations on the Present Manners of the English (1654), by the Oxford scholar Richard Whitlock. (The title uses Greek letters to render the post-classical Latin zootomia, source of the English term “zootomy,” the study of the dissection or anatomy of animals.)

The negative sense of “bookworm” when used for people was undoubtedly reinforced by the figurative use of “worm” since Anglo-Saxon days for a contemptible person, a sense that first appeared in Old English in the Vespasian Psalter, an eighth-century illuminated manuscript:

“Ic soðlice eam wyrm & nales mon, edwit monna & aworpnes folces” (“I am truly a worm and not a man, the scorn of mankind and cast away by the people”). Psalm 21:7 in Vespasian, Psalm 22:6 in modern translations.

In fact, for hundreds of years “bookworm” was usually a negative term, according to OED citations and our own searches of digitized writing.

In The Fountaine of Selfe-Loue; or, Cynthias Reuels (1601), a satirical play by Ben Jonson, Hedon says to Anaides: “Heart, was there ever so prosperous an invention thus unluckily perverted and spoiled, by a whoreson book-worm, a candle-waster?”

The poet Alexander Pope, in a 1717 letter to his friends Teresa and Martha Blount, describes his arrival at the University of Oxford: “I wanted nothing but a black Gown and a Salary, to be as meer a Bookworm as any there.”

In A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Samuel Johnson cites Pope’s comment in defining “bookworm” as a “student too closely given to books; a reader without judgment.”

And in An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), Noah Webster defines “bookworm” as a “student closely attached to books, or addicted to study; also, a reader without judgment.”

But today “bookworm” is generally a positive term., an online descendent of Noah Webster’s dictionary, defines it simply as “a person unusually devoted to reading and study.” Other standard dictionaries have similar definitions.

However, the negative usage still shows up on occasion, as in this comment by the novelist Jojo Moyes in an interview with The New York Times (Feb. 9, 2023):

“I was an only child and a voracious reader. My grandmother called me a bookworm, and it wasn’t a compliment, as my weekly visits to her were usually spent with my nose buried between the pages.”

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 Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Gob on a stick

Q: As a retiree, I often check out the website Ask a Manager to marvel at what goes on in the workplace these days. A post from a Brit described a job recruiter as a “typical gob on a stick.” I’m not familiar with the expression, but the poster was using it playfully, not snidely.

A: The slang expression “gob on a stick” is relatively new in British English, dating from the late 20th century, and hasn’t yet made its way into standard or slang dictionaries.

The word “gob” here is an old term for the mouth, so the expression literally means a “mouth on a stick.” It’s generally understood in the UK to be to someone who talks a lot, especially a broadcast “talking head.”

How did “gob” come to mean mouth? The usage likely originated in Celtic and migrated into English from Ireland and Scotland, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The original Celtic gob was “probably expressive” in origin, the dictionary says—in other words, it was pronounced with a gaping jaw and evoked the thing it described.

The usage originally appeared in “Scottish, English regional (northern), and Irish English,” the OED says, and now survives in slang, mostly British.

When “gob” first appeared in the 14th century, it was a noun that meant “a mass, lump, or heap,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The first citation is from the Wycliffe Bible of the early 1380s:

“Who heeng vp with thre fingris the gobbe of the erthe” (“Who held up the mass of the Earth with three fingers,” Isaiah 40:12). The passage is from the early version of the Wycliffe Bible. In the more scholarly later version, “gobbe” is “heuynesse” (heaviness or weight).

In the 16th century, “gob” came to mean a mouth or a slimy substance like phlegm. We’ll skip the phlegm and get to the mouth. The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded here, is from an anonymous Middle Scots poem about a brawl at a country fair:

“Quhair thair gobbis wer vngeird / Thay gat vpoun the gammis / Quhill bludy berkit wes thair beird” (“When their mouths were unguarded / They got upon the games / Until their beards were covered with blood”). From “Christis Kirk on Grene” (1568).

Here’s an example from a 16th-century flyting, a literary duel in which Scottish poets traded insults. In this passage, a kite (a bird of prey) is used figuratively to mean a person who preys on others:

“Meslie kyt, and þow flyt deill dryt in thy gob” (“Leprous kite, and thou spew devil’s dirt from thy mouth” (from “Flyting with Montgomerie,” before 1585, a poem by Patrick Hume of Polwarth about a flyting with Alexander Montgomerie.

And here’s a 17th-century OED citation from a list of dialectal words in northern England: “A Gob, an open or wide mouth” (“North Countrey Words,” in A Collection of English Words Not Generally Used, 1691, by the naturalist John Ray).

As for the modern slang usage you’re asking about, the expression “gob on a stick” apparently showed up in the 1990s. The earliest example we’ve found is from an article about the Scottish author, broadcaster, and journalist Muriel Gray:

“She’s more than a gob-on-a-stick. She has opinions” (from The Scotsman, Sept. 30, 1994).

Although the expression can be negative when used generally for a talkative person, it’s often used in a humorous, self-deprecating manner by broadcasters speaking of themselves.

A Dublin newspaper, for example, comments on a BBC broadcaster’s comically modest reference to himself: “Terry Wogan on BBC2: ‘I’m only a gob on a stick’ (some gob. some stick). ‘I’m not a barrister’ ” (from the Sunday Independent, Aug. 31, 1997).

We’ll end with the closing words of the British football commentator Simon Hill in his 2017 memoir, Just a Gob on a Stick: The Voice Behind the Mic:

“I’ve been very blessed, and if I don’t know where my real home is, I do know I feel at home when surrounded by football. Not a bad place to be, for someone who is still, and will always be, just a gob on a stick.”

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 Grammar Language Linguistics Usage Word origin Writing

Speaking of the silent final ‘e’

Q: I’ve long been curious about words that are spelled alike except for a silent “e” at the end: “dot”-“dote,” “fat”-“fate,” “hat”-“hate,” “not”-“note,” “win”-“wine,” etc. I suppose their etymology must be different. Why is their orthography so similar?

A: Your supposition is correct! None of those pairs are related etymologically. Their orthographic similarities are coincidental.

The adjective “fat,” for example, is derived from the Old English fætt and the reconstructed prehistoric Germanic faitjan (to fatten), while “fate” comes from Latin fatum (“that which has been spoken”).

Pairs like this are quite common in English, a big, diverse language with many coincidental similarities. As we wrote in 2018, English is a Germanic language that has absorbed words from dozens of languages (the major source is Latin, either directly or indirectly by way of French).

As for that silent “e” at the end of the words you’re asking about, the usage evolved over the centuries to indicate the pronunciation of a preceding vowel that can have different sounds.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the “e” at the end of a word following a consonant “is almost invariably silent.” And when it’s found in this position, “it has a number of different orthographic functions.”

One of these functions, the OED says, is to indicate “that the vowel in the preceding syllable is (from a historical perspective) long, as in wine (compare win), paste (compare past), where this is not already indicated by a digraph spelling, as in e.g. soonmean.”

In some cases, the dictionary says, the “final e is retained in spelling where a vowel has since become short, as in infiniterapine.”

Oxford adds that the “silent final is usually omitted before suffixes beginning with a vowel.” So the “e” of “dote” and “hate” would be dropped in the gerunds “doting” and “hating.”

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.