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English English language Etymology Expression Language Slang Usage Word origin Writing

Scrambled yeggs?

Q: Your article about “yegg” traces its use for a bank robber back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, a recent reprint of an 1856 article in Scientific American uses “yeggman” similarly. Evidently the word originated long before your citations.

A: The date on that Scientific American reprint is wrong; it should be 1906, not 1856. The brief item mushes together two sections of an extensive article published on Jan. 27, 1906. We emailed the magazine for a comment but it hasn’t responded.

The Jan. 2, 2020, reprint that you saw was among the “Artifacts From the Archive” published to celebrate the magazine’s 175th anniversary. We reproduce it here in its entirety:

Want to Crack Open a Safe? Try Nitroglycerine

Originally published in January 1856

Today the safe-breaker no longer requires those beautifully fashioned, delicate yet powerful tools which were formerly both the admiration and the despair of the safe manufacturer. For the introduction of nitroglycerine, “soup” in technical parlance, has not only obviated onerous labor, but has again enabled the safe-cracking industry to gain a step on the safe-making one. The modern “yeggman,” however, is often an inartistic, untidy workman, for it frequently happens that when the door suddenly parts company with the safe it takes the front of the building with it. The bombardment of the surrounding territory with portions of the Farmers’ National Bank seldom fails to rouse from slumber even the soundly-sleeping tillers of the soil.
Scientific American, January 1856

The original 1906 Scientific American article, headlined “The Ungentle Art of Burglary,” includes the following sections, which were edited and linked in the reprint:

Burglary—specifically safe-breaking—has in the last decade gradually ceased to be an exact science. To-day the safe-breaker no longer requires those beautifully fashioned, delicate yet powerful instruments and tools which were formerly both the admiration and the despair of the safe manufacturer. The modern “yeggman,” tramping it casually along a country road with a three-ounce phial of nitro-glycerine, a tiny battery, a few yards of wire, and an ignition-cap in his pocket, is able to open and rob almost any kind of a safe, if not with neatness, certainly with dispatch. No longer is the ambitious “strong-arm” man doomed to hours of exhausting and necessarily noiseless drilling, wedging, spreading, or jacking; for the introduction of nitro-glycerine, “soup” in technical parlance, has not only obviated these onerous labors, but has again enabled the safe-cracking industry to gain a step on the safe-making one.

**********

The yeggman, however, is often an inartistic, untidy workman, for it frequently happens that when the door suddenly parts company with the safe it takes the front of the building with it, and consequently the selection of the valuables desired from the contents of the strongbox is often so hurried that it is only partially successful. The bombardment of the surrounding territory with portions of the Farmers’ National Bank seldom fails to rouse from slumber even the soundly-sleeping tillers of the soil.

As we say in our June 19, 2015, post about “yegg,” it apparently showed up in the late 19th century as a noun for a beggar and a verb meaning to beg. A reader of our blog found both usages in the Jan. 14, 1894, issue of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

It’s uncertain how “yegg” and “yeggman” soon came to mean a burglar or a safecracker. The most common suggestion is that the criminal use derives from “John Yegg,” the alias of a bank robber in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The earliest examples we’ve found, from 1901, appeared almost five years before the original Scientific American piece.

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Disoriented or disorientated?

Q: In listening to P. D. James books with the Libby app, I often hear “disorientated,” and it always sounds uneducated to me. I know it’s standard in the UK and nonstandard in the US. My question: If I’m in London or Cambridge or Oxford and use “disoriented,” will a fellow academic think my usage nonstandard?

A: As far as we can tell, “disorientated” as well as “disoriented” are standard in British English, though “disorientated” is more popular. We’ve found both of these terms in searches of the British National Corpus, with “disorientated” about twice as common as “disoriented.” In fact, both appear in P. D. James novels.

All five standard British dictionaries that we regularly consult—Cambridge, Collins, Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online), Longman, and Macmillan—include both “disoriented” and “disorientated” as standard, but most of them describe the longer term as a British usage.

Interestingly, four of the five American dictionaries we consult the most—Dictionary.com (based on Random House Unabridged), Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and Webster’s New World—include “disorientated” as well as “disoriented” as standard. American Heritage has only “disoriented.”

Dictionaries aside, would academics in the UK raise an eyebrow at the use of “disoriented” by an American? Well, perhaps. But their objections wouldn’t be justified. Both forms have been used by respected writers for centuries.

As Jeremy Butterfield explains in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), the two verbs that gave us those participial adjectives and past tenses “have a long history (disorient first recorded in 1655, disorientate in 1704) and both are still in use (corresponding to the noun disorientation).”

“In most contexts, disorient, being shorter, is the better form, and it is about three times as frequent in the OEC [Oxford English Corpus] data,” Butterfield writes. “Curiously, to judge by the same data, British English shows a marked preference for disorientate. As a result, disorient may be viewed by some BrE speakers as a pernicious Americanism; conversely, many AmE editors detest the longer form.”

Like Butterfield, we also prefer the shorter form in most cases, though we see no reason why a writer couldn’t use the longer version for stylistic reasons—to improve the rhythm of a sentence, for example, or to avoid an awkward rhyme.

We suspect that P. D. James varied the use of “disoriented” and “disorientated” for stylistic reasons. Here are some examples from her novels:

“But, disoriented in the claustrophobic darkness, she could no longer distinguish the ceiling from the walls” (Death of an Expert Witness, 1977).

“The contrast between the sun-warmed  terrace, where once again, luncheon was set out on a linen-covered trestle table, and the dark, rank-smelling pit of the Devil’s Kettle was so great that Cordelia felt disoriented” (The Skull Beneath the Skin, 1982).

“These patients become quite disorientated during treatment” (A Suitable Job for a Woman, 1991).

“The path was barely visible but for most of the route it was fringed with brambles, a welcome if prickly barrier when, momentarily disorientated, he lost his way” (The Black Tower, 1975).

James sometimes uses both terms in the same novel, as in these two examples from A Mind to Murder (1963), the second of her Adam Dalgliesh books: “Her patient would be far too disoriented to hear or understand” … “The woman was still weak and a little disorientated and sat holding tightly to her husband’s hand.”

As for the etymology, English borrowed the verb “disorient” in the mid-17th century from désorienter, a French verb meaning to turn from an eastward position, to cause to lose one’s bearings, or to embarrass.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “disorient” had similar meanings in English when it appeared in Elise, or, Innocencie Guilty: A New Romance (1655), John Jennings’s translation of a novel by Jean-Pierre Camus: “ ’Twas Philippin who was disoriented, but more Isabella.”

The OED, citing the lexicographer Samuel Johnson, says the longer verb “disorientate” showed up in the 1704 first edition of Lexicon Technicum, an encyclopedia of the arts and sciences by the English writer John Harris.

However, Oxford doesn’t provide a citation, and we couldn’t find one in searchable online versions of Johnson’s 1755 dictionary or the 1704, 1708, 1716, and 1725 editions of Lexicon Technicum.

In the 1734 fifth edition of Lexicon Technicum, updated by others 15 years after Harris’s death, “disorientated” is defined in astronomy as “turned from the East or some other of the Cardinal Points,” and “in a figurative Sense, for the disconcerting, or putting a Man out of his Way or Element, as if you discourse of Law to a Physician, and Physick to a Lawyer, they will all be disorientated.”

The description above of the figurative sense reads a lot like this earlier entry for “disorientated” in Cyclopædia, a 1728 encyclopedia of the arts and sciences by the English writer  Ephraim Chambers:

“The Word is most frequently us’d in a figurative Sense, for the Disconcerting, or putting a Man out of his Way, or Element. Speak of Law to a Physician, or of Physic to a Lawyer, and they will all be disorientated.” As far as we can tell, this 1728 example, which the OED cites, is the first appearance of “disorientated” in print.

If you’d like to read more, we wrote a post in 2012 about the verbs “orient” and “orientate.” Like “disorient” and “disorientate,” the shorter form is more common in the US and the longer one in the UK.

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Doing hard time

Q: What’s the difference between “doing time” and “doing hard time”?

Both expressions mean serving a stretch in the slammer. “Doing time” means serving an unspecified term in prison, but “doing hard time” implies that the term is a long one for a serious crime.

The word “time” has had prison associations since the late 18th century. In the prison sense, “time” means “a term of imprisonment,” says the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives this as the earliest known example:

“The answer you gave to the convict who came to tell you his time was expired—‘Would to God my time was expired, too!’ ” (From a 1790 entry in the Historical Records of Australia, published in 1914.)

The verb phrase “to do time,” the OED says, was “originally Criminals’ slang” meaning “to spend time in prison for an offence.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from trial testimony reported in a mid-19th-century British newspaper:

“He continued, ‘I had nothing to do with the shawl robbery … nor Johnson’s—I was doing time (meaning, I was in prison).’ ” (Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Feb. 26, 1865. It’s not clear whether the parenthetical explanation was added by the witness or the reporter.)

The phrase “do time” has been used this way steadily ever since. The OED’s most recent example is from the Atlantic Monthly (March 2010): “A former member of NAMBLA [North American Man/Boy Love Association] … doing time at Limon [in Colorado] for sexual exploitation of a child.”

Finally we come to “hard time,” a noun phrase that the OED says is found “frequently in to do (also serve) hard time.” The dictionary says “hard time” originated as “U.S. slang” in the late 19th century and means “time spent in prison, esp. as part of a long sentence served for a serious crime.”

Oxford’s earliest example is from an Iowa newspaper, the Burlington Hawk-eye (Dec. 30, 1896): “Oscar Barrett produced five pantomimes this year, and any criminal doing hard time had an easier December than this man.”

Here’s an example that neatly illustrates how “doing time” and “doing hard time” differ: “Men and women who are doing time—some of them hard time for serious crimes” (from a Texas newspaper, the Paris News, March 10, 1989).

However, to “do time” doesn’t necessarily imply incarceration. As the OED says, it can mean “to spend a period of time in a specified situation or position (typically doing a job or task), esp. one regarded as obligatory but unpleasant.”

This sense, too, dates back to the late 19th century. Here is Oxford’s earliest known use: “Mr. Griffith’s leading character is a revivified mummy. … The women of the book, one of whom has also done time as a mummy, are superfluous.” (From a fiction supplement to a London weekly, The Academy, July 3, 1897.)

The dictionary’s latest example is from New York magazine (Sept. 6, 2004): “Did you do your time in two-bedroom apartments you shared with three actors, two magazine fact-checkers, and a crystal-meth-addled pastry chef?”

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Memes, tropes, and notions

Q: Is there a distinction between a meme, a trope, and a notion? This came up during a discussion I had with a couple of English professors. We would appreciate your advice and have agreed to follow it.

A: This is the kind of question that can lead into the great Grimpen Mire. Vogue words—and “meme” is especially hot right now—tend to blur as they’re tossed around indiscriminately.

But these three words do have distinct meanings. Simply put, a “notion” exists in a mental form, like an idea or a desire. A “meme” exists in a more tangible form and is contagious, like a quirky fashion or a video clip that goes viral. Finally, a “trope” exists in a literary form, like a figure of speech or a thematic device.

The definitions in standard dictionaries are fairly straightforward. We’ll use those from Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online), along with examples of our own in italics.

  • notion: “A conception of or belief about something.” (That’s not my notion of an inexpensive lunch.) … “An impulse or desire, especially one of a whimsical kind.” (She had a notion to send him flowers.)
  • meme: “An element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.” (Robotic dogs were a cultural meme a few years ago.) … “An image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.” (Who ever thought that a funny cat photo would become a meme?)
  • trope: “A figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression.” (The author’s favorite trope is hyperbole.) … “A significant or recurrent theme; a motif.” (The play’s references to wills and inheritance serve as a trope.)

As for their etymologies, all these words are derived from Latin or Greek.

“Notion” was a direct borrowing from Latin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In classical Latin, nōtiōn- or nōtiō meant “concept, idea, legal or intellectual examination,” the OED says, and in post-classical Latin it also meant “knowledge, understanding.” The ultimate source is nōtus (known).

The word entered English in the late 14th century with religious and philosophical meanings that are now rare and have to do with incarnations of the Trinity or with operations in logic. In the 15th century, a more personal meaning emerged, and a “notion” came to mean a whim or an inclination to do something.

The OED’s earliest citation is from a set of mystery plays—that is, dramas depicting biblical events—known as the York Plays, dated sometime before 1450. In the passage, from Play 32 (The Remorse of Judas), Caiaphas rebukes Judas:

“Nowe be my nociens, myght I negh nere þe … schulde I lere þe / To lordis to speke curtaisely” (“Now I have a notion, might I come near thee … to teach thee to speak courteously to lords”).

This more recent example for that sense, from Rebecca West’s novel The Fountain Overflows (1957), will sound more familiar to modern ears: “She could not understand why they had got this silly notion of wearing coats and trousers in bed when nightshirts were so much easier to iron.”

Oxford says a new sense of the word emerged in the 16th century: “a general concept, category, or designation.” The earliest known use is from a Latin grammar, Rudimenta Puerorum in Artem Grammaticalem (2nd ed., 1531), by the Scottish grammarian John Vaus:

“I haue collekit als scortly as I ma, in manere of rude introductione, generale notionis of the aucht partis of orisone” (“I have collected as briefly as I may, as a sort of rough introduction, general notions of the eight parts of speech”).

Related meanings of “notion” followed: a belief, opinion, or theory (first recorded in 1603); an idea or concept (1607); and an inkling, suspicion, or hint (1698). As the OED notes, that last one is common in negative constructions, like “I had no notion,” “they haven’t the slightest notion,” “little notion did he have,” and so on.

Unlike “notion,” the noun “meme” is a modern invention. It was coined by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and first appeared in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). He adapted it, the OED says, from the ancient Greek noun μίμημα (mīmēma, something imitated), which comes from the verb μιμεῖσθαι (mīmeisthai, to imitate).

Here’s the OED citation from Dawkins’s book, in which a “meme” is an element of culture that’s passed along much like a gene:

“The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene.’ I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. … It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream.’ Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.”

A generation later, “meme” acquired its Internet meaning, which was first recorded in the late 1990s. The OED’s earliest example refers to an animation of a dancing baby: “The next thing you know, his friends have forwarded it on and it’s become a net meme.” (From a transcript of a CNN program, Science and Technology Week, Jan. 24, 1998.)

Finally we come to “trope,” the oldest of the three words. It was borrowed into Old English from Latin or Greek, apparently forgotten, and then reborrowed in the 16th century. As the OED explains, “trope” was “probably a borrowing from Latin” but “perhaps” came from the earlier Greek.

The Latin tropus (figure of speech) can be traced to the Greek noun τρόπος (tropos, turn, direction, or way), from the verb τρέπειν (trepein, to turn, direct, or change). The etymology makes sense if you think of a “trope” as a turn of phrase.

The English word first appeared in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a late 10th-century translation of a Latin work that was probably completed in 731 by the Venerable Bede. This is the OED’s citation:

“Boc de metrica arte, & oþere to þisse geþydde be scematibus & tropes boc” (“A book on the art of meter [poetry], to which is appended another book on figures and tropes”).

After that sighting, the word vanished for centuries, then was reborrowed into English in the time of Henry VIII. (As the OED says, “there is no continuity of use” from Old English to the 16th century.) Here’s the word’s reappearance:

“If ye be so sworne to the litteral sense in this matter, that ye will not in these wordes of Christe, Thys is my bodye, &c., admitte in so playne a speache anye troope.” (From William Tyndale’s The Souper [Supper] of the Lorde, 1533. His argument that the Eucharist should not be interpreted literally led to his death at the stake in 1536.)

Today “trope” also has technical meanings in music, astronomy, philosophy, and mathematics. But it’s still used in many disciplines as it was in Tyndale’s time, to mean figurative or metaphorical language.

The OED’s most recent use is by a specialist in Asian-American studies: “[George F.] Kennan’s writing … is replete with tropes and metaphors of disease … and health” (Jodi Kim’s Ends of Empire, 2010).

“Trope” is also used in cultural criticism to mean “a significant or recurrent theme” or “motif,” the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest example is from a book review: “Barthelme is funning with the eternal trope of fatherhood” (the Chicago Tribune, Dec. 14, 1975).

In science, by the way, the word elements “-trope,” “-tropic,” and “-tropism” are found in words that have to do with change, alteration, turning, revolving, and so on. Examples include “heliotrope” (a plant whose flowers bend toward the sun), “phototropic” (attracted toward light), “geotropism” (growth in response to gravity), and “hydrotropism” (growth directed toward moisture).

In fact, as we wrote on the blog in 2012, “tropism” is a word in itself. It’s a scientific term that means a turning, but it’s also used metaphorically in the sense of an attraction or an inclination toward something.

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How ‘tootsie’ became ‘toots’

Q: How come youse did a whole story on the term “darn tootin’ ” without letting us square guys know where “toots” comes from? I know you can toast your tootsies next to a nice warm fire, but how did feet become dames?

A: The slang use of “toots” to address a woman probably comes from the colloquial use of “tootsie” for a foot—a usage that began life in the mid-19th century as a grown-up’s imitation of baby talk.

Some standard dictionaries spell it “tootsie” (our preference) and others use “tootsy.” Either way, the plural is “tootsies.”

The earliest example we’ve found is from an 1842 article in Punch: “the small children have been rapidly undressed and put to bed with the wild notion that they will stay there, and will not walk calmly down stairs three or four hours afterwards in their night-gowns, with their little naked white tootsy-pootsies (the nursery patois for tiny feet) pattering on the cold floor-cloth.”

The passage is from “The Physiology of London Evening Parties,” a series of humorous sketches in Punch or the London Charivari, Vol. 2, January to June, 1842. Albert Richard Smith, the English author of the anonymous sketches, later published slightly revised versions under his own name in two collections of his work, The Wassail-Bowl (1843) and The Physiology of Evening Parties (1846).

Smith, an explorer as well as a writer, is also responsible for the first example we’ve seen of “tootsie” used to address a woman:

“ ‘Tootsy,’ said Mr. Gudge to his much better half, in the breakfast room, whilst he tied a shawl round his neck before the looking-glass, ‘Tootsy, where’s Sir F’s note?’ ” (from his novel The Struggles and Adventures of Christopher Tadpole at Home and Abroad, 1848).

The Oxford English Dictionary has later appearances of the word in both of those senses. It defines “tootsie” in the first sense as “a playful or endearing name for a child’s or a woman’s small foot.” It defines the second sense as “a woman, a girl; a sweetheart; occasionally applied to a male lover.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, spells the term “tootsy” in both senses, but notes that it also appears in print as “tootsie,” “tootsey-wootsey,” and “tootsie-wootsie.”

The dictionary explains that the word originally represented “a child’s pronunciation of foot.” Oxford’s earliest citation is from The Rose and the Ring (1855), William Makepeace Thackeray’s allegorical novel about royal intrigues in the fictional kingdoms of Paflagonia and Crim Tartary.

Here a maid is ousted from the royal household in Paflagonia. Stripped of her servant’s outfit and given the tattered clothes she once wore, minus a shoe, the maid laments: “As for the shoe, what was she to do with one poor little tootsey sandal?”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the second sense is from a letter written by the American poet Wallace Stevens to his mother on July 23, 1895: “I can be your own dearest tootsey wootsey.”

Here’s a somewhat earlier example we’ve found in which  “tootsie wootsie” is used for a woman: “Hic. Didn’t tush a drop, m’ dear. ’M only ’toxicated with joy at seeing m’ own (hic) darling ’ittle tootsie wootsie once more (hic).” From an item about a tippler in the “By the Way” column of the Harvard Lampoon, Feb. 23, 1891.

The use of the shortened form “toots” as a nickname for a girl showed up in the late 19th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is from Wynema: A Child of the Forest (1891), a novel by Sophia Alice Callahan:

“It would seem as yesterday if Robin were not such a tall, broad-shouldered fellow, really towering over us all; and I, a cross-grained, wrinkled spinster; and Toots putting on young lady’s airs—I suppose we shall have to call her Bessie, now.”

The use of the nickname for women showed up in the early 20th century, followed by its use for men (the restaurateur Toots Shor, the jazz musician Toots Thielemans, and so on).

The earliest feminine example we’ve seen is from “The First of the Cuties,” a short story by Philip Curtiss in the March 1920 issue of Everybody’s Magazine:

“Toots Fleming, in short, was the first of the cuties, the first of that long line of sisters who ever since have roused a feminine flutter all through the audience by skipping into the picture with the figure of twenty years and the dress of ten, with plump bare legs, with gingham dresses torn at the shoulder, with tomboy manners for winning the hearts of fabulous heroes and angel-child manners for softening the hearts of incredible villains.”

The term “toots” soon came to be used “as a familiar form of address” for a girl or woman, according to OED, which describes the usage as “slang (originally and chiefly U.S.)” and “probably abbreviation of tootsy.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from a 1936 query in the journal American Speech from a reader who wonders if the nickname “toots” is “the ancestor of the present mode of address in ‘O.K., toots!’, ‘Hello, toots!’ etc.” However, we found an earlier example in the title and lyrics of the 1934 song “Okay Toots,” by Walter Donaldson (music) and Gus Kahn (lyrics):

Okay Toots,
If you like me like I like you,
We know nobody new will do,
It’s okay Toots!

Okay Toots,
If you say yes, then I say yes,
And if you say no, then it’s no go,
It’s okay Toots!

The song was first recorded on Sept.  14, 1934, by Loretta Lee with George Hall and the Hotel Taft Orchestra. Eddie Cantor sang it in the film Kid Millions, which was released on Oct. 11, 1934.

Eric Partridge suggests in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (8th ed.) that this “toots” usage may have been inspired by the chorus of “Toot, Toot, Tootsie! (Goo’ Bye),” a 1922 song with lyrics and music by Gus Kahn, Ernie Erdman, and Dan Russo:

Toot, toot, Tootsie, Goo’ Bye!
Toot, toot, Tootsie, don’t cry,
The choo choo train that takes me,
Away from you no words can tell how sad it makes me,
Kiss me, Tootsie, and then,
Do it over again,

Watch for the mail, I’ll never fail,
If you don’t get a letter then you’ll know I’m in jail,
Tut, tut, Tootsie, don’t cry,
Toot, toot, Tootsie, Goo’ Bye!

The song was first recorded in 1922 by Al Jolson with Frank Crumit’s orchestra for Columbia Records. Jolson later sang it in The Jazz Singer (1927), the first feature-length movie with synchronized speech and music.

Getting back to your question, it’s not at all surprising to us that “tootsie,” a cutesy faux-infantile term for a foot, would inspire the use of “tootsie” and later “toots” as terms for a woman. This is similar to the evolution of such words as “baby,” “honey,” “pet,” “sweet,” “sugar,” and “treasure.”

[Update, Jan. 11, 2020. A reader of the blog has written to say, “How could your forget ‘In the Good Old Summertime’ (1902)?” Well, we’ve cited earlier examples of “tootsie wootsie,” but here goes: “You hold her hand and she holds yours, / And that’s a very good sign / That she’s your tootsie wootsie / In the good old summer time.”]

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Ethos, logos, pathos

Q: A friend and I were recently discussing “ethos,” “logos,” and “pathos.” Having studied classical Greek, I asserted they should be pronounced as the ancients did: eth-ahs, lah-gahs, and pa-thahs. My friend said English has adopted the words so the commonly used pronunciations of eth-ohs, loh-gohs, and pay-thohs are now acceptable. Any help?

A: As you know, ἦθος (“ethos”), λόγος (“logos”), and πάθος (“pathos”) are in Aristotle’s ῥητορική (Rhetoric), a treatise on the art of persuasion. In the work, he uses “ethos” (character), “logos” (reason), and “pathos” (emotion) in describing the ways a speaker can appeal to an audience. (The classical Greek terms have several other meanings, which we’ll discuss later.)

When English adopted the terms in the 16th and 17th centuries, they began taking on new senses. Here are the usual English meanings now: “ethos,” the spirit of a person, community, culture, or era; “logos,” reason, the word of God, or Jesus in the Trinity; “pathos,” pity or sympathy as well as a quality or experience that evokes them.

So how, you ask, should an English speaker pronounce these Anglicized words?

In referring to the Rhetoric and other ancient texts, we’d use reconstructed classical Greek pronunciations (EH-thahs, LAH-gahs, PAH-thahs), though there’s some doubt as to how Aristotle and others actually pronounced the terms. But in their modern English senses, we’d use standard English pronunciations for “ethos,” “logos,” and “pathos.”

As it turns out, the 10 online standard dictionaries we regularly consult list a variety of acceptable English pronunciations that include the reconstructed ones:

  • EE-thohs, EE-thahs, EH-thohs, or EH-thahs;
  • LOH-gohs, LOH-gahs, or LAH-gahs;
  • PAY-thohs, PAY-thahs, PAY-thaws, PAH-thohs, or PAH-thahs.

(Our preferences would be EE-thohs, LOH-gohs, and PAY-thohs for the modern senses, though these aren’t terms we use every day in conversation.)

When English adopts a word from another language, the spelling, pronunciation, meaning, number, or function of the loanword often changes—if not at once, then over the years. This shouldn’t be surprising, since English itself changes over time. The Old English spoken by the Anglo-Saxons is barely recognizable now to speakers of modern English.

Similarly, the Attic dialect used by Aeschylus (circa 525-455 BC) differed from the Attic of Aristotle (384-322 BC), the Doric dialect of Pindar (c. 518-438 BC), the Aeolic of Sappho (c. 630-570 BC), and the Ionic of the eighth-century BC Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

You were probably taught a reconstructed generic Attic pronunciation of the fifth century BC. The reconstruction originated with Erasmus in the early 16th century and was updated by historical linguists in the 19th and 20th centuries. The linguists considered such things as the meter in poetry, the way animal sounds were written, the spelling of Greek loanwords in Latin, usage in medieval and modern Greek, and the prehistoric Indo-European roots of the language.

But Attic, the dialect of classical Greek spoken in the Athens area, wasn’t generic—it was alive and evolving. And to use a fifth-century BC Attic reconstruction for all classical Greek spoken from the eighth to the fourth centuries BC is like using a generic Boston pronunciation of the 19th century for the English spoken in Alabama, New York, Ohio, and Maine from the 18th to the 21st centuries.

As for the etymology, English borrowed “ethos” from the classical Latin ēthos, which borrowed it in turn from ancient Greek ἦθος, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Latin, the word meant character or the depiction of character. In Greek, it meant custom, usage, disposition, character, or the delineation of character in rhetoric.

When “ethos” first showed up in English in the late 17th century, the OED says, it referred to “character or characterization as revealed in action or its representation.” The first Oxford example is from Theatrum Poetarum (1675), by the English writer Edward Phillips:

“As for the Ethos … I shall only leave it to consideration whether the use of the Chorus … would not … advance then diminish the present.” Some scholars believe that the poet John Milton, an uncle who educated Phillips, contributed to the work, which is a list of major poets with critical commentary.

In the mid-19th century, according to the OED, “ethos” came to mean “the characteristic spirit of a people, community, culture, or era as manifested in its attitudes and aspirations; the prevailing character of an institution or system.”

The first citation is from Confessions of an Apostate, an 1842 novel by Anne Flinders: “ ‘A sentiment as true as it is beautiful,’ I replied, ‘like the “austere beauty of the Catholic Ethos,” which we now see in perfection.’ ”

English adopted “logos” in the late 16th century from λόγος in classical Greek,  where it meant word, speech, discourse, or reason. The OED’s first English citation uses it as “a title of the Second Person of the Trinity,” or Jesus:

“We cal him Logos, which some translate Word or Speech, and othersome Reason” (from A Woorke Concerning the Trewnesse of the Christian Religion, a 1587 translation by Philip Sidney and Arthur Golding of a work by the French Protestant writer Philippe de Mornay).

The OED says modern writers use the term “untranslated in historical expositions of ancient philosophical speculation, and in discussions of the doctrine of the Trinity in its philosophical aspects.”

English got “pathos” in the late 16th century from the Greek πάθος, which meant suffering, feeling, emotion, passion, or an emotional style or treatment. In English, it first meant “an expression or utterance that evokes sadness or sympathy,” a usage that Oxford describes as rare today.

The dictionary’s earliest English example is from The Shepheardes Calender (1579), the first major poetical work by the Elizabethan writer Edmund Spenser: “And with, A very Poeticall pathos.” (The original 1579 poem uses παθός, but a 1591 version published during Spenser’s lifetime uses “pathos.”)

In the mid-17th century, according to the OED, the term took on the modern sense of “a quality which evokes pity, sadness, or tenderness; the power of exciting pity; affecting character or influence.” The first citation is from “Of Dramatic Poesie,” a 1668 essay by John Dryden: “There is a certain gayety in their Comedies, and Pathos in their more serious Playes.”

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Shrink, shrank, shrunk

Q: Is it OK to use “shrunk” as the past tense of “shrink,” as in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids?

A: Yes, it’s OK if you’re American, like that 1989 Disney film. However, British dictionaries are divided over the usage.

As we wrote in 2010, most standard American dictionaries recognize either “shrank” or “shrunk” as a legitimate past tense of “shrink.” So as far back as nine years ago, a sentence like “His trousers shrunk in the laundry” was widely accepted as standard in the US.

These were the recommended American forms: “shrink” as the present tense; “shrank” or “shrunk” as the past tense; “shrunk” or “shrunken” as the past participle (the form used in perfect tenses, requiring an auxiliary like “have” or “had”).

Today, acceptance of the past tense “shrunk” is even more pronounced, as we found in checking the 10 standard American and British dictionaries we usually consult.

All five of the American and three out of the five British dictionaries now accept “shrunk” as well as “shrank.” (One of those last three, Cambridge, qualified its acceptance by saying that “shrunk” is standard in the US but not in the UK.)

Only two holdouts insist on “shrank” alone as the past tense, the British dictionaries Longman and Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online). They accept “shrunk” solely as a past participle.

Despite the increasing respectability of the past tense “shrunk,” it’s apparently regarded by some as casual or informal.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says that while “shrunk” is “undoubtedly standard” in the past tense, “shrank” is the usual preference in written English. (As we’ll show later, “shrunk” is widely preferred in common usage, if not in edited writing.)

However, we see no reason to avoid “shrunk,” even in formal writing. The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says “shrunk” has been used this way since the 1300s. It apparently fell out of favor—at least in written English—sometime in the 19th century and became respectable again in the latter half of the 20th.

The fact that modern lexicographers have come around to accepting “shrunk” is not an indication that standards are slipping or that English is becoming degraded. On the contrary, this development echoes a pattern seen with other verbs of that kind. Here’s the story.

The verb “shrink” was first recorded around the year 1000, as scrincan in Old English. It was inherited from other Germanic languages, with cousins in Middle Dutch (schrinken), Swedish (skrynkato), and Norwegian (skrekka, skrøkka).

In Anglo-Saxon days “shrink” had two past-tense forms—“shrank” (scranc) in the singular and “shrunk” (scruncon) in the plural—along with the past participle “shrunken” (gescruncen). So originally (and we’ll use the modern spellings here), the past-tense vowel changed only when the verb shifted from singular to plural, as in “I shrank” vs. “we shrunk.”

But in the 14th century, the dictionary says, the originally plural past tense “shrunk” began appearing with a singular subject (as in “I shrunk,” “he shrunk”). The dictionary’s earliest example is dated circa 1374:

“Sche constreynede and schronk hir seluen lyche to þe comune mesure of men” (“She contracted and shrunk herself to the common measure of men”). From Geoffrey Chaucer’s translation of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae.

This use of “shrunk,” the OED says, went on to become “frequent in the 15th cent.,” and was “the normal past tense in the 18th cent.”

Dictionaries of the time agree. A New Dictionary of the English Language (William Kenrick, 1733) and A General Dictionary of the English Language (Thomas Sheridan, 1780) both prefer “shrunk” over “shrank” as the past tense. They use the same illustration—“I shrunk, or shrank”—treating “shrank” as a secondary variant.

The preference for “shrunk” persisted among some writers well into the 19th century, as these OED citations show:

“Wherever he went, the enemy shrunk before him” (Washington Irving, A History of New York, 1809) … “Isaac shrunk together, and was silent” (Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe, 1819) … “She shrunk back from his grasp” (Scott’s novel Kenilworth, 1821) … “Opinions, which he never shrunk from expressing” (Edward Peacock’s novel Narcissa Brendon, 1891).

But in the meantime “shrank” was also being used, and during the 19th century its popularity gradually revived in written English. Soon it came to be regarded as the better choice.

By the early 20th century, textbooks and usage guides were recommending “shrank” as the proper past-tense form. Henry Fowler, in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), said “shrunk” had become archaic. (He was wrong, as we now know. Far from being archaic, “shrunk” had stubbornly persisted in common use.)

Here a question arises. If “shrunk” was the normal past tense in the 18th century, why did commentators in the early 20th century suggest that “shrank” was better?

Apparently arbiters of the language felt that forms of “shrink”—the present, past, and perfect tenses—should conform with those of similar verbs:  “drink/drank/drunk,” “sink/sank/sunk,” “swim/swam/swum,” and so on. They felt that the legitimate past tenses should be spelled with “a,” the past participles with “u,” and the distinction preserved.

But they overlooked the fact that many similar verbs had adopted “u” in the past tense with no objections. These all belong to a class that in Old English had “i” as the present-tense vowel and had two past-tense vowels: “a” in the singular (“I shrank,” “he shrank”) and “u” in the plural (“we shrunk,” “they shrunk”).

Examples of verbs like this include “cling,” “spin,” “swing,” and “wring.” By the 18th century, they had abandoned the old past tenses spelled with “a” (“clang,” “span,” “swang,” “wrang”) and adopted “u” forms identical to their past participles (“clung,” “spun,” “swung,” “wrung”).

The linguist Harold B. Allen has described “shrink” as “typical” of that class—Old English verbs that “in moving toward a single form for past and participle have popularly used the vowel common to both” (The English Journal, February 1957).

Unlike those other verbs, however, “shrink” was arrested in the process. Instead of dropping its “a” form completely, it has kept both past tenses, “shrank” and “shrunk.” (The same is true of the verbs “spring” and “stink,” which have retained both of their old past tense forms, “sprang/sprung” and “stank/stunk.”)

As we mentioned above, “shrunk” is the past tense favored in common usage. More than 60 years ago, Allen wrote that although textbooks listed “shrank” as the proper past tense, “shrunk” was more popular.

“The findings of the fieldwork for The Linguistic Atlas of the Upper Midwest,” he wrote, “indicate that 86.5% of all informants responding to this item use shrunk as the preterit [past tense],” he said. And there was no evidence of a “small educated minority clinging to a favored shrank.

The preference for “shrunk,” he said, was “nearly the same in all three groups: 89% of the uneducated, 89% of the high school graduates, and 86% of the college graduates.” Though preferences were divided, he wrote, “the general dominance of shrunk is certain, despite the contrary statements of the textbooks.”

A final word about “shrunken,” which dictionaries still list alongside “shrunk” as a past participle. Today it’s “rarely employed in conjugation with the verb ‘to have,’ ” the OED says. There, too, “shrunk” has become the popular choice (as in “The trousers have shrunk”), and “shrunken” is seen mostly as a participial adjective (“the shrunken trousers”).

The same thing has happened with the verb “drink.” The usual past participle is now “drunk” (as in “he had drunk the poison”), while the old past participle “drunken” is now used only as an adjective.

But as for its past tense, “drink” has held on to “drank” in modern English, and a usage like “he drunk the poison” is not considered standard.

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss Iowa place names and their origins.

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Are Normandy veggies Norman?

Q: What is Norman about frozen Normandy vegetables? Do they actually come from Normandy? Are they typical of the veggies grown there?

A: As far as we can tell, the veggies in the various brands of “Normandy” frozen vegetables don’t necessarily come from Normandy. In fact, some of the vegetables often found in the mix aren’t even among the major crops grown in the French region. We suspect that “Normandy” is simply used here to Frenchify a prosaic side dish.

The earliest written use we’ve seen of “Normandy” to describe mixed vegetables is from an announcement in the Bangor Daily News on June 13, 1995, about a concert and meal at a senior housing center in Rockland, Maine:

“Methodist Conference Home at 39 Summer St. invites local senior citizens to an informal piano concert at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, June 15, in the dining room. Participants are invited to join the midday meal which is served at 11 a.m. The menu will be Swedish meatballs, rice, Normandy vegetables and fruit whip.”

In 1996, the US Department of Agriculture published a list of popular frozen vegetable blends, including “Normandy blend: Broccoli spears, crinkle cut carrots, cauliflower florets.” Other mixes listed were California blend, Italian blend (also known as five blend), Midwest blend, and Oriental blend. (From Choice Plus: A Reference Guide for Foods and Ingredients, published by the department’s Food and Consumer Service.)

The Normandy blend seems to be especially popular at senior centers. This is from a senior center menu in New Orleans: “Thursday Sliced Roasted Turkey/Poultry Gravy, whipped sweet potatoes, Normandy blend vegetables, white dinner roll, chocolate pudding” (Times-Picayune, Sept. 2, 2010).

The first example we’ve seen for the term used by a specific frozen-food brand showed up a couple of months later in a recipe for vegetable soup: “8 c frozen mixed vegetables (i used birds eye normandy blend).” From a Nov. 7, 2010, post on Just a Pinch Recipes, an online recipe site and social network.

Conagra Brands, the owner of Birds Eye, hasn’t responded to our request for information about the naming of Birds Eye’s Normandy Blend, a mix of broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, zucchini, and squash. Other frozen food brands include variations on that blend. Costco’s Kirkland Signature Normandy-Style Vegetable Blend, for example, contains broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots.

We assumed at first that that the blend may have been named “Normandy” because the French region was a notable producer of the ingredients. However, we later found that Normandy is a significant grower of only two of those vegetables—carrots and cauliflower. As for cuisine, Normandy is primarily known for its seafood, cheeses, and apples (used to make Calvados and cider).

As we’ve said above, we imagine that “Normandy” here is merely a marketing device intended to give the blend a linguistic rather than a gustatory flavor of France.

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When Santa wore combat boots

[Note: This United Press International story by Stewart Kellerman originally ran on Christmas Eve, 1971, and was reprinted as the foreword of 55 Days: The Fall of South Vietnam (1977), by Alan Dawson.]

By Stewart Kellerman

BIEN HOA, Vietnam, Dec. 24, 1971 (UPI) — Santa Claus wore combat boots and thought it prudent to omit the Ho, Ho, Ho’s. He patted the pillow under his wash-and-wear Santa suit and smoothed out his white polyester beard, a full one so different from the wisp that hung from the chin of the late North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh.

“It’s great being Santa Claus and making children happy,” Lt. Pham Kim Gioi, 31, said as he handed out scores of plastic rifles, pistols, helmets, nightsticks, spaceman X-ray guns and submachine guns to the waiting kids.

The men of the U.S. 95th Military Police Battalion picked Gioi to be Santa at their annual Christmas party for the children of South Vietnamese soldiers at Bien Hoa, 14 miles northeast of Saigon.

Some 250 kids, mostly the sons and daughters of South Vietnamese Quan Canh (military police), piled into a small patio Friday afternoon under the shade of an orange and white parachute converted into a giant umbrella.

A South Vietnamese QC, speaking over an outdoor public address system, called out a series of numbers as though he were addressing draftees at boot camp. The children timidly approached Santa to get gifts when their numbers came up.

“I love children—I have four of my own and I love making them happy,” Gioi said, handing a two-foot-long black plastic replica of an M16 rifle to 4-year-old Huong, who was dressed in cut-down South Vietnamese paratrooper fatigues.

The round-faced Gioi, chubby enough without the pillow, gave a black plastic .45-caliber revolver to Vong, 7, and a kiddie U.S. MP outfit (black helmet, white nightstick and revolver) to Nguyen, 5. He picked out a two-foot-high doll (blonde hair, blue eyes, white skin) for Mai, a 5-year-old girl.

“We’re giving the kids the real idea of Christmas,” Sgt. Robert Andreas, 32, of Seaside, Calif., an adviser to the 3rd Quan Canh Battalion, said. “This is the way Christmas should be.”

He said the 95th MP battalion and the U.S. advisers to the 3rd QC battalion decided to give mostly military toys to the boys and dolls to the girls. A few apparent unisex toys (plastic Boeing 707’s and Ford Mustangs made in Japan) went to both boys and girls.

After the gifts were all gone, the kids battled each other to reach the refreshment table and grab orange cardboard plates loaded with vanilla cake, chocolate ice cream and cellophane bags of cherry, lemon and lime candy.

“This is all right, really OK,” Spec. 4 John Myer, 23, of Dallas, Tex., said as dozens of kids swarmed around him grabbing for plates and toppling over bowls and dishes.

Spec. 4 Larry Wickersham, 21, of Wilmington, Del., spooned out a chunk of ice cream onto a plate and had it grabbed from his hands a moment later.

“I think it’s fantastic,” he said before the refreshment table was finally toppled over by hordes of kids. “I think the kids love it. It makes you feel like home. This is really like Christmas.”

A sagging pine, looking more like a weeping willow, was propped up on a wooden tripod in one corner of the patio. It was covered with silver tinsel and maroon streamers. A manger made of camouflage ponchos with chipped plaster figurines inside rested alongside the tree.

A little boy, dressed in blue Scout shorts, streaked past the manger out of the patio. He was carrying a large carton of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream, a plastic M16 and a gold-and-red space gun.

“Goodbye, American,” he said over his shoulder. “Thank you.”

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Pajama games for Christmas

Q: Should the title of a holiday song be “Christmas PJs,” “Christmas PJ’s,” or “Christmas Pj’s”?

A: We’d use two capital letters without an apostrophe in writing the abbreviation of “pajamas.” So our recommendation is “Christmas PJs” for the song title.

We’re treating “PJ” here as an initialism, an abbreviation that’s spoken as letters, like “IQ” for “intelligence quotient” or “ICBM” for “intercontinental ballistic missile.” When we pluralize those, we simply add an “s” at the end: “IQs” and “ICBMs.”

Although most initialisms consist of the first letter or letters of words in a phrase, some are made up of selected letters in a single word, such as “KO” for “knockout” and “TV” for “television.” When we pluralize them, we also add just an “s”: “KOs,” “TVs.” Similarly, the plural of “PJ” would be “PJs” (pronounced PEE-jays).

That’s what we would do, and we’ll explain why later. But first we should mention that this is a matter of style, not correctness. Although publishers generally do it our way, the 10 online standard dictionaries we usually consult are all over the place in capitalizing and punctuating the abbreviation of “pajamas” (spelled “pyjamas” in the UK).

Cambridge and Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online) spell it “PJs” while Merriam-Webster and Merriam-Webster Unabridged spell it “pj’s.” American Heritage gives three separate spellings: “PJs or PJ’s or pj’s” (“or” indicates equal variants).

Here are other entries: Collins, “PJs or pj’s”; Dictionary.com (based on Random House Unabridged), “p.j.’s or P.J.’s”; Longman, “pj’s, PJ’s” (the comma indicates equal variants); Macmillan and Webster’s New World, “pj’s.”

Although you could defend any of those spellings by citing a standard dictionary, we still prefer two capital letters and no apostrophe: “PJs.” In the new fourth edition of Woe Is I, Pat gives her recommendations on pluralizing abbreviations:

Over the years, authorities have disagreed on how we should form the plurals of abbreviations (GI, rpm, RBI), letters (x, y, z), and numbers (9, 10). Should we add s, or ’s ? Where one style maven saw UFO’s, another saw UFOs. One was nostalgic for the 1990’s, the other for the 1990s.

The problem with adding ’s is that we get plurals and possessives confused. Is UFO’s, for example, a plural (I see two UFO’s) or a possessive (That UFO’s lights are violet)?

Here’s what I recommend, and what most publishers do these days. To form the plurals of abbreviations and numbers, add s alone, but to form the plural of a single letter, add ’s. CPAs, who know the three R’s and can add columns of 9s in their heads, have been advising MDs since the 1980s to dot their i’s, cross their t’s, and never accept IOUs. Things could be worse: there could be two IRSs.

Why use the apostrophe with a single letter? Because without it, the plural is often impossible to read. Like this: The choreographer’s name is full of as, is, and us. (Translation: His name is full of a’s, i’s, and u’s.)”

As for the etymology, English borrowed “pajamas” at the beginning of the 19th century from Urdu, adding a plural “s” to the South Asian term pāy-jāma or pā-jāma, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Urdu got the word from Persian, the OED says, where pāy or meant “foot” or “leg,” and jāma “clothing” or “garment.”

The dictionary says the term originally referred to “loose trousers, usually of silk or cotton, tied round the waist, and worn by both sexes in some Asian and Middle Eastern countries.” As Oxford explains, “The loose trousers were adopted by Europeans living in Eastern countries, esp. for night wear, and the word came to be applied outside Asia (originally in trade use) to a sleeping suit of loose trousers and jacket.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from an 1800 memo about the wardrobe of the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in southern India: “Memorandum relative to Tippoo Sultaun’s wardrobe … 3d, pai jamahs, or drawers” (published in The Asiatic Annual Register, 1801).

Interestingly, “pajamas,” the preferred American spelling, showed up before “pyjamas,” the British preference, according to OED citations: “He usually undresses, puts on his pajamas (the loose Turkish trouser).” From The Hand-Book of India, by Joachim Hayward Stocqueler, London, 1844.

The “y” spelling first appeared more than three decades later: “I relinquished my English chemise de nuit and took to pyjamas—bedclothes are not used at this time of year [in Japan].” From a Sept. 6, 1878, diary entry in Round the World in Six Months (1879), by Edward Smith Bridges.

The OED’s earliest example for the abbreviated version is in a 1930 letter from a new cadet at West Point to his parents: “Shirts, sheets, P.J.s, sox, etc.” From Cradle of Valor: The Intimate Letters of a Plebe at West Point Between the Two World Wars (1988), by Dale O. Smith.

The next citation is from a caption in the New Yorker (March 12, 1949): “Toothpaste, check; change of linen, check; pj’s, check.” And the third is from Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog (1964): “Put on those p-j’s now.”

And the most recent cite is from the January 2002 issue of B magazine: “I’d arranged to meet Matt for lunch at 1pm, but was still in my PJs at 12.45pm. He ended up waiting an hour.”

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Is your shirt boiled?

Q: I often see the term “boiled shirt” in older novels, as here in George Orwell’s Burmese Days: “The boiled shirt and piqué waistcoat seemed to hold him upright and stiffen his moral fibre like a breastplate.” I know that it refers to a man’s dress shirt, but why boiled?

A: When the term “boiled shirt” showed up in the US in the mid-19th century, it referred to a white shirt that had been cleaned in boiling water. It was the kind of shirt one would wear to church, the office, a dance, an important meeting, and so on.

The earliest example in the Dictionary of American Regional English is from a June 10, 1853, letter by a California gold miner:

“I don’t look much older, or at least I think I won’t, when I get shaved and get a ‘boiled shirt’ on, which I have not had since I left home, for we don’t boil our shirts here, for we think cold water quite enough in a country where there is no female society.” From the John H. Eagle letters, Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.

(We’ve found an earlier, though less enlightening, example in a humorous story about a practical joke played on a man “in a ‘boiled shirt,’ and clean inexpressibles.” From the June 3, 1848, issue of the Locomotive, an Indianapolis weekly.)

In Roughing It, an 1872 travel book cited by DARE, Mark Twain writes about the hostility of California miners in blue shirts toward men in white shirts: “They had a particular and malignant animosity toward what they called a ‘biled shirt.’ ”

In the early 20th century, people began using the term “boiled shirt” for the stiff, heavily starched shirts that men wore with formal wear. These shirts featured rigid reinforced fronts, firm detachable collars, and stiffened cuffs.

Here’s an early example that we’ve found: “You may be able to force an old-fashioned man to wear evening dress and a boiled shirt after he becomes wealthy, but you can’t convince him that he is eating Dinner at Supper time” (Los Angeles Herald, Nov. 19, 1915).

When Orwell uses the term in Burmese Days, he’s also referring to the heavily starched dress shirt worn with formal wear. In the 1934 novel, Mr. Lackersteen wears a boiled shirt with a white dinner jacket at the European Club in Kyauktada, a fictional district in colonial Burma, now Myanmar.

Dorothy L. Sayers has fun with the noisy front of a boiled shirt in Gaudy Night, a 1935 mystery. At a reunion dinner at Oxford’s Shrewsbury College, a benefactor of the school, Dr. Noel Threep, has a front so stiff that it pops as he moves:

“When he bent over his plate, when he turned to pass the mustard, when he courteously inclined himself to catch what his neighbour was saying, his shirt-front exploded with a merry little report like the opening of ginger-beer.”

Miss Pyke, the college’s classical tutor, asks Lord Peter Wimsey about the popping and he explains: “The explosive sound you mention is produced when the shirt-front is slightly too long for the wearer. The stiff edges, being forced slightly apart by the inclination of the body come back into contact with a sharp click, similar to that emitted by the elytra of certain beetles.”

We’ve barely touched on the subject of formal wear in this post. If you’d like to read more, check out the guides for black tie, white tie, and morning wear on the Gentleman’s Gazette website.

[Note, Dec. 23, 2019. A reader comments: “About the ‘boiled shirt.’ The term may have to do with starching. Real, old-fashioned starch, the sort that comes in a box, must be dissolved in boiling water. Once it has been dissolved, shirts (and anything else) are soaked in the solution. The clothes are hung until damp, then ironed. The result is akin to a bullet-proof vest: not particularly comfortable, but it never wrinkles.”]

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A jerry-rigged etymology

Q: Growing up in the 1950s, I heard World War II veterans use “Jerry-rigged” to describe the booby traps, repairs, etc., that German soldiers made from whatever materials were on hand. I don’t care what academic snobs say. It has nothing to do with “jury-rigged,” which is rigging a court jury.

A: It’s true that in World Wars I and II, Allied soldiers, sailors, and flyers referred to the Germans as “Jerry.” And with that usage in mind, they may have described makeshift improvisations by the enemy as “jerry-rigged” (though we haven’t found any written evidence of this).

However, the expression “jerry-rigged” was in use for decades before anyone referred to German combatants as “Jerry.” We’ve found uses of “jerry-rigged” dating from the 1890s, when the “jerry” part simply meant badly made.

As we wrote in a 2008 post, standard dictionaries now accept “jerry-rigged” as a legitimate usage. Etymologically, they say, it’s a mash-up of two earlier terms: “jury-rigged” (improvised or makeshift) and “jerry-built” (badly done).

American Heritage calls the verb “jerry-rig” an “alteration (influenced by jerry-build) of jury-rig.” And Merriam-Webster says the adjective “jerry-rigged” is “probably [a] blend of jerry-built and jury-rigged.”

M-W has an interesting discussion of all these terms in an online usage note. As the dictionary points out, the “jerry” here meant shoddily built or cheaply made as far back as the 1830s. And the “jury” we’re talking about is unrelated to the courtroom term; it was an old nautical adjective meaning makeshift or improvised. Similarly, “rig” was originally a nautical verb meaning to fit out with rigging.

So the latecomer here is the use of “Jerry” to mean Germans—either collectively or individually. That usage, first recorded in writing in 1915, was “chiefly” used during the two World Wars—especially the second—as a less derogatory term than “Kraut,” “Boche,” or “Hun,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED suggests the usage was a shortening of “German” plus a “-y” suffix, along the lines of the English nickname “Jerry” (for Gerald, Jeremy, etc.).

The earliest known uses in writing are from Canadian soldiers who served with the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front in World War I. Here are the OED citations:

“Jerry had several shots at me and missed.” (From an entry written Dec. 9, 1915, in The Journal of Private [Donald] Fraser, 1914-1918. This is the first of several references to “Jerry” in the Canadian serviceman’s diary.)

“ ‘Gott strafe the Umpire,’ ‘Heave a bomb at him Jerry!’ ” (A Christmas Garland from the Front, published in December 1915 by the 5th Canadian Battalion, 1st Canadian Division, then fighting in France and Belgium. The quotes are from a baseball game at a rest camp away from the firing line.)

But the term was not just Canadian, as these OED citations show: “They talked of the Germans as ‘Jerries’ ” (from the Scotsman, a journal published in Edinburgh, Sept. 12, 1916) … “Two dead Jerries were brought down to H.Q.” (a Dec. 14, 1916, entry in the journal of Pvt. Frank Dunham, an English stretcher bearer, published as The Long Carry in 1970).

The word “Jerry” was a wartime adjective, too, as in this OED citation from Dunham’s journal: “Our company was accommodated in two Jerry concrete dugouts” (July 10, 1917).

Now for a closer look at those other terms—“jury,” “jerry,” “rig”—and how they came together in compounds.

The use of “jury” to mean makeshift or temporary has roots in Middle English. In the late 1400s, a makeshift, temporary sail was called a “jori-seil” or “jory saile,” according to the University of Michigan’s Middle English Dictionary. (In later centuries the compound was spelled “jury-sail.”)

The adjective “jury,” the OED says, was used by sailors to mean “put together or contrived for temporary use,” and first appeared in its modern spelling in  the compound “jury-mast” (1616). Oxford defines this as “a temporary mast put up in place of one that has been broken or carried away.”

Besides “jury-mast,” we’ve seen such nautical compounds as “jury-rudder,” “jury-rigging,” “jury-tiller,” “jury-hatch,” and “jury-sheets.”

The origins of “jury” aren’t known, though the Middle English Dictionary compares it with the Old French noun jöerie or jüerie (joke, jesting, play). And the OED suggests the possibility that it may have been “a jocular appellation invented by sailors.”

The seafaring verb “rig” appeared around 1500 or earlier, the OED says, and meant “to prepare (a sailing ship or boat) for going to sea,” specifically “to set up the sails and rigging of (a sailing vessel).” Its origins are unknown, the dictionary says.

By the 1700s, “rig” had acquired another meaning, Oxford says: “to construct, put together, or place in position, hastily or as a makeshift.” The dictionary cites this passage from an anonymous poem published in 1754: “Up and rig a jury fore-mast, / She rights! she rights!”

The words “jury” and “rig” were eventually joined in the adjective “jury-rigged,” first recorded in writing in the 1780s. The M-W usage note cites this early example: “La Couronne … bad bottoms, jury rigged” (from the Morning Herald, London, Aug. 16, 1782).

Next we come to “jerry,” the adjective meaning shoddy or badly done. The OED defines it as “constructed unsubstantially of bad materials.” Its origin is uncertain.

M-W cites this early usage from the 1830s: “Mr. Heighton, a house owner … was asked what was the meaning of the Jerry style of architecture. ‘Any thing that is badly built,’ was the reply. … ‘And what do you call the Jerry style?’ ‘If the work is not well done, and the houses not well finished, we call that the Jerry style’ ” (reported from court testimony in the Liverpool Mercury, April 12, 1839).

The compound “jerry built” soon followed. The OED’s definition is similar to that of “jerry” but adds “built to sell but not to last.”

The M-W usage note has this early example: “The warehouses themselves which have been destroyed were of the class called ‘Jerry built,’ ” (the Guardian, London, Sept. 28, 1842).

The OED says the term’s origin is “not ascertained,” but it probably “originated in some way from the name Jerry.”

As we’ve said, those two compounds—“jury-rigged” and “jerry-built”—were blended in the late 19th century to form “jerry-rigged.”

The earliest examples we’ve found begin in the 1890s and are from newspapers published in Australia. Here are examples of the term as a noun, a verb, and an adjective.

“A man in the employ of Mr. E. J. Black narrowly escaped an accident through the tyre coming off his dray. Mr Martin, our blacksmith, fixed him up under ‘jerry-rig.’ ” (A small news item in the Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers’ Advocate, Oct. 17, 1896.)

“The old committee refused to commit the hospital to an expenditure of about £3000, when they had only £1000 in hand, and they are to be succeeded by gentlemen who are going to Jerry-rig a new hospital or bust—we believe they’ll bust.” (An editorial in the Gundagai Independent, Feb. 4, 1903.)

“I learned this one afternoon when something went wrong with the jerry-rigged derrick we were using.” (An article about deep-sea diving in the Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, June 3, 1904.)

When World War I arrived, along with the nickname “Jerry” for Germans, it’s not surprising that the mash-up phrase “jerry-rigged” may have been reinterpreted.

As we’ve said, dictionaries now accept both “jury-rigged” and “jerry-rigged” to describe something put together in a makeshift way. Although “jury-rigged” is more popular, “jerry-rigged” is closing the gap, according to Google’s Ngram viewer, which compares phrases in digitized books.

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Nag, nag, nag

Q: Is the “nag” who’s constantly scolding people related to the “nag” that’s a tired old horse?

A: No, the noun for someone who complains or criticizes isn’t related to the much earlier equine term, which referred to a small riding horse, not one on its last legs, when it showed up in Middle English in the 14th century.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for the older term is from a household account in England for 1336-37: “Item in i ferro anteriore pro le nagg” (“Item: 1 front shoe for the nag”). Published in Household Accounts from Medieval England (1992), by C. M. Woolgar.

The OED says “nag” originally meant “a small riding-horse or pony,” but now usually refers to “an old or feeble” horse. The usage is of uncertain origin, but it perhaps came from neighen, a Middle English verb meaning to neigh (hnǣgan in Old English), according to the dictionary.

Oxford cites the University of Michigan’s online Middle English Dictionary for the “neigh” origin, but adds that it “presents phonological difficulties.” The MED apparently agrees, since it introduces the etymology with a question mark.

Another possible source for the equine “nag” is negge, a word for a small horse in early modern Dutch (spoken about 1500-1800). The OED says Nomenclator, a 1567 dictionary by the Dutch scholar Hadrianus Junius, gives “nagge” as English for negge. However, Nomenclator appeared more than two centuries after “nagg” was used in that medieval household account cited above.

As for the scolding sense of “nag,” it didn’t have quite the same meaning when it first appeared in the Yorkshire dialect of the late 17th century. An entry for “gnag” in a glossary of contemporary provincial expressions defined it as “to gnaw, bite at something hard,” the OED says.

The glossary was unpublished when its author, White Kennett, an Anglican bishop, died in 1728. Oxford University Press, which published a critical edition of the work in 2018 in Etymological Collections of English Words and Provincial Expressions, dates it to the late 1690s.

The OED’s next citation for the verb has the usual spelling: “Nag, to gnaw at anything hard” (from A Glossary of North Country Words, 1825, by the British antiquarian John Trotter Brockett).

The scolding sense of “nag” showed up a few years later. Oxford cites another dialectal dictionary: “Knag, to wrangle, to quarrel, to raise peevish objections” (The Dialect of Craven, in the West-Riding of the County of York, 1828, by William Carr).

The following OED citation has the usual spelling: “The servant writes … to know whether Mrs. Squaw nags” (The Life and Remains of Douglas Jerrold, an 1859 biography by the English journalist William Blanchard Jerrold about his father, a dramatist and journalist).

As for the noun “nag,” the earliest Oxford example is spelled “knag” in the Cumberland dialect of the mid-19th century, in which it meant an act of nagging: “Theer was glee’ an’ Jenn’an’ Jenny Reed, / Aw’ knag, an’ clash, an’ saunter” (The Songs and Ballads of Cumberland, 1866, by Sidney Gilpin).

The dictionary’s first example with the usual spelling is a reference in a London newspaper to “a counter piece of nag in some German Standard” (the Westminster Gazette, Nov. 26, 1894).

Finally, the earliest OED citation for the noun used to mean “a person who habitually nags or finds fault” is from a book by the wife of George Armstrong Custer about her life with the cavalry commander: “To accept the position of ‘nag’ and ‘torment’ was far from desirable” (Boots and Saddles, 1855, by Elizabeth Bacon Custer).

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You’re darn tootin’!

Q: Have you ever addressed “darn tootin’ ”?

A: No, we haven’t. But here goes.

The phrase “darn tootin’ ” emerged in early 20th-century American slang and means “correct” or “absolutely right.” It’s used by itself as an exclamation, or as an adjective in the expression “you’re darn tootin’.”

There are many written forms of the expression. In the earliest example we’ve found, it’s the name of horse in a stunt-riding exhibition:

“Performers from America’s greatest Wild West shows, introducing the celebrated outlaw horses Dam Tootin, Reputation, Helen Blazes, Gee Whiz, Tom Gregory, Aeroplane and many others.” (From an ad in the Santa Rosa [CA] Press Democrat, July 11, 1912.)

We also found an early example with a more euphemistic modifier: “You are ‘mighty tootin’.” (From a filler item headed “Speaking of slang” in the Laurens [S.C.] Advertiser, Dec. 31, 1913.)

The oldest citation given in Green’s Dictionary of Slang is from 1916, when it appeared in “Word List from Nebraska,” an article in the journal Dialect Notes (later named American Speech): “darn-tootin’. adj. Correct, right. ‘You’re darn-tootin’ about that thing.”

That form but without the hyphen (“you’re darn tootin’ ”) appears to be the most common. Other variations begin with “you are,” “yore,” “yer,” and so on, coupled with “damned,” “damn,” “goddam,” or euphemisms like “durn” and “doggone.”

We found this version in a Texas newspaper whose editors used a pair of hyphens for modesty: “When asked if he did not believe that he would soon be well, he responded with his familiar and characteristic phrase, ‘you’re d- -n tootin’ ” (from an interview with an “old scout” called Navajo Bill, El Paso Morning Times, Dec. 6, 1917).

The euphemistic “darn” and variations are used here as adjectives that add emphasis. “Damned” has been used in writing as an intensifying adjective since the late 16th century and “damn” since the late 18th, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The final word is the least variable, almost always written as “tootin’ ” with the “g” dropped, though “tooting” does appear occasionally.

Why does the adjective “tooting” mean “correct” in slang? As Green’s explains, the image is one in which “the intensity of one’s statement” produces “a ‘noisy’ impact.”

Green’s treats this as a figurative use of the verb “toot,” whose literal meaning is “to make a noise” (as of a siren or a horn). The figurative “sound” of the noise amounts to an affirmation, the dictionary says.

The OED treats this use of the adjective “tooting” in much the same way, saying it’s “used, usually with preceding adv. or adj. (as damn or variant), as a strong affirmative or intensive.” Oxford includes the usage within its entry for the literal adjective “tooting,” meaning “that toots, as a horn, siren, etc.,” a usage first recorded in the mid-1600s.

The OED’s earliest example of the slang expression is from a 1932 issue of American Speech: “You’re damn tootin’, emphatic affirmative.”

Oxford also includes examples from American novels in which the adjective is used with a different modifier or no modifier: “You’re plumb tootin’ crazy” (Bernard Malamud, The Natural, 1952). “You tol’ me a tootin’ lie” (Gregory McDonald, Fletch and the Widow Bradley, 1981).

In case you’re curious, the phrase “rootin’ tootin’,” which the OED defines as “noisy, rumbustious, boisterous; lively, ‘rip-roaring,’ ” also dates from the early 1900s and probably originated in the US.

The earliest example we’ve found is from a turn-of-the-century American newspaper: “John was a rootin’-tootin’, fightin’ and shootin’ Border Ruffian from the remote Head Waters of Bitter Crick” (from a short story by George Ade, Houston Daily Post, Sept. 29, 1901).

The OED, whose earliest examples of “rootin’ tootin’ ” are from 1913 and 1924, says this colloquial expression is “chiefly associated with the cowboy culture of the American West.”

In discussing the phrase’s etymology, the OED mentions a “rare” adjective in the Lancashire dialect of England, also written “rootin’ tootin’,” that was defined in the 1800s as “inquisitive” or “meddlesome.” But the American phrase “was probably formed independently,” the dictionary says.

In the British version, Oxford suggests, “rootin’ ” may imply poking about and rummaging, with “tootin’ ” thrown in as a rhyming reduplication (a subject we wrote about in a recent post). But in the American phrase, the sense of noisy and lively is connected with the sound of horns and the fanfare of trumpets.

In discussing the etymology of “rootin’ tootin’,” Oxford draws a comparison with an earlier noun (and occasional adjective) “rooty-toot,” which the dictionary dates from 1852 and labels  “slang (chiefly US).”

The OED defines “rooty-toot” as “something noisy, riotous, or lively; spec. an early style of jazz music. Also: a trumpeting or similar sound; a flourish, a fanfare.”

The dictionary also makes note of a slightly earlier British verb “rooty-toot” (1850), which it calls “an imitative or expressive formation” mimicking “the sound of a trumpet.” The verb is defined as “to make a tooting sound with, or as with, a horn or trumpet. Also: to move or behave jauntily.”

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Why is a turkey leg a drumstick?

(We’re repeating this post for Thanksgiving. It originally ran on Nov. 21, 2012.)

Q: I have a Thanksgiving question: Why is a turkey leg called a “drumstick”? Why not a “club” or a “bat” or a “bowling pin”?

A: You’re right. The leg of a turkey isn’t as long and skinny as a real drumstick. Even the bone alone isn’t quite like a drumstick—it has big knobs at each end instead of a single knob or padded head.

So calling this part of the bird a  “drumstick” seems to be stretching a metaphor. But why use a metaphor at all?

Etymologists think that people started calling this part of a fowl the  “drumstick” because the word “leg” wasn’t polite table talk in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Neither were the words “thigh” and “breast,” so discreet (OK, prudish) diners referred to them as “dark meat” and “white meat.”

Sometimes the breast of the turkey was referred to as—ahem—the “bosom.” And occasionally the term “upper joint” was used instead of “thigh,” and “lower joint” or “limb” instead of “leg.”

Yes, really. There actually was a time when “leg,” “breast,” and “thigh” were considered too coarse for the ears of ladies and unfit for mixed company.

The word “drumstick,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was first used in the mid-18th century  to mean “the lower joint of the leg of a dressed fowl.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from Samuel Foote’s play The Mayor of Garret (1764): “She always helps me herself to the tough drumsticks of turkies.”

Our fellow word maven Hugh Rawson recently discussed
dinner-table euphemisms like these on the Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog.

As he writes, “By the end of the eighteenth century, drumstick was being used by the authors of cookbooks, and it eventually was lumped in with other dinner-table euphemisms.”

Rawson cites a lecture, “The Laws of Disorder,” by the Unitarian minister and speaker Thomas Starr King, who died in 1864: “There are so many that love white meat, so many that can eat nothing but dark meat, two that prefer a wing, two that lie in wait for drumsticks.”

Such terms, particularly in America, made table talk easier for everyone, Rawson explains: “Polite guests at American tables knew that asking a poultry-serving hostess for white meat instead of ‘breast meat,’ dark meat instead of a ‘thigh’ and a drumstick in place of a ‘leg’ saved embarrassment all around.

The 19th-century British novelist and naval captain Frederick Marryat pokes fun at this kind of squeamishness in Peter Simple (1834). In one episode, Rawson points out, the novel’s hero describes a dinner party on the island of Barbados.

“It was my fate to sit opposite a fine turkey, and I asked my partner if I should have the pleasure of helping her to a piece of breast. She looked at me very indignantly, and said ‘Curse your impudence, sar, I wonder where you larn your manners. Sar, I take a lily turkey bosom, if you please. Talk of breast to a lady, sar! – really quite horrid.’ ”

The OED cites another example from Marryat’s works as an example of “limb” as a euphemism for “leg,” a usage it describes as “now only (esp. U.S.) in mock-modest or prudish use.”

In his book A Diary in America: With Remarks on Its Institutions (1839), Marryat says a young American woman told him that “leg” was not used before ladies; the polite term was “limb.” She added: “I am not so particular as some people are, for I know those who always say limb of a table, or limb of a piano-forte.”

That example, like several others from the OED, seems to have been used with humorous intent.

For example, Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his novel Elsie Venner (1861), has this bit of dinner-table conversation: “A bit of the wing, Roxy, or the—under limb?”

And John S. Farmer, in his Slang and Its Analogues, Past and Present (1885), uses this illustration: “Between you’n me, red stockings ain’t becomin’ to all—ahem—limbs.”

Euphemistic language has proven itself useful, not just at the dinner table. It comes in handy for swearing, too.

We’ve written before on Grammarphobia about euphemistic oaths like “doggone it,” and “gosh a’mighty,” milder substitutes for “God damn it” and “God almighty.”

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A hwale of a story

Q: My mom, a high-school English teacher, has given me a hard time all my life (I’m 42 now) about not pronouncing the “h” in “wh-” words like “why,” “what,” “which,” and “when.” Just the other day, she was nagging me about the “h” in “whale.” I think it sounds affected and unnatural to pronounce the “h” in these words.

A: In modern American usage, these “wh-” words can be pronounced with either a simple “w” sound at the beginning, or with a breathier “hw” sound. Online standard American dictionaries recognize both of those pronunciations, though the “h”-less one is much more common.

This wasn’t always the case. The “hw” pronunciation is preferred, for example, in our 1956 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition).

This trend away from the “hw” sound isn’t restricted to American English. The “h”-less pronunciation is the only one listed in most standard British dictionaries.

We discussed the pronunciations of “why,” “what,” “which,” and “when” in a 2011 post, so we’ll focus here on “whale,” which is now pronounced as either “wale” or “hwale” in American usage.

Online standard American dictionaries, like American Heritage, Merriam-Webster’s, and Dictonary.com (based on Random House Unabridged), recognize both pronunciations. Online British dictionaries, like Cambridge, Longman, and Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online), list only the “h”-less pronunciation.

For most English speakers, the words “whale,” “wail,” and “wale” are homophones—words that are pronounced alike but differ in spelling, meaning, or origin. As Merriam-Webster explains in a usage note, “in most dialects the words are pronounced identically, making them auditorily indistinguishable.”

The oldest of the three words, “whale,” referred to any large sea creature when it first appeared in Old English as hwæl. At that time, the hw was pronounced like a breathy “w” and the æ ligature sounded like the “a” of “pal.”

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to a horshwæl, or walrus, as a small hwæl:

“Se hwæl bið micle læssa þonne oðre hwalas” (“That whale is much smaller than other whales”). From a late ninth-century translation of Orosius’s Historiae Adversus Paganos, written in Latin in the early fifth century.

The usage is also found in an Old English poem that uses hwale for a mythical sea creature that’s a cross between a serpent and a turtle. The creature is so big that seafarers mistake it for an island and board it—to their regret. Here’s the beginning of the poem, from the Exeter Book, a 10th-century anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry:

“Nu ic fitte gen ymb fisca cynn wille woðcræfte wordum cyþan þurh modgemynd bi þam miclan hwale. Se bið unwillum oft gemeted, frecne ond ferðgrim, fareðlacendum, niþþa gehwylcum; þam is noma cenned, fyrnstreama geflotan, Fastitocalon.”

(“Behold, from my wellspring of song and speech, I’ll craft a poem about a giant among the tribe of fish, the whale. Men who sail the sea oft encounter him unwillingly, that dread stalker of mankind. He’s named, as we know, the ocean swimmer, Fastitocalon.”) The name comes from the Greek άσπιδoχελώνη (aspidocheloni), or asp turtle.

The word was spelled various ways in Middle English (whal, wal, whall, wale, whalle, and so on) until whale showed up in the late 14th century. The first OED citation with the modern spelling is from “The Summoner’s Tale” in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1386):

“Me thynketh they been lyk Iovinyan / Fat as a whale and walkynge as a swan.” (Iovinyan, the whale-like character mentioned here, was Jovinian, a fourth-century monk who opposed ascetism.)

With the Old English and Middle English examples we’ve seen, it’s unclear exactly when the word evolved from its original sense of a large sea creature to its modern meaning of a very large marine mammal with a fishlike body, a horizontal tail fin, and a hole for breathing on top of its head.

The online Merriam-Webster Unabridged places the “first known use” of the modern sense at some time “before 12th century,” but it doesn’t give a citation.

In a 2016 post, we discuss some other “wh-” words that began with hw– in Old English, such as hwæt (“what”), hwanne (“when”), hwǽr, (“where”), hwæs (“whose”), hwā (“who”), hwí (“why”), hwelc (“which”), and hwæðer (“whether”).

The OED says the “normal Old English spelling hw was generally preserved in early Middle English,” and the “modern spelling wh is found first in regular use in the Ormulum,” a 12th-century religious work in which whillc is used for “which.”

“In Old English the pronunciation symbolized by hw was probably in the earliest periods a voiced bilabial consonant preceded by a breath,” according to the dictionary. (A voiced bilabial consonant is one in which the vocal cords vibrate and the air flow is restricted by the lips.)

Interestingly, the words that began with hw in Old English have given us two types of “wh” words today: those in which the “w” sound predominates (“why,” “where,” “when,” etc.) and those in which the “h” sound predominates (“who,” “whole,” “whose”).

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When a nudge is a noodge

Q: A recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times referred to journalists as “impertinent nudges.” Did the writer confuse “nudges” with the Yiddish “noodges”? Or has the former become an acceptable way to spell the latter?

A: The Times usually spells the word “noodge,” but “nudge” does show up every once in a while, according to our searches of the newspaper’s online archive. Some standard dictionaries include both spellings of the word, which is a noun for a nag or whiner and a verb meaning to pester or complain.

The example you noticed was in an Oct. 21, 2019, Op-Ed column by Michelle Cottle about the questioning of Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff: “Journalists being the impertinent nudges they are, Mr. Mulvaney soon found himself fielding questions about impeachment.”

The paper’s use of the “nudge” spelling for the word of Yiddish origin dates back to the early 1970s: “He’s not a writer, he’s a nudge. On the phone twice a day asking how’s it going!” (“The Literary Cocktail Party,” an essay by William Cole, New York Times Book Review, Dec. 3, 1972).

A quarter-century later, the language writer William Safire criticized the use of the “nudge” spelling in another Times article, arguing that the English term is derived from “a Yiddish word more closely represented as noodge” (On Language, New York Times Magazine, Nov. 9, 1997).

We see no reason why an English word derived from a foreign language has to be spelled or pronounced like its foreign source. However, we’d use the “noodge” spelling to avoid confusion with the much older and more common English word “nudge,” a noun for a light touch or a verb meaning to touch or push.

(The two are pronounced differently. The vowel sound in the Yiddish-derived word, no matter how it’s spelled, is like the one in “foot.” The older English word rhymes with “fudge.”)

Seven of the ten online standard dictionaries we regularly consult have entries for the Yiddish-derived term, with three spellings given: “noodge,” “nudge,” and the less common “nudz.”

Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online), Collins, and Merriam-Webster give “noodge” as the only spelling. Webster’s New World lists “noodge” as the primary spelling and “nudge” as a slang variant. American Heritage, Dictionary.com (based on Random House Unabridged), and the subscription-only Merriam-Webster Unabridged list “noodge” and “nudge” as equally common variants, with M-W Unabridged adding “nudz” as a less popular variant.

The earliest examples that we’ve found for the noun as well as the verb are from “The Wife Game” (1963), a short story by Lenore Turovlin. As far as we can tell, the story first appeared in the August 1963 issue of McCall’s magazine. This is from a reprint in the Australian Women’s Weekly, Dec. 4, 1963:

“What’s a noodge, Daddy?” Vicky asked.
“A noodge,” Walt instructed her solemnly, “is one who noodges.”
“If you mean nudge,” I began.
“No. There’s a difference,” Walt said. “A nudge is like a gentle prod, but a noodge keeps it up, on and on and on.”
“A nag,” Bruce supplied.
“Well, sort of,” Walt said, “but with your best interests at heart—and never lets you forget it.”

Those examples for the noun and verb are earlier than the ones in the Oxford English Dictionary, but the OED says the verb is “implied” by the gerund “noodging” in this citation:

“Most of Malamud’s stories turn about a relationship drawn from Jewish tradition—an ‘unwelcome pairing,’ full of quarrelling, rejection, disputation, pursuit, persistence, and noodging (a sort of dogged wheedling).” From the May 1960 issue of Encounter.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the noun “noodge” as “a person who persistently complains or nags; a pest, a bore,” and the verb as “to pester, to nag at,” or “to whine, to complain persistently.” It describes both as “slang (chiefly U.S.).”

Oxford spells the verb and noun “noodge,” and notes that the “nudge” spelling is “remodelled after” the older English verb “nudge.” It says “noodge” is derived from nudyen, Yiddish for to bore or pester, which in turn comes from similar terms in Polish or Russian.

The dictionary notes an earlier colloquial term for a pest or boor, “nudnik,” which English borrowed from Yiddish in the early 20th century: “He’s a great nudnik (bore), Zili the tailor” (Sholem Aleichem, Fort Wayne [IN] Journal-Gazette, Jan. 16, 1916).

The citation is from “Off for America,” which appeared in various newspapers and magazines a few months before the author died. It’s an authorized English translation by Marion Weinstein of a Yiddish section of Sholem Aleichem’s unfinished last novel, The Adventures of Mottel the Cantor’s Son.

As for the older English word “nudge,” both the verb and noun showed up in writing in the 17th century. The OED says the term is of uncertain origin, but it points readers to nugge, Norwegian for to push or nudge, as a possibility.

The verb came first, and originally meant “to push or prod (a person) gently, esp. with the elbow, for the purpose of attracting attention, etc. Also: to give (a thing, etc.) a slight shove or series of shoves,” Oxford says.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Homer’s Odysses, a 1675 translation of the Odyssey by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes: “When a third part of the night was gone, I nudg’d Ulysses (who did next me lie).”

When the noun “nudge” appeared two decades later, the OED says, it meant “a gentle push or prod, esp. with the elbow, usually intended as a prompt or hint to someone; (also) a slight shove given to an object, esp. to dislodge or free it.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from The Adventures of Covent-Garden, a 1699 novella by the Irish dramatist and actor George Farquhar: “Peregrine would have answered, but a pluck by the Sleeve obliged him to turn from Selinda to entertain a Lady Mask’d who had given him the Nudg.”

Finally, here’s a more recent example from the Harvard Business Review that uses both “nudges” (prods) and “noodges” (pests):

“Nudges aren’t always perceived as helpful. Regardless of the creator’s intentions, nudges can feel patronizing or subtly manipulative and could backfire if recipients perceive them as noodges, a Yiddish term that means ‘nuisance or pest.’ ” (“How to Overcome Clinicians’ Resistance to Nudges,” May 3, 2019, by Amol S. Navathe, Vivian S. Lee, and Joshua M. Liao.)

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How possessive are you?

Q: I am curious why some of us were taught to use an apostrophe plus “s” to make a possessive of a singular proper noun ending in “s,” “x,” or “z,” while others were taught to use just an apostrophe.

A: Many people don’t realize that the conventions of punctuation are largely matters of style, and they’re much more fluid than the conventions of grammar. As we noted in a 2011 post, the customs of punctuation sometimes shift.

We wrote that an apostrophe plus the letter “s” has generally been used to mark the possessive case of singular nouns for at least three centuries, and that this has been true whether or not the nouns ended in a sibilant like “s,” “x,” or “z.”

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed., edited by Jeremy Butterfield) has this to say:

“The apostrophe before s became regulated as an indication of the singular possessive case towards the end of the 17c., and the apostrophe after s was first recorded as an indication of the plural possessive case towards the end of the 18c.”

Fowler’s says these “basic patterns” apply to proper names ending in “s.” So add an apostrophe plus “s” to a  singular name, Butterfield writes, “whenever you would tend to pronounce the possessive form of the name with an extra iz sound, e.g. Charles’s brother, St James’s Square, Thomas’s niece, Zacharias’s car.”

However, he notes that “gross disturbances of these basic patterns have occurred in written and printed work” since then, and “further disturbances may be expected in the 21c.”

In the mid-20th century, it was not uncommon to be taught to drop the possessive “s” and use only an apostrophe after words ending in a sibilant (as in “Charles’ brother”). Although this isn’t a common practice today, it’s still sometimes seen in published writing.

The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.) says some writers and publishers still prefer a system “of simply omitting the possessive s on all words ending in s.” However, the manual says that this system is “not recommended” because it “disregards pronunciation.”

This is what the Chicago Manual advocates: “The possessive of most singular nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe and an s. … The general rule stated at [that paragraph] extends to the possessives of proper nouns, including names ending in s, x, or z.”

The examples given in the Chicago Manual include “Kansas’s legislature,” “Marx’s theories,” “Berlioz’s works,” “Borges’s library,” and “Dickens’s novels.”

To show just how changeable these customs can be, we wrote a post in 2018 on shifts in possessive forms of ancient classical or biblical names that already end in “s,” like “Moses” and “Euripedes.”

The traditional custom had been to add just an apostrophe, but in current practice the additional “s” is optional, depending on whether or not it’s pronounced: “Euripides’ plays” or “Euripides’s plays,” “Moses’ staff” or “Moses’s staff,” “Jesus’ teachings” or “Jesus’s teachings.”

As Pat writes in the new fourth edition of Woe Is I, “Let your pronunciation choose for you. If you add an extra syllable when pronouncing one of these possessive names (MO‑zus‑uz), then add the final s (Moses’s). If you don’t pronounce that s (and many people don’t, especially if the name ends in an EEZ sound, like Euripides), then don’t write it.”

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Shadows on the wall

Q: I’m stumped by the use of “due” in this sentence by Bertrand Russell about Plato’s cave allegory: “Inevitably they regard these shadows as real, and have no notion of the objects to which they are due.”

A: In the cave allegory, as you know, a group of people have lived chained to the wall of a cave since childhood, and shadows cast on the wall by a fire behind them become the prisoners’ reality.

In History of Western Civilization (1946), Bertrand Russell discusses the allegory, a Socratic dialogue in Plato’s Republic, written in the fourth-century BC. Here’s an expanded excerpt that puts Russell’s sentence into context:

“Between them and the wall there is nothing; all that they see are shadows of themselves, and of objects behind them, cast on the wall by the light of the fire. Inevitably they regard these shadows as real, and have no notion of the objects to which they are due.”

In that last sentence, “the objects to which they are due” means “the objects to which they are attributable” or “the objects that they are due to” or simply “the objects that caused them.”

We wonder if Russell’s awkward wording may have been due to his unwillingness to end the sentence with “due to.” However, the so-called rule against ending a sentence with a preposition is a common misconception that we’ve written about on our language myths page.

As for “due to,” the usage showed up in the 17th century as an adjectival phrase meaning “caused by” or “resulting from.” But over the last century and a half, it has also been used adverbially as a compound preposition meaning “because of” or “on account of.”

The newer usage is now accepted by all 10 online standard dictionaries that we regularly consult. Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, cites this example of “due to” used to modify a verb: “he had to withdraw due to a knee injury.”

Despite the acceptance by dictionaries, some traditionalists still object to the usage. The critics insist that “due to” should introduce an adjectival phrase that modifies a particular noun.

When “due to” first showed up in writing, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, it was used adjectivally in the predicate to mean “attributable to a particular cause or origin; derived or arising from; caused by, consequent on; as a result of.”

The OED’s earliest example is from a scientific treatise: “The motion of the Oyly drops may be in part due to some partial solution made of them by the vivous spirit” (The History of Fluidity and Firmnesse, 1669, by Robert Boyle).

However, the OED says the usage was rare before the 19th century, when it widened to include the use of “due to” as a compound preposition meaning “as a result of, on account of, because of.”

The dictionary’s first example for “due to” used adverbially as a compound preposition is from another scientific treatise: “electric currents produced by periodical variations of temperature at its [the earth’s] surface, due to the sun’s position above the horizon” (1840, Royal Society report on a British expedition to Antarctica; we’ve expanded the citation to include the verb).

“This use became well established during the 19th century, and is now usually regarded as acceptable standard English, but began to be criticized in usage guides in the early 20th century, apparently beginning with H. W. Fowler,” the OED says.

In the 1926 first edition of his Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Fowler says “due to is often used by the illiterate” as “a mere compound preposition.” But in the 2015 fourth edition, Jeremy Butterfield says “it looks as if this use of due to is now part of the natural language of the 21c.”

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Lock, stock, and barrel

Q: Can you explain the expression “lock, stock, and barrel”? I know that it means all of something, but does it refer to the actual parts of a firearm?

A: Yes, the individual words refer to parts of a gun, but the phrase itself has almost always been used figuratively.

The “barrel” here is a gun barrel, the “stock” is the handle, and the “lock” is the firing mechanism where loose powder is exploded in old-style firearms (hence terms like “flintlock,” “matchlock,” and so on).

The phrase was inspired by an old joke about a rural Scotsman who takes his worn-out gun to be repaired. But it’s virtually beyond repair, and the gunsmith suggests he should simply buy a new one. The Scotsman replies that he’ll settle for a new stock, a new lock, and a new barrelin other words, a whole new gun.

We’ve seen dozens of versions of the story, dating from the late 1700s onward. Usually the weapon is called a “gun,” but sometimes it’s a “pistol,” a “musket,” or a “fowling-piece” (a light shotgun). This is the earliest reference we’ve found to the story:

“When we think of the other improvements which this work would need, before it could be rendered useful, we cannot help recollecting the story of a gun which, in order to be repaired, required a new stock, a new lock, and a new barrel.” (From a review of a book on agriculture in the Monthly Review, London, March 1790.)

And the Scottish poet Robert Burns referred to it in a letter written in April 1793: “Let him mend the song, as the Highlander mended his gun; he gave it a new stock, a new lock, and a new barrel.”

The resulting figurative phrase—originally “stock, lock, and barrel”—means “as a whole; entirely,” or “the totality or entirety of something,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and its earliest examples are from Scottish authors.

The OED’s first confirmed figurative usage is from a letter written by Sir Walter Scott on Oct. 29, 1817, in reference to an old fountain on his estate: “Like the High-landman’s gun, she wants stock, lock, and barrel, to put her into repair.”

We found this 1819 example in the writings of another Scotsman: “I am afraid that if the Americans continue to cherish a fondness for such repairs, the highlandman’s pistol, with its new stock, lock, and barrel, will bear a close resemblance to what is ultimately produced.”

(From a letter written on Feb. 10, 1819, by John Duncan, commenting on Americans’ readiness to overhaul their state constitutions. His letters were published in Glasgow in 1823 as Travels Through Part of the United States and Canada.)

And this Oxford example refers to a financial disaster: “Even the capital likewise—stock, lock, and barrel, all went.” (From Lawrie Todd, an 1830 novel by John Galt about a Scotsman who emigrates to North America.)

In our searches of old newspaper databases, we found that the phrase persisted in that order (“stock, lock, and barrel”) well into the 20th century, though it fell off sharply in the 1930s.

Meanwhile, a version with the first two nouns reversed—“lock, stock, and barrel”—had started appearing in figurative use as early as the 1820s (we’ve seen reports of an 1803 American example, but we can’t confirm it). By the mid-19th century the newer phrase was quite common in both Britain and the United States.

The OED’s earliest confirmed example in which the reversed phrase appears figuratively is from a Pennsylvania newspaper:

“Congress are in possession of the flint, powder, gun, lock, stock and barrel, and still we exclaim with the old lady, take away the musket” (the Adams Centinel, Gettysburg, April 7, 1824).

And we found this example in a work of Irish fiction published two years later: “Maybe you might have the heart to say another word;—one—jist one—that ’ud save poor Peery Conolly sowl an’ body, lock, stock, an’ barrel, an’ ould Matthew along wid him, that’s goin’ to ruination an’ smithereens” (Tales by the O’Hara Family, by the brothers John and Michael Banim, London, 1826).

Why was “stock, lock” reversed to “lock, stock”? We can only suggest that perhaps the resulting phrase came easier to the tongue. Today, as the OED notes, it’s the usual form, and the original “stock, lock” version is “rarely” used.

As for the individual words in the phrase, “lock” in the weaponry sense is defined this way in the OED: “In a gun or firearm which uses loose gunpowder: a mechanism by means of which the charge is exploded.”

The term appeared originally as part of a compound, “firelock.” Oxford’s earliest example is from a 1544 document in the state papers of King Henry VIII: “Some of them shute with maches not having the fyre lockes.”

Other “lock” compounds refer to various firing mechanisms or weapons using them: “matchlock” (first recorded in writing in 1638), “gunlock” (1651), “wheel-lock” (1670), and “flintlock” (1683).

By the time those later compounds were recorded, “lock” was also being used by itself to mean a firing mechanism. Here’s the OED’s earliest example:

“Others carrie … some Peeces, with the Match readie lighted … and haue the best lockes that possible may bee found in all Europe.” (From Discours of Voyages into ye Easte and West Indies, a 1598 translation of a work by Jan Huygen van Linschoten.)

The use of “lock” for part of a gun evolved from the familiar noun for a fastener with a sliding bolt and often operated with a key. That earlier “lock” has been around since early Old English and was “inherited from Germanic,” Oxford says.

As for “stock,” it too has an ancient history and was derived from Germanic. The original Old English noun, now archaic, first meant a tree stump and later a block of wood.

The earliest use of “stock” in weaponry emerged in the late 15th century, when it meant a gun carriage for mounting a cannon or artillery piece. The term in this sense was first recorded as “gunstok” in 1496 and as “stokke” in 1497, according to OED citations.

A “stock” later came to mean “the wooden portion of a musket or fowling-piece” or “the handle of a pistol,” the OED says.

Oxford’s earliest example is from a law enacted in 1541 during the reign of Henry VIII: “Any handgun … shalbe in the stock and gonne of the lenghe of one hole Yarde.” (Note: In early use, a “handgun” meant a firearm carried by hand, as opposed to a cannon.)

Finally, “barrel” in the weapons sense, a use first recorded in the 17th century, comes from the familiar noun for a large roundish wooden cask.

That earlier noun came into English in the early 14th century from French (baril), the OED says, but the ultimate source is medieval Latin (barile). Oxford adds: “The Celtic words (Welsh baril, Gaelic baraill, Irish bairile, Manx barrel) sometimes cited as the source, are all from English.”

It was only natural that the hollow cylindrical metal tube of a firearm should come to be called a “barrel.”

The earliest use in the OED is from Two Treatises (1644) by Sir Kenelm Digby. Here Digby describes an experiment for demonstrating the power of suction, and we’ve expanded the citation to get in the rather alarming context:

“Take the barrel of a long gun perfectly bored and set it upright with the breech upon the ground, and take a bullet that is exactly fit for it … and then if you suck at the mouth of the barrel (though ever so gently) the bullet will come up so forcibly that it will hazard the striking out of your teeth.”

He adds later, “I remember to have seen a man that was uncautious and sucked strongly that had his fore-teeth beaten out by the blow of the bullet ascending.”

Do not try this at home!

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Hallowe’en be thy name

[Note: This post originally appeared on the blog on Halloween of 2014.]

Q: My husband grew up in New York and says “HOLLOW-een.” I grew up in Chicago and pronounce it “HALLOW-een.” Which is right?

A: We answered a similar question five years ago, but this is a good day to revisit it!

As we wrote in 2009, dictionaries accept both pronunciations, but your preference (“HALLOW-een”) is more historically accurate. We’ll expand on our earlier post to explain why.

Back in the seventh century, the early Christians had more saints than they had days in the year. To commemorate the leftover saints who didn’t have a day all to themselves, the church set aside a day devoted to all of them, and in the next century the date was standardized as Nov. 1.

The Christian holiday became known as the Day of All Saints, or All Hallows Day. “Hallow,” an old word for a holy person or a saint, evolved from the Old English word halig, meaning “holy.”

Meanwhile, the pagan Celts of northwestern Europe and the British Isles were already celebrating Oct. 31, the final day of the year in the Celtic calendar. It was both a celebration of the harvest and a Day of the Dead, a holiday on which the Celtic people believed it was possible to communicate with the dead.

As Christianity spread, these celebrations neatly dovetailed. The pagan Day of the Dead was transformed by Christianity into the Eve of All Saints, or All Hallows Eve. This later became All Hallow Even, then was shortened to Hallowe’en and finally Halloween.

Pat spoke about this recently on Iowa Public Radio, and mentioned some of the whimsical names for the night before Halloween. Like the pronunciation of “Halloween,” these regional names vary across the country: Devil’s Night … Cabbage Night … Goosey Night … Clothesline Night … Mischief Night … Hell Night, and so on. (Sometimes, these occasions are excuses for vandalism and general bad behavior.)

Several Iowa listeners called and tweeted to say that in the small rural towns where they grew up, kids went “corning” on the night before Halloween, throwing handfuls of corn at neighbors’ windows and doors. Well, perhaps that’s better than throwing eggs or strewing trees with toilet paper!

Pat also discussed the etymologies of some of the more familiar Halloween words:

● “Ghost” came from the Old English gast (spirit, soul). It has roots in ancient Germanic words, and you can hear it today in the modern German geist (mind, spirit, ghost). The word “poltergeist” is from German, in which poltern means to rumble or make noise.

People didn’t begin to spell “ghost” with an “h” until the 1400s, probably influenced by the Dutch word, which began with “gh-.”

● “Ghastly,” from the old verb gast (frighten), didn’t always have an “h” either. It was written as “gastliche” or “gastly” in the 1300s. The “gh-” spelling 200 years later was influenced by “ghost,” but otherwise they’re unrelated.

● “Haunt” is derived from an Old French verb meaning “to frequent,” and in the English of the 1200s it meant to do something habitually or frequently. Later, in the 1500s, a figurative use emerged in reference to supernatural beings who would “haunt” (that is, frequently visit) those of us on earth.

● “Goblin” has a spooky history dating back to the fourth or fifth century in France. Legend has it that an extremely ugly and very nasty demon was driven out of the town of Évreux by an early Christian bishop. When the story was recorded later in a medieval Latin manuscript, the demon was called Gobelinus. Thus the word gobelin passed into Old French to mean an evil demon, and in the early 1300s “goblin” came into English.

● “Ghoul,” a relative latecomer, came into English in the late 18th century from Arabic, in which ghul means an evil spirit that robs graves and feeds on corpses. The Arabic word comes from a verb that means to seize.

● “Mummy” also has an Arabic ancestry. It can be traced to the Arabic mumiya (embalmed body), derived from mum, a Persian word for wax. The word passed into Egyptian and other languages, then into 14th-century English, where “mummy” first meant a medicinal ointment prepared from mummified flesh. By the 17th century, it had come to mean a body embalmed according to Egyptian practices.

● “Witch” has its roots in an Old English verb, wiccian, meaning to practice sorcery. There were both masculine and feminine nouns for the sorcerers themselves: a man was a wicca and a woman was a wicce. The “cc” in these words was pronounced like “ch,” so they sounded like witchen, witcha, and witchee. (Wicca, the pagan religion of witchcraft that appeared in the 20th century, is spelled like the Old English masculine wicca though its followers pronounce it as wikka.)

Eventually the nouns for male and female sorcerers (wicca and wicce) merged, the endings fell away, and the word became the unisex “witch” in the 13th century. Later in its history, “witch” came to be more associated with women, which explains a change in this next word.

● “Wizard” literally meant “wise man” when it entered English in the 1400s. But in the following century it took on a new job. It became the male counterpart of “witch” and meant a man who practices magic or sorcery.

● “Vampire” may have its roots in ubyr, a word for “witch” in the Kazan Tatar language spoken in an area of what is now Russia, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins. The OED suggests an origin in Magyar (vampir), the language of modern Hungary. However it originated, the word is now very widely spread and has similar-sounding counterparts in Russian, Polish, Czech, Serbian, Bulgarian, Ruthenian, German, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and even modern Latin (vampyrus). When it came into English from French in the 1740s, it was spelled “vampyre,” which for some reason looks scarier in writing (perhaps it seems more gothic).

● “Werewolf” has come down from Old English more or less intact as a word for someone who can change (or is changed) from a man into a wolf. It was first recorded as werewulf around the year 1000. In those days, wer or were was a word for “man,” so “werewolf” literally means “wolf man.”

● “Zombie” has its roots in West Africa and is similar to words in the Kongo language, nzambi (god) and zumbi (fetish), as the OED notes. Transferred to the Caribbean and the American South in the 19th century, “zombie” was part of the language of the voodoo cult. It first meant a snake god, and later a soulless corpse reanimated by witchcraft.

● “Hocus-pocus” can be traced to the 1600s, when it meant a juggler, trickster, or conjuror. It may even have been the name of a particular entertainer who performed during the reign of King James I (1601-25), according to a citation in the OED.

This man, the citation says, called himself Hocus Pocus because “at the playing of every Trick, he used to say, Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo, a dark composure of words, to blinde the eyes of the beholders, to make his Trick pass the more currantly without discovery.” (From A Candle in the Dark, a 1655 religious and political tract by Thomas Ady.)

It has also been suggested that “hocus-pocus” was a spoof on the Latin words used in the Eucharist, hoc est corpus meum (“this is my body”), but there’s no evidence for that. At any rate, the phrase “hocus-pocus” eventually became a famous incantation. “Hocus” by itself also became a verb and a noun for this kind of hoodwinking, and the word “hoax” may be a contracted form of “hocus.”

● “Weird” once had a very different meaning. In Old English, the noun wyrd meant fate or destiny, and from around 1400 the term “weird sister” referred to a woman with supernatural powers who could control someone’s destiny. This is how Shakespeare meant “weird” when he called the three witches in Macbeth “the weyard sisters.” It wasn’t until the 19th century that “weird” was used to mean strange or uncanny or even eerie.

● “Eerie,” another much-changed word, is one we owe to the Scots. When it was recorded in writing in the early 1300s, “eerie” meant fearful or timid. Not until the late 18th century did “eerie” come to mean inspiring fear—as in spooky.

● “Jack-o’-lantern,” a phrase first recorded in the 17th century, originally meant “man with a lantern” or “night watchman.” It became associated with Halloween and carved pumpkins in the 19th century. And incidentally, the British originally hollowed out large turnips, carving scary eyes and mouths and putting candles inside. Americans made their jack-o’-lanterns out of pumpkins.

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Like more, only more so

Q: I’m seeing “more so” or “moreso” where I would expect “more.” Am I suffering from the usual recency illusion? Can I change it to “more” when editing? I sometimes have trouble knowing whether a language change is far enough along to indulge it.

A: The two-word phrase “more so” is standard English and showed up nearly three centuries ago. You can find it in two of James Madison’s essays in The Federalist Papers and in Jane Austen’s novel Emma.

The one-word version “moreso” has been around for almost two centuries, though it’s not accepted by any modern standard dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological reference, says it’s mainly an American usage.

The OED says “more so” (as well as “moreso”) is derived from the earlier use of “more” with “ellipsis of the word or sentence modified.” That is, it comes from the use of “more” by itself to modify missing words, as in “I found the first act delightful and the second act even more.” (Here “delightful” is missing after “more” but understood.)

The earliest Oxford example for this elliptical “more” usage, which we’ll expand here, is from a Middle English translation of a 13th-century French treatise on morality:

“He ssolde by wel perfect and yblissed ine þise wordle and more ine þe oþre” (“He shall be morally pure and blessed in this world and more in the other”; from Ayenbite of Inwyt, a 1340 translation by the Benedictine monk Michel of Northgate of La Somme des Vices et des Vertus, 1279, by Laurentius Gallus).

Today, the OED says in a December 2002 update to its online third edition, the usage is seen “frequently with anaphoric so” in the phrase “more so (also, chiefly U.S., moreso).” An anaphoric term refers back to a word or words used earlier, as in “I saw the film and so did she.”

The dictionary’s first citation for “more so” is from an early 18th-century treatise by the Irish philosopher George Berkeley: “This is so plain that nothing can be more so” (A Defence of Free-Thinking in Mathematics, 1735). Berkeley, California, was named after the philosopher, who was also the Anglican bishop of Cloyne, Ireland.

The next Oxford example is from a Federalist essay in which Madison discusses the size of districts that choose senators: “Those of Massachusetts are larger than will be necessary for that purpose. And those of New-York still more so” (Federalist No. 57, “The Alleged Tendency of the New Plan to Elevate the Few at the Expense of the Many Considered in Connection with Representation,” Feb. 19, 1788).

In the OED’s citation from Emma, published in 1815, Emma and Mr. Knightley are discussing Harriet’s initial rejection of Mr. Martin: “ ‘I only want to know that Mr. Martin is not very, very bitterly disappointed.’  ‘A man cannot be more so,’ was his short, full answer.”

The one-word version “moreso” soon appeared in both the US and the UK. The earliest British example that we’ve seen is from a clinical lecture on amputation delivered at St. Thomas’s Hospital, London, Nov. 25, 1823:

“In all these cases, it is of infinite importance to be prompt in your decision, moreso almost than in any other cases to be met with in the practice of the profession” (from an 1826 collection of surgical and clinical lectures published by the Lancet).

The earliest American example we’ve found is from an Indiana newspaper: “Cure for the Tooth ache—This is one of the most vexatious of the ills that flesh (or rather nerves) is heir to. The following simple prescription can do no injury, & from actual experiment, we know it to be highly efficacious, moreso than any specific the dread of cold iron ever induced the sufferer to” (Western Sun & General Advertiser, Vincennes, April 29, 1826).

A few months later, the one-word spelling appeared in the published text of a Fourth of July speech at the University of Vermont in Burlington. Here’s the relevant passage from the speech by George W. Benedict, a professor of natural philosophy and chemistry at the university:

“Much has been said of the ingratitude of popular governments. That in those of ancient times, the very individuals to whom they were under the greatest obligations were as liable as others, sometimes apparently moreso, the victims of sudden resentment or the objects of a cold, unfeeling neglect, is doubtless true.”

The OED’s only example for “moreso” is from a late 20th-century book published in Glasgow: “Anyone perceived as being different from society’s norms was a potential target—no-one moreso than the local wise-woman” (Scottish Myths and Customs, 1997, by Carol P. Shaw).

However, the dictionary does have a hyphenated example from the 19th century: “The English servant was dressed like his master, but ‘more-so’ ” (The Golden Butterfly, an 1876 novel by the English writers Walter Besant and Samuel James Rice).

The linguist Arnold Zwicky notes in a May 30, 2005, post on the Language Log that “more” could replace “more so” or “moreso” in all of the OED citations, though the anaphoric versions (those with “so”) may add contrast or emphasis:

“The choice between one variant and the other is a stylistic one. One relevant effect is that, in general, explicit anaphora, as in more so, tends to be seen as more emphatic or contrastive than zero anaphora, as in plain more.”

In the 21st century, people seem to be using the one-word “moreso” in several new nonstandard senses. For example, Zwicky points out that “moreso” is now being used as a simple emphatic version of “more,” without referring back to a word or words used earlier: “alternating more and moreso have been reinterpreted as mere plain and emphatic counterparts, with no necessary anaphoricity.”

Here’s a recent example from an NPR book review of Brynne Rebele-Henry’s Orpheus Girl, an updated version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (Oct. 13, 2019): “Moreso than Hades’s mythic underworld of old, this camp is Actual Hell (and all the trigger warnings that go with that).”

In another innovative reinterpretation, Zwicky says in his 2005 post, “moreso” is being used as a sentence adverb “without any specific standard of comparison implicated.”

It means “moreover” or “furthermore” in this recent sighting on Amazon.com: “Moreso, infants and preschoolers do not have the ability to express feelings of sadness in apt language” (from a description of How to Detect and Help Children Overcome Depression, 2019, by J. T. Mike).

And  “moreso” is being used in the sense of “rather” in this example: “Scientist Kirstie Jones-Williams, who will be helping to train and guide the volunteer researchers, says the goal of the program isn’t to create more scientists, but moreso global ambassadors on the dangers of pollution and more” (from a Sept. 25, 2019, report on NBC Connecticut about a trip to Antarctica).

We’ve occasionally seen the two-word “more so” used in such creative ways too, perhaps influenced by the newer uses of “moreso.” The phrase is a sentence adverb meaning “more importantly” in this query about the hip-hop career of the former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown:

“But we have to know, if Brown starts releasing music, will you listen? More so, will you buy it? Let us know” (an item that appeared Oct. 16, 2019, on Instagram from USA Today’s Steelers Wire).

Although lexicographers are undoubtedly aware of the evolution of “moreso” in the 21st century, none of these new senses have made it into either the OED or the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult. Webster’s New World, the only standard dictionary to take note of “moreso,” merely labels it a “disputed” spelling of “more so.” The online collaborative Wiktionary say it’s a “nonstandard” spelling of the phrase.

Getting back to your question, are you suffering from the recency illusion? Well, perhaps a bit. The term, coined by Zwicky, refers to the belief that things you recently notice are in fact recent. Yes, the anaphoric use of “more so” and “moreso” has been around for centuries, but “moreso,” with its new senses, seems to have increased in popularity in recent years.

Historically, “moreso” has been relatively rare in relation to “more so,” according to Google’s Ngram viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books published through 2008. However, recent searches with the more up-to-date iWeb corpus, a database of 14 billion words from 22 million web pages, suggest that “moreso” sightings may now be on the rise. Here’s what we found: “moreso,” 8,022 hits; “more so,” 107,837.

Should you change “moreso” or “more so” to “more” when editing? That depends.

Since “moreso” isn’t standard English, we’d change it to an appropriate standard term, depending on the sense—“more,” “more so,” “moreover,” “rather,” and so on.

As for “more so,” we’d leave it alone if it’s being used anaphorically. Otherwise, we’d change it to an appropriate standard term.

But as you note in your question, the English language is evolving. If you ask us about this in a few years, we may have a different answer.

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Are you a fuddy-duddy?

Q: Your recent post about reduplicatives reminds me of a conversation (a spat, to be honest) not long ago about “fuddy-duddy.” A man I met called me that and I took it as a negative remark. He argued that it’s not negative and that it’s almost an endearment. Is this just over-sensitivity on my part?

A: Technically, “fuddy-duddy” is a negative term, but it’s one that’s often used affectionately. And some of the examples in standard dictionaries have people referring to themselves as “fuddy-duddies.” In fact, we’ve sometimes called ourselves “fuddy-duddies” because of our love of Victorian novels, Baroque music, and Renaissance art.

Standard dictionaries define a “fuddy-duddy” as someone who’s old-fashioned, fussy, pompous, or boring. However, the noun phrase is usually used in a lighthearted way to refer to an old-fashioned person, as in these examples from Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online:

  • “He probably thinks I’m an old fuddy-duddy.”
  • “Apparently the constitution is just for stick-in-the-mud old white fuddy-duddies.”
  • “I didn’t want to appear like a holier-than-thou fuddy-duddy so I made pleasant small talk with Tonya’s date as though I approved of these sort of shenanigans.”
  • “In the market where these contemporary artists ply their trade, the age-old discipline of drawing human figures is considered a rather fuddy-duddy exercise.”
  • “Perhaps I’m turning into a bit of a fuddy-duddy boring would-rather-stay-at-home kind of guy.”

We think you’re probably oversensitive about this. We don’t believe we’ve ever heard “fuddy-duddy” used other than light-heartedly. Serious critics are more likely to use nouns like “diehard,” “obstructionist,” and “reactionary,” or adjectives like “antediluvian,” “antiquated,” “decrepit,” “moth-eaten,” and “superannuated.”

We mentioned “fuddy-duddy” briefly in our recent post about why people say “zig-zag” rather than “zag-zig.” Both “fuddy-duddy” and “zig-zag” are examples of reduplication, the repetition of similar words or word elements, perhaps with some alteration.

For example, “goody-goody,” with no alteration in the elements, is a simple (or “copy”) reduplicative. One like “zig-zag,” with the vowel sound altered in the repetition, is known as an “ablaut” (that is, vowel) reduplicative. And one like “fuddy-duddy,” with the consonant altered in the repetition, is a rhyming reduplicative.

As for the etymology, “fuddy-duddy” is of unknown origin, the Oxford English Dictionary says. But it cites this entry from A Glossary of the Words and Phrases Pertaining to the Dialect of Cumberland (1899), by William Dickinson and Edward William Prevost: “Duddy fuddiel, a ragged fellow.” Green’s Dictionary of Slang also cites that phrase in the Cumberland dialect (spoken in northern England), but adds a question mark.

In searches of newspaper and book databases, we’ve found examples of “fuddy-duddy” or “fuddydud” that date back to the early 1870s, but none of the early sightings mean old-fashioned. The earliest example we’ve seen with that meaning is from a letter by a Bostonian in the Sept. 2, 1898, issue of the Sun, a New York newspaper:

“The Sun is more truly than any New York paper an American paper. Anger is often a healthy sensation, in that it proves a man to be alive. At home, when I desire the excitement, I read our old fuddy-duddy Transcript, with its wailings over the advance of the nation along its natural path.”

We’ll end with this recent example: “It’s OK. You can call me a fuddy-duddy. I’m not offended. What I am offended by is what I have to put up with—and you do, too—on a nearly daily basis.” (From an Oct. 5, 2019, column by Heather Ziegler in the Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register in West Virginia. Her gripe? Dirty words on T-shirts.)

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Skid row or skid road?

Q: In discussing a crackdown on homeless people in Los Angeles, I got into a disagreement with a friend over the terms “skid row” and “skid road.” I think it’s “row” and my friend says “road.” Any information?

A: Standard dictionaries accept both “skid row” and “skid road” as terms for a rundown part of town frequented by people down on their luck. The usage originated as “skid road,” a logging term, in the late 19th century, but the more common wording for a rundown area has been “skid row” since the mid-20th century.

When “skid road” first showed up in writing, it referred to “a way or track formed of skids along which logs are hauled,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary describes “skids” as “peeled logs or timbers, partially sunk into the ground, and forming a roadway along or down which logs are drawn or slid.”

The earliest OED example is from an 1880 topographical survey of the Adirondacks region: “Advised that lumbermen had cut ‘skid-roads’ on which logs were drawn.”

However, we’ve found this earlier example from the Oct. 30, 1875, issue of the Pacific Rural Press, a weekly published in San Francisco: “Six yoke of oxen were drawing a log over the skid road.” The “skid road” here was a log road leading to a saw mill in northern California. Many early examples are from the West Coast.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang suggests that the original “skid road” may have been a log road that led down to Yesler’s mill in Seattle in the 1850s. But we’ve seen no written evidence that what is now Yesler Way was referred to as a “skid road” earlier than the 1875 California citation above.

In the early 20th century, “skid road” came to mean an area of a town where loggers congregated. The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded here, is from an Aug. 1, 1906, entry in the ship’s log of the SS Columbia, which carried cargo and passengers along the West Coast: “ ‘We’ll likely see him in town.’ ‘Sure, Mike. He’ll be in the Skid road somewhere.’ ”

Such logging hangouts, with their saloons and gambling houses, were soon attracting all sorts of workers who wanted to unwind in their time off. Green’s Dictionary cites this example: “ ‘Skid-road’ is another word from the lumber industry. It has come to mean any street where the ‘working stiff’ hangs out” (from “Westernisms,” a paper by Kate Mullen published in American Speech, December 1925).

The term “skid row” showed up a couple of years later as these honky-tonk areas developed an unsavory reputation. Green’s cites this example from a glossary of criminal slang: “Skid row, n., the lowest strata of the underworld” (“Jargon of the Underworld,” Elisha K. Kane,  Dialect Notes, 1927).

Finally, these places (and their denizens) fell on hard times, with both “skid row” and “skid road” now meaning a “run-down area of a town where the unemployed, vagrants, alcoholics, etc., tend to congregate,” the OED says.

We’ve found this early example in a California newspaper: “Skid row, where down-and-outers find 10-cent beds and 10-cent meals” (San Bernardino Sun, April 6, 1935).

In a little over half a century, a usage that began as a road on which logs were skidded to a saw mill was now a place where people had skidded into lives of insolvency, dissolution, and defeat.

As we’ve said, dictionaries now include “skid row” and “skid road” as standard English. The more common term is “skid row,” though the use of both has fallen off in recent years, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares words or phrases in digitized books.

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Why is a loo a toilet in the UK?

Q: I was at the Museum of Edinburgh and learned about “gardyloo,” the Scottish warning cry before waste water was thrown out the window. Is that where “loo,” the British term for a bathroom, comes from?

A: The origin of “loo,” the informal British word for a toilet or lavatory, is a mystery, though you can find a number of questionable stories about its origins online, including the common belief that the usage comes from “gardyloo.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, sums up the situation this way: “Of unknown origin.” The OED dismisses several doubtful etymologies because of a lack of evidence or chronological gaps. Here is the dictionary’s opinion of “gardyloo” as the source for the toilet sense of “loo”:

“It is frequently suggested that the word is shortened from gardyloo n., but the assumed semantic development is considerable, and not supported by any evidence; additionally, the chronological gap is very considerable between the period when the cry would have had any contemporary currency and the earliest attestations of the present word.”

The term “gardyloo” first appeared in writing in the 17th century, according to the online Dictionary of the Scots Language, but it was obsolete by the time “loo” came to mean a toilet centuries later. (The OED says “gardyloo” is derived from “a pseudo-French phrase gare de l’eau ‘beware of the water’; in correct French it would be gare l’eau.”)

Oxford also dismisses suggestions that the “loo” usage comes from (1) “ablution,” a word we discussed in our recent “Abluting in the loo” post; (2) bourdaloue, an 18th-century French term for a chamber pot; and (3) “Waterloo,” the site of Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 (perhaps a pun on “water closet”).

The dictionary’s earliest “unambiguously attested” example for “loo” used to mean a lavatory is from Pigeon Pie (1940), a comic novel by Nancy Mitford. Here’s an expanded version with more of the original flavor:

“Like in the night when you want to go to the loo and it is miles away down a freezing cold passage and yet you know you have to go down that passage before you can be happy and sleep again.”

The OED has several earlier ambiguous citations suggesting that English speakers may have been using “loo” (or a word that sounded like it) in speech as far back as the late 19th century.

One example is this punning cartoon caption from Punch (June 22, 1895): “We will begin again at ‘Hallelujah,’ and please linger longer on the ‘Lu.’ ” Another is from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922): “O yes, mon loup. How much cost? Waterloo. Watercloset.” And this citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a letter written by Lady Diana Cooper (Feb. 22, 1936): “We’ve come to this very good hotel—your style, with a pretty Moorish bath in an alcove in every room and a lu-lu à côté.”

Although the evidence is sketchy at best for all the “loo” theories we’ve seen, the OED doesn’t quite dismiss the idea that the usage may have come from lieux, plural of lieu, French for place.

In the 17th century, Oxford says, the French used lieux euphemistically to mean latrines (we’ve found a citation in Curiosités Françoises, 1640, by the French linguist Antoine Oudin). And in the 19th century, lieux was used as a short form of the euphemistic lieux d’aisances, places of ease or restrooms.

The dictionary raises the possibility that the French term may have slipped into English in the late 19th century, saying the use “of the French word in an English context in the meaning ‘privy’ may perhaps be shown” by this example:

“I am myself employed in constructing a lieu here in our great Residentiary house, & tho’ I have many & great difficulties to encounter I trust it will turn out a paragon, both for sweetness, utility, & cheapness.” (From a Nov. 14, 1782, letter by the English poet and cleric William Mason. A residentiary house is the home of a canon residentiary.)

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Did muckrakers once rake muck?

Q: I was wondering if the word “muckraker” originated as a literal term for someone whose duty it was to clean stables, latrines, etc.?

A: The word “muckraker” was used figuratively when it showed up in the early 1600s—as a derogatory term for a miser. However, it’s ultimately derived from “muckrake,” literally a tool for raking muck.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun “muckrake” as a “rake for collecting muck; spec. a dungfork; (also) a rake for clearing debris from ponds, etc.” The OED’s earliest example is from a 1366 entry in the accounts of Brandon, a manor in Suffolk, England:

“Vno muckrake cum ij Tyndes ferre” (“One muckrake with two iron tines”). From “English in Manorial Documents of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries,” an article in the August 1936 issue of Modern Philology.

At the time that manorial document was written, “muck” usually referred to “the dung of farm animals used for manure,” the OED says, but by the 15th and 16th centuries it was also being used to mean “mud, dirt, filth; rubbish, refuse,” both literally and figuratively.

In the 17th century, John Bunyan used a “muckrake” as a symbol of man’s preoccupation with earthly things. He describes “a man that could look no way but downwards, with a Muck-rake in his hand” (The Pilgrim’s Progress, Second Part, 1684). Bunyan’s comment inspired some later writers to use “muckrake,” “muckraking,” and “muckraker” in various figurative senses.

In the 19th century, the noun “muckrake” was used figuratively to mean a “ready or indiscriminate means for gathering in wealth, information, etc.,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first figurative citation uses the term in its wealth sense: “Mammon may not lift his eyes from his ‘muckrake’ long enough to see all this” (from Home Evangelization, 1850, published by the American Tract Society).

In the next citation, a “muckrake” is a means for gathering critical information—in this case about the wives of famous men: “Let us rather, with muck-rake and drag-net, make prize of more modern material, which may be found lying loose around and within comparatively easy reach” (from “Some Celebrated Shrews,” by Frank W. Ballard, Galaxy magazine, March 1868).

A decade later, “muckrake” appeared as a figurative verb meaning to be concerned with mundane matters. Here is the OED’s first example: “Men, forgetful of the perennial poetry of the world, muck-raking in a litter of fugitive refuse.” (From the Fortnightly Review, April 1879. Anthony Trollope was a founder of the review, and George Henry Lewes, George Eliot’s companion, was its first editor.)

When the noun “muckraking” showed up at the end of the 19th century, it meant the “practice of uncovering and publicizing evidence of corruption and scandal, esp. among powerful or well-known people or institutions.” The first Oxford citation is from the Fresno (Calif.) Republican Weekly, May 22, 1895: “They would not have been able to learn much in one evening’s muck-raking of such a cesspool of presumed corruption.”

As we’ve said, the noun “muckraker” referred to a miser when it showed up at the beginning of the 17th century. The earliest OED citation is from The Plaine Mans Path-way to Heauen (1601), by the Puritan cleric Arthur Dent:

“We see the world is full of such pinch-pennies, that wil let nothing goe, except it bee wrung from them perforce, as a key out of Hercules hande. These gripple [grasping] muck-rakers, had as leeue part with their bloud, as their goods.”

The only literal uses of “muckraker” we’ve seen are in reference to the downward-looking allegorical character in The Pilgrim’s Progress. For example, Thomas Heptinstall, editor of a 1796 edition of Bunyan’s book, includes a “Key to the Allegory” that refers to him as “the Muck-Raker.”

And a satirical poem in the Sept. 3, 1884, issue of Punch uses the term for an aristocrat waiting for someone to take his bet at a horse race: “And old Lord Snaffle, ‘waiting for a taker,’ / Might sit for Bunyan’s grovelling Muck-raker.”

In the early 20th century, “muckraker” was used figuratively to describe the questionable practices of a newspaper that printed sensationalized stories. We found this example in an Indiana paper, challenging a report that newspapers needed to be swept of sensationalism:

“A large majority of the daily newspapers stand in no need of such regeneration, and the small and dwindling minority which practices the arts of the muck raker and the sideshow ‘barker’ will shortly be out of business” (from the Feb. 28, 1903, issue of the Daily Tribune in Terre Haute).

A few years later, “muckraker” took on its modern metaphorical sense of an author or journalist who investigates and exposes misconduct in government or business. An April 14, 1906, speech in Washington by President Theodore Roosevelt helped popularize the new usage.

Roosevelt used Bunyan’s symbolism in urging reporters and writers to focus on worthy accomplishments as well as corruption: “The men with the muckrakes are often indispensable to the well-being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck, and to look upward to the celestial crown above them, to the crown of worthy endeavor.”

Although the President’s speech didn’t include the word “muckraker,” it began appearing later in the year as a derogatory term for an investigative reporter. The Insurance Age, a monthly trade journal, used it that way to headline a column in November 1906: “Burton J. Hendricks, Reportorial Cub and Muckraker—The End of His Screeds the Best Thing About Them.”

In online standard dictionaries, the noun “muckraker,” verb “muckrake,” and noun “muckraking” have lost much of that negative sense, though not quite all. Cambridge, for example, defines “muckraker” as “a person, especially one in a news organization, who tries to find out unpleasant information about people or organizations in order to make it public.”

Merriam-Webster defines “muckrake” as “to search out and publicly expose real or apparent misconduct of a prominent individual or business.” And Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, defines “muckraking” as the “action of searching out and publicizing scandal about famous people.”

Finally, a “muckrake” on a farm, according to Collins, is still “an agricultural rake for spreading manure.”

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How susceptible are you?

Q: I recently saw the phrase “susceptible to many interpretations.” Normally, I would use “of” as the preposition. Do you agree that it would be more fitting than “to”?

A: We think that either “of” or “to” is acceptable in that construction—“susceptible of many interpretations” or “susceptible to many interpretations.” Both phrases have been used by eminent writers, and as of 2008 the two versions were equally common in published books, according to Google’s Ngram viewer.

A survey of standard dictionaries shows no clear agreement here, but our impression is that a writer of British English would probably use the older “susceptible of” in this context, while an American might use either one.

Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, is a good illustration of the British preference. It defines “susceptible of” as “capable or admitting of,” and gives these examples: “The problem is not susceptible of a simple solution” … “These things are not susceptible of translation into a simple ‘yes or no’ question” … “Each item separately may be susceptible of an innocent explanation.”

Another British guide, Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), agrees, saying that “susceptible of” is “equivalent to ‘admitting or capable of.’ ”  Fowler’s gives these examples: “A passage susceptible of more than one interpretation” … “an assertion not susceptible of proof.”

On the American side, Merriam-Webster Unabridged says that “susceptible” in this sense is “used with of or to.” Here’s how M-W defines this use of “susceptible”: “of such a nature, character, or constitution as to admit or permit: capable of submitting successfully to an action, process, or operation.”

Merriam-Webster’s examples use both prepositions: “susceptible of proof” … “susceptible to solution” … “susceptible of being mistaken.”

Another US dictionary, American Heritage, also illustrates this sense of “susceptible” with both prepositions: “a statement susceptible of proof” … “a disease susceptible to treatment.”

However, one major American dictionary, Webster’s New World, is a hold-out for “susceptible of” in this sense. It says “susceptible of” means “that gives a chance for; admitting; allowing.” Its example: “testimony susceptible of error.”

All dictionaries agree that “susceptible” is used with “to” when it means easily affected or liable to be affected. Examples: “a man susceptible to her charms” … “a child susceptible to ear infections” … “a street susceptible to flooding” … “a boss susceptible to flattery.” (Memory aid: In that sense, “susceptible to” is much like “vulnerable to” or “subject to.”)

And all dictionaries agree that the adjective “susceptible” by itself—with no following preposition—usually means impressionable, emotionally sensitive, or easily moved by feelings. It’s often used to describe tender-hearted people. Examples: “the more susceptible in the audience were in tears” … “a susceptible young man is always falling in love” … “a movie too violent for susceptible children.”

In addition, the bare adjective is used to describe those likely to be affected by something, as in “distemper is deadly, and puppies are especially susceptible.”

As for its history, “susceptible” came into English in the early 17th century as a borrowing from the medieval Latin susceptibilis, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The medieval term, which meant capable, sustainable, or susceptible, was derived from the classical Latin suscipĕre (to take up, support, or acknowledge).

The original meaning of “susceptible” was the one you ask about, “capable of undergoing, admitting of (some action or process).” Here’s the first OED example: “This Subiect of mans bodie, is of all other thinges in Nature, most susceptible of remedie” (Francis Bacon, Of the Proficience and Aduancement of Learning, 1605).

All of the dictionary’s examples for this sense of “susceptible” are accompanied by “of,” but they extend only to 1871 (the OED says its “susceptible” entry has not yet been fully updated).

However, we know that “to” had crept into use in American English by the mid-19th century. We’ve found more than a dozen examples of “susceptible to proof” in American newspapers of the 1800s, beginning with this one:

“Intimations, not perhaps susceptible to positive proof, have reached me that … [etc.]” (from a letter written Feb. 11, 1847, by the acting territorial Governor of California, Lieut. Col. John C. Frémont, and published Dec. 4, 1847, in the Boon’s Lick Times, Fayette, Mo.).

We’ve also found many American examples of “susceptible to interpretation” (since 1874), “susceptible to error” (since 1880), and “susceptible to mistakes” (since 1885). So in American English, the use of “susceptible to” in the sense we’re discussing is solidly established.

The more common meaning of “susceptible”—easily affected or liable to be affected—was first recorded in 1702. This sense was also accompanied by “of” originally, but the OED’s later examples have “to” (“susceptible to attack,” 1883; “susceptible to smallpox,” 1887, and so on).

The newcomer is the bare adjective, with no preposition. This “susceptible” was first recorded in 1709. These are the OED’s most recent examples of the different senses:

“We must remember also the susceptible nature of the Greek” (from Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Dialogues, 2nd ed., 1875) … “By cultures and by inoculations into susceptible animals” (from A System of Medicine, edited by Thomas Clifford Allbutt, 1899).

Like us, you’re probably susceptible to fatigue, so we’ll stop here.

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Petard hoisting

Q: I’ve always thought that one was “hoist on” one’s own petard, but I recently saw it as “hoist by” one’s own petard. I think “on” makes sense and “by” doesn’t.

A: When Shakespeare coined the expression in Hamlet more than 400 years ago, he used the preposition “with.” Online standard dictionaries now include “by” as well as “with.” Both of those make sense to us, though “on” does not.

Merriam-Webster, for example, calls its entry “hoist with one’s own petard or hoist by one’s own petard,” and defines the usage this way: “victimized or hurt by one’s own scheme.” Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online) and American Heritage also include both prepositions.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the expression as meaning “blown into the air by his own bomb; hence, injured or destroyed by his own device for the ruin of others.”

The OED says the usage originated in Act III, Scene 4 of Hamlet (probably written between 1599 and 1602). Hamlet uses it when he speaks of foiling the efforts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to betray him: “Tis the sport to haue the enginer / Hoist with his owne petar.”

The word “hoist” here is a past tense and past participle of the old verb “hoise.” When this verb first appeared as a nautical term in the late 15th century, to “hoise” meant to “raise aloft by means of a rope or pulley and tackle, or by other mechanical appliance,”  the OED says.

Here’s an example from William Caxton’s 1490 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid: “They made the saylles to be hyssed vppe.”

The modern verb “hoist” appeared in the mid-16th century as a corruption of “hoise.” The OED’s first example is from an English translation, overseen by Nicholas Udall, of Erasmus’s Latin paraphrase, or retelling, of the New Testament: “His onely soonne they hoihsted vp and nayled on the crosse.”

The verb “hoise,” which the OED describes as obsolete or dialectal, had two different past tenses and past participles: “hoised” and “hoist.”

When Shakespeare used “hoist” in Hamlet, the raising was done by a “petard,” which Oxford describes as a small bomb made of a metal or wooden box filled with powder, used to blow in a door, gate, etc., or to make a hole in a wall. Now historical.”

The earliest Oxford citation for “petard” is from an obscure 1566 entry in the accounts of the lord high treasurer of Scotland. The next cite is clearer:

“A squib or petard of gun powder vsed to burst vp gates or doores with” (from A Worlde of Wordes, 1598, an Italian-English dictionary by John Florio).

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

When a rose isn’t a rose

Q: Twice in the last few days I’ve seen the hibiscus shrub (or its blossoms) referred to in the plural as “roses of Sharon.” I would have thought it more correct to say “rose of Sharons.” Is there a rule for such plurals?

A: The usual rule for pluralizing a compound term that’s split into parts, with or without hyphens, is to put the plural ending on the most important part, as in  “attorneys-at-law,” “brigadier generals,” and “mothers-in-law.”

The compound common names of plants are usually treated the same way, especially when the key element is a noun at the end: “African violets,” “fringed bleeding hearts,” “morning glories,” “northern blue flags,” “pussy willows,” “trumpet vines,” and “Virginia creepers.”

However, things get fuzzy when the important term is elsewhere in the compound, especially if it’s being used loosely. A “lily of the valley,” for example, isn’t really a lily, nor is a “rose of Sharon” a rose. The terms “lily” and “rose” are being used figuratively in the sense of “flower.”

Similarly, the “Johnny” of “Johnny jump up” refers to a violet, while the “Jack” of “Jack in the pulpit” is a flower-hooded spike. And “forget-me-not” doesn’t even have a key word. It originated as an English translation of the Old French expression “ne m’oubliez mye.”

We haven’t found any special rules for pluralizing such horticultural compounds. And the online standard dictionaries aren’t much help—only a few include plurals for these compounds—and the entries are inconsistent.

Merriam-Webster, for example, includes both “Jack-in the-pulpits” and “Jacks-in-the-pulpit” as standard. American Heritage has “Jack-in-the-pulpits” and “Johnny-jump-ups.” M-W, AH, Collins, and Dictionary.com list “lilies of the valley” as plural. None of the dictionaries have a plural for “rose of Sharon.”

A search of garden websites indicates that some gardeners make the key word plural (“roses of Sharon”), others pluralize the last word (“rose of Sharons”), and still others add a plural noun at the end (“rose of Sharon bushes”).

A search of the iWeb corpus, a database that contains 14 billion words from 22 million web pages, came up with these results: “rose of Sharons,” 30; “roses of Sharon,” 19; “rose of Sharon bushes,” 43; “rose of Sharon plants,” 19; “rose of Sharon trees,” 16; and “rose of Sharon shrubs,” 15.

With no lexical guide and usage up in the air, pick whichever one sounds best to your ears. We’ve planted a few over the years, and “rose of Sharons” sounds more natural to us than “roses of Sharon” or “rose of Sharon bushes.”

As we’ve said, the rose of Sharon isn’t a rose. In fact, the common name may refer to several different plants, including Hypericum calycinum, a flowering shrub native to southeast Asia and southwest Europe, and Hibiscus syriacus, a flowering shrub native to east Asia.

Although the common name has biblical roots, none of the plants now called “rose of Sharon” are likely to have grown in ancient Israel.

In the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) 2:1, the maiden who is one of the two main speakers refers to herself in Hebrew as חבצלת השרון, or havatzelet hasharon. Havatzelet is a flower that has been variously identified as a crocus, lily, daffodil, or tulip. Hasharon is the plain of Sharon along the Mediterranean coast of Israel.

Early English versions of the Old Testament translate havatzelet as “flower.” The Wycliffe Bible of 1384, for example, renders havatzelet hasharon as “flour of the feeld” while the Coverdale Bible of 1535 has it as “floure of the feelde.” It was translated similarly in earlier Greek and Latin versions of the bible: ἄνθος τοῦ πεδίου (anthos tou pediou, flower of the field) in the Septuagint, and flos campi (flower of the field) in the Vulgate.

The Geneva Bible of 1560 was the first English bible to translate havatzelet as “rose”: “I am the rose of the fielde.” The Oxford English Dictionary says “it is not clear why the Geneva Bible uses this particular translation, rather than the generic flower of earlier English versions.”

The first OED example for “rose of Sharon” is from An Exposition Vppon the Booke of the Canticles (1585), by the Puritan clergyman Thomas Wilcox: “I Am the rose of Sharon.” (The Canticles is another name for the Song of Songs.) The King James Version of 1611 uses the same wording as Wilcox.

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Vowel movement

Q: You’ve discussed adjective order (why we say “a perfect little black dress,” not “a black perfect little dress”), but you haven’t written about the order of vowels—why we say “zig-zag,” not “zag-zig.”

A: As we’ve written several times on our blog—in 2010, 2017, and 2019—certain kinds of adjectives occur in a predictable order. An opinion adjective normally comes ahead of one for size, and both come before color. You can see this pattern in “a perfect little black dress.”

However, a phrase like “zig-zag” or “tick-tock” conforms to an entirely different language pattern (call it another unwritten rule if you like). This one governs how we arrange vowel sounds in a sequence.

We touched on this subject before in a 2015 post about so-called “reduplicative” words, those formed by the repetition of similar words or word elements, perhaps with some alterations.

For example, “goody-goody,” with no alteration in the elements, is a simple (or “copy”) reduplicative. One like “fuddy-duddy,” with the consonant altered in the repetition, is a rhyming reduplicative. And one like “zig-zag,” with the vowel sound altered in the repetition, is known as an “ablaut” (that is, vowel) reduplicative.

And as it happens, ablaut reduplicatives conform to a pattern, one in which vowel sounds naturally occur in a certain order. Invariably, a high vowel (quick, tight, and pronounced at the front of the mouth) will be reduplicated by a lower one (more drawn out, open, pronounced further back). Here’s how this works.

A short “i” sound, as in “zig,” comes before an “a” sound, as in “zag.” This is why we prefer “zig-zag” to “zag-zig,” just as we prefer “riff-raff” to “raff-riff” and “wishy-washy” to “washy-wishy.”

Similarly, a short “i” sound comes before an “o” sound (“flip-flop,” “criss-cross”). Here are the most common reduplicatives that illustrate this “i-a-o” (think of “tic-tac-toe”) order.

  • “i” before “a” sounds: “zig-zag,” “riff-raff,” “pitter-patter,” “mish-mash,” “splish-splash,” “dilly-dally,” “shilly-shally,” “tittle-tattle,” “jingle-jangle,” “wishy-washy,” “flim-flam,” “knick-knack,” “chit-chat,” “wig-wag”
  • “i” before “o” sounds: “tick-tock,” “clip-clop,” “flip-flop,” “hip-hop,” “tip top,” “drip-drop,” “criss-cross,” “ding-dong,” “ping pong,” “King Kong,” “sing song”

(Less significantly, an “ee” sound comes before an “o” or “aw” sound, but there aren’t many ablaut reduplicatives like this. Among the few examples are “see-saw,” “teeter-totter,” “be-bop,” and “hee-haw.”)

Patterns of ablaut reduplication are found not only in different languages, but in entirely different language families. The phenomenon has been discussed by philologists for more than a century and a half, with early research papers on the subject dating as far back as 1862.

English speakers have been forming new words by this kind of repetition since the Middle Ages. Historically, as the linguist Donka Minkova has written, simple or “copy” reduplicatives (like “yo-yo”) came first, with the others appearing by the end of the 15th century—the rhyming types, like “hocus-pocus,” and the ablauts, like “riff-raff.” (From “Ablaut Reduplication in English: The Criss-crossing of Prosody and Verbal Art,” published in the journal English Language and Linguistics, May 2002.)

The formation of new reduplicatives, Minkova writes, “declined sharply in the twentieth century.” (She rules out formations in which one half modifies the other: “Super-duper is a case of reduplication, while pooper scooper is not.”)

Scholars aren’t the only ones to take note of such patterns. Marketers are on the case, too. Think of ablaut reduplicatives the next time you spot brand names like “Kit Kat,” “Tic Tac,” “Spic and Span,” and “Ding Dongs.”

What happens when there’s a clash between the unwritten rules of adjective order and vowel order? The usual arrangement of the vowels seems to take precedence over the order of the adjectives.

That’s why we say “big bad wolf” instead of “bad big wolf.” A short “i” sound, as in “big,” comes before an “a” sound, as in “bad.”

Of course, “big bad” is not itself a reduplication—that is, a single element being echoed. But we have a choice in how to arrange two short adjectives. And the preferred order is based not on the meaning of the words but on their vowel sounds.

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A job is a job is a job

Q: I’m bugged by the use of “job” and “of” in this sentence: “I have the job of delivering the bad news.” The “job” here is a task, not a position, and what is the “of” doing there? There’s no possession involved.

A: You raise two issues—the meaning of the noun “job” and its use with the preposition “of.” We’ll start with the noun.

A “job” doesn’t always mean an occupation or line of work. It can also mean a task, a responsibility, or simply something that needs to be done—senses of the word that have been common for centuries.

So a person can have both “the job of sales assistant” and “the job of delivering the bad news.” And a company that’s lagging in some area can try “to do a better job.” In modern English, “job” has these and many other senses.

However, when the noun “job” came into English in the 16th century it didn’t mean a paid position, as it does today. It originally meant “a piece of work; esp. a small and discrete piece of work done as part of one’s regular occupation or profession,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word first appeared in the phrase “job of work,” recorded in documents (dated 1557-58) relating to the reigns of King Edward VI and Queen Mary : “Doinge certen Iobbes of woorke.” (The letter “i” was used before “j” became established.)

Here’s a later example with the word used alone: “I cannot read, I keep a Clark to do those jobbs for need” (from Thomas Middleton’s play The Mayor of Quinborough, 1615–20, known today under the title Hengist, King of Kent).

The origins of the word “job” are unknown, the OED says, but it’s significant that in the mid-1500s a separate noun “job” meant “a cartload,” or “the amount that a horse and cart can bring at one time.” (This later led to the dialectal nouns “jobble” and “jobbet,” for a small load of hay or whatnot.)

So it’s possible that the two kinds of “job” are etymologically connected. The OED suggests that the original “job” (in “a job of work”) may have conveyed the sense of a “piece” or a “mass”—that is, an amount of something that needed to be carried or moved and hence represented a task.

In fact, the noun “jobber” (1600s), in the sense of a small trader, may also derive from that early sense of “job” as a cartload of something to be hauled.

Apart from its mysterious etymology, “job” later developed many wider meanings than the “piece of work” definition given above. Here are some of them in chronological order, with the OED definitions:

  • “An isolated or casual piece of work, undertaken for a one-off payment or on a hire basis” (first recorded in 1660).
  • Criminals’ slang. A crime, esp. one arranged beforehand; spec. a theft, a robbery” (1679).
  • “A task, a thing to be done; an operation, a procedure; a function to be fulfilled” (1680).
  • “A state of affairs, a situation, a set of circumstances,” frequently used with a modifier (1680), as in the 19th-century phrase “to make the best of a bad job.”
  • Printing. A small piece of miscellaneous work, such as the printing of posters, leaflets, cards, etc.” (1770).
  • “A paid position of regular employment, a post, a situation; an occupation, a profession” (1781).
  • “A difficult task” (colloquial), as in “That was a job!” (1832).
  • “A person’s particular responsibility, duty, or role,” as in “It was my job to pay all the bills” (1841). This is the sense of “job” in the sentence you ask about.
  • “A piece of work carried out using the tool or material specified,” used with a modifying noun, as in “needle job” (1846).
  • “An operation involving cosmetic surgery … the result of such an operation” (colloquial), used with a  modifying noun, as in “nose job” (1947).

Finally, you ask what “of” is doing in “the job of delivering the bad news.” The expression is a genitive construction, not a possessive. As we’ve noted several times on our blog, the term “genitive” is broader than “possessive.”

In addition to possession (“the lawyer’s office”), the genitive can indicate the source of something (“the girl’s story”), an amount (“two cups of cream”), the date (“yesterday’s storm”), a part (“the cover of the book”), duration (“five years of experience”), type (“the job of cleaning up”), and so on.

In the expression you ask about, “the job of delivering the bad news,” the genitive indicates the type of job.

The “of” in uses like this, the OED explains, serves to connect two nouns, the first denoting the class and the second a particular example of that class.

In “the job of delivering the bad news,” the noun “job” represents the class, and “of” connects it to “delivering the bad news,” a gerund phrase that functions as a noun denoting an example of the class.

OED citations for “of” used this way date back to Old English. With spellings updated, they include “borough of Lincoln” (1123), “color of scarlet” (1530), “vice of covetousness” (1691), and “month of November” (1749).

We also use “of” after “job” to express things like “a good job of painting his room” or “a better job of marketing the product” or “the worst job of redecorating I’ve ever seen.”

There again, what follows “of” answers the question, “What kind of job?”

We’ll end with a quote from one our favorite fictional detectives, Lord Peter Wimsey: “I think the most joyous thing in life is to loaf around and watch another bloke do a job of work.” (The Five Red Herrings, 1931, by Dorothy L. Sayers.)

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In defense of ‘crispy’

Q: I’m aware that “crispy” has been around for centuries, but it still bugs me. Since “crisp” is already an adjective, why a suffixed “crispy”?

A: Yes, the adjective “crisp” has been around since Anglo-Saxon days. So why did writers feel the need to add the suffix “-y” to it in the 14th century?

We’re only speculating here, but we can think of several possibilities. Some writers may have wanted to differentiate the adjective from a now-obsolete Middle English noun spelled “crisp.” Others may have thought “crispy” looked more like an adjective than “crisp.” (A number of similarly suffixed adjectives had been coined in the 13th century.)

We lean toward a possible phonological explanation. The “-y” suffix may have been added because the “sp” consonant cluster at the end of “crisp” can be hard to pronounce before a word beginning with a consonant or consonant cluster. That’s why “crispy chicken” is easier to pronounce than “crisp chicken.”

In fact, many Old English forms of the adjective “crisp” had a vowel at the end. For instance, it’s spelled crispe in the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example. In Anglo-Saxon times, the “e” in crispe would have been pronounced as in our word “bet.”

Interestingly, the “s” and “p” of “crisp” were often transposed in Old English and Middle English writing, perhaps reflecting pronunciation difficulties. And bare versions of the adjective (those without an additional vowel) tended to follow nouns rather than precede them.

When the adjective “crisp” showed up in Old English, it meant curly, as in curly hair. It’s derived from crispus, classical Latin for “curled.” Although standard dictionaries still include the hair sense of “crisp,” it now usually refers to stiff, closely curling, or frizzy hair.

The OED’s earliest example is from an anonymous Old English translation (circa 900) of Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, a Latin church history written in the eighth century by the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede:

“Se gunga wæs geworden hale lichoman … and hæfde crispeloccas fægre” (“The youth became sound of body … and he had fair curly locks”). The passage comes from Bede’s description of a miracle in which a young leper was cured.

The term crispe in the compound crispeloccas (crispe loccas in some manuscripts) is technically an accusative plural—that is, it modifies a plural direct object. The form of an Old English adjective varied as its role changed. So crisp, for example, could end with “-e,” “-a,” “-u,” “-ra,” “-re,” and so on.

The letters “s” and “p,” as well as another pair, are transposed in the next OED citation: “He is blæcfexede and cyrps” (“He is black haired and curly”). It’s from an Old English homily written around 1000 by the Benedictine abbot Ælfric of Eynsham (published in Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church, 1844, edited by Benjamin Thorpe).

When the adjective “crispy” appeared in the late 14th century, Oxford says, it also referred to curly hair: “By grete heete the heer of the berd and of the heed ben cryspy and curlyd.” From John Trevisa’s 1398 Middle English translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Order of Things”), an encyclopedic Latin work compiled in the 13th century by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus.

Around this time, a now-obsolete noun “crisp” could refer to either a “thin or delicate textile fabric, used esp. by women for veils or head-coverings” or a “kind of pastry made by dropping batter into boiling fat,” according to the dictionary. (Today, a “crisp” can mean a baked fruit dessert like an apple crisp. And in Britain, “crisps” are what Americans would call potato chips.)

In its entry for the “-y” suffix, the OED notes that “in the 15th cent., if not earlier, certain monosyllabic adjectives were extended by means of this suffix, apparently with the design of giving them a more adjectival appearance, e.g. hugy [from] huge, leany [from] lean.”

The dictionary also notes the following “fresh coinages” of adjectives with the “-y” suffix in texts before 1300: “dready, fiery, frighty, hairy (cf. Old English hæriht), happy, needy, sleepy (but cf. Old English unslǽpig), tidy (c1250 = in good condition).”

In the 16th century, the OED says, the adjective “crisp” took on a new sense: “Brittle or ‘short’ while somewhat hard or firm in structure (usually as a good quality); said esp. of hard things which have little cohesion and are easily crushed by the teeth, etc.”

The first citation is from John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse (1530), a French grammar for English speakers: “I crasshe, as a thynge dothe that is cryspe or britell bytwene ones tethe.”

In the early 17th century, “crispy” also took on this sense of being brittle: “Bressaudes, the crispie mammocks that remaine of tried hogs grese” (from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, 1611, compiled by Randall Cotgrave).

In contemporary dictionaries, “crisp” is now the broader term and can refer to food (“crisp bacon,” “crisp lettuce”), paper or cloth (“crisp new dollar bills”), the weather (“a crisp autumn day”), and speaking or writing (“a crisp, no-nonsense presentation”). “Crispy,” on the other hand, usually refers to food that’s firm, brittle, and crunchy (“a crispy sugar topping”). Both adjectives sometimes refer to tight curls.

“Crisp” is much more popular than “crispy,” according to a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks digitized books. But both terms are standard English when used to describe food. We see nothing wrong with “crispy” and could argue that adding that “-y” to “crisp” in Middle English was in keeping with the term’s Old English usage.

The two adjectives were used for centuries without objection. As far as we can tell, William Safire was the first language commentator to criticize the usage. In a Jan. 6, 1985, On Language column in the New York Times Magazine, he calls it “an itsy-pooism.” Oh, come on!

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Abluting in the loo

Q: The noun “ablution,” namely the washing of one’s body, suggests a verb “ablute.” Ever hear of that?

A: Yes, there is a verb “ablute.” In fact, people have been “abluting” themselves for more than 300 years, though the verb is used infrequently these days, and mainly in British English.

Merriam-Webster Online defines the verb “ablute” as “to wash one’s body” or “to perform one’s ablutions,” and says it’s synonymous with “bathe.”

The verb is “chiefly British,” M-W says, and provides two contemporary examples: “the minimalist bathroom where he ablutes every day” (Irish Times, Oct. 12, 2009), and “After I finished the paper, I headed to the bathroom to ablute myself, as is my wholesome Canadian habit” (Toronto Globe and Mail, March 13, 2004).

As those examples demonstrate, the verb is both intransitive (used without an object, as in “he ablutes every day”), and transitive (used with an object, as in “to ablute myself”).

This is not a common word, even in dictionaries—at least the ordinary ones. Of course it’s in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, where it’s described as “colloquial.” Most of the contemporary uses we’ve seen are semi-humorous.

As for standard dictionaries, Merriam-Webster Online, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online) are the only ones we’ve found, British or American, that have entries for the verb.

However, several standard dictionaries have entries for the adjective “abluted” (washed clean, thoroughly washed) and for the noun “abluent” (a cleansing substance). And “ablution” (the washing of one’s body, mostly used in the plural) is found nearly everywhere.

One might assume that “ablute” was a humorous back-formation based on “ablutions,” but that’s not how the verb originated.

The OED says “ablute” was first recorded in the early 1700s as a direct borrowing from classical Latin, in which ablūt– is the past participial stem of abluere (to wash off).

The first use was medical: “Let the Wound be well abluted with hot Tinctures de Myrrha” (from The Experienced Chirurgion, 1703, by the naval surgeon John Moyle. “Chirurgion” was an early spelling of “surgeon”).

The verb “ablute” has been found in writing ever since. But as we mentioned above, the more modern sightings are colloquial and often tongue-in-cheek. Here’s a partial selection from the OED:

“We are a private lot, not inclined to communal abluting” (the Sun Herald, Sydney, March 14, 1993; here the derivative “abluting” is a noun).

“I abluted in a staff loo” (Derbyshire Life and Countryside magazine, November 2002).

“Also featured in the catalogue are soap applicators for abluting those hard-to-get-to little places” (the Independent on Sunday, June 10, 2007).

As for those relatives of “ablute,” the first to be recorded in English was “ablution” in the late 14th century. This noun, meaning “the act or process of washing clean,” came partly from French and partly from Latin.

The earliest known example, circa 1395, is in the plural and was spelled “ablucions” in Middle English. But in those days it referred to the purification of substances by emulsifying them in hot water, not to personal cleanliness.

On a more personal level, the word came to mean ritual religious washing in the 1500s, and ordinary bathing in the 1600s.

But even then “ablution” (more often “ablutions”), when used in reference to bathing or washing oneself, was “frequently humorous (with mock formal tone),” Oxford says.

The earliest use for personal bathing is from 1664, but this example better illustrates the mock formality of the word: “Having performed the ceremony of ablution, I shifted” (Tobias Smollett’s novel Roderick Random, 1748).

The adjective “abluted,” defined in the OED as “that has been washed clean,” was first recorded in 1650. Like the verb “ablute,” it comes from classical Latin (ablūtus, past participle of abluere, to wash off or away).

Similarly, the noun “abluent” (a cleansing agent), first recorded in 1726, is from classical Latin (abluent, present participle of abluere). Oxford adds that the post-classical Latin noun abluentia (1702) meant “cleansing medicines.”

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A ‘bury’ old usage

Q: In driving around the New York suburbs, I couldn’t help noticing the number of towns with “bury” in their names— Danbury in Connecticut, Westbury on Long Island, and Asbury Park in New Jersey. I suppose the suffix is related to the noun “borough.” Is it also related to the verb “bury”?

A: The combining form “-bury” in Danbury and the noun “Bury” in the English town of Bury St Edmunds are indeed related to “borough.” However, the use of “-bury” and “Bury” in place names isn’t related to the verb “bury.”

The geographical use of “-bury” and “Bury” is derived from burg or burh, Old English for a town or fortified place, while the verb “bury” comes from byrgan, an Old English verb meaning to raise a mound, cover, or inter. John Ayto notes in his Dictionary of Word Origins that interment originally referred to “covering a dead body with earth,” and “the general sense ‘put underground’ did not develop until the 14th century.”

The geographical and interment senses of “bury” come from different roots in prehistoric Germanic and Proto-Indo-European, according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. (Though these roots predate written language, linguists have reconstructed them.)

The verb “bury” is derived from the Germanic bergan (to protect) while the geographical terms are derived from the Germanic bergaz (hill or mountain), according to American Heritage. The two Germanic terms ultimately come from different roots with the same spelling in Proto-Indo-European, the etymological ancestor of English and most other European languages.

The source of the verb in Indo-European is bhergh-1 (to hide or protect), American Heritage says, and the source of the geographical terms is bhergh-2 (high). Despite the identical spelling, the dictionary lists them as separate entries with different etymological descendants.

Getting back to Anglo-Saxon times, the Old English geographical terms burh and burg are the ancestors of  “berg,” “borough,” “burg,” “bury,” and similar elements in modern compound place names.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for the geographical term (with burge meaning city) is from an Old English glossary dated around 820: “to burge and to wealle” (“to the walls of the city”). From Anglo-Saxon and Old English Vocabularies (1883), by Thomas Wright and Richard Paul Wülcker.

The earliest example in the online Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary for the term used in a place name is from a ninth-century manuscript that describes the building of bebban burh (Bamburgh) in the sixth century by Ida, the first known Anglian king. Bebban burh became the royal seat of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria:

“hér ida féng to ríce, ðonon norþanhymbra cyne-cyn onwóc, and ríxode twelf geár. he timbrode bebban burh, seó wæs ǽrost mid hegge betýned, and ðǽr æfter mid weallehere” (“Ida, who founded the royal line of the Northumbrians, reigned for 12 years [547-559]. He built Bamburgh, which was at first enclosed by a hedge, and later by a wall”). From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Version A, written around 890.

During the Middle English period (roughly 1150 to 1450), the terms were spelled in many different ways in place names. Here are some examples from the University of Michigan’s online Middle English Dictionary: Tileburh (circa 1250), Oldebyry (1290), Kynnesbiry (1290), Goldesburgh (1303), Wyndilbyry (1334), Burgewelle (1346), Peterburgh (1397), Borowefeld (1406), Neu Salesbery (1450-53), and Newe Salysbury (1457).

The OED notes that the Old English stem burg or burh had a vowel change when used in the dative case—that is, as an indirect object, an object of a preposition, and so on: “This dative, biri, berie, buri, was also at times used for the nominative; whence the modern Bury, -bury, in place-names.”

The earliest example in the OED for a place name with the modern “-bury” spelling is from the prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c. 1386): “Here bygynneth the Book of the tales of Caunterbury.”

As for the verb, the first Oxford citation is from an Old English hymn, written sometime before 1000, that describes the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea: “Þone geomormod Josep byrigde” (“whom sorrowful Joseph buried”).

If you’d like to read more, we ran a post in 2008 on why the verb “bury” usually rhymes with “merry” rather than “hurry,” though you can find both pronunciations in dictionaries.

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