English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Writing

From the horse’s mouth

Q: What is the dialect spoken in that quote from Kipling in your “All het up” post? In addition to “het up,” the speaker uses “cramp,” “her,” “them,” and “piece” in nonstandard ways.

A: In “A Walking Delegate,” an 1894 short story by Rudyard Kipling, horses speak a language that combines several regional American dialects.

The Deacon, one of the talking horses in the story, is quoted in the passage cited: “You look consider’ble het up. Guess you’d better cramp her under them pines, an’ cool off a piece.”

“Het up” here means heated up, “cramp” is to turn a wagon around sharply, “her” stands for “it,” while “them” means “these” or “those,” and “a piece” indicates a while, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

The story has many other regionalisms, including “dreffle” (dreadfully), “harr” (hair), “natchul” (naturally), “ner haow” (no how), “nigh” (near), “sociable” (a party), and “sperrity” (spirited).

In the Kipling allegory, one of the horses, Boney, tries to get the others to rise up against their human oppressors. The Deacon and other older horses keep the younger ones from falling under Boney’s sway.

The title of the story refers to a union official who visits locals to make sure that workplace rules and agreements are followed. Kipling didn’t much like unions, socialism, or democracy.

In Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Work (1955), the Cambridge historian Charles E. Carrington sees “A Walking Delegate” as a dialectal showpiece: “Though told as a horse story, it is more remarkable for the skilful use of several American dialects than for horse-lore.”

Kipling was living in Vermont when he wrote the story. He was married to a Vermonter, Carrie Balestier.

In Something of Myself, a memoir that was unfinished when Kipling died in 1936, he writes, “I tried to give something of the fun and flavour of those days in a story called ‘A Walking Delegate’ where all the characters are from horse-life.”

The story was a forerunner of another political allegory, Animal Farm (1945), by George Orwell. In Animal Farm, a group of farm animals rebel against a human farmer, but end up under the dictatorship of a pig named Napoleon.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Help bake, or help to bake?

Q: “I helped him bake cookies,” or “I helped him to bake cookies”? Which is right?

A: The short answer is that both are right. However, there are some occasions when the verb “help” is more likely to be followed by a “to” infinitive, and some by a “to”-less infinitive, though either construction would be correct.

When “help” itself is a “to” infinitive, for example, the following verb tends to be bare, or “to”-less.

As Jeremy Butterfield explains in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), English speakers have a “natural reluctance to allow the sequence to help + to-infinitive, that is, to repeat to. This reluctance means that the bare infinitive is usually chosen in such cases, but not always.”

For an early example of such avoidance, Butterfield cites this passage from Shakespeare’s Richard III (circa 1593): “The time will come when thou shalt wish for me / To help thee curse that poisonous bunchback’d toad.”

When the verb “help” appears without “to,” however, Shakespeare routinely follows it with a “to” infinitive, as in this example we’ve found from The Tempest (c. 1611): “Come, temperate nymphs, and help to celebrate / A contract of true love; be not too late.”

Style may also play a role, with “help” more likely to be followed by a “to” infinitive in some formal or literary writing. As Butterfield points out, “no doubt formality and literariness also have an influence.”

He gives this literary example, which we’ve expanded, from The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), a novel by Iris Murdoch: “Hattie decided against the new dress which would look out of place on such a dismal wet morning, but she allowed Pearl to help her to stack up her hair.”

And we’ve found this formal example in nonfiction: “English language learners need visual stimulus to help them to process and store the information that comes from words” (What Every Teacher Should Know About Media and Technology, 2003, by Donna Walker Tileston).

Aside from special cases like those, Butterfield says, the use of the bare infinitive after the verb “help” is “preferred in everyday written and spoken English.” We’d say it’s more common, not necessarily preferred, in everyday English. And we’ll repeat here that both usages are standard English.

As for the etymology, the verb “help” meant to aid or assist when it showed up in Anglo-Saxon times. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Pastoral Care (c. 897), King Ælfred’s Old English translation of a sixth-century treatise by Pope Gregory:

“He nyle gifan ðæt him God geaf, and helpan ðæs folces mid ðæm þe he his healp” (“He is not willing to give what God gave him, and help the people with his help from God”).

In the 12th century, writers began using “help” with an infinitive—it was a “to” infinitive at first. The OED includes two examples from around 1175:

“to seke gan, and þa deden helpen to buriene” (“to seek to go, and help to bury the dead”), from the Lambeth Homilies, a collection of Old English sermons.

“forr hemm itt hallp biforenn godd / to clennsenn hemm off sinne” (“for them, it helped to cleanse themselves of sin before God”), from the Ormulum, a book of biblical commentary.

In the 16th century, writers began using “help” with bare infinitives, as in these two Oxford examples:

“To helpe garnishe his mother tongue” (from a 1548 translation, overseen by Nicholas Udall, of Erasmus’s paraphrase, or retelling, of the New Testament in Latin).

“I wyll helpe synners turne to the [thee]” (from Goostly Psalmes and Spiritual Songs, 1535, Miles Coverdale’s translations of German hymns by Martin Luther and others).

If you’d like to read more, we’ve discussed infinitives several times on the blog, including a post in 2013 that explained why “to” isn’t part of the infinitive. It’s generally referred to as an “infinitive marker” or “infinitive particle.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Which virus is more deadly?

Q: Coronavirus is said to kill a larger percentage of those who catch it than the flu, but the flu is said to kill more people overall. Which disease is more deadly? The news media says coronavirus is deadlier. Is that an accepted technical usage?

A: As far as we can tell, the word “deadly” doesn’t have a technical sense that differs from its usual meaning.

We’ve found only one technical reference with an entry for the adjective. The Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary says it means “likely to cause or capable of causing death.”

That’s pretty much the same definition given in any standard dictionary. Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for example, defines the term in its medical sense as “tending to produce death: productive of death.”

So “deadly” can refer to either the overall number of people killed by a disease or the percentage of infected people who die of it. Since the term can be used both ways, we think writers should clearly indicate which sense is being used when comparing the deadliness of two diseases, such as coronavirus and influenza.

Without a vaccine and adequate public-health measures, coronavirus may turn out to be deadlier than the latest influenza strains in both ways. We assume you’ve seen the recent report by the COVID-19 Response Team at Imperial College in London.

Etymologically, “deadly” comes from adding -lic (an Anglo-Saxon version of the suffix “-ly”) to the Old English noun déad. The usage is ultimately derived from the reconstructed prehistoric root dheu- (to die), says The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

When “deadly” showed up in Old English, it meant “causing death, or fatal injury; mortal, fatal,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. The earliest OED citation, which uses deadlicne (the accusative, or objective, form of the adjective), is from a ninth-century translation of a Latin history:

“Forbræcon Romane heora aþas … and þær deadlicne sige geforan” (“The Romans broke those pleasant oaths … and carried out their deadly victory”). From an anonymous translation, circa 893, of Historiarum Adversum Paganos (History Against the Pagans), a fifth-century work by Paulus Orosius.

In the late 14th century, the sense of the adjective widened to include something “having the property or capacity of causing death or fatal injury,” according to the OED.

The first citation is from a Middle English sermon by John Wycliffe, written around 1380: “Dedli drynke, ȝif þei taken it … anoieþ hem not” (“Deadly drink, if they have taken it … knoweth them not”).

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

When ‘drastically’ is too drastic

Q: I see “drastically” used in this way more and more: “We call on NYPD to drastically increase police visibility in Orthodox communities” (from a Dec. 27, 2019, tweet by the NYC Jewish Caucus). Doesn’t “drastic” have negative connotations? Wouldn’t “dramatically” or “significantly” be more accurate?

A: We agree that “drastically” is jarring in that tweet, which followed a series of anti-Semitic incidents. The adverb “drastically,” like the adjective “drastic,” is generally used in connection with measures that are extreme, severe, or harsh.

The adverb is commonly seen in reference to sharp cuts or steep reductions, rather than to buildups or increases (especially if they’re beneficial ones).

It’s also used in reference to extreme change, as in “drastically different” or “drastically altered.” Generally, though, the implication is that the change is a negative one, not a cause for celebration.

We do occasionally see news items online with phrases like “drastically improve,” “drastically higher,” “drastically raise,” even “drastically benefit.”

But examples like those are rare in major news outlets, where the English is edited—unless they’re in quotations. We agree with you that “significantly” or “dramatically” would be appropriate to describe an increase or buildup.

Most standard dictionaries don’t have separate entries for “drastically,” merely noting that it’s the adverbial form of “drastic.” One exception, Merriam-Webster, says the adverb means “in a drastic manner” and is synonymous with “severely” and “seriously.”

We’ll focus here on “drastic,” a word that in modern English, Merriam-Webster says, means “acting rapidly or violently,” or “extreme in effect or action,” synonymous with “severe.” (Some other dictionaries add “harsh” or “with harshness.”)

Originally, however, “drastic” had a much more specific meaning as a medical term. It was used for medicines that induced a sudden and violent “unloading of the bowels” (to use a phrase common to 18th- and 19th-century physicians).

In bygone days it was used by doctors both as an adjective (“drastic remedy,” “drastic purgative”), and as a noun for the medicine (“a drastic”).

The adjective came into English in the mid-17th century from a Greek word meaning active, δραστικός (drastikós). This is its original definition, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary: “Of medicines: Acting with force or violence, vigorous; esp. acting strongly upon the intestines.”

The OED’s earliest example, which we’ll expand for context, is from a description of a case of blindness supposedly cured by 10 to 12 hours of violent purging:

“Within three or four days after this single taking of the Drastick Medicine had done working, he began to recover some degree of Sight, and within a Fortnight … would discern Objects farther and clearer then most other Men.” The “drastick medicine” given was mercury, and not only the patient’s bowels were emptied but also his stomach, bladder, tear ducts, pores, and salivary glands. He’d been warned beforehand of the “torment of the Cure.”

(From Some Considerations Touching the Vsefulnesse of Experimental Naturall Philosophy, a treatise by the chemist Robert Boyle. Natural philosophy, the study of nature, was a precursor of modern science. The OED doesn’t give a precise date, but the earliest copy we’ve found was printed in 1663.)

The adjective “drastic” caught on and flourished in medical writing, and in the 18th century doctors also began using the word as a noun. A “drastic,” according to the OED, meant “a drastic medicine” or “a severe purgative.”

The earliest known use of the noun, Oxford says, is from the 1783 volume of an annual compendium, Medical Communications: “Large quantities of the pills … acting as a drastic.”

Searches of old newspaper databases show that both forms of “drastic”—noun and adjective—were common medical terms until the late 1800s, familiar not only to doctors but to laymen as well. This is to be expected, since some doctors considered purging a panacea and prescribed it for almost everything, particularly in the first decades of the 19th century.

Much of the credit for this—or rather the blame—is due to an Edinburgh physician, James Hamilton, author of Observations on the Utility and Administration of Purgative Medicines (1805). The book went into many editions in Britain and the US, and was translated into Italian, German, and French.

Hamilton’s methods were widely adopted, and his adherents believed that a violent emptying of the bowels could cure typhus, rabies, mental illnesses, fevers, skin diseases, menstrual irregularities, heart palpitations, sore throat, and bad breath, among other things.

We mention this long-discredited medical practice only to illustrate how commonplace “drastic” was in its original senses.

The noun “drastic” is uncommon today, and few standard dictionaries still include it. One exception is Merriam-Webster, which defines it as “a powerful medicinal agent; especially: a strong purgative.” You’ll also find it in the collaborative Wiktionary (“a powerful, fast-acting purgative medicine”).

But the adjective “drastic” is another story. By the early 19th century, the OED says, it had taken on a “transferred” meaning derived from the medical sense: “vigorously effective; violent.”

The dictionary’s earliest citations are from British writers who were political philosophers and economists:

“In consideration of their too extensive and too drastic efficacy” (Jeremy Bentham, Scotch Reform, 1808).

“Occasions … in which so drastic a measure would be fit to be taken into serious consideration” (John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 1848).

Around this same time the new adverb “drastically” emerged. Oxford’s definition: “in a drastic manner; with drastic remedies or applications; with effective severity.”

The earliest example we’ve found has no medical connection. It’s from a tongue-in-cheek comment on jurisprudence in foreign lands:

“In the East, where there are despots equal to our judges … they punish first offences, drastically it is true, but in a manner which still recommends itself to our secret prejudices” (The London Magazine, Nov. 1, 1827).

But at times in the 19th century, “drastically” was still associated with medical purges. Discussing cholera in a letter dated October 1849, a Manchester physician wrote of bile secretions that are “rendered drastically purgative instead of gently aperient” (Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal, November 1849).

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Tidbit or titbit?

Q: Why do Americans use “tidbit” for a word that we in the UK properly spell “titbit”?

A: Americans may spell it “tidbit” because that’s how the term was pronounced when it first appeared in English in the 17th century as “tyd bit.”

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the term may have originated as a combination of the adjective “tid” (playful, frolicsome, lively, etc.) and the noun “bit” (biting or a bite), though it says “the form tidbit is now chiefly North American.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the “titbit” spelling in the UK “probably” resulted from the “alteration of the first element after the second”—that is, the British turned “tid” into “tit” to make it rhyme with “bit.”

However, Oxford notes what it apparently considers a less likely explanation—that “titbit” was “perhaps” influenced by “tit” and “tittle” (terms for various small things).

No matter how the first part was spelled, the terms originally meant “a small piece of tasty food; a delicacy, a morsel,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest OED citation is from a collection of proverbs and phrases spoken in Gloucestershire, a county in southwestern England:

“A tyd bit, i.e. a speciall morsell reserved to eat at last.” From A Description of the Hundred of Berkeley in the County of Gloucester and of Its Inhabitants, 1639, by the antiquarian John Smyth. (The “Hundred of Berkeley” refers to a section of the county.)

The work was later edited by John Maclean and published in 1885 as The Berkeley Manuscripts. Maclean writes in his preface that Smyth finished the work on Dec. 21, 1639.

The OED says the term showed up as “tit bit” two years later: “A Man-servant … should goe into a Victualers service, because he hopeth for tit bits either of gift, or by stealth, and relicks more ordinary of his Masters Dishes.” From A Right Intention (1641), John Dawson’s translation of a Latin treatise by Jeremias Drexel.

The term, Oxford says, soon came to be used figuratively to describe “a person or thing likened to a delicacy or morsel,” as in this 1650 citation from a London weekly overseen by John Milton: “The Kirk longs much, and is like to miscarry for a Tid Bit of yong Tarquin” (Mercurius Politicus, No. 3, June 20-27).

In this figurative sense, the term was spelled “tidbit” as well as “titbit” by British writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, as in these expanded OED examples:

“Author. Now for a taste of Recitativo. My farce is an Oglio of tid-bits,” from Eurydice, A Farce, by Henry Fielding. (The play was withdrawn after two performances in 1737 because of hissing. It was published for the first time in Miscellanies, 1743, as Eurydice, A Farce: As it was d-mned at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.)

“And except on first nights or some other such occasion, or during the singing of the well-known tit-bits of any opera, there was an amount of chattering in the house which would have made the hair of a fanatico per la musica stand on end” (What I Remember, an 1887 memoir by Thomas Adolphus Trollope, the oldest brother of Anthony Trollope).

In the early 19th century, the term took on its modern sense of “a small and particularly interesting item of news, gossip, or information,” according to OED citations: “Another tit bit of domestic scandal” (Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, December 1809).

The use of the “titbit” spelling in the UK, especially in the news and gossip sense, may have been reinforced by the name of a mass-circulation British newspaper that specialized in easy-to-read human-interest stories.

As the OED explains, “Tit-Bits (later Titbits) was the name of a British weekly newspaper devoted to such items and is regarded as one of the progenitors of popular journalism. First published on 22 Oct. 1881, it ceased publication in 1984.”

Tit-Bits was the first general-interest publication to buy a humor piece by P. G. Wodehouse, one of our favorite writers. You can read the Nov. 24, 1900, piece, “Men Who Have Missed Their Own Weddings,” on Madame Eulalie, a website devoted to Wodehouse’s early works.

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English English language Expression Language Linguistics Usage Writing

Sticking in a knife with a smile

Q: I have recently heard two instances of someone prefacing a criticism by saying, “I am telling you this lovingly.” It sounds to me like sticking in a knife with a smile. It’s similar to prefacing a remark with “clearly,” an indication that things may not be all that clear. Any thoughts about this?

A: We haven’t yet noticed “lovingly” used to criticise with a smile. But like you, we’re bugged by deceptive preludes to faultfinding.

As you know, these introductory remarks are often followed by the word “but” and the critical statement. Some of the more common ones: “I don’t want to criticize, but …,” “I hate to be the one to tell you, but …,” “Don’t take this the wrong way, but …,” and “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but ….”

These “contrary-to-fact phrases” have been called “false fronts,” “wishwashers,” “but heads,” and “lying qualifiers,” according to the lexicographer Erin McKean, as we noted in a 2012 post.

McKean says the object of these opening remarks is “to preemptively deny a charge that has yet to be made, with a kind of ‘best offense is a good defense’ strategy” (Boston Globe, Nov. 14, 2010).

“This technique,” she notes, “has a distinguished relative in classical rhetoric: the device of procatalepsis, in which the speaker brings up and immediately refutes the anticipated objections of his or her hearer.”

Once you start looking for these deceptive introductions, McKean says, “you see them everywhere, and you see how much they reveal about the speaker. When someone says ‘It’s not about the money, but …,’ it’s almost always about the money. If you hear ‘It really doesn’t matter to me, but …,’ odds are it does matter, and quite a bit.”

“ ‘No offense, but …’ and ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but …’ are both warning flags, guaranteed to precede statements that are offensive, insulting, or both,” she adds. “ ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but …’ invariably signals the advent of breathtaking, blatant, write-in-to-Miss-Manners-style rudeness. (And when someone starts out by saying ‘Promise me you won’t get mad, but …’ you might as well go ahead and start getting mad.)”

McKean doesn’t mention the use of “clearly” at the beginning of a sentence, but she discusses a few similar sentence adverbs: “Someone who begins a sentence with ‘Confidentially’ is nearly always betraying a confidence; someone who starts out ‘Frankly,’ or ‘Honestly,’ ‘To be (completely) honest with you,’ or ‘Let me give it to you straight’ brings to mind Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quip: ‘The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.’ ”

We should also mention a 2013 post of ours about “Just sayin’,” an expression that follows a critical comment: “ ‘You might look for a new hair stylist. Just sayin’.”

Why do people use deceptive phrases in criticizing others? McKean suggests that “our real need for these phrases may be rooted in something closer to self-delusion. We’d all like to believe we aren’t being spiteful, nosy or less than forthcoming. To proclaim our innocence in this way is to assert that we are, indeed, innocent.”

However, we think that many of us—including the two of us—use these sneaky expressions simply because we don’t feel comfortable criticizing others, even when criticism may be warranted. Unfortunately, a sneaky criticism often stings more than one that’s plainspoken.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Is the parrot willful or willing?

Q: I suppose you’re going to inform me that, as has happened with so many other words, the meaning of “willfully” now has a positive connotation. The Daily Kos recently cited a study showing that the African gray parrot “willfully helps other parrots out of what appears to be empathy.”

A: No, “willfully” hasn’t changed. The writer no doubt meant “willingly,” not “willfully.” The headline on that Jan. 14, 2020, article, “African gray parrots voluntarily show kindness to others,” is a clue.

In an article on the kindness, even altruism apparently shown by parrots, the appropriate adverb would have been “willingly,” a positive term meaning voluntarily or gladly, not “willfully,” a negative one meaning deliberately, obstinately, even maliciously.

Here’s a fuller excerpt from the article: “It’s been known for a few years that some other higher primates (especially orangutans) will voluntarily help others, especially if they think they’ll get something in return, and that doesn’t seem too surprising. But a nicely conceived test of the very intelligent African gray parrot shows that it willfully helps other parrots out of what appears to be empathy when presented with the opportunity.”

Most of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult include the two terms, without definitions, as adverbial forms of the adjectives “willful” and “willing.” In other words, “willfully” means in a willful manner and “willingly” in a willing manner.

Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online) is one of the few standard dictionaries to define the two adverbs. It uses “wilfully,” the British spelling, for the word Americans usually spell as “willfully.” Here are Lexico’s definitions and examples:

willingly: Readily; of one’s own free will. she went willingly.”

wilfully (US willfully): 1. With the intention of causing harm; deliberately. she denies four charges of wilfully neglecting a patient. 2. With a stubborn and determined intention to do as one wants, regardless of the consequences. he had wilfully ignored the evidence.”

The adverbs were derived from their corresponding adjectives. The first, “willing,” was recorded in compounds in the late 800s; the second, originally spelled “wilful,” is believed to have existed by about 1000, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, though there are no surviving examples in Old English writing.

As for the meaning of the adjectives, Merriam-Webster says in usage notes that “willing implies a readiness and eagerness to accede to or anticipate the wishes of another,” while “willful implies an obstinate determination to have one’s own way.”

Getting back to the adverbs, the older of the two, “willingly,” first appeared in writing in the 900s, spelled willendlice, according to the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

(The -líce suffix in Old English, precursor to the “-ly” ending we know today, was used to form adverbs out of adjectives. The modern spelling, “willingly,” evolved in the mid-1500s.)

The earliest Oxford citation for “willingly” is from a 10th-century Latin-Old English dictionary in which the Latin diligenter (diligently, conscientiously) is translated as willendlice.

A later Latin-English dictionary, this one from the 16th century, defines the Latin libenter (eagerly, cheerfully) as “wyllyngely, gladly.”

The OED, which defines “willingly” as “with a ready will, consentingly, without reluctance,” says the adverb can convey “various shades of meaning from ‘with acquiescence, submissively’ to ‘with pleasure, cheerfully, gladly’ or ‘wishfully, eagerly.’ ”

Most uses in modern English conform to the Oxford definition, as exemplified by this citation from a 19th-century novel:

“Often have I observed one … of the sisters willingly go without her dinner … in order that her portion might be reserved for Mr. Stallabras” (The Chaplain of the Fleet, 1881, by Walter Besant and James Rice).

And that’s still the chief use of the word today, though at times in the past it has had less altruistic meanings, even crossing into the negative senses of “willfully.” Those uses are now obsolete, the OED says.

The adverb often appears in the phrase “would willingly,” Oxford adds, which means “should like to,” while “would not willingly” means “would rather not.”

As for “willfully,” the dictionary says the word was first recorded around the year 1000, spelled wilfullíce in late Old English. It originally had senses similar to  “willingly”—voluntarily, of one’s own will—but those uses are obsolete, the dictionary says.

Today “willfully” has only two meanings, both negative. These are the OED definitions for those senses, which began to appear in the late 1300s and late 1500s, respectively:

(1) “Purposely, on purpose, by design, intentionally, deliberately. Chiefly, now always, in bad sense” and “occasionally implying ‘maliciously.’ ” (2) “In a self-willed manner, perversely, obstinately, stubbornly.” The two meanings are often hard to tell apart.

Here’s the earliest Oxford example for the purposely or deliberately sense, which we’ve expanded to add more context:

“Yf þat he wole take of it no cure, Whan þan it cometh, but wylfully it weyuen, Lo neyþer cas nor fortune hym deseyuen, But right his verray slouþe and wrecchednesse” (“If he will not take advantage of it when it comes, but willfully dismiss it, then neither chance nor fortune deceive him, but only his own sloth and wretchedness”). From Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, circa 1374.

And in the dictionary’s first example for the self-willed or obstinate sense, a hard-hearted mother is willfully intent on marrying her daughter to a rich creep:

“The mother … beyng determinately (least I shoulde say of a great Lady, wilfully) bent to marrie her to Demagoras.” From The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, Sir Philip Sidney, 1590.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Usage Writing

Now I am become Death

Q: I recently read a reference to J. Robert Oppenheimer’s comment about the first test of an atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I assume that “I am become” is an old usage. How would it be expressed in modern English?

A: That quotation illustrates an archaic English verb construction that’s now found chiefly in literary, poetic, or religious writings. This is the use of forms of “be” in place of “have” as an auxiliary verb in compound tenses: “The prince is [or was] arrived” instead of “The prince has [or had] arrived.”

The passage you ask about, “I am become Death,” is a present-perfect construction equivalent to “I have become Death.” (We’ll have more to say later about Oppenheimer and his quotation from the Bhagavad Gita.)

As we wrote on the blog in 2015, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has a well-known example of this usage: “We are met on a great battle-field.” Another familiar use is from the Bible: “He is risen” (King James Version, Matthew 28:6). And Mark Twain uses “I am grown old” in his Autobiography (in a passage first published serially in 1907). All of those are in the present-perfect tense.

Though usages like this were rare in Old English, they became quite frequent during the early Modern English period—roughly from the late 1400s to the mid-1600s, according to The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed., 1992), by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo.

The verbs affected were mostly intransitive (that is, without objects) and involved movement and change. The Oxford English Dictionary mentions “verbs of motion such as come, go, rise, set, fall, arrive, depart, grow, etc.”

The dictionary’s citations from the mid-1400s include “So may þat boy be fledde” (“That boy may well be fled”) and “In euell tyme ben oure enmyes entred” (“Our enemies are entered in evil times”).

In Modern English (mid-17th century onward), this auxiliary “be” faded from ordinary English and was largely replaced by “have.” So by Lincoln’s time, the auxiliary “be” was considered poetic or literary. You can see why if you look again at the examples above.

Lincoln used “we are met” to lend his speech a gravity and stateliness that wouldn’t be conveyed by the usual present-perfect (“we have met”). “He is risen” is nobler and more elevated than the usual present perfect (“He has risen”). And Twain’s poetic “I am grown old” is weightier and more solemn than the prosaic version (“I have grown old”).

Apart from matters of tone, the auxiliary “be,” especially in the present perfect, conveys a slightly different meaning than the auxiliary “have.” It emphasizes a state or condition that’s true in the present, not merely an act completed in the past.

As Oxford says, this use of “be” expresses “a condition or state attained at the time of speaking, rather than the action of reaching it, e.g. ‘the sun is set,’ ‘our guests are gone,’ ‘Babylon is fallen,’ ‘the children are all grown up.’ ”

Even today verbs are sometimes conjugated with “be” when they represent states or conditions. A modern speaker might easily say, “The kids were [vs. had] grown long before we retired,” or “By noon the workmen were [vs. had] gone,” or “Is [vs. has] she very much changed?”

In older English, those participles (“grown,” “gone,” “changed”) would have been recognized as verbs (“grow,” “go,” “change”) conjugated in the present perfect with the auxiliary “be.” Many such examples are interpreted as such in the OED. However, in current English they can also be analyzed as participial adjectives modifying a subject, with “be” as the principal verb.

In its entry for the verb “grow,” for example, Oxford has this explanation: “In early use always conjugated with be, and still so conjugated when a state or result is implied.” And in the case of “gone,” the dictionary says that its adjectival use “developed out of the perfect construction with be as auxiliary, reinterpreted as main verb with participial adjective.”

We can never write enough about the word “be.” As David Crystal says, “If we take its eight elements together—be, am, are, is, was, were, being, been—it turns out to be the most frequent item in English, after the” (The Story of Be, 2017).

And a word that’s in constant, heavy use for 1,500 years undergoes a lot of transformations. It’s entitled to be complicated, and no doubt further complications are still to come. To use an expression first recorded in the 1600s, miracles are not ceased.

As for Oppenheimer’s comment, various versions have appeared since he witnessed the atomic test at Alamogordo, NM, on July 16, 1945. You can hear his words in The Decision to Drop the Bomb, a 1965 NBC documentary:

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita: Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

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Courting a honey or a heartache

Q: “Court” seems to be an incredibly adaptable word—a royal court, a tennis court, a court of law, courting a beau or a client, heartache or disaster. Where did it all begin?

A: All those senses of “court” (in law, romance, diplomacy, sports, etc.) ultimately come from cohors, classical Latin for an enclosed area—what we’d now call a courtyard.

As cohors evolved in Latin, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, “it came to stand for those assembled in such a yard—a crowd of attendants or company of soldiers; hence the meaning of cohort familiar today.”

“But both in its original sense and as ‘retinue’ the word took another and rather more disguised path into English,” Ayto writes.

While the English word retained “the underlying notion” of an enclosed area, he says, it added a judicial sense because of “an early association of Old French cort [a judicial tribunal] with Latin curia [a legal tribunal or sovereign’s assembly].”

The respect and attention that one offers at a judicial court led to the diplomatic, romantic, and summoning senses of the term, while the sports sense comes from the original meaning of cohors in Latin as an enclosed area.

When “court” first appeared in Middle English in the 12th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant a meeting of a ruler with his retinue as well as the place where such a meeting was held.

The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded, uses the term (spelled “curt” here) in the sense of “a formal assembly held by the sovereign at his residence” with “his councillors and great lords, for purposes of administration”:

“Þa he to Engle land com. þa was he under fangen mid micel wurtscipe. and to king bletcæd in Lundene on þe Sunnen dæi. be foren midwinter dæi and held  þær micel curt” (“When he came to England, he was received with great honor. He was consecrated King in London on the Sunday before Christmas Day, and then he held a great court there”).

The passage is from an 1154 entry in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describing the death of King Stephen, the arrival from France of Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Aquitaine, and his consecration in London as King Henry II.

The next Oxford example, which we’ve also expanded, uses the term in the sense of “the place where a sovereign (or other high dignitary) resides and holds state, attended by his retinue.” This comes from a parable in the Cotton Vespasian A. Homilies, dated at sometime before 1175:

“þat an rice king wes. strang and mihti. his land gélest wide and side. his folc was swiðe ærfeð-telle … and he nam him tó rede þat heom wolde ȝearceon anæ grate laðienge. and þider ȝeclepíen all his underþeód. þat hi bi éne féce to his curt come sceolde and sette ænne déȝie” (“there was a rich king who was strong and mighty; his land stretched far and wide; his people were numerous … and he decided to prepare a great feast and call all his subjects thither so that they should come at the same time to his court”).

The word took on its legal sense in the late 13th century when “court” came to mean “an assembly of judges or other persons legally appointed and acting as a tribunal to hear and determine any cause, civil, ecclesiastical, military, or naval.”

The first OED citation is from a treatise in Middle French that sets forth the laws of England (early legal works in England were in Latin or French): “en dreit de nous mesures et de nostre Curt” (“with regard to ourselves and our Court”). From Britton, 1292, a work whose origin and author are in dispute; some early sources say John le Breton, bishop of Hereford, wrote it at the direction of King Edward I.

The first Oxford example that’s written in Middle English is from a 1297 entry in The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, an account of early British history: “The king wolde, that in is court the ple solde be driue” (“The king willed that the plea be pursued in his court”).

In the early 16th century, “court” took on the sense of  “an enclosed quadrangular area, uncovered or covered, with a smooth level floor, in which tennis, rackets, or fives are played.” (In fives, an English sport, players use bare or gloved hands to hit a ball against the walls of a court with three or four sides.)

The first OED citation uses the term in reference to a court for lawn tennis: “Hen. Smith, for ceiling the great armoury house at Greenwich, the Friar’s wharf, the tennis court at Richmond, and other places, 200l.” From a March 1519 entry in King Henry VIII’s Book of Payments. At the time, the verb “ceil” meant to add a canopy.

In the late 16th century, the noun “court” took on the sense of “homage such as is offered at court,” specifically as “attention or courtship shown to one whose favour, affection, or interest is sought.” The earliest OED example uses the term in its diplomatic sense: “Him the Prince with gentle court did bord [address]” (from Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene, 1590).

The verb “court,” which showed up in the early 1500s, originally meant to live at a royal court or spend a lot of time there. But by the late 1500s it was being used in its romantic sense.

The first Oxford example, which we’ve expanded, is also from The Faerie Queene: “And in the midst thereof vpon the floure, / A louely beuy [bevy] of faire Ladies sate, / Courted of many a iolly Paramoure, / The which them did in modest wise amate.”

In the early 1600s, the use of the verb began expanding to include the seeking of things other than romance, such as power, friendship, publicity, or popularity: “Never would he have had the face to have courted the Crown Imperiall” (The Historie of the Holy Warre, 1639, by Thomas Fuller).

And by the mid-19th century, according to our searches, the verb broadened even more to include inviting or provoking something negative. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a book of homespun philosophy:

“Therefore, in the first, saints and martyrs have fulfilled their mission, / Conquering dangers, courting deaths, and triumphing in all” (Proverbial Philosophy, 1843, by Martin Farquhar Tupper).

The verb phrase “court disaster” showed up a dozen years later, according to our searches: “Gladwyn discouraged the enterprise, conceiving it, doubtless, as rash and perilous to court disaster” (History of American Conspiracies, 1863, by Orville J. Victor).

Over the years, many other descendants of the Latin cohors have appeared in English, including “courtier” (circa 1290), “courtesy” (before 1200), “courtly” (c. 1450), “courthouse” (1483), “cohort” (1489), “courting” (1530), “curtsy” (noun, 1513; verb, before 1556), “courtyard” (1552), “courtesan” (1549), “courtship” (1597), “pay [or make] one’s court” (1667), and “courtroom” (1677). (In a 2017 post, we discussed “courtesy” and “curtsy.”)

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A ‘they’ by any other name

Q: You have defended the singular “they” when it applies to an unknown person of unknown gender. OK. But how about for a known person of unknown gender? A recent news article that said “they were fired” caused me to search back and forth to find who else was fired. A waste of time.

A: We have indeed defended the use of “they” in the singular for an unknown person—an individual usually represented by an indefinite pronoun (“someone,” “everybody,” “no one,” etc.). Some examples: “If anyone calls, they can reach me at home” … “Nobody expects their best friend to betray them” … “Everyone’s looking out for themselves.”

As we’ve said on the blog, this singular use of “they” and its forms (“them,” “their,” “themselves”) for an indefinite, unknown somebody-or-other is more than 700 years old.

You’re asking about a very different usage, one that we’ve also discussed. As we wrote in a later post, this singular “they” refers to a known person who doesn’t identify as either male or female and prefers “they” to “he” or “she.” Some examples: “Robin loves their new job as sales manager” … “Toby says they’ve become a vegetarian.”

This use of “they” for a known person who’s nonbinary and doesn’t conform to the usual gender distinctions is very recent, only about a decade old.

When we wrote about the nonbinary “they” three years ago, we noted that only one standard dictionary had recognized the usage. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language included (and still does) this definition within its entry for “they”: “Used as a singular personal pronoun for someone who does not identify as either male or female.”

American Heritage doesn’t label the usage as nonstandard but adds a cautionary note: “The recent use of singular they for a known person who identifies as neither male nor female remains controversial.”

Since then, a couple of other standard dictionaries have accepted the usage, but without reservation.

Merriam-Webster’s entry for “they” was updated in September 2019 to include this definition: “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.”

A British dictionary, Macmillan, now has a similar definition: “used as a singular pronoun by and about people who identify as non-binary.” Macmillan’s example: “The singer has come out as non-binary and asked to be addressed by the pronouns they/them.”

Neither dictionary has any kind of warning label or cautionary note. Other dictionaries, however, are more conservative on the subject, merely observing in usage notes that the nonbinary “they” is out there, but not including it among the standard definitions of “they.”

For instance, (based on Random House Unabridged) says in a usage note that the use of “they” and its forms “to refer to a single clearly specified, known, or named person is uncommon and likely to be noticed and criticized. … Even so, use of they, their, and them is increasingly found in contexts where the antecedent is a gender-nonconforming individual or one who does not identify as male or female.”

And Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online) has this in a usage note: “In a more recent development, they is now being used to refer to specific individuals (as in Alex is bringing their laptop). Like the gender-neutral honorific Mx, the singular they is preferred by some individuals who identify as neither male nor female.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, added the binary use of “they” and its forms in an October 2019 update.

This is now among the OED’s definitions of “they”: “Used with reference to a person whose sense of personal identity does not correspond to conventional sex and gender distinctions, and who has typically asked to be referred to as they (rather than as he or she).”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a Twitter post (by @thebutchcaucus, July 11, 2009): “What about they/them/theirs? #genderqueer #pronouns.” Oxford also has two later citations:

“Asher thought they were the only nonbinary person at school until a couple weeks ago” (the Harvard-Westlake Chronicle, Los Angeles, Sept. 25, 2013).

“In 2016, they got a role on Orange Is the New Black as a wisecracking white supremacist” (from a profile of Asia Kate Dillon on the Cut, a blog published by New York magazine, June 3, 2019).

We agree with you that this usage can confuse a reader. When a writer uses “they” in an article, we’re sometimes left to wonder how many people are meant.

But a careful writer can overcome this problem. The use of “they” in that last OED citation (“they got a role”) is not confusing because it links the pronoun with a single role  And elsewhere in the article, the author, Gabriella Paiella, took pains to be clear (“they’re arguably Hollywood’s most famous nonbinary actor, one whose star turn came on an unlikely television series”).

As we noted in our nonbinary “they” post, “Clarity is just as important as sensitivity. Be sure to make clear when ‘they’ refers to only one person and when it refers to several people.” We also noted that “when ‘they’ is the subject of a verb, the verb is always plural, even in reference to a single person: ‘Robin says they are coming to the lunch meeting, so order them a sandwich.’ ”

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Complementary remarks

Q: I teach writing to foreign students and was asked a question that I just cannot answer. Both of these sentences are normal English: “I was happy being alone” … “I was happy to be alone.” But only the first of these is normal: “I became [or got] lonely being alone” … “I became [or got] lonely to be alone.” What’s wrong with that last sentence?

A: Your question has to do with adjectives and their complements—that is, the words or phrases that complete them. In this case, you’re attempting to complement the adjectives “happy” and “lonely” with two different phrases: one formed with a gerund or “-ing” participle (“being alone”), and the other with a “to” infinitive (“to be alone”).

As any native speaker of English would know immediately, the “happy” sentences work with both complements, but the “lonely” sentences don’t. “I got lonely to be alone” doesn’t sound like normal English.

This is because “lonely” is not among adjectives that can invariably be complemented by an infinitive. If you replace “lonely” with “afraid,” the original examples work: “I became [or got] afraid being alone” … “I became [or got] afraid to be alone.”

We wish we could tell you that there’s a predictable pattern here—that certain types of adjectives can always be complemented by both participles and infinitives, while other types are always restricted to one or the other.

Unfortunately, no clear pattern emerges. Different adjectives simply act differently in different contexts.

For instance, with another subject and another verb, those “lonely” sentences work with both complements: “It is lonely being alone” … “It is lonely to be alone.” (There “it” is a dummy subject; the real subject is the complement: “Being alone is lonely” … “To be alone is lonely.”)

While we can’t give you a rule about all this, we can make a few broad observations.

Dozens of evaluative adjectives (like “educational,” “interesting,” “lovely,” “pleasant,” etc.) can be used with either “to” infinitives or “-ing” participles if the subject is a dummy “it” and the verb is a form of “be” (like “is,” “was,” “might have been,” and so on). With adjectives like these, the complements are pretty much interchangeable: “It was lovely to see you” … “It was lovely seeing you.”

Many adjectives that modify a subject, and that have to do with the subject’s attitude or capabilities, are often complemented by infinitives. These include “able,” “afraid,” “anxious,” “bound,” “delighted,” “determined,” “eager,” “happy,” “hesitant,” “liable,” “likely,” “quick,” “reluctant,” and “unwilling.” (Example: “The pianist was delighted to perform.”)

Some of those adjectives can also be complemented by “-ing” participles if a preposition is added, like “about” (as in “delighted about performing”), or “in” (“quick in replying”).

Still other adjectives, ones that refer to the experiencing or doing of something rather than to the thing itself, can be complemented by “to” infinitives. In a sentence like “This piece is difficult to perform,” the adjective “difficult” refers more to the performing than to the piece. These adjectives include “boring,” “delicious,” “difficult,” “easy,” “enjoyable,” “hard,” “impossible,” “tough,” and “tiresome.”

Adjectives that are usually complemented by “-ing” participles are much less numerous than the other kind. Among them are “busy,” “pointless,” “useless,” “worth,” and “worthwhile.” For instance, we can say, “She’s busy eating,” but not “She’s busy to eat.

As for “busy,” notice what happens when we modify the adjective with “too”—both complements work: “She’s too busy eating” … “She’s too busy to eat.” Completely different meanings! This is because “too busy eating” implies a missing element—“… to do [something else].”

Some adjectives that are usually complemented by infinitives—like “absurd,” “annoying,” “awkward,” “fortunate,” “happy,” “logical,” “odd,” and “sad”—can be complemented with participles as well.

Here a point should be made. Sometimes the choice of adjective complement—infinitive or participle—makes no difference in meaning, especially if the subject is the dummy “it.” (Examples: “It’s exhausting to cook for twenty” … “It’s exhausting cooking for twenty.”)

But sometimes a different complement produces a different meaning. “He was happy to carry your suitcase” does not mean “He was happy carrying your suitcase.” Similarly, “I became afraid to be alone” is not the same as “I became afraid being alone.”

This is also true of verbs with these complements or objects. For instance, “I stopped to think” does not mean “I stopped thinking,” and “I remembered to call” does not mean “I remembered calling.” We’ve written several posts, most recently in 2019, about verbs that can have infinitives or gerunds or both as their objects or complements.

With verbs, too, linguists have found no clear pattern that could help a foreign student predict which types work with gerunds, or with infinitives, or with both. As we wrote in 2014, there are only broad outlines that don’t work reliably in all cases.

You can find more on this subject in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum (pp. 1246, 1259), and A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk et al. (pp. 1224, 1230-31, 1392-93).

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

An etymological valentine

(Note: In observance of Valentine’s Day, we’re repeating a post that originally appeared on Feb. 23, 2012.)

Q: I wished a colleague happy Valentine’s Day earlier in the month and was told there is no apostrophe plus “s” in the name of the holiday. There is, isn’t there?

A: Yes, there is an apostrophe + “s” in “Valentine’s Day.” The longer form of the name for the holiday is “St. Valentine’s Day.”

And in case you’re wondering, the word “Valentine’s” in the name of the holiday is a possessive proper noun, while the word “valentines” (for the cards we get on Feb. 14) is a plural common noun.

“Valentine’s Day” has the possessive apostrophe because it’s a saint’s day. In Latin, Valentinus was the name of two early Italian saints, both of whom are commemorated on Feb. 14.

Published references in the Oxford English Dictionary indicate that the phrase “Valentine’s Day” was first recorded in about 1381 in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English poem The Parlement of Foules:

“For this was on seynt Volantynys day / Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.” (In Chaucer’s time, possessive apostrophes were not used.)

Chaucer’s lines would be translated this way in modern English: “For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day / When every bird comes here to choose his mate.” (The title means a parliament or assembly of fowls—that is, birds.)

As a common noun, “valentine” was first used to mean a lover, sweetheart, or special friend. This sense of the word was first recorded in writing in 1477, according to OED citations.

In February of that year, a young woman named Margery Brews wrote two love letters to her husband-to-be, John Paston, calling him “Voluntyn” (Valentine).

As rendered into modern English, one of the letters begins “Right reverend and well-beloved Valentine” and ends “By your Valentine.” (We’re quoting from The Paston Letters, edited by Norman Davis, 1963.)

In the mid-1500s, the OED says, the noun “valentine” was first used to mean “a folded paper inscribed with the name of a person to be drawn as a valentine.”

It wasn’t until the 19th century, adds Oxford, that “valentine” came to have its modern meaning: “a written or printed letter or missive, a card of dainty design with verses or other words, esp. of an amorous or sentimental nature, sent on St. Valentine’s day.”

Here’s the OED’s first citation, from Mary Russell Mitford’s book Our Village (1824), a collection of sketches: “A fine sheet of flourishing writing, something between a valentine and a sampler.”

This later example is from Albert R. Smith’s The Adventures of Mr. Ledbury and his Friend Jack Johnson (1844): “He had that morning received … a valentine, in a lady’s hand-writing, and perfectly anonymous.”

What could be more intriguing than that?

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

All het up

Q: The other day I came across the phrase “all het up” and wondered if it’s dialect for “all heated up.” Is this worthy of an expansive look?

A: The colloquial expression “all het up,” meaning angry, upset, or worried, can be traced back to an old use of “het” as the past tense and past participle of the verb “heat.” As odd as this use of “het” for “heated” may seem now, similar forms are standard with some other verbs, like “meet” (“met”), “feed” (“fed”), and “lead” (“led”).

The past tense and past participle forms of “heat” have been spelled all sorts of ways since the verb first appeared in Old English as hǽtan, haten, hatten, and so on. In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the past was hǽtte or hætte, while the participle was gehǽt, gehǽted, or gehǽtt. In Middle English, spoken from roughly 1250 to 1500, the past was hatte, hette, het, etc., while the participle was hatte, hette, het, etc.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, includes het among the usual past tenses and participles of “heat” in Middle English, but adds that it was considered dialectal from the 19th century on. As the OED explains, “The past tense and participle underwent in Middle English various shortenings, some of which are still dialectal; the literary language now recognizes only heated.”

Old English inherited the verb “heat” from prehistoric Germanic, a language reconstructed by linguists. The earliest Oxford example is from the Épinal manuscript in The Épinal-Erfurt Glossary, a Latin-English glossary that the OED dates at sometime before 700: “Calentes, haetendae.” In Latin, calentes is a participle of caleo (to be hot). In Old English, haetendae means heated.

The earliest example in the OED for “het” used as the past tense of “heat” is from a medieval Scottish life of St. Thomas the Apostle: “[He] in þe fyre gert het þam wele” (“[He] in the great fire heated them well”). From Legends of the Saints in the Scottish Dialect of the Fourteenth Century, edited by William M. Metcalfe in 1896 for the Scottish Text Society.

The dictionary’s first example of “het” used as a participle is from a Middle English translation of a collection of spurious letters supposedly written by Aristotle to Alexander the Great:

“Hit ys cold and nedith to be het” (“It is cold and needs to be heated”). From Secret of Secrets, circa 1400, a translation of the Latin Secreta Secretorum. Scholars believe the work originated in Arabic in the 10th century and was translated into Latin in the 12th century. In Arabic, it’s known as Kitāb Sirr al-Asrā.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the terms “het,” “het up,” and “all het up” appeared as colloquial or dialectal adjectives meaning angry, upset, or excited. The earliest example we’ve found for “het” used alone in this sense is from a poem by James Russell Lowell:

“Don’t you git het: they thought the thing was planned; / They’ll cool off when they come to understand.”  From The Biglow Papers, Second Series, London, 1862. The OED has an abbreviated version from the 1867 American edition.

The first Oxford example of “het up” used adjectivally, which we’ll expand here, is from “A Walking Delegate” (1894), a short story by Rudyard Kipling: “You look consider’ble het up. Guess you’d better cramp her [a horse-drawn carriage] under them pines, an’ cool off a piece.” The story appeared first in the Century Magazine (December 1894) and later in Kipling’s collection The Day’s Work (1898).

The longer term you’re asking about, “all het up,” showed up in the early 20th century, Oxford says: “But you mustn’t get yourself all ‘het up’ before you take the plunge” (Letters From a Self-Made Merchant to His Son, a 1902 novel by George Horace Latimer).

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Not a man but felt this terror

Q: I have a question about the strange use of “but” in the following letter of Emerson to Carlyle: “Not a reading man but has a draft of a new Community in his waistcoat pocket.” I see no modern definition of “but” that fits here. Is the usage archaic?

A: Yes, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s use of “but” is archaic in that sentence, but the usage is still occasionally seen in contemporary historical novels.

The sentence is from a letter Emerson wrote to Thomas Carlyle on Oct. 30, 1840. In it, Emerson refers to the plans of American social reformers to set up utopian communities inspired by the ideas of the French social theorist Charles Fourier.

The passage is especially confusing because it has principal and subordinate clauses with elliptical, or missing, subjects. The “but” is being used to replace a missing pronoun (the subject) in the subordinate clause and to make the clause negative.

Here’s the sentence with all the missing or substitute parts in place: “There is not a reading man who has not a draft of a new Community in his waistcoat pocket.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “but” is being used here “with the pronominal subject or object of the subordinate clause unexpressed, so that but acts as a negative relative: that … not, who … not (e.g. Not a man but felt this terror, i.e. there was not a man who did not feel this terror, they all felt this terror). Now archaic and rare.”

The earliest OED example of the usage is from a medieval romance: “There be none othir there that knowe me, but wold be glad to wite me do wele” (“There are none there that know me who would not gladly expect me to act well”). From The Three Kings’ Sons, circa 1500. Frederick James Furnivall, who edited the manuscript in 1895 for the Early English Text Society, suggested that David Aubert, a French calligrapher for the Duke of Burgundy, may have been the author.

The most recent Oxford example for this use of “but” is from a 20th-century historical novel for children:

“There is scarce one among us but knows the fells as a man knows his own kale-garth” (“There is scarce one among us who doesn’t know the hills as a man knows his own cabbage garden”). From The Shield Ring, 1956, by Rosemary Sutcliff.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Knit picking

Q: Please settle a dispute. Which is the correct past tense—“I knit a sweater” or “I knitted a sweater”?

A: They’re both correct. You can say “I knit a sweater last week” or “I knitted a sweater last week.” In fact, an Anglo-Saxon would have used the same word in Old English (cnytte) for the present and past tenses of “I knit,” though knitting back then wasn’t quite the same as it is now.

Most of the 10 contemporary standard dictionaries that we regularly consult say the past tense of “knit” can be either “knit” or “knitted.” All five American dictionaries and two of the five British dictionaries agree with that. Three British dictionaries consider “knitted” the only past tense.

When the verb showed up in Old English as cnyttan (to knit), it meant “to tie in or with a knot; to tie, fasten, bind, attach, join, by or as by knotting,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Aelfric’s Grammar, an Old English introduction to Latin, written around 995: “Ic cnytte, necto” (ic is “I” in Old English; necto is Latin for “I bind, tie, fasten, connect,” etc.).

It wasn’t until the early 1500s, as Middle English gave way to early Modern English, that “knit” took on the sense of “to form (a close texture) by the interlooping of successive series of loops of yarn or thread.”

The first OED example is from John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse (1530), a French grammar for English speakers: “I knyt bonettes or hosen.”

Interestingly, the c of cnyttan was pronounced like the “c” of “cat” and the k of knytten (the usual spelling of the infinitive in Middle English) was pronounced like the “k” of “king.”

As the OED explains, “kn– is an initial combination common to all the Germanic languages and still retained by most. In English, the k is now silent, alike in educated speech and in most of the dialects; but it was pronounced apparently till about middle of the 17th cent.”

“In the later 17th and early 18th centuries,” the dictionary adds, “writers on pronunciation give the value of the combination as = hn, tn, dn or simple n. The last was probably quite established in Standard English by 1750. The k is still pronounced in some Scottish dialects; in others the guttural is assimilated to the dental, making tn-, esp. after vowels, as a tnife, my tnee.”

Why did English speakers stop pronouncing the “k” in words like “knee,” “knife,” “knot,” and “knowledge”? Probably because it was too much trouble.

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English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

But if the husband be dead …

Q: I was reading the King James Bible and came across this passage in Romans 7:2: “but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law.” Can you explain why “be” is used this way? What would be the proper usage in standard English today?

A: Let’s begin with all of Romans 7:2 in the King James Version of the Bible: “For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband.”

In the second half of the verse (“but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband”), “be” is used in the subjunctive mood to express a hypothetical situation. In modern English, the subjunctive here would be expressed with “were,” not “be”: “but if the husband were dead, she would be freed from the law of her husband.”

However, the subjunctive is less common now than it was in Old English, Middle English, and the early Modern English of the King James Version (written from 1604 to 1611). Today that passage might instead be written in the indicative mood, the verb form used to make an ordinary statement: “but if the husband is dead, she is free from the law of her husband.”

These days, the subjunctive is primarily used for three purposes: (1) to express a wish: “She wished that her husband were less demanding”; (2) to express an “if” statement about a condition that’s contrary to fact: “If he were less demanding, she’d be a lot happier”; (3) to express that something is being asked, demanded, ordered, suggested, and so on: “He suggested that she wear high heels to the party.”

In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the subjunctive was used much more broadly: to express doubt, unreality, potential, wishes, desires, requests, commands, prohibitions, obligations, theories, and conjectures. As the subjunctive began waning in Middle English, modal auxiliary verbs like “can,” “could,” “may,” “might,” “must,” “shall,” “should,” “will,” and “would” stepped in to express many of these intentions and beliefs.

So the hypothetical mood, or attitude, of the speaker in those three subjunctive sentences above could be expressed in declarative sentences by using modal auxiliary verbs: (1) “She wished that her husband would be less demanding”; (2) “If he could be less demanding, she’d be a lot happier”; (3) “He suggested that she should wear high heels to the party.”

We’ve written several times on the blog about modal auxiliary verbs, most recently in 2018. And we’ve written often about the subjunctive, including a post in 2010 that discusses the use of the verb “be” over the years.

In the 2018 post, we note that modality can be expressed with adverbs, adjectives, and nouns as well as with modal verbs. We also discuss the archaic use of “be” in place of the plural “are” (as in “the powers that be”). And in the 2010 post, we note that the subjunctive is losing ground in British English, though it’s holding its own (for now) in American English.

We’ve also pointed out that some archaic uses of the subjunctive have survived on both sides of the Atlantic, such as “lest she forget” (instead of “forgets”), “God forbid” (instead of “forbids”), “come what may” (instead of “comes”), “suffice it to say” (instead of “suffices”), and “long live the Queen” (instead of “lives”).

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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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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

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

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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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

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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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

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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English English language Etymology Expression Language Linguistics Pronunciation Usage Word origin

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

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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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

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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English English language Etymology Expression food Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

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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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

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”; (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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English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

No hidebound conservative he

Q: I recently watched a video of a discussion in which Antonin Scalia refers to Louis Brandeis as “no hidebound conservative, he.” Can you end a sentence like that with a pronoun? When would you do so? Is it an old-fashioned way of speaking? Is it used mostly in a humorous or sarcastic way today?

A: Yes, it’s OK to end a sentence (or a clause) that way. In the clause “no hidebound conservative he,” the subject is the pronoun “he,” but it could also have been a noun, a gerund, a noun phrase, or anything else acting as a noun.

Technically, the passage is an elliptical clause with subject-verb inversion. It’s elliptical because the verb “was” is missing but understood, and it’s inverted because the subject follows the implied verb—reversing the usual subject-verb order.

A clause, as you know, is a group of words with its own subject and verb. An elliptical clause is one in which the subject or verb is implicit. If we restored the verb in Justice Scalia’s clause and rearranged the words in a more conventional order, it would read “he was no hidebound conservative.”

A verb usually follows the subject in a declarative sentence or clause, one making a simple statement. However, there’s nothing grammatically wrong with having the subject follow the verb, as in “no hidebound conservative was he” (an example of subject-verb inversion). And there’s nothing wrong with dropping the verb: “no hidebound conservative he.” (Some writers would use a comma, as you did, to mark the ellipsis, or missing verb, while others wouldn’t.)

People put the subject after the verb for many reasons. In questions, it’s natural: “Was Justice Brandeis a hidebound conservative?” And it’s common in statements that begin with a negative expression: “At no time was he considered a hidebound conservative.” It’s also seen after the auxiliary verb in conditional clauses: “Had he been called a hidebound conservative, he would have denied it.”

And, of course, the usage is often seen in poetry (for example, Tennyson’s “Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred”) and literary prose (Tolkien’s “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”).

As you suggest, it can also be used to give a statement an old-fashioned, humorous, or sarcastic tone. We think Scalia, a linguistic and political conservative, was simply being his traditional self in both senses when he argued that judges shouldn’t fill in gaps left by legislators in statutes: “As Louis Brandeis said—no hidebound conservative he—‘To apply omissions transcends the judicial functions.’ ”

(Scalia made his comment on March 5, 2015, in a discussion at the Newseum in Washington with the lawyer and language writer Bryan A. Garner about their 2012 book Reading Law: Interpretation of Legal Texts.)

Interestingly, what we now consider subject-verb inversion was common word order in Old English. An Anglo-Saxon would put the subject after the verb in clauses that didn’t begin with the subject. As the linguist Eric Haeberli explains, Old English “exhibits frequent occurrences of subject-verb inversion when a non-subject is in clause-initial position.”

The usage is still common in other Germanic languages, but it began falling out of favor in Middle English, Haeberli writes in “The Development of Subject-Verb Inversion in Middle English and the Role of Language Contact,” a 2007 paper published in the journal Generative Grammar in Geneva.

Haeberli, a University of Geneva linguist who specializes in the development of syntax in early English, cites several Old English examples of the usage, including this one: “And egeslice spæc Gregorius be ðam” (“And sternly spoke Gregorius about that”). From Her Ongynð Be Cristendome, a 10th-century homily by Wulfstan, a bishop of London and an archbishop of York.

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

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

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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English English language Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

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

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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English English language Etymology Expression food Language Usage Word origin Writing

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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English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

Why don’t we use ‘farthermore’?

Q: I know one can say “furthermore” but not “farthermore” (at least not in the UK). Is this in any way indicative? And if so, of what?

A: The word “farthermore” once existed, but it became obsolete several centuries ago and is no longer found in any variety of English. This is indicative of the fact that it wasn’t of much use.

The old word cropped up in the 1380s as a variant of the earlier “furthermore,” an adverb first recorded around 1200. During its brief history, “farthermore” was used in all the senses of “furthermore” then current, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

So for a couple of hundred years, the adverb “farthermore” had these meanings (to cite the OED definitions): 1. “to a more advanced point of progress”; 2. “to a greater extent”; 3. “moreover.”

This was a time—the 14th to 16th centuries—when “further” and “farther” themselves were in flux, and consequently so were “furthermore” and “farthermore.” In the end, “farthermore,” which served no useful purpose, died out in the 1500s, and those three senses were taken over by other words.

Today, we use the simpler adverbs “further” or “farther” for sense #1 above (whether the distance covered is literal or figurative). For sense #2, expressing a greater extent or degree, we use “further.” And for sense #3, the “moreover” usage, we use either “furthermore” or “further.”

We’ll have more to say later about the current uses of “further” and “farther,” but first a little etymology.

The English ancestor of all these words is the adverb “far,” a word that can be traced to a prehistoric Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as per-. The initial p in Indo-European terms remained p in Greek and Latin, but became f in the Germanic languages.

This ancient root—or forms of it—is the source of many words that came into English through the Germanic languages. Besides “far,” these include “for,” “from,” “fore,” “before,” “forth,” “former,” “foremost,” and “first,” among others. In addition, the Indo-European root produced many words that came into English through Latin and Greek and begin with “pro-,” “per-,” and “para-.”

In the case of “far,” it was first recorded in the 8th or 9th century as feorr or feor. The word’s original meaning, the OED says, was “to a great distance” or “to a remote place.”

The dictionary’s earliest use is from the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript from around 825 (some sources date it from 725). This Psalter, the oldest English translation of any part of the Bible, has the following line: “Tohwon dryhten gewite ðu feor” (“Why Lord has thou withdrawn so far”).

The comparative form of “far” in Old English was originally fierr (or fyrr), Oxford says. This developed into ferrer (or ferror), a 12th-century formation that survived into the 17th century, when it was spelled “farrer,” the dictionary says.

But meanwhile, competing forms of the comparative were also on the scene. The earliest was “further,” first recorded (as furðra) circa 1000, similar to the Old Saxon furthor. And “farther” (originally written as ferþer) came along as a variant of “further” around 1300.

By the 1600s, “further” and “farther” had displaced the old “farrer.” Both survived, and for most of their history they’ve been used interchangeably. Only in relatively recent times have people given them different meanings, as we wrote in a 2007 post (updated earlier this year) that cites the new fourth edition of Woe Is I, Pat’s grammar and usage book:

FARTHER/ FURTHER. Use either one for distance, whether actual or metaphorical. “I’m walking no farther [or further] than this bench,” said Lumpy. “Nothing is farther [or further] from my mind.” But use only further if there’s no notion of distance. He refused to discuss it any further. “I have nothing further to say,” he added. The upshot is that if you’re in doubt, choose further.

We also cite a usage note in Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online):

Where the sense is “at, to, or by a greater distance,” there is no difference in meaning, and both [further and farther] are equally correct. Further is a much commoner word, though, and is in addition used in various abstract and metaphorical contexts, for example referring to time, in which farther is unusual, e.g. without further delay; have you anything further to say?; we intend to stay a further two weeks.

Why did “further” emerge before “farther” as the comparative form of “far”? Well, in Old and Middle English, “far” was spelled a great many ways—feorr, fier, furre, fyr, fur, fir, fer, fear, and for, to mention just a few—and undoubtedly the pronunciations varied too, with “fur” among them. The modern spelling “far” didn’t become firmly established until the 17th century.

What’s more, even before the comparative “further” came along, Old English had a verb, to “further” (fyrþrian, recorded in the late 800s).

As we’ve said, “furthermore” (c. 1200) appeared before the variant “farthermore” (c. 1380). However, the original Middle English spellings are barely recognizable today: “furthermore” was forrþerrmar and “farthermore” was fferþermor. Here are the OED’s earliest examples with modern spellings:

“Further~more, the forsaid Lord the Roos … schall forgevyn the forsaid Robert” (from the Rolls of Parliament, 1411). The flourish (called a “swung dash”) was sometimes used by medieval scribes to fill a space.

“Farthermore the prophetes were sory” (from a 1530 devotional treatise, The Myroure [Mirror] of Oure Ladye, by John Henry Blunt).

We could go on indefinitely about “furthest” (c. 1374) and “furthermost” (c. 1400), along with their variants “farthest” (1377) and “farthermost” (1619). But we suspect you’d prefer to read no further.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

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 (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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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

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, (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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